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I’m planning a multi-day gravel ride with a few friends. We would have to sleep in public campgrounds, which are also full of people because of the camping season. What is the best way to secure our bikes at night? As you might imagine, having your bike stolen 150 km (100 miles) away from home in the middle of nowhere might be a harrowing experience.

We’re afraid that locks won’t work because the thieves would literally have all night to remove them. There also might not be something to lock to (what do you do if you’re sleeping in an open field?). Furthermore, a group of expensive-looking bikes laden with camping gear would probably be an attractive target for thieves. Any tips?

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    I like options in the other answers, but I thought I would add that during a 3-month tour across Canada, my friend and I used two D-locks through the front wheel and frame, and a cable lock to grab the back wheel and secured both bikes together to a picnic table or tree near our tent. We never had a problem. I liked having them close to the tents. We slept with ear plugs so never would have heard anything... gotta crush that habit!! lol. – Nova Aug 19 '20 at 13:19
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    The Lock Picking Laywer uses a Kryptonite Evolution Chain Lock (Series 4). In the linked video he describes why he thinks the lock is 'good enough'. Usually he picks locks in less than 2 minutes (the mentioned one too), but this may still be a good recommendation. Source: youtube.com/watch?v=SpVOTEOMRuE – Arigion Aug 19 '20 at 20:59
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    @EricDuminil answers in answers please - not comments. (yes - funny ones included.) – Criggie Aug 20 '20 at 22:57
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    Btw a cool tip I hear if you don't have a lock and you have means of quickly noticing the theft: Set your bike to the highest or lowest gear. Much harder to quickly jump on it and accelerate beyond running speed. – Tomáš Zato - Reinstate Monica Aug 21 '20 at 14:29
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    GPS sim trackers cost 15 to 25 euros these days – aliential Sep 6 '20 at 8:28

20 Answers 20

25

With multiple bikes, locking them together prevents them being picked up or ridden off. The latter is often the biggest risk when camping - simple opportunism.

A reasonably long cable lock would lock all the bikes together (also outside cafes), and if you use it in an awkward position (down near the chainrings), getting cutters to it would be noisy, and tricky in the dark. I like my Masterlock Python for this sort of thing - it can be pulled tight meaning less stray cable at risk of cutting. It could extend into your tent locked to a bag right next to you, if you're worried. In fact even a piece of ground-coloured cord tied to the outermost bike and run through the grass into your tent, where it's tied to your bag or your cooking pots is an effective alarm; you're worried about theft in the dark, so mainly someone quickly picking up a bike and taking it away - if they make a lot of noise they'll run away empty handed.

There are ways to lock bikes to the ground, which I've used while camping. I doubt they're necessary, but I've used this when leaving the bikes on site completely unattended during the day. What I've done is to buy two corkscrew dog stakes, and screw them into the ground as close together as possible. A cable lock run through the triangular handles of both (not the free-spinning leash points) and through the bike(s) is too stiff to allow the stakes to be unscrewed from the ground. If you lean the bikes against each other the right way up, with this arrangement underneath, you can also lock the top tubes together. It can be tricky on rocky ground. Another secure anchor is two sturdy stakes hammered into the ground forming an X, locked together through holes where they cross. This probably means carrying too much weight.

Another suggestion, an additional measure, is to peg down a tarp over the bikes (and any other kit that won't fit into your tents). This will slow down a potential thief, especially if you bang the pegs right down into the ground. They either have to pull the pegs or cut the tarp, before they can even discover how well-locked your bikes are. In addition it protects your stuff from the elements.

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    BTW last time I went to a campsite was in my van. We went out for the day leaving my hybrid just immobilised. It's heavy but could easily have been loaded into a vehicle - but I know the site, full of families and outdoors type people. – Chris H Aug 19 '20 at 7:24
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    About the Master lock python, just take a look to this as maybe isn't the safest option. – Alter Lagos Aug 21 '20 at 3:07
  • @Alter Lagos We already have a few folding locks and a cable we’d use for this purpose. I agree, that exploit looks really easy. – MaplePanda Aug 21 '20 at 6:38
  • @AlterLagos, it's still probably adequate for the threat model when camping, though I'll have to try that on my updated model. As it runs on friction I've always assumed it would be vulnerable to melting the plastic coating. For me it's my 2nd lock (after a D-lock) commuting, for the front wheel which also has a security skewer, or as a locking extra strap on the rack on my van (which is aluminium, so the rack itself is the weak point) – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 7:36
  • @AlterLagos either he makes it look easier than it is, or my more recent model (yellow housing) is more resistant to that attack. Compared to the model he shows, which I had, lost, and replaced (almost uniquely you can get a 5m cable, which is good for locking kayaks onto car roofs, or many bikes together), the lock feels stiffer in all ways - perhaps they've beefed up the springs . – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 10:44
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I would suggest a Pacsafe Security Web or similar product to cover your gear. It is basically a net made of small gauge steel cables. It is designed to cover a backpack along with a long cable to secure it to a tree or other object. As far as the bikes are concerned I would suggest each rider carry a 2 meter or 6 foot cable. If it is a keyed lock make sure a least two different riders have a key. Alternatively a combination lock known to at least two riders. When securing the bikes get them as close together as possible. Lock each bike to two other bikes. Try to secure the wheels to the frames. Use multiple points. Cable A through three rear wheels and around three seatposts. Cable B three front wheels and three down tubes. Cable C through the top tubes. The idea is that the failure of one lock won't leave things unsecured. You can only make things difficult to steal not impossible.

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  • How heavy are they ? – Criggie Aug 18 '20 at 23:54
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    They Vary by size. They are designed for backpackers so it can't weigh a lot. The 55Liter pack model weighs about 1/2 kilo – mikes Aug 19 '20 at 0:02
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    +1 to this. If the bikes are near your tents, it should suffice to simply make stealing the bikes a slow, inconvenient, and noisy process. You might be able to run a cable around a tentpole to wake you if the bike is moved. – Adam Rice Aug 19 '20 at 0:16
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    half a kilo is a lot for a bikepacker - they tent to want lightweight things, ideally multipurpose. I wonder if a very thin steel wire through all the frames and then someone's tent pole would work. Even a thin black cord might be enough to be missed in the dark, and should someone grab a bike – Criggie Aug 19 '20 at 3:09
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    @MaplePanda "tour" is probably the right word, but riding holiday might suit. Either way - sounds awesome ! – Criggie Aug 19 '20 at 4:58
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Many places have a lockup area suitable for securing bikes overnight, this would be my first choice.

Depending on the culture where you are, in the crowded camp ground environment, striking up a conversation with your neighbour is likely a big. If you are seen talking to them, your bikes become a much riskier target. (and you never know, the last touring cyclists that did that to me were given a cold beer at the end of a long day in 30C temperatures...)

An electronic motion activated alarm can be very useful. However I know a couple had bikes stolen off the back of their RV despite the alarm going off. By the time they were up and out of the RV, there bikes were on the back of a pickup departing the camp ground (however it was an isolated campsite with no other people, in a crowded campsite it would be very unlikely worth the risk)

I would combine a couple of alarms, with multiple cable locks attaching all the bikes in one big pile. Cable up the bikes, put alarms on different cables and cover the bikes. Chances are someone attempting to get to the bikes without setting off an alarm before all the cables are cut and bikes freed would be slim. If leaving the bikes (e.g. for cooking or ablutions) and the camp ground is busy, the alarm should attract enough attention to be a deterrent.

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  • Thanks, great ideas all around. We wouldn’t ever have to leave the bikes unattended, cooking can be done at the campsite, and we’d definitely leave someone behind to stand watch if we have to use the bathroom. – MaplePanda Aug 19 '20 at 3:47
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    It seems like there's some text missing from the second paragraph. It's not entirely clear what you're getting at - why would getting to know your campground neighbors increase your risk? I'd think they would be another set of eyes to watch for anything suspicious. How does making conversation with someone make them (or someone else?) more likely to steal from you? – Nuclear Hoagie Aug 20 '20 at 14:44
  • @NuclearWang Yeah, what? I agree with you, this sentence makes absolutely no sense: "If you are seen talking to them, your bikes become a much riskier target." HUH? – user91988 Aug 20 '20 at 15:42
  • If someone wanting to steal your bikes sees you talking to other people, and those others are perceived as more likely to intervene if the person tries to steal you bike. People intervening during a theft tends to increase the risk to the person doing the stealing. Ergo, the bikes become a much riskier target for the thieves. – mattnz Aug 20 '20 at 23:28
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I've done a couple of long radoneuring style rides, where you have to go into every shop in a chain of coffee shops. First time, I was alone and locked my bike up everywhere, which added time.

Later years, we organised a group ride, and made a point of leaving someone with the bikes at every stop.

Simply don't leave your bikes without someone around during the day and they'll be okay.


At night, I suggest bringing your bike into your tent. Or follow Chris H's method of using the bike as part of your shelter, that way noone can fiddle with it without waking you up.

You could also check with the camping ground staff and see if they have somewhere secure to lock up your bikes overnight. Assuming the campsite is more than just a paddock with pretensions.

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    Thanks for the answer. I’m not too worried about the daytime, I‘ve always left one person outside to watch the bikes whenever my group stops on a day ride. I think my best bet is to call ahead and figure something out with the staff. There’s no way I’d comfortably fit my bike inside my small backpacking tent, and I doubt I could integrate the bike into my predefined tent. – MaplePanda Aug 19 '20 at 3:27
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    If it is little more than a paddock, you can probably lock to the fence if you can get a pitch at the edge. Fancier sites with marked pitches are more likely to lack solid things to lock to unless they've got decent sized trees. – Chris H Aug 19 '20 at 7:21
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The subtle use of the "Bisley Mine", which uses a trip wire to fire a BLANK 12 bore cartridge could be just the thing! Wakes you up and scares the hell out of the thief at the same time. On Amazon or eBay.

enter image description here

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    This is epic!!! – Frank Aug 19 '20 at 10:15
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    Note this may not be legal depending on where in the world one might be. Blanks are classed as ammunition in many places and are subject to regulations and requirements. I suspect toy caps could be quite effective too. – Criggie Aug 19 '20 at 11:02
  • Here are some more detailed instructions ultimatehandyman.co.uk/how-to/security/alarm-mines but still you'd have to fasten it to something immovable, or rig it between 2 bikes. – Chris H Aug 19 '20 at 11:16
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    -1, illegal in many parts of the world. And overkill in the rest. – Willeke Aug 19 '20 at 15:24
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    Although it would be undoubtedly effective, I would rather not spend the rest of my trip explaining myself at the police station. – MaplePanda Aug 19 '20 at 18:52
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A ground anchor, like a corkscrew, often used for tethering dogs, can be a useful tool, complemented with a wire that can be padlocked, possibly even to the sleeper in dire circumstances. If the bike is laid over the eye of the anchor and padlocked directly to it, it makes it an awkward job for a thief.

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Keep the bike close to your tent. You can even tie the tent to it so it’s impossible to remove the bike without shaking the tent.

While travelling I only carry a small BBB BBL-10 MicroSafe lock (weighs 59g). I jokingly call this my “immobiliser device” (sounds better in my native German („Wegfahrsperre“)). It’s really only good enough to prevent somebody from simply walking away with the bike. A pair of wire cutters would be enough to cut through it. A few minutes of time would be enough to crack the 3 digit code. I still hope it’s sufficient to keep the bike relatively safe while I’m buying groceries for a few minutes or showering.

I also use it at the campground, in addition to keeping the bike close to the tent (or tied to it).

You can also make it harder for a thief by removing both wheels or at least the front wheel (or at least opening the quick release). This makes the bike a much less attractive target and forces a thief to carry the bike instead of simply riding or pushing it.

enter image description here

I used to carry an Abus Granit Futura 64 (strong, small U-Lock, but still a relatively light 726g) but it was just too heavy and cumbersome.

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    I think such cables can be cut with a bolt cutter quickly and silently. Unless they are made of an unusually strong steel (do those exist at all?) the do not provide adequate protection. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Aug 19 '20 at 11:53
  • That’s why I’m only using the lock for a few minutes in relatively safe places (e.g. in front of a supermarket in broad daylight, while showering on a camping ground etc.). In the night I’m mostly counting on the presence of me and my tent (tied to the bike) to keep everyone honest. – Michael Aug 19 '20 at 12:19
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Last summer I did a 4500 mile tour, solo. Other than personal injury, theft was my greatest concern. Bathroom breaks/shower I felt most at risk. Every campground I stayed at had a sturdy picnic table or cooker cemented to the ground. I locked the bike to either & put the tent within 5 feet feeling I would awake to an intruder. For food breaks, I kept the locked bike in sight at all times.
my suggestion are; 1 at night lock bikes together to a sturdy object with several cable locks. The balanced can with a rock in it is a great alarm. 2 Post a friend with the bikes during bathroom breaks 3 Relock the bikes together during food breaks with them always in sight. 4 Have fun.

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Alarms. You just need to wake up when something happens.

In a large noisy camp, you're almost in an urban environment, so supplement the alarms with a lock you'd consider fit for use in the city. In an open field, who's there to steal them?

Even cheap Chinese alarm locks with plastic bodies, quite easy to destroy, will make enough noise to wake you up - the alarm activates on cutting the cable. Use these locks to tie the bikes together, and the bikes to something else like your tent. Doesn't matter if you're unarmed, it's not often that someone would try and use force to rob you of a bike; these are crimes of opportunity.

If you leave your bikes completely unattended, they're a gift to the world either way. A dedicated thief with lots of time can get through any portable lock, or if they can't, they'll just strip the bike and leave you a bare frame, maybe also the rear wheel.

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    +1 "It doesn't matter if you're unarmed" - if they're willing to physically attack you to get the bike then they might as well wait until you wake up and unlock it in the morning and mug you then for less effort. – David258 Aug 21 '20 at 13:00
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Alright, this is what I think we are going to do.

  • Remove as many wheels as we can comfortably fit in the tents.
  • Use 4 locks to secure the bikes to each other and to a sturdy object if available.
  • Let the campground staff and our neighbors know that “hey, if you see anyone other than us fiddling with these bikes, please stop them”.
  • Attach our cooking pots to the bikes to act as a noisemaker/alarm.

Thanks for the help everyone!

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enter image description here Instead of the 1k potentiometer, use a window alarm magnet switch or a home made always-off switch which turns on if the bike is moved by surprise.

Find a way to clip it into the saddle or under the frame.

The alarm consumes 0 watts at idle. 3 small panasonic lithiums will last 10 years in idle at 3.8* 3v so its easy to keep the alarm armed.

Buy these items for 5 dollars at any electronics store, or salvage a 12V horn from a scrapyard from a motorbike... Even old PC's have a buzzer like this, it's less loud though.

Instructions: Buy a piezo buzzer which does 95dB - 120dB. Make a sprung electrical contact which can be jammed open using a plastic insert the size of an SD Card. keep an invisible nylon fishing line and a hook which hides away until you need to set the slarm. To set the alarm, attach the fishing line and hook to the rear spoke and the plastic card which will pull out if the wheel turns, triggering a 120dB alarm.

You can also buy complete window magnet alarms for 1 dollar online which include all pieces.

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I have had good experience with U locks. When I regularly commuted between two cities I tied my $1000 bike to a pole or railing with a good U lock (Abus Granite), in the seedy neighborhood of the inner city train stations of Berlin and Hamburg, sometimes for weeks. I did take out the front wheel (which had a quick release) and tied it together with the bike to the fixture.

A couple of things are essential:

  1. A good lock, obviously. The most important thing is that it must withstand a simple saw or bolt cutter, probably the most common tools of thieves. This rules out most or all cables like the one depicted in Michael's answer. A lock which can only be cut with an angle grinder is much safer: the noise and fireworks are too conspicuous. Very cheap locks may have crappy lock mechanisms which can be picked too easily; buy brand names or follow reliable test results.
  2. Attach it to something stable. Expensive bikes may simply be carried away otherwise, lock and all, which can be cut at home with all the leisure and equipment in the world. The fixture to lock to should be more stable than the lock; tying a cryptonite to a wire mesh fence is useless. The pole of a campground sign, a railing, something like that. For the same reason I'm skeptical about ground screws.
    Perhaps it is sufficient to tie a lot of bikes together (enough of them that they cannot be lifted onto the back of a pickup truck, basically); but that seems cumbersome. And for this strategy as well a wire is not sufficient, tempting as it may be.
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  • To me, this doesn't answer the question, which is essentially "how can I secure bikes when point 2 of this answer isn't an option?" – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 7:39
  • @ChrisH Well, it answers for the situations when there is something to lock to (nothing to lock to was only part of the question). I also suggest to tie the bikes together if there is nothing to lock to; but don't use cables. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Aug 21 '20 at 7:42
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While travelling with my bike, I have a few things to secure it and the luggages:

  • I have a high quality lock that works with a key that I trust, without encourage you to buy this one, I am pretty satisfied with the foldylock compact. But this doesn't allow to secure the wheels. If you want to be extra cautious, you should take 2 mores locks to secure the front and back wheels.
  • I added a really simple custom steel wire loop to secure by bags on the bike using small padlock when going away from the bike for short amount of time. This only avoid someone to just come and grab the full bag. Which I think is enough.
  • For the night, I try to attach my bike to something sturdy as close as possible to the tent and I always attach things that would make noise if moving the bike. That's where you can get creative, I usually attach my titanium cup with a carabiner to the rack or directly to the wheel spokes.
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The old-fashioned approach

When travelling the world on a sailboat it is necessary to keep someone on watch to avoid collisions. If you have the right combination of larks and night-owls in your party you could actually arrange an overnight watch. I for example would happily take a late watch.

If you are going to a commercial site, check ahead to see if there is safe storage for cycles. In the wilderness or a random field you will naturally be more sensitive to outside human or animal movements because they will be the exception rather than the rule.

The ideal watchdog is a dog. I take my little dog with me in a basket. Dogs will wake up and alert you immediately if there is anything out of the usual.

Alternatively you can get alarms that speak. It is quite unnerving for a thief to hear a loud, "Hey what are you doing?" It will also alert you.

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  • Our first thought was actually setting up a watch, but we soon decided against it. We will most definitely need the sleep. None of us have a dog, but I will consider the idea of a fancy alarm system like some other answers have covered too. – MaplePanda Aug 20 '20 at 18:45
  • I reckon a simple and subtle motion-activated alarm would be more use than something fancy. – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 11:23
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    I like the old fashioned approach! @MaplePanda if you decide you will be able to take turns doing 2 hour watches, I would suggest you bring along a Henry Arms 22 survival rifle. It weighs just 3.5lbs, and can be stored compactly in the stock. And since it holds just 8 rounds and is chambered in 22LR, it is probably legal in most of the USA. Great for dealing with the random coyote or potential thief! – sam Aug 21 '20 at 22:39
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Simply taking the front wheels inside your tent (and locking multiple bikes together) has to be an additional deterrent.

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The most obvious would be to put your bikes in a tent that someone is sleeping in, but this would entail at least one large tent, which is probably not what you want to do. Otherwise:

  1. As other users have said, lock the bikes together. If there are any trees, lock the bikes to them.
  2. Remove the wheels and lock them to the bikes. Remove the skewers and take them into your tent; then they can't ride the bikes away. If cars can't access your bike route, your thief is reduced to carrying your bike away - not practical
  3. Pitch your tents in a circle with your locked bikes in the middle. Peg out the guyropes for thieves to trip over. Their chances of making it to your bikes undetected will be pretty low.

Lastly, if there are no cars and few people, you are less likely to be a victim of bike theft. Thieves like to operate in cities where there are lots of people, and therefore both anonymity and lots of things to steal. They also like to ride bikes away, or take them away in cars - not saying they would never carry a bike away, but it's less of a risk.

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If your're near a trail town, a hostel will secure a car or bicycle for a fee. Plus you can get a shuttle to/from the trail. Works best along the AT, but any "trail town" has hostels.

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A gps tracker costs 25... actually there are some for 15 euros. Problem is if it ends up in a 20 story tower block.

Buy a piezo buzzer which does 95dB or 120dB and make it into an alarm... power it with any 9-12v battert of 30-50 grams. Make an electrical contact which can be jammed open using a plastic insert the size of an SD Card. Attach an invisible nylon fishing line and a hook which hides away until you need to set the slarm. Then attach the hook to a spoke and the plastic card will pull out if the wheel turns, triggering a 120dB alarm. 3 small panasonic lithiums will last 10 years in idle at 3.8* 3v so its easy to keep the alarm armed.

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tl;dr: Use a beater bike

By "beater bike," I mean a bike that works well enough, but isn't that expensive. It doesn't have expensive components, and has minimal street value. Something not worth stealing.

As an avid cyclist living in the New Jersey/Newark/NYC area, I've dealt with this my whole life. I've had seven bikes stolen, and countless attacks on my bikes, including seat theft, wheel theft, latches thrown, etc.

Quick story: I lost a beloved $1200 Cannondale to theft. I called the police to fill out a police report. He came down, and looked annoyed with me for wasting his time. I asked him, "Any chance of recovery?" He laughed in my face, and said, "It's probably half-way to Newark by now." Police have bigger fish to fry than chase after bike thieves.

If a thief has tools, there is nothing you can do. A sharp grinding wheel can get through a fahgettaboudit lock in about 1 minute. You can try double-locking, so that they need two sets of tools, but this will only delay an experience thief for maybe another minute.

Personal note: I would advise against confronting a thief--especially in a remote location. They can get aggressive, and may demand that you unlock the bike and give it to them. Perhaps ask for your phone, etc.

The solution is to have several bikes in the stable, for different purposes: A nice mountain bike, a nice road bike, a folding bike, and a beater.

I am very selective about where I use my nice bikes. I lock it up for short intervals (less than 1 hour), and keep an eye on it whenever possible. Whenever I go anywhere with risk of bike theft, I take an old bike that looks like it's been through a war. Works great, gets me where I need to go.

So, get yourself a decent beater bike for the mountain trails; one that you can have fun with, but is beat up and not worth stealing. Lock it up; if it goes, it goes.

You will sleep well knowing that your expensive bike is safely locked up in your home.

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    This is good general advice for bikes, but doesn’t really answer the question — the OP is planning a specific multi-day trip, in which using one’s nice equipment is presumably part of the experience. – RLH Aug 20 '20 at 15:54
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    Plenty of people go on bikepacking trips (and for longer, have been going on bike tours) with nice equipment, and in many cases the trips are the reason to have the nice equipment. The OP is asking about how to protect the nice equipment they have for taking this kind of trip, not looking for a suggestion to use less-suitable or less-enjoyable equipment. – RLH Aug 20 '20 at 16:04
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    Like I said, this a great answer to a different question, something along the lines of “I ride my bike everywhere in my daily life and am concerned about its safety while locked up”. “Use less-nice gear” does not address “my friends and I are going on a trip to get the intended use of our nice gear (a use which many others successfully put it to), and want best practices for keeping it safe while we sleep.” – RLH Aug 20 '20 at 16:41
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    I see your point - but you've never been bikepacking, or stayed in a campground. Its not like sleeping on the footpath/sidewalk of a metropolis. – Criggie Aug 20 '20 at 23:00
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    I've added to the downvotes here for a key aspect you appear to dismiss out of hand - the OP is specifically worried about being stranded without their only means of transport far from home, and you say "if it goes, it goes". Beater bikes also generally lack the comfort, efficiency and crucially reliability for touring. By the time you'd addressed these it wouldn't be a beater bike but a restoration project.. – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 7:49
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A new generation of alarm type bike GPS trackers are coming out that rely on iot networks https://seesense.cc/products/see-sense-air-pre-order

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  • Thanks, but it won’t arrive soon enough, and I’m sure a thief would be glad to see a £90 alarm out for the taking. And either way, I would still be stuck in the middle of nowhere sans bike, tracker or no tracker. – MaplePanda Aug 21 '20 at 6:35
  • @MaplePanda What? Don't they have cops out where you are? – Frank Aug 21 '20 at 6:49
  • There’s not always cell reception out there, so we’d have to ask someone driving back into the city to call on our behalf. Either way, a tracker isn’t going to stop a thief. It’ll get the bike back no worries, but the bike will be gone temporarily and the trip will be over. – MaplePanda Aug 21 '20 at 9:27
  • @MaplePanda true but the tracker has an alarm and tbh I am not sure you need cell reception.... – Frank Aug 21 '20 at 10:16
  • @Frank if bikepacking it's quite likely they don't have cops anywhere near, or indeed a phone signal, even at some organised sites with road access. You also have to consider battery life on the tracker itself as well as whatever you use to connect to it - aeroplane mode saves loads of battery but disables the connection – Chris H Aug 21 '20 at 11:19

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