Campsite Security: Keeping Your Gear Safe from Thieves Afield

If you are a camper, there is a better than average chance that you’ll have outdoor activities and adventures somewhere in your near future.

Maybe you are just heading out to practice your fieldcraft. Maybe you’re heading out in an RV for a few nights with the wife and kids. Maybe you are just an outdoorsy person, and want to make up for all the “screen time” with some time out in the woods. Whatever the case, that means you are going camping.

tent on camping grounds

If you are anything like me this presents something of a conundrum, because it is exceedingly difficult to secure your campsite while you are afield, most especially when you are heading to a campground where you have plenty of other people- strangers- milling around. You don’t need me to tell you that somewhere in that sea of people is probably a thief or two.

There’s hardly anything more infuriating than having your possessions stolen, but what can be even worse than that is having your gear looted in the middle of a live event when you need it the most.

This is why it is so important to employ proper campsite security procedures. We will give you a crash course in this article.

Wherever You Have People, You’ll Have Thieves

I have little doubt that most of my long-time readers probably think I am something of a misanthrope. I’m really not, I promise, but I am passionate about arming people to better face the persistent and existential threats that confront us out in the world.

I feel no joy when I have to remind people that quite a few of those threats originate with their fellow man.

One of the oldest professions on earth, if you want to call it that, is thievery. In every land and every culture throughout the ages thieves have been around, and punishments for dealing with them have typically been severe.

A thief might have a morsel of decency about them, or at least an abiding embarrassment, and pilfer your goods when you aren’t around or when you can’t see them do it. A thief might also be a brazen con man who will offer a helping hand, share a laugh, crack open a beer with you, and then rob you blind at the first opportunity.

That is a long way to say that wherever you go, wherever you have people, you’ll have thieves, or at least the chance of thievery. There is no person that obviously looks like a thief, as they could be young or old, male or female, quiet or boisterous.

This can make them difficult to identify, but luckily, most thieves have a sort of taxonomy all their own, and once we better understand what makes a thief tick and how they pick their marks we can better protect our gear from their sticky fingers.

Generally, thieves want easy scores, or rather, easy access to loot. They don’t want to fight, they don’t want to scuffle, and they definitely don’t want to get caught.

So barring they are desperate or especially brazen, assuming they have access to a variety of potential marks a thief is most likely going to choose one that will afford them the best chance of concealment, the least possibility of notice, and the easiest access to a rapid escape route.

This applies to thieves in the largest metropolises, the coziest suburbs and yes, even your campground.

Now that we understand the basic M.O. of most thieves, we can work towards filling our objective of protecting our stuff from them.

Challenges of Securing the Campsite

Now, obviously we will have significant challenges facing us when it comes to asset protection in the field. After all, what are we supposed to do, lock the tent up?

Actually, you could lock your tent up using any variety of purpose-made tent locking devices, a common luggage lock through the zippers or even some heavy duty cord tied in an elaborate security knot. Any would at least slow down a would-be thief.

But all it takes is a moment’s consideration to realize that these measures are basically worthless; even a tent made of heavy canvas is easily slashed open with any sharp object, and a person who wants access is going to get access unless you are actively protecting the tent. That’s no good for our purposes.

Now, ostensibly locking or otherwise securing the tent should keep the most opportunistic, compulsive or timid of thieves at bay because they only help themselves to the lowest of low-hanging fruit, but we can’t depend on all thieves being that skittish.

More is needed to deter serious and seasoned thieves, and beyond that, if we want to hang on to our goods we must assume that some of them, at least one of them, will gain access to our campsite and our tent one way or the other. So now what do we do?

Total Security is Impossible

Before going any further, it is imperative that I impress upon you a critical concept when it comes to protecting your gear while in the field.

It’s hard to swallow, but you must accept that true and total security is basically impossible, or at least exceedingly difficult compared to keeping your stuff safely stashed at home.

Even there, it is vulnerable enough, but our troubles and vulnerabilities are magnified when camping.

Why? Well, for starters our only portable “structures”, if you want to call them that, are tents, which are insanely vulnerable to breaking and entering. Perhaps you utilize an RV or camper, though neither one affords the interior much protection with their flimsy doors.

Also, unlike the overall security situation at our homes, we don’t have access to our typical array of hiding places, safes, lock boxes and the like for protection. We pretty much have all of our eggs in one basket and that basket is very vulnerable to foxes.

So what’s the deal? Are we just screwed, then? Is it a roll of the dice if our stuff gets filtered or not? No! Not even close; we just need to adapt our typical security plans and procedures for this new environment and its inherent challenges.

But “Safer” Is Doable

Despite these limitations, it is possible to increase our safety and protect our stuff while in the field. For starters, the more we reduce our contact with unknowns, the less likely it is that we will get our stuff snatched by thieves.

Preppers who are used to camping in places that are genuinely off the beaten track or properly out of the way are unlikely to encounter anyone else at all. No strangers, no thieves.

We can also make use of a variety of procedures, best practices and security systems even while far from home. If you are wise, you will layer your security apparatus to further deter things or just buy you time to respond, again, just like you would at home.

Ultimately, you will have to deal with the notion that the only thing you’ll be able to achieve is “safer”, not “safe”, but then again, 100% safety and certainty is impossible to achieve in mortal life on this planet.

So it’s time to stop worrying about it and time to start learning how to protect your possessions and interests while out in the field. The next section includes a bevy of methods to do just that. Keep reading, time for the good stuff!

Ways to Secure Your Tent and Gear While Camping

The security methods below are grouped into two broad categories: Security systems, which rely on some type of gear, device or contraption to improve your overall level of protection, and tactics, which are actions or series of actions that you can take to improve your overall level of protection. Those don’t require any additional gadgetry.

Both are entirely viable, though which ones are more or less viable will depend on your specific situation and the context in which they are used, which I will address under the entry for each.

You can and should layer as many of these methods as you can in order to further bolster your level of security. According to your needs and desires, of course!

Security Systems

Motion Alarm

Motion alarms are a trusty standby employed for security and asset protection in all kinds of settings.

Since technology marches on, the systems have gotten smaller and smaller over the years while simultaneously improving upon their capabilities. Set up correctly, this can make a motion sensor net an ideal option for a camper.

It should be noted that these systems typically require a fair bit of experimentation to understand their limitations and also to refine their sensory apparatus, if applicable.

You don’t want the sensor to sound the alarm or send you a notification every time some leaves or grass rustles in the breeze, or a bug flies by.

Keep in mind, even when you have it perfectly calibrated there will always be a chance for false positives when camping. It could be a kid’s ball rolling by or a larger animal meandering through your camp to check it out (or look for snacks!).

Perhaps the best attribute of motion alarms is their adaptability. These systems can be employed to protect the campsite overall, or place within the confines of the tent itself so that it will only trigger if somebody accesses the tent directly.

There are many, many variations of this system on the market so take your time when doing your due diligence before purchasing.

Tilt Alarm

A tilt alarm, sometimes called a disturbance sensor, is nothing more than a small gadget that utilizes either a liquid switch or an array of sensitive whiskers or probes to detect activity.

Whenever it is activated, typically by being tilted, picked up, dropped, nudged or otherwise disturbed it will sound the alarm, typically an audible tone or siren but some modern versions can sound a silent alarm and send you a notification instead.

These are a particularly good option if you are never going to be too far from your campsite as you’ll be able to hear an audible alarm. They are also ideal in high- or medium-trust settings because you can use these to booby trap your possessions.

Someone walking near or through your campsite will not set off one of these alarms, but if they pick up your pack, move your cooler or do anything else they shouldn’t be doing then the jig will be up and you’ll have them.

However, these alarm systems fall short in any circumstances where accidental or inadvertent movement is a good possibility or even probable.

Consider employing these as a second tier alarm system in conjunction with cameras or other silent alarms that will alert you when someone approaches the perimeter but these are kept in reserve and will activate when someone actually goes for your goods.

Security Lighting

Everybody is familiar with the concept of residential security lighting, as it is the rare home in America that will not have at least one motion activated spotlight under the eaves.

Aside from providing a convenient, conservative light source in the field the same as they do at home, these systems can serve both as a deterrent and signal against intruders.

First and foremost, bad guys do not want any light shown on their dubious deeds. Darkness provides cover, confusion and makes identification difficult. Any bright light will eliminate all of those advantages.

When the lights come on, the bad guys usually scatter, and this effect will only be amplified in a wilderness setting when they are trying to sneakily approach your campsite at night. Getting lit up suddenly and without warning might spook them.

Additionally, if you are in an area without very much light pollution from other man-made sources you will probably notice the shine from your activated security lights from quite a distance, assuming you have line of sight to your campsite. The only drawbacks to these systems is that they trend towards being power hungry and they work best when they can be hanged or otherwise positioned up off of the ground.

Tripwire / Noisemaker

Tripwire noisemakers have been used for ages, and though they are definitely a low-tech option among all the others in this section they are still an entirely valid one when it comes to securing your campsite.

The best part about them is it is easy to improvise them from any natural or man-made materials you can scavenge from the immediate area.

A noise maker can be fashioned from scraps of aluminum can, a tin cup with gravel in it, broken glass, wood or even just piles of rocks.

Anything that will raise a racket can do the job and the triggering mechanism is limited only by your imagination though the traditional tripwire is one of the easiest to set up.

Setting camp perimeter alarms!

It is worth mentioning there are modern versions of these systems that are electronic, ones that produce an ear splitting siren capable of being heard from a great distance.

Other versions utilize firearm blanks that are even louder, but might work better depending upon the terrain while also serving to give intruders a serious scare, hopefully enough to send them running.

Heat-Sensing Alarm

Heat sensing alarms are designed to overcome the shortcomings of motion sensing alarms, namely by detecting the body heat of an intruder, be it man or beast, or the difference in heat of any object entering its detection radius against the background temperature.

They are very challenging to beat if they are working properly when intruders don’t know they are there. Like motion sensors, they typically require some fiddling and adjustment until they will work reliably without producing false positives.

It is also worth noting that these sensors typically have a short range, at least most commercially available over-the-counter sets do.

Depending upon the size of your campsite and the likely approaches you could have a tough time providing an adequately large detection bubble with just one sensor. At any rate, most units can be keyed to activate an auditory alarm and some can even transmit a notification to your device.

Strongbox

You might think that this is a strange inclusion considering I just went on a tangent above explaining how you will not be able to employ typical security solutions when in the field. That is true, and I’m not reversing myself, but it is the exception that proves the rule.

It is possible to use a traditional strong box for protecting some of your valuables at the campsite so long as you have a way to effectively anchor it to an immovable or practically immovable object.

Obviously, any strong box that is small enough for you to easily pack along when going afield is going to be small and light enough for a thief to carry away entirely.

That won’t help you, obviously, so what you’ll require is an equally sturdy attachment point on the strong box itself, a sturdy length of cable or chain, a locking system and a hard point that cannot be easily defeated.

Only by placing your goods in the container and then securing the container to the hardpoint will you provide a modicum of protection.

Also, just like a residential setting thieves who can see you are taking pains to protect something by any means will, correctly, assume that you have something worth protecting.

A visible strong box is an immediate “red flag” that you’ve got loot worth having, so you should only use one with the greatest possible discretion.

Wireless Camera System

There’s no reason why you cannot employ a wireless security camera system in the field if you really want to. Sounds crazy? It isn’t; these systems are compact, self-contained and effortlessly network with all manner of devices. So long as whatever receiving unit you’re employing has sufficient signal from the base station you’ll be in good shape.

These systems can be of particular use to preppers because they can provide excellent observation capability even when line of sight in or out of your camp is very poor. They are worth their weight in gold, particularly if you need to keep an eye on certain approaches to your camp.

These compact cameras might not provide much of a deterrent unless thieves notice them (and they might not) but even if they are small you should take pains to camouflage them in order to reduce their observability. We’ll talk more about that later.

As mentioned with the strongbox, if your cameras do get noticed, someone is very likely to think you have something around that is worth protecting, so take pains to avoid “skylining” yourself to potential thieves.

Tactics

Leave Someone on Guard

One of the single, best ways to protect your gear at camp is to leave someone on guard if you and the bulk of your party are going to be away for any length of time.

There’s always that one friend or companion who would prefer to stay behind and putter around camp or prepare the next meal, so they are a shoo-in for the duty.

Another option is to make friends with your neighbors at a crowded campground and ask them to watch out for your stuff while you are gone and exchange for you doing the same for them.

Now, far be it from me to play the cynic, but no matter how nice, friendly and gregarious your campground neighbors are you don’t really know these people. You can never be certain of what lurks at the site of their heart.

Yes, statistically most people are law-abiding, or at least not egregious lawbreakers against their fellow man, but you will still be gambling on a stranger.

Regardless, even if you were a gambler and wanted to play the odds, chances are you would still come out better than if you left your campsite totally unattended.

Use a Hiding Place

One of the best ways to secure small valuables and important gear when in the field is to utilize a hiding place, or stash. This could be as simple as concealing it beneath a rock or log, or as elaborate as a remote stash in a half rotted and hollow tree.

This is one of the best ways to protect the things you want to keep safe even should you lose everything else while you are away.

Two things to keep in mind when employing a hiding place. First, your hiding place is only good if it is truly secret. The more people that know, the more likely it is to be compromised, and forget about it if any strangers see you accessing it.

Second, make sure you protect whatever it is that you are placing and hiding, utilizing waterproofing or ceiling containers to keep bugs, moisture, dirt and debris from ruining what you are trying to keep safe.

Another major limitation with this technique is of course the size of what you are able to effectively move, hide and retrieve. Small electronics, pistols, valuables and things like that can be effectively hidden in all sorts of places. Your fancy, schmancy cooler, bass boat or trailer cannot be.

Be Mindful of Approach and Escape Vectors

One technique that is truly universal when it comes to asset protection is remaining mindful of what things will make a thief’s life easy, and then doing the opposite.

One thing that suburban and campground thieves alike value is easy ingress and egress to the target site. If you provide a thief with a quick way to get to your camp, and a quick way to get away from it or to blend in with the mass of humanity around it, you are disproportionately more likely to be chosen for a hit.

At a campground, this might mean you are camped near the edges, near the main road or near a secondary entrance. Even in a secured and fenced campground don’t consider yourself safe just because you are far from the entrance near one of the borders as thieves may gladly hop a fence to grab your stuff then hop back over and disappear.

Also consider that the farther a would-be thief has to go off of typical routes of travel, the less likely they are to target you.

Considering that as traffic tapers off they become more and more distinguishable this heightened profile forced upon them may be enough to scare them off from even making an attempt on your stuff, assuming of course that you or other witnesses are around to notice their approach in the first place.

Don’t Camp Where Others Go

One of the single, best ways to avoid thieves while you are camping is to avoid people entirely! No people, no thieves, it’s just that easy.

Now, this can make for a tense and decidedly unfun game of Clue should you be traveling and camping with your own friends and family and things still go missing, but discounting that unhappy possibility camping in a truly remote location will all but eliminate the chances of your goods being plundered.

Now, this option is not for everyone, especially people who don’t want to go into these far away, off-the-beaten-track places.

Aside from the effort required to reach them, it comes with its own attendant set of risks, namely that you won’t have anyone around to offer assistance if something goes wrong for you or your party. Additionally, some people just flat out don’t like being completely isolated.

However, from a security standpoint this makes unknown contacts easy to manage. If you have taken great pains to make yourself as inaccessible and hard to reach as possible and a stranger shows up you are far more likely to, rightly, be on your guard.

Consider Leaving Valuables Behind

I wouldn’t be doing right by my readers if I did not urge you to consider leaving behind anything that you cannot afford to lose. Yes, some gear is expensive and invaluable in a survival situation.

Yes, some things are expensive, but make your life at camp so easy or pleasant you have to bring them along. But, increasingly I see a rash of people engaging in “glamping” where they haul all sorts of valuables with them, things that will be better off left at home.

Seemingly nothing is off the table when people go camping, because what they are really trying to do is move their whole living room outdoors, at least that’s the way I see it. Expensive electronics, equally expensive clothing, jewelry and so forth all show up at these campgrounds. I don’t see the point in going camping if you want to drag all that modernity with you, but it is not the world according to Tim.

Take stock of everything you plan on hauling into the field with you, and leave behind anything that would make a juicy score for a thief that is not absolutely required.

Stash Unneeded Gear in Your Vehicle

Wherever you go, if you get there by vehicle consider leaving sensitive or valuable items in the vehicle when you depart for camp.

Don’t misunderstand: pretty much no consumer vehicle qualifies as a hard target or a secure container, but a vehicle is far more secure than a tent or campsite, especially when it is parked in areas that are frequently traveled or watched by security.

As always, keep your valuables out of sight while they’re in your vehicle and also take care to police up any other potential indicators that could tip off thieves passing by the valuables are inside the car. Even items you keep in the trunk are easily accessed once a thief is determined to get to them.

Always Consider the Greater Context

One element I feel I must diverge on and discuss with readers is the importance of concealing whatever security systems you are implementing at your camp. The layman often believes that ostentatious shows of security implements will be enough to ward off any would be thieves.

After all, a serious security apparatus equates to higher chances of detection and arrest, right? Maybe, but maybe not, that is a frame of reference problem, and the frame of reference shared by you, I and other law-abiding citizens is not the one shared by criminals.

It is true that thieves very much want to avoid being caught, confronted or arrested, and an obvious security system or multiple security systems will give them pause, but it will also indicate to them that there are indeed valuables worth protecting within, whatever they might be.

Call it professional instinct or the forbidden fruit effect, the result is that you might very well get thieves tracking on how to defeat your security procedures in order to gain access to the sweet, sweet loot they are now certain resides within.

For that reason, take pains to camouflage or otherwise conceal any security devices you are going to employ at your camp. This might mean a preparatory coat of spray paint in order to produce environment specific camo, or it could take the form of purpose-made, compact camouflage nets or coverings. Whatever you do, don’t give the bad guys any actionable intelligence, including an obviously noticeable security device. Keep it hidden, and you’ll keep your stuff safe!

Conclusion

Although it will be significantly more challenging than doing so at your home, it is entirely possible to implement good security procedures and systems while camping.

Considering the value of your gear, both monetarily and for survival purposes, you must always be on the lookout for thieves and constantly enact procedures that will thwart their efforts. Use the techniques and systems we have shared with you in this article to implement your own security solution in the field.

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1 thought on “Campsite Security: Keeping Your Gear Safe from Thieves Afield”

  1. I long for the days of past in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when you could leave the Coleman stove, lantern and cooler sitting on the table and everything would be as you left it upon your return. Now you need security measures if you wish to keep your property! “Those were the days my friend, I thought they’d never end….”!

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