In the city, I wouldn't think of leaving my bike unlocked when it is unattended. So, it would make sense that an important piece of my bike touring gear would be a solid bike lock. On my very first tour that's exactly what I took. I locked my bike with a heavy U-lock whenever I left it alone. But, on every tour since, I've taken only a cable and simple padlock and often left the bike both unlocked and unattended! What changed?

After that first tour, I realized that U-Locks are heavy and often hard to use while on tour. Secondly, I don't think that intentional bike theft is a major problem in most of the places I bike tour.

U-Locks are Heavy and Not Always Usable

U-Locks were created to defeat determined, well-equiped bike thieves. They consist of a solid, hardened steel bar and an even heavier locking cylinder. The longer U-Locks weigh about 2.5 pounds. For comparison, a cable and padlock weigh 1 pound. While 1.5 pounds isn't a showstopper (less than a quart of water), it, too, has to be pushed over the hill!

U-Locks are designed to fit around immovable poles commonly found in urban areas, such as, parking meters or signposts. Because they are inflexible, a U-Lock will only work if there is something solid to lock it around that is no wider than the lock can accommodate and that you can get your bike very close to. The one I have is about 5 inches wide and 9 inches long. Again, such poles are easy to find on most any city street. But, out on tour, away from cities, it can be hard to find something that fits these requirements. Quite often, the front of a store will be devoid of anything lockable.

Consider this store at the Ochoco Reservoir in Oregon (on the ACA TransAmerica Trail):

With the exception of the pole on the main sign (which may be too thick or hard to maneuver the bike next to), there may not be anything to lock the bike to! In such situations, U-Locks become nothing more than non-secure wheel locks. You can carry a cable for such situations, but then why carry a heavy U-Lock when nothing more than a padlock would do the same job?

The place where I worry most about my bike is at night in a campground while I am sleeping. In fact, I often am awakened by noise that sounds like someone is messing with my bike, though no one ever has. I always lock my bike in campgrounds. Here, again, a U-Lock might not work because there simply isn't anything the lock will fit around. Most of the campsites I've used have a picnic table, either wood or cement, that offers nothing U-Lockable. If you don't have a cable, then your bike will go unsecured, even though you are carrying a heavy, secure lock! Such a lock job won't prevent someone from simply picking up your locked bike and carrying it off.

Are intentional thefts the threat on tour?

As I see it, there are two types of bike thefts: intentional and opportunistic. Intentional thefts are committed by thieves carrying specialized tools for cutting cables and chains or breaking hard to cut locks. Opportunistic thefts occur when someone grabs an unlocked bike and takes off with it.

Not surprisingly, most intentional thefts take place in cities because that is where most bikes are and, consequently, where most bike thieves can thrive. The threat of intentional theft decreases as the distance from large cities increases. Opportunistic thefts, what I call "snatch and grabs", can happen anywhere there is an unlocked bike.

The goal of a U-Lock is to stop intentional thieves. But, what is the chance that you will encounter such scumbags on tour? While my touring routes occasionally go through large cities, for the most part, I plan my tours through the countryside. As a result, I don't worry much about well-equipped bike thieves driving around sparsely populated areas looking for a bike to steal.

What I do worry about, though, is someone simply riding off my bike. There are lots of times on a bike tour where I have to leave my bike unattended: shopping at a food store, eating at a restaurant, going to the bathroom, camping overnight, hiking, visiting tourist sites and others. If I have to leave my bike outside in an area accessible to the public, I lock it to something to prevent a quick snatch and grab.

One lock that sounds intriguing is this alarmed cable lock. I like the idea of having a loud alarm going off if someone cuts lock's cable. I just bought one and will write a review of once I get it and use it on tour. Here is a review of the "Lock Alarm" from [Update: I used the Lock Alarm on a bike tour and it completely failed after 3 uses. I eventually had to buy a cable lock to finish my tour with.]

Leaving the bike unlocked?

While my bike lock is easily accessible when I tour, I don't always feel the need to lock my bike. Why? Because, if there is room, I ask if it is OK to take my bike inside with me. Restaurants often have a large reception area where a bike can be put that is visible while I eat. Usually, the people working there are happy to let me lean my bike against the wall while I have a meal.

The same goes when I stay in a motel. I always ask if I can take my bike into my room. Usually they say yes, as long as I don't use their towels to clean my bike. Other times, they offer a secured place where I can leave my bike overnight (I always lock it, there, too).

Shopping at large grocery stores can be a challenge. There is rarely a place to lock the bike where I can keep it in sight while I shop. But, since large stores usually have out-of-the-way places where I can stash a bike, I always check that option out before locking my bike outside. This poor, dark photo gives an idea of what I do.

This is at a large store in Eugene, Oregon. I managed to find a place in an unused corner, pushed a cart full of briquettes around my bike, and went shopping. I could have locked my bike to the cart, but don't like to do that, in case, someone needs to use the cart before I return. I still try to keep the bike in sight and, when I can't, often walk back to check on it as I shop.

There are times, though, when the bike has to be left outside where I can't see it. In such cases, I follow the dictum that people can't steal a bike they don't know is there and try to find a secluded spot to lock my bike. On a recent tour through Oregon, I had an odd dilemma. No matter where I left my bike, I wouldn't be able to see it from the restaurant and there wasn't a place to leave it inside. My choices where to lock it in front where everyone could see it or put it around the side where no one could see it but there was nowhere to lock it. In truth, this wasn't a busy place and I judged the bike theft threat to be low no matter where I put it.

After considering it, I decided to hide it unlocked. Here is the view from the street. The bike is barely visible behind the ice machine.

Campground security?

When I camp, I have to leave the bike outside secured to a tree or picnic table with only a cable lock. Am I concerned that someone will snip this lock while I am sleeping and make off with my bike? I once heard a sad tale from a visiting bike tourist who said he and his traveling companion had locked their bikes together overnight in a public campground only to discover the next morning that someone had taken both bikes! So, yes, it does cross my mind, but I don't take any extra precautions, other than get awakened most camping nights by nature sounds.

While I rarely do anything beyond locking, I've heard a couple of good suggestions for further protecting a bike in a campground overnight. One idea is to take some string or fishing line and tie one end to the bike and the other end to a tent pole. If someone takes the bike, the shaking tent will surely wake you up. Another approach is to remove the front wheel and take that into the tent with you so that the bike can't be ridden away. A third option is to buy a motion alarm that will make noise if someone moves your bike. Though, it could be embarrassing should the alarm go off in the middle of the night because of a nosy raccoon.

What about my Panniers?

Even if my bike is locked, the panniers and other gear are just hanging there waiting to be taken. I am aware that someone might filch my tent or panniers but don't usually do anything to prevent it. I have been in some dodgy places where I was concerned and after locking my bike up, took everything off it and hauled it inside with me. Other than the bike itself and, possibly, my tent, there isn't much on my bike that has any real value on the street, anyway. Surely, dirty biking clothes, underwear, some food, and such isn't going to fetch much on the open market.

That said, if I lost the stuff in my panniers, my tour would likely be ruined. I never leave anything valuable in my panniers or handlebar bag. I wear a camelback when I ride and I put everything worth stealing in there. In my pack goes money, wallet, cellphone/MP3 player. I keep my camera in a jersey pocket. For the most part, I rely on being seen as a bike tourist not worth ripping off!

If this concerns you, there are panniers that lock to the rack. PacSafe, sells a number of anti-theft devices for bags, including a thin wire mesh nets that can be locked around panniers that would stop someone from taking or opening them. Some people suggest using zipties to secure your panniers to the rack, though it would require cutting the ties in order to remove them. This isn't a bad idea if you are get a bad vibe but decide to stop anyway. Zipties are cheap, strong, disposable, and every bike tourist should carry them, anyway.


Don't take a U-Lock on tour, unless you will spend most of your time in big cities. They are too heavy and limited for touring use.

Do take a lightweight but sturdy cable lock.

Keep your bike in sight at all times.

Try to take your bike inside with you.

If you must leave the bike outside, always lock it and keep an eye on it.

If you have to keep the bike outside and out of your view, try to lock it in an place where no one can see it.
When camping, you can tie a line to both the bike and your tent for extra security.


This page has 4 links about bike locks, including this one on the proper way to lock a bike and this discussion about the kinds of locks people take on tour.

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Copyright © 2007 by Ray Swartz