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10 Tips on How to Prevent Car Break-Ins at a Trailhead

Updated: Aug 23, 2023


Am man breaking into a car.

If you love hiking, you may have returned to the trailhead only to find that someone has broken into your car and stolen your belongings. Or you know someone that has. It’s a terrible way to end a beautiful day, and it can cost a lot of money and hassle to fix the damage and replace your items. This happened to my wife and I late last year at a popular hiking trail. The thief was able to rack up a few hundred dollars in purchases using her credit cards before we discovered the theft.


Unfortunately, car break-ins at trailheads are becoming increasingly common, especially near urban areas where thieves can easily access the parking lots. Most trailheads do not have security cameras or guards, so it’s up to you to take precautions to avoid becoming a victim.


In this post, I will share with you ten tips to prevent car break-ins at a trailhead, based on my experience and research. These tips will help you deter potential thieves and protect your valuables while you enjoy your hike.


Tip #1: Lock your car and don’t leave your key in the gas cap or wheel well

This may seem obvious, but locking your car is the first and most basic step to prevent car break-ins. Some people may argue that leaving your car unlocked will prevent thieves from breaking your window, but this is not a good idea. If you leave your car unlocked, you are inviting anyone to take whatever they want from your car, even if it’s just a headlamp or a water bottle. You also risk someone hotwiring your car and driving away with it.

Another common mistake is leaving your key in the gas cap or wheel well. This is a very risky practice, as thieves know exactly where to look for keys. If they find your key, they can easily unlock your car and take everything inside. They can also drive away with your car or use it as a getaway vehicle.

The best thing to do is to lock your car and take your key with you. If you don’t want to carry your whole keychain with you, just take the individual car key and maybe your house key. You can also get a small pouch or belt clip to store your key securely while you hike.


Tip #2: Keep valuables out of your car or hide them before arriving at the trailhead

One of the main reasons why thieves target cars at trailheads is because they see valuables inside them. Laptops, wallets, purses, phones, cameras, and other expensive items are very tempting for thieves who are looking for a quick score. If they see something valuable in plain sight, they will not hesitate to smash your window or pop the lock and grab it.


The best way to avoid this is to keep valuables out of your car. If possible, leave them at home or in a safe place where you are staying. If you need to bring them with you, hide them in your trunk or out-of-sight before arriving at the trailhead. Don’t wait until you get there to stash them under the seat or in the glove compartment, as thieves may be watching you. Make sure nothing valuable is visible from the outside of your car.


Tip #3: Keep unnecessary gear at home or get window tints or DIY curtains to keep them out of sight

If you are an outdoor enthusiast, you may have a lot of gear in your car that you don’t need for every hike. For example, if you are into climbing, biking, skiing, or fishing, you may have equipment that is bulky or hard to hide in your car. While these items may not be as valuable as electronics or cash, they can still attract thieves who may think they can sell them or use them for themselves.


The best way to avoid this is to keep unnecessary gear at home. Only bring what you need for each hike and leave the rest behind. If you can’t do that, consider getting window tints or DIY curtains to cover your windows and block the view of what’s inside your car. Window tints are relatively cheap and easy to install, and they can also protect your car from sun damage and heat. DIY curtains can be made from any fabric or material that matches your car color and can be attached with velcro or magnets.


Tip #4: Take the least impressive vehicle to the trailhead

Another factor that can influence whether thieves target your car or not is how impressive it looks. Thieves may assume that a newer, fancier, or more expensive car has more valuables inside than an older, simpler, or cheaper one.


If you have more than one vehicle or if you are carpooling with friends, consider taking the least impressive vehicle to the trailhead. This may deter thieves from choosing your car over others that look more appealing. Of course, this does not mean that you should ignore the rest of the tips listed, as any car can be broken into regardless of its appearance.


Tip #5: Situational awareness

Sometimes, thieves may try to trick you by pretending to be friendly hikers who want to chat with you at the trailhead. They may ask you how long you plan to be gone, what trail you are taking, where you are from, or other seemingly harmless questions. While they do this, they may be looking for clues about what’s in your car or where you have hidden your key.


While it’s nice to be polite and friendly with fellow hikers, be careful of any stranger who engages you in conversation at the trailhead. Follow your gut instinct and look for signs that they may have ulterior motives. For example:

  • Do they seem overly interested in your plans or personal details?

  • Do they keep looking at your car or other cars in the parking lot?

  • Do they have any hiking gear with them or look like they are ready for a hike?

  • Do they have any visible tattoos, scars, or marks that could identify them later?

  • Do they have another person waiting nearby or in another vehicle?

If something feels off about the encounter, end the conversation politely and walk away. You can also hang around the trailhead and observe their behavior for a few minutes before starting your hike. Or you can start your hike and then come back shortly after to check on your car.


Tip #6: Choose the most visible parking spaces and park under lights when available

Another way to deter thieves from breaking into your car is to choose parking spaces that are highly visible and well-lit. Thieves prefer dark and secluded spots where they can work without being seen or interrupted by other hikers or passersby. Parking in open and bright areas makes it harder for them to approach and damage your car without being noticed.


When choosing a parking space at the trailhead:

  • Park as close as possible to the entrance or exit of the parking lot.

  • Park near other cars that look occupied or well-maintained.

  • Park under lights if available (especially if hiking at night).

  • Park facing outward so that anyone approaching from behind will be seen by others.

  • Avoid parking near bushes, trees, walls, dumpsters, or other objects that could provide cover for thieves.


Tip #7: Take pictures of anyone or anything that seems out-of-place at the trailhead

If you see someone or something suspicious at the trailhead:

  • Take pictures of them with their license plate if possible.

  • Report them to the police or park rangers if available.

  • Warn other hikers about them if appropriate.

Taking pictures of potential thieves can serve several purposes:

  • It can scare them off by letting them know that you are aware of their presence and have evidence against them.

  • It can help identify them later if they do break into your car or someone else’s.

  • It can provide proof for insurance claims or police reports if needed.

Of course, taking pictures of potential thieves can also be risky, as they may react aggressively or even violently if they notice you. Prioritize your safety and keep a safe distance from them. You should also avoid confronting them directly or accusing them of anything. Instead, call the police or park rangers and let them handle the situation.


Tip #8: Do not approach a car prowler in progress, observe from a safe distance and call the police

If you witness a car prowler in progress, either breaking into your car or someone else’s, do not approach them or try to stop them. This can be very dangerous, as they may be armed or violent. They may also have accomplices nearby who could join the fight or escape with the stolen items.


The best thing to do is to observe the crime from a safe distance and gather as much information as possible. For example:

  • What do they look like (gender, age, height, weight, clothing, tattoos, etc.)?

  • What are they doing (smashing windows, picking locks, grabbing items, etc.)?

  • What kind of vehicle are they using (make, model, color, license plate, etc.)?

  • How many of them are there and where are they located?

Then, call the police or park rangers and report the crime as soon as possible. Provide them with all the details you have observed and follow their instructions. If possible, take pictures or videos of the crime scene and the suspects for evidence.


Tip #9: Report car break-ins to the police whether you plan to make an insurance claim or not

If you discover that your car has been broken into after your hike, you should always report it to the police whether you plan to make an insurance claim or not. Reporting car break-ins can help the police track down thieves and recover your items. It can also help them identify crime patterns and hotspots and increase patrols and security measures at those locations.


To report a car break-in:

  • Call 911 if it is an emergency or if the suspects are still nearby.

  • Call the non-emergency number of the local police department if it is not an emergency or if the suspects are gone.

  • Provide them with your name, location, vehicle information, and a description of what happened and what was stolen.

  • Ask for a case number and a copy of the police report for your records.

  • Contact your insurance company if you have coverage for theft or vandalism and file a claim.


Tip #10: Don't advertise your hike

Avoid leaving signs in your car that indicate your hiking plans or destination. This can alert potential thieves that you won't be back for a while and make your car a more tempting target. For example, if you leave a map, a guidebook, or a note in your car that indicates your hiking plans or destination, thieves can infer how far you are going and how long it will take you to return. This can make your car a more tempting target than others that have less or no signs of hiking plans.



Summary

Car break-ins at trailheads are a common and frustrating problem for hikers. By following these tips, we can all reduce the risk of becoming a victim and enjoy our hikes with peace of mind.

Remember:

  • Lock your car and don’t leave your key in the gas cap or wheel well.

  • Keep valuables out of your car or hide them in your trunk or out-of-sight before arriving at the trailhead.

  • Keep unnecessary gear at home or get window tints or DIY curtains to keep them out of sight.

  • Take the least impressive vehicle to the trailhead if you have the option.

  • Be leery of any stranger who engages you in friendly conversation at the trailhead and observe their behavior.

  • Choose the most visible parking spaces and park under lights when available.

  • Take pictures of anyone or anything that seems out-of-place at the trailhead.

  • Do not approach a car prowler in progress but observe from a safe distance and call the police.

  • Report car break-ins to the police whether you plan to make an insurance claim or not.

  • Don’t advertise where you’re going or how long you’ll be gone.

I hope this blog post has been helpful and informative for you and you never have to deal with a car break-in. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. See you out there! 😊


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