Locking Up Your Bike

By Darren Alff on - Download my FREE bike tour starter guide!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen fully loaded touring bikes left at campsites, completely unguarded, not locked up… just sitting there! Even worse is when I see a bike with a lock around it, but the lock is thrown over a three-foot high post – a post that anyone could simply lift the bike over and walk away with the bike in a matter of seconds!

Today I want to talk about some ways to lock up your bike and your gear so that your possessions don’t get stolen.

First of all, you need a good lock. I recommend a keyed cable lock like the one shown above.

There are two main things to look for when looking for a bike lock. The first and most important is that the cable is thick enough that it cannot easily be cut. In the past I’ve emerged from the bank, post office, and grocery store only to find that there were large chucks of plastic cut from my bike lock. Fortunately, the bike and lock remained intact because the cable itself was thick enough to withstand whoever happened to be trying to cut it free.

Secondly, you need a cable lock that is long enough to wrap around your bike, rear tire, and the object you are trying to secure the bike to (i.e. a telephone pole, picnic table, tree, or bike rack). The longer the cable, the better. But keep in mind that the longer your cable is, the more weight you are going to be carrying on your bike. My bike lock is long enough to easily go through the frame of my bike, the rear tire and the object I’m locking my bike to. If I really wanted, I could run the lock through my front tire as well – which might come in handy if I were in an especially dodgy area.

Another important feature you might want to look for is the type of key used in the lock. It’s best to buy a lock that uses a real metal key. Some locks have a plastic looking type of key that they use. I don’t like these because I’ve had them break on me… and when that happens, you’re screwed!

I also don’t like to use those huge U-Locks because they are heavy, hard to pack in your panniers/trailer, and don’t give you a lot of reach when trying to secure your bike to unusual objects. U-Locks can be great for other purposes, but they are far from ideal on a bicycle tour.

Instead, here are a couple locks that look promising and I would recommend you use:

OnGuard Doberman 5028 Bicycle Coil Cable Lock

Master Lock 6-Foot Flexible Cable Keyed Lock

Now that you have a lock, you need to know how to lock up your bike. This is the really important part!

Today I am going to be discussing the five main objects you might be locking you bike to: Poles, trees, picnic tables, bike racks, and nothing (meaning you have nothing to lock you bike to).

POLES:

If you are going to lock your bike to a pole (i.e. street sign, telephone pole, building support, etc), make sure that the pole is tall enough that the bike and lock cannot simply be lifted over the top of the pole. The pole should be at least 10 feet tall (or taller), as this will prevent any normal human from being able to lift the bike to freedom. I will usually never lock my bike to a pole unless it is at least 20 feet tall, but that’s just my own paranoia getting to me I think. It’s up to you to decide what is going to be safest.

Secondly, make sure that the pole is actually stuck in the ground. Many stop signs, streets signs, and industrial poles are set in the ground, but can be easily lifted out of the earth and carried away. The last thing you want to do is lock your bike to a pole like this, only to come back to you bike and find that not only is it gone, but so is the pole you had secured it to!

Finally, make sure the pole is thick enough that it cannot be cut, hammered, or bent out of place. I once talked to a bicyclist who had locked his bike to a PVC pipe that was sticking out of an old shed, only to return moments later and find that his bike was gone and the PVC pipe had been smashed to bits.

TREES:

Like locking your bike to a pole, make sure that the tree you are locking your bike to is tall enough that the bike and lock cannot simply be lifted over the top of the tree.

Also, make sure that the tree itself is thick enough that it cannot be easily sawed, kicked, or hacked down. I would probably never lock my bike to a tree that had a diameter of less than 5 or 6 inches.

Also, make sure that the tree cannot be easily uprooted. Unlike metal poles that are most often submerged in concrete, trees are often times found in moist soil and the tree itself can sometimes be pulled out of the ground with a simple “heave-ho.”

Finally, make sure you lock the bike around the trunk of the tree and not just a branch or root. I hope I don’t have to tell you why this is a necessity!

PICNIC TABLES:

If you’re camping at a campground, city park, or other outdoor arena, it’s very likely that there is a picnic table in you vicinity. If so, this is an excellent object to secure your bike to!

Make sure that you lock your bike around the center of the bench, in an area where the lock cannot be simply lifted over the edge of the table. I’ve seen this mistake countless times and it’s ruined many bicycle expeditions.

Secondly, make sure the table itself is secured to the ground. This isn’t an absolutely necessity, but it definitely adds an extra layer of security. This is especially important if you are traveling alone, as a picnic table and your attached bike can easily be moved my two or more evildoers. If you have two bikes attached to the table, it is unlikely a would-be thief would try and move the table with two or more bicycles locked to it.

Finally, if you’ve got your bike locked to a picnic table in a public park or campground, try and position your tent as close to the bike as possible. This will allow you to see or hear anything that might be happening to the bike during the night. The closer the bike is to you, the better!

BIKE RACKS:

If you’re making a stop at a bank, post office, or grocery store, it’s likely you’ll find a bike rack in front of the store/business. Be thankful that the store has provided you with a place to lock up your bike, but don’t always assume you must lock up your bike there.

Many times I will refuse to lock my bike to a bike rack… and here are some reasons why you might make the same decision:

First of all, many bike racks are small, lightweight metal loops stuck into the ground with a single bolt. Some racks are not secured into the ground at all… and these are the racks you want to avoid! If you can pick up the rack with two hands, then you need to find another place to secure your bicycle. The last thing you want is to lock you bike to a bike rack and find that the bike and the rack itself were hauled away while you were inside the building.

Secondly, I’ve seen many bike racks made out of such thin or rusted metal that you could break the rack apart in a second if you happened to have a hammer with you or were simply strong enough to break apart the metal. Never lock your bike to a severely rusted or damaged rack.

Instead, you want to lock your bike to a rack that is secured to the ground (or building), that is made of thick, impenetrable metal, and that is in a location where people passing by could see a potential thief tampering with your bike. If the rack looks good, use it to secure your bike and gear. Be sure to back the bike in and secure both the frame and rear tire to the rack. Never lock your bike solely around your front tire – as this is the easiest part of the bike to remove and later replace.

NOTHING TO LOCK TO:

There are many times when you will be unable to find something to lock you bike to. No posts, no trees, no bike racks – nothing! If you find yourself in this situation, don’t give up and leave your bike open for potential thieves. Instead, here is what I recommend.

If you are going into a store, try and find another bicyclist that you can team up with. Ask if you can lock your bike to his or her bike. By locking your bike to another, you will prevent a would-be thief from simply picking up your bike and riding off. With two bikes locked together, most thieves will be unable to pick up and walk away with your belongings. There is power in numbers! The more bikes you lock together, the better!

If you are in a campsite and there is nothing to lock you bike to at night, lock the bike around one or more of the poles on your tent. If someone does tamper with your bike at night, your tent will start to rock and the thief will either run away or you will awaken and be forced to make the thief run for his life.

If you have a comment or suggestion about how to lock up your bike when on a bicycle tour, please use the comments form below.

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15 Comments

  1. Markku Klubb

    July 29, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Lots of us cycle tourists would not use a lock with a key, but rather a combination lock. You know, only one thing to lose – the lock itself.

  2. Darren Alff

    July 29, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Thank you for your comment about locking up your bike. I agree that it would be best to have a combination lock rather than one with a separate key. This would make things a little easier as it would be one less part to carry around.

    The reason I don’t mention combination locks is because I’ve (personally) used them in the past and had them break on me, and I’ve known bicycle friends who have had numerous problems with them. (i.e. suddenly their custom combination doesn’t work any more, etc.)

    I am never going to claim that the suggestions I make on the website are 100% the ONLY way to do things. There are numerous different ways to conduct a bike tour. The suggestions I make are simply mine… and they are simply that – suggestions. The articles I post are my way of showing my readers what I know and how I conduct myself while out on the road.

    For some, this information will be very useful. For others, this information may not apply and these people will stick to their way of doing things… and that’s fine! If other people do certain things a different way, I think that’s great and I would never consider criticizing them or putting them down.

    What type of combination lock do you use? Do you recommend it? Like I said before, the ones I’ve had in the past were no good. If there is a good combination lock out there, I’d love to know about it! Thank you!

  3. Markku Klubb

    July 29, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Great time to ask the question since there were 6 people who have done long distance touring at our house for Christmas eve. We all use cable locks, always. One guy has toured over 5,000 miles this year and expects to do more in 2008. He is retired. He was the only one that knew what brand he had and he said his was a “Bell” that he got at K-mart or someplace. Then I remembered I just bought my 4-year-old grandson a “Bell” cable lock for his little bike so I don’t have to hook my cable around both bikes. He really likes the independence. His longest tour to date is less than 5 miles, but he sure gets a lot of attention since he is such a small kid to ride like he does.

    http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=bike+lock+failures

    Anyway we all use the cable combination locks, and interestingly enough, 4 of us use our birthday as the combination. That way we are unlikely to forget it? I am not sure if that is great security, but it works.

    We all recognized that cable locks are really wimpy when compared to the U-locks with the upgraded lock system, but they are so convenient we ALL use them. We talked about it and think that we could take a hacksaw blade in our bare hands and saw through them… and agreed that the U-locks are MUCH tougher and the best combination would be a U-lock with a separate cable if you were really scared about theft. Myself, I mostly have toured in the Nordic countries where crime is not so ordinary.

    I did my first tour over a thousand miles (actually 1800 miles) with a combination lock in ’82. Then I used a separate lock and cable. I think it was a Master combination lock like we used to use on our gym lockers. Well, since then I have gone on several more thousand mile + northern European tours (and lots a shorter ones) and always had the one-piece cable with an integral combination lock. I don’t know how old the one I have now is, but it is pretty scuffed up yet I can still make out the word “krypto” on the side. It coils up nicely, is wrapped entirely in plastic, and works well. The other guys, like myself, have lost some that have fallen out of our bags when commuting, but other than that have not had any problems with them. They are a pretty simple machine without any tight tolerances or keys to lose. I used to use a “U” lock when commuting for a while, but in less secure places felt the cable was needed and carried that too. But then abandoned the two-piece + key thing. Also heard that the barrel like keys on the kryptonites were easily defeated by thieves a few years ago, but that talk has died down the last several years.

    So that is the experience of 6 experienced cycle tourists, but we are all older (the youngest is about 32 and the oldest 68, averaging about 55. We were surprised that we all used the same type of lock. We all use different panniers, with Ortlieb being the most popular for obvious reasons, but I currently use Lone Peak bags on the front and REI on the back although the back bags usually stay at home unless camping (rather than hotels or hostels). I am a Phil & Campy fan, and so is one other, the rest use almost entirely Shimano. Three of us still use freewheel equipped bikes, the other three cassettes. I ride a Schwinn Volare’ and an Eisentraut and have a Trek 620 on the bench. One has a Trek 520 and Davidson is building him a titanium bike similar to his 520. Another has a Trek 520 and a Lemond. Another a Peugeot, one a Sekai, and a Bridgestone. Quite a range, but surprisingly we all use drop bars. It is fun to compare what we use and how we like to ride.

  4. Tom

    July 29, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    I read your article on bike security. I use several different cable locks with the separate “Master Lock” type of keyed lock.

    As you have pointed out before; if you always place items in the exact same place and have a backup, you will always know where your keys are.

    I have found some of the “combination” type of locks to be easy to “overcome” as it were.

  5. Wally West

    July 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    I use a cable and combination lock. I use a long hasp lock so it’s easier to thread thru the cable loops and some part of the bike. The lock is a Sesamee and I have used the same type outside on my gate for about 10 years with only an occasional oiling. Master also makes one identical that my neighbors use that is reliable too.

    In addition to a locking system I carry a driveway alert alarm This is a two-piece battery powered system of a transmitter and receiver. The transmitter sends a signal to the receiver when it sees movement and the receiver sounds off a rather loud alarm. It has a range of about 300+’. I bought mine from Harbor Freight for about $20-$30. It doesn’t sound an alarm at the bike but lets you know if anything or anybody is moving your bike. I carry the receiver in my handlebar bag or put it inside my tent at night. Since this would be happening too frequently with people walking by your bike at say a grocery store I point the transmitter down towards the ground so the only way it will see any movement is if the bike is moved. I also like it when I’m in camp to tell me if something else is there with me.

  6. LuAnn

    July 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Perhaps the shackle with a cable is more versatile, but we go with a U-shaped shackle. Many types of gnarly looking cables can be cut. Your comment is well taken. Happy trails!

  7. Dave

    July 29, 2008 at 10:08 pm

    Most of my touring was done over 20 years ago, but I still have the same system. It’s a 1/4 inch braided wire cable, about 6 feet long, but coils up (not on its own–I have to do it) to a 6 inch diameter loop. Very versatile: I usually can lock both wheels and the frame to something. I use it with a pretty substantial padlock (ever heard of “Em-D-Kay”?). I kept the key on a lanyard, which I always wore around my neck. Never a lost key or lost a bike in over 25K miles of bike touring. Uh oh. Don’t tell my wife, but I may be getting the urge to hit the road again! Happy trails!

  8. Gabriel Sierra

    July 29, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    This is a great article! I use an extra heavy duty keyed bike lock. I lock the rear wheel and frame. In the front wheel, I uses nuts instead of skewers, even if it means carrying a wrench. I have lost front wheels before using skewers and none using nuts. Riding solo is great, except when you have to enter a store. You lock the bike, but you have your panniers and other stuff. The situation can be solved in a number of ways. (a)Locking the bike in a position visible from the store, (b)Putting a rain cover over the bike (eyes that don’t see, heart that doesn’t feel), (c)”hire” a local kid to watch over the bike for a dollar and throw in a snack when getting back to the bike (well, kids are getting more aggressive in that department, but some won’t accept payment for watching over your belongings. Good kids!). My older kid is getting old enough for doing small tours, so we can watch each other!

  9. Ken Steinhoff

    December 5, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    Here’s an example of a bike lock you DON’T want to buy:

    http://www.palmbeachbiketours.com/2008/07/31/avoid-this-bike-lock-with-alarm/

    It sounded like a good idea for the price, but it turned out to be junk. I DO use one similar to this that actually works when I’m within eyesight of the bike. It has a motion sensitive alarm that would startle anyone who jostles the bike and the cable is strong enough to stop a quick snatch n grab.

  10. Allen Duffy

    March 13, 2009 at 2:46 am

    Hi, my names Allen and i’m just planning my first bike tour on the Pacific Coast, at least i’m brain storming ideas and doing research, and all your articles and videos have been just what i’ve been looking for in preparing for a tour, and i was reading this article and i thought i had something to add about locking your bike, and i didn’t read all the comments word for word cause it’s 3 am and i’m getting tired but i just wanted to say that it’s always a good idea to remove your saddle or one of your wheels if you have the quick release type, the the older bikes are a big pain if you don’t have the quick release, but it’s always less incentive to steel a bicycle if it’s missing something cause the get away may not be as easy. Thanks again for all your great advice and experience again Darren!

  11. Kyle Ruona

    March 16, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    I’m planning a ride from San Francisco to LA this June, and it will be my first one. I’m confident in my bike’s safety with my lock, but what about panniers? Someone could easily open up the pockets or even lift them off the rack itself, right? I’ve never used panniers and don’t know if they have locks on them. What do you all suggest for pannier safety?

  12. Mark Gailmor

    March 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Kyle, Panniers always go in the tent with me when I’m doing any kind of touring. I do my best not to leave anything inviting on my bikes when I’m sleeping. However, if you stop for coffee or go shopping and want to secure your panniers some folks will use a long cable lock to secure the bicycle and panniers while others will take the panniers off and carry them into the store. It’s completely up to you. Generally, folks are not looking to steal panniers but want what’s in them so it’s a good idea not to leave camera’s, mp3 players or anything expensive in them if you leave your bike for a long time.

  13. Daniel Geszti

    March 23, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    Hi Darren!

    It seems that we live in different worlds.
    I am from Hungary and a cable lock you recommend worth nothing here. It slows down a thief for 10-15 seconds because it is only one cut with a special tool.

    Once my bike was stolen (from a mall’s bike park) with a cable lock and i could watch it back from a security camera. 15 seconds and one cut.

    Now I see that the minimum is one long “ABUS bordo 6000” this is much better and can’t be cut easily. Not lightweight but packs small.

    I would recommend it to everyone. Maybe in the US the cable lock is enough but in eastern aurope it worth nothing (2 bikes were stolen from me with thoose cable lockers)

    Regards:

    Daniel

  14. Julian Collette

    May 1, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    I am conflicted. On previous tours I was fine with a simple cable lock and didn’t give it much thought. Soon, however, I will embark on a very long tour (12-14 months) in the United States wherein I will spend time occasionally in inner cities. I hate to lug a u-lock/cable combo because of the bulk-and-weight factor. BUT, I already own these (one less thing to buy) and I am nervous now about a simple cable lock, all the more so because I will be carrying some expensive electronic equipment. Any advice? I want light and compact AND relatively thief-proof. AND relatively inexpensive, hopefully, but I am willing to invest. Any suggestions?

    • Bicycle Touring Pro

      May 3, 2011 at 2:48 pm

      If you already have a cable combo lock, that’s probably what I would use (as long as it is of good quality).

      As for securing your valuable belongings, the lock won’t do much to secure those things inside your panniers. When you are traveling and on your bike, you never want to let your bike out of your sight. And when you are camping at night or staying in a hotel/hostel, you will want to take your panniers off of the bike, lock up the bike, and then bring your panniers into the room where you are staying. If you find yourself on the road and you have to leave the bicycle in an exposed area (such as outside a supermarket), you should try and ask if you can bring the bike inside the supermarket with you… or you should lock up the bike outside and carry the panniers inside with you as you shop. That’s what I do at least… and after 11 years of bicycle touring all over the world I have never had anything stolen from me.

      I hope this helps!

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