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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Trailhead precautions

Sadly, while adventure-seekers enjoy hiking, biking and other recreational activities at various trailheads, thieves often ransack their vacant vehicles.  The all-too-common urban occurrence of car prowling is repeated regularly in the wilderness as well. 

Car break-ins and the resultant vandalism, property loss and vehicle theft take place with regularity at many national parks and other recreational trailhead parking lots.  The items mainly stolen are cameras, electronics and wallets, accompanied by broken windows or theft of an entire vehicle.

There are probably many urban-legend-type tips about how to discourage thieves, but many of those are not effective.  Such typical advice may suggest making your car look like an unkempt trash-laden mess to deter thieves looking for goodies.  It’s even been said that that leaving a note on the dash might help with a message akin to, “John, I’m checking out the trail.  Will be right back and meet you here.”  Or, “All valuables were removed from this car. There is nothing here worth stealing.” 

Notes to would-be criminals can’t hurt, but experts say the only sure way not to get ripped off is to leave nothing in the car to steal.  And unfortunately, the only certain way to avoid vandalism and vehicle theft is to leave your vehicle at home.

The following are additional precautionary tips from law enforcement and insurers:

  • Ask a local outdoor shop or friend to drop you off (and pick you up) at the trailhead.  Many outfitters charge only $10 to $20 for this service and allow you to park free at their facilities.
  • When driving yourself, park in a visible area near other vehicles. Vehicle traffic and human activity discourages thieves.
  • Place your vehicle’s gear selector in park (or first gear or reverse, for manual transmissions), and set the parking brake. That will make it harder for a thief to tow away your car.
  • Secure everything. That’s especially true for car-top carriers, externally mounted spare tires, and removable pickup tailgates.  Don’t follow any advice to leave the car unlocked to prevent a broken window — you’re then more likely to lose your stereo or the entire car.
  • Clean out the interior and, if possible, the trunk.  To a crook, coats simply left piled on the seat might look like they’re cloaking more valuable items.  If you have no choice about leaving valuables in the car, stow them in the trunk before you reach the trailhead, and don’t open it when you get there.  Some hikers cache valuables in a waterproof container hidden somewhere up the trail and make sure they remember where they put it.
  • Empty your glove compartment and leave it open. That can signal a thief that you’ve cleaned out your car, and he’ll be more likely to pass it by.  If there is a light bulb inside, remove it so you don’t drain your battery.
  • If you install a stereo, choose one with a removable face plate to remove temptation for a thief.

If your car is broken into, inventory missing articles for later use with the police or an insurance claim; If credit cards are stolen, notify the card company immediately; File a police report; Consider whether surveillance cameras could identify the people involved.

The parks and wilderness trailheads are available to facilitate our enjoyment of nature.  With a little planning, you can improve your odds of not having that joy thwarted when becoming a victim of vandalism and theft.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at