I have experienced this many times over the years: come back from a hike, find your car window smashed, and your possessions are gone. You have just become a car prowl victim.
All trailheads are high car prowl zones. My last two car break-ins were at Tiger Mountain Tradition Lake trailhead and the Wilderness Peak trailhead during daylight hours. Just look carefully at the ground in each parking stall at any trailhead and you will likely see bits of smashed safety glass somewhere.
It’s not just trailheads either. Car prowling is on the rise everywhere—malls, movie theaters, city streets, and so on. Cars are an easy target and sometimes loaded with valuables.
Most trailhead break-ins are carefully planned. Similar to home burglary, trailhead prowlers often case the parking lot hours beforehand observing. Bold trailhead prowlers will even approach you in conversation while you get ready for your hike. By doing so, they learn how long you will be gone and–even better–where you have hidden valuable items in your car.
Although law enforcement and park rangers do patrol for trailhead crime, there are simply too many trailheads in the Olympics and Cascades to cover effectively.
The best way to prevent trailhead crime is to be aware at the trailhead and eliminate potential for pay off. Here is what I recommend:
- Strip your car clean before heading to the trailhead. If you don’t have this option, hide everything in your trunk or out-of sight before arriving at the trailhead.
- When you arrive at the trailhead, be leery of any stranger who engages you in friendly conversation. If this is unavoidable, follow your gut instinct. If the encounter seemed out-of-place, hang around the trailhead and observe, or start your hike, then come back in a few minutes to check.
- Although you should always be cautious, if you see someone out-of-place at a trailhead, take their picture, preferably with their license plate together. I have done this twice, and both times it sparked an angry response which just further confirmed my belief. Remember to be defensive and keep yourself safe first, if you choose to do this.
- Choose the most visible parking spaces. Park under lights when available, especially in urban and city zones.
- Never hide wallets, purses, or expensive electronics in your car. Take them with you. Take no chances with these valuables.
- If you witness a car prowler in progress, do not approach them. This can quickly become a dangerous situation. Instead, observe the crime from a safe distance gathering all the information, and pictures, as possible.
- Always report car break-ins to the police whether you plan to make an insurance claim or not. It helps them pinpoint crime patterns and unsecure trailheads.
If you are an avid hiker, consider getting a trailhead car. Any old beater makes a great trailhead car—the more worthless, the better. Strip it clean and leave the doors unlocked without worry.
My trailhead car is an old F-150 pickup truck. Besides being great on dirt roads, I like having a locking tool box bolted to the truck. This provides me a semi-safe storage area at the trailhead if needed. So far, no one has broken into this lock box (knock on wood).
Be aware at the trailhead and follow these tips to greatly reduce your risk of break-in. Don’t let these thieves profit from you.