Trailhead safety—for both vehicles and hikers—can be increased with a little knowledge about who is likely to do what where—and what you can do to prevent it.

Theft Warning Sign posted at a trailhead located just off Pacific Coast Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Theft Warning Sign posted at a trailhead located just off Pacific Coast Highway in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

Returning to the trailhead after a joyful day on the trail to find a car window smashed and the ipad and expensive jacket that you left on the back seat missing, can really make a day hike memorable—but not for the reasons you want it to be.

The biggest (and almost only) bummer about hiking in vacation destinations like Hawaii is the number of car break-ins at trailheads. With lots of visitors who like to hike, lots of rental cars and lots of un-patrolled trailheads, there are beaucoup break-ins. I don’t mean to pick on the Aloha State because such trailhead break-ins occur in all fifty states. Break-ins are also a problem for New England hikers, who often cross state lines to take a hike; cars with out-of-state plates parked at rural trailheads are particular targets.

Statistics suggest that after three decades of “Lock your Car and Take Your Valuables with You” signs and campaigns, hikers are finally heeding this safety advice and locking their cars and taking their valuables with them. The result? Fewer reported car break-ins.

Anecdotal evidence supports another reason for a trailhead crime decline: the widespread acceptance of hikers and hiking. Many years ago tension existed between hikers (usually urban-dwellers) and rural locals, who felt resentful that land was taken out of productive use for something as silly as a park or trail. The economic benefits of visiting hikers are now more fully appreciated by rural chambers of commerce and most locals; hikers are apt to be warmly welcomed these days with helpful information and improved trailheads.

Still, if you have any suspicions (gut instincts are worth heeding as well) about parking at a particular trailhead, call a local ranger station or hiking club and inquire if any vandalism has occurred at the site. If you have any concerns, park in town or somewhere else.

If, despite all precautions, your car is broken-into or vandalized, report the incident to regional park authorities and/or the local law enforcement agency, and post an account of the incident online at an appropriate web site in order to alert fellow hikers.

Trailhead Parking Precautions

• Ask parkland managers about the safety—for people and property—of a particular trailhead.

• If a trailhead has a recent history of break-ins, plan to park elsewhere or arrange for a drop-off and pickup.

• Note the trailhead’s appearance. Graffiti, broken auto glass, piles of beer cans or suspicious characters loitering about are clues to park elsewhere.

• Leave valuables at home (best idea) or lock them in the trunk (second-best idea). Bring your wallet and keys with you rather than hiding them in your vehicle

• Hide a spare key under your car if you wish. Just remember that car thieves know all the easy places, so hide it in a greasy, grimy, difficult to reach spot.

• If you have a choice of trailheads, know that more formal trailheads (paved parking, a restroom, picnic area) tend to be safer than wide spots in the road, pullouts and dirt lots hidden from the highway. It’s a tradeoff, though; sometimes the more remote trailhead is best place to join the trail.

• Don’t leave a note on your windshield explaining who you are, where you’re going and when you’re planning to return. Talk about an open invitation for a break-in!