Hostel dorm rooms provide a safe place for students to stay, even if the thought of sharing a room with 6-10 strangers does sound a little daunting.
On the road, you'll find almost all travelers look out for one another and theft is very rare -- after all, we're all doing the same thing and visiting the same places, usually on a tight budget. There's a sense of community among travelers and backpackers, so it's rare for someone to take advantage of one of their tribe. Plus, the majority of hostels require your passport in order to check you in, so it would be tough for anyone to steal something and not get caught.
Having said that, there are a few unsavory hostel guests who use dorm rooms to their advantage, taking any opportunity to rob their fellow backpackers before checking out, never to be seen again.
While it's extremely rare to be robbed in a hostel -- it's never happened to me in six years of full-time travel -- it can happen, so you'll want to try and minimize your risk. Here's how you can do it.
Read Hostel Reviews Before Booking
You can gauge from hostel reviews whether a hostel is safe and secure or not. Look at recent reviews to see if anybody mentions theft or security levels and only stay in hostels that are rated highly for safety. You can also research the neighborhood of the hostel to see if it's dangerous.
That's not enough to ensure your safety, though. I recommend also heading to TripAdvisor and Google to get a more in-depth overview of what you can expect from the hostel. In short, read as many different reviews of a hostel before you commit to book. As an example, I once booked a hostel with great reviews, but once I arrived and was disappointed, I discovered there were far more negative (and in my opinion, honest) reviews on the hostel's listing on Booking.com.
Use the Lockers
Ninety percent of the hostels I've stayed in have provided lockers -- use them! You should look to buy a padlock before you leave to travel to use with these lockers, but even if you don't have one you can usually rent padlocks from reception for a small fee. If the lockers aren't large enough for your main backpack, use the lockers to keep your laptop, camera, tablet, e-reader, hard drive, money and passport locked up while you're out exploring. That way, if someone grabs your backpack, there won't be anything important or expensive in there.
It's such a simple thing that can save you thousands of dollars.
If your hostel doesn't provide lockers, it's smart to keep your backpack locked with padlocks. While it's usually only front-loading backpacks that can be zipped up, and thus padlocked, you can still place all your valuables in your daypack and attach a padlock. Alternatively, you could travel with a portable safe from Pacsafe to ensure your valuables are as protected as they can possibly be. This portable safe is made from a material that is splash-proof, so you can be confident your stuff is safe when you leave the room.
If that's not an option for you, you can lift up the bedpost and put it over the backpack strap in order to secure it to the ground. If a thief is in a hurry, this may be enough to deter them from grabbing your bag if there's another within easier reach. Just a small amount of added difficulty is often all that's needed to keep your things safe.
Take Your Things With You While You Explore
If you can't lock up your backpack -- if you're traveling with a top-loading backpack, for example -- and your hostel doesn't have lockers, then having a daypack is a great idea. That way, when you head out to explore, you can throw all of your valuables into your daypack and head out exploring. Sure, it'll be heavy and annoying to carry all of that around with you, but won't it be worth it to have peace of mind? That's for you to decide.
Whenever I have a beach day, I take a dry bag with me to the sand. That way, I can head out into the water and take my Kindle and camera with me into the sea. I won't have to worry about it getting wet and damaged, about someone stealing my things from my towel, or them getting blown away by a gust of wind. By keeping my things on me at all times, I can keep them as safe as possible.
Keep Your Important Things in Your Pillowcase
I was recently staying in a hostel that had a few issues with petty theft -- somebody was sneaking into rooms at night, grabbing bags, and running off with them. Needless to say, I left that hostel very quickly, but for the night I had to stay there, I found that keeping things in my pillowcase was a great way to give me peace of mind. If somebody sneaked into my room and tried to take my laptop, they'd need to left my head in order to get to it.
Don't Show Off Your Valuables
Before leaving to travel, spend some time placing stickers or duct tape over your laptop and camera to make them look old and tattered. If somebody is looking for an easy target with expensive gear they'll pass on you because it'll look like everything you own is old and falling apart.
If you're traveling with a lot of technology make sure to keep as much of it hidden as possible -- don't sit in the common room with your laptop, camera, and hard drive, advertising that you have lots of money and are worth targeting. While it's common for lots of travelers to carry technology around with them, it's still wise to keep as much of it hidden while other people are around.
Consider Purchasing a Pacsafe Backpack Protector
In general, I don't recommend buying a backpack protector from Pacsafe because I don't believe them to be worth the price for the additional weight and space they use up. However, if you're extremely nervous about potential thieves, you can pick up a backpack protector to give you peace of mind. It's essentially a huge metal mesh that you place over your backpack and lock to your dorm bed. It's highly secure and will usually deter most thieves. The downside, of course, is that you're instantly advertising to everybody in the room that you have something very valuable that you want to protect.
If you're thinking about opting for this, it's worth taking a look at the Pacsafe portable safe mentioned above and seeing if that would better fit your needs.