What's You Beef? Smash & Grabs at Trail-Heads

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity. --John Muir

It is counterintuitive of the soul present in the mountains to have anyone of low moral authority placing one iota of fear in the hearts and minds of fellow community members. Our friends who simply want to get away for a few hours to hike, play and explore our wild spaces deserve to do so without thought of crime. 

Smash and grabs are a global problem, not unique to Bozeman, Montana. We are putting up hotels, homes and buildings without much thought about parking, landscaping, lighting, and natural surveillance. On a busy night in downtown Bozeman, it’s not uncommon for people to park on dark residential streets complete with “hostile vegetation” (landscaping meant to deter burglars). This is unsafe from any security expert’s viewpoint, and with growth, these types of urban planning discussions need to occur. Smash & Grab theft is not just a discussion for hikers.  

Over the past few years as we have grown exponentially, so, too, has the occurrence of “smash & grab” crimes.  “Fear” of crime, or any semblance of anxiety when you should be able to enjoy nature ruins what our wild spaces are supposed to represent. Our goal here is to share knowledge and experience to better generate discussions creating greater awareness. 

Smash & Grab: How it is done
Smash & Grabs at hiking trails usually occur with two people; one is the spotter. They might also hike the trail, with the same clothing and gear you wear. Simply stated, you often can’t readily “profile” them. Unless you are going to hide in camouflage in the brush, or uphill on the “M” with binoculars, you most likely will not ever see a “smash & grab” occur.

Smash & Grab is an opportunity crime taking less than 20 seconds. At the “M” for example, if you hike the 1.5 mile way to the left, the parking lot is completely obscured after about 30 yards above the parking lot. Depending which way the wind is blowing, the sound of glass being smashed during a break-in might only carry about 100 yards. 

On a peaceful day, maybe add a few hundred to this, and your ability to hear also depends on birds chirping, the sound of your footsteps and of course your own breathing. So at 300 yards, if you hear it, and are an Olympic sprinter, you still are not going to catch the culprits. They are gone in about 20 seconds.

Now think, a hood & sun glasses will prevent facial recognition efforts from pin-pointing a perpetrator, and Bozeman specifically does not require CPTED based standards nor surveillance during occupancy or licensing phases of a business we are aware of today. In less than 20 minutes time, a thief can break into your vehicle, go shopping, and toss your wallet or purse in the trash before you are halfway up the “M trail.”

But now think: When you are up near or beyond the reservoir or on any a number of trails in the Gallatin, you are 20-40 minutes away from phone service. Furthermore, many of those hikes are beyond two hours in time away from the car.

Furthermore, if the police are not apprehending the bad guys, they may not exactly be Blue Meth Smoking “Breaking Bad” styled junkies. They also may be transient in nature, bouncing into town for a few hours to grab enough stolen goods to push them down the highway another few hours.  

Criminals could be sitting in the dirt stretching. They could be sitting on the tailgate of their vehicle drinking water. They could be sitting in their car playing with their phone.They could also be hiding behind landscaping, bushes or behind things like porta-johns. With this, at places like Kirk’s Hill, they could be driving by and simply see one or two vehicles in the entire lot and take a chance. All they really have to do is feel if your engine is still hot to guess how far along the hike you might be.  

What You Can Do:
I know this may be tough for some of you pack-rats, but clean out your car. Maybe vacuum it. Experts and Police Agencies agree the only way your valuables are safe is if you leave them at home. If you have a trunk, store anything of value in it. But do so prior to leaving the house. If the criminals are loitering in the parking area, they are watching where you are hiding stuff, be it under a blanket in the back seat, or in a trunk. Carry all valuables with you in a back pack, and friends, don’t fear the beauty of a stylish fanny pack; yes, it is back! 

Just like out on the trails, if you sense something is wrong, slow down and look around. Let’s say you were jogging downhill at “The M” and continue to jog toward your vehicle. If something feels wrong, or from the corner of your eye you see a person lingering. Continue to run down towards the street or a good distance from that person. Do not go directly to your car if you feel off. 

Why? This may be someone who is waiting for you to use your key or to remotely open your car for them. This scenario is real and frightening. 

Remember, generally humans are good. But our senses, or our gut instincts are usually correct. In this same sense, as you drive into a parking lot, and something seems off, feel free to drive a circle or two and take pictures or use video to record what cars were in the lot at the time of arrival. If a person is present and you sense danger, leave. You may want to report anything remotely strange to the police with a description of the “character” and or “vehicle.” Do not confront anyone.

Finally, do not park in any place, be it downtown or at a trailhead, with “hostile vegetation.” If you can’t see behind an object or beyond vegetation, a “hider’ could be present “laying in wait.”  This may be true both before or after the hike. Even though it does not guarantee safety, it’s generally better to park visible to a street or in a well-lit area of a parking lot.  

The most notable and easy-to-access hiking trail in town is “The M.”  It’s 850 feet straight up or 1.5 miles the long way around. Generally speaking it takes about an hour round-trip with various short-cuts and of course dictated by fitness levels.  
The parking lot is a big circle. In the middle of the circle is a giant green space with over grown “hostile vegetation.” On the North side of the parking area again is overgrown vegetation. From 30 yards up to the north on the trail is a group of trees that are again, wild and overgrown. The street is downhill and a vehicle travelling 45mph can only view the parking lot for about 1.5 seconds, and let’s hope they are watching the road. 

Normally, I am not for chopping down trees. I like to climb them. But the island at the “M” needs to turn into parking spaces. The berms left and right of the entrance to the parking lot both need to be flattened to create a larger window to the street for natural surveillance. Right now they have heavy equipment creating new pathways connecting downtown to the mountains. The timing could not be better!   

Peter D. Bouloukos is a Business Consultant and Security Expert. He is a youth football and soccer coach, out-of-shape hiker, father and friend. Please reach out if you would like to learn more natural surveillance. info@CloseToOpenConsulting.com