How to Lock a Bike Without a Lock

It’s a gorgeous spring day, and you decide to take your bike out for a ride. While you’re out, you want to stop at the city library to borrow a book. Or you want to run into your favorite fast-food joint to pick up lunch. Maybe you’re on a rail trail and need to use a porta-potty (or the woods).

No bike lock? No worries!

A bike leaning unlocked against a tree

We have some ideas for how to lock a bike without a lock available at hand. How is that possible? Let’s find out!

Some of these methods aim to deter a thief from targeting it altogether. Others are designed to scare the thief away, or slow him down just long enough that you might have time to arrive back on the scene.

Let’s start with the most obvious solution first.

Lock your bike in your car

This one only works if you drove to the area where you’re riding, of course. You can secure your bike in your car. Detach a wheel or two if the interior of your car is tight for space.

Bicycle in the trunk of a car
With any luck, your bike will fit in your car trunk. (© Amir Yalon | Creative Commons)

This idea won’t help you if you need to make a stop while you’re in the middle of a ride in the woods, but it works for grabbing a coffee on the way home.

Take your bike inside

You’d be surprised how easy it can be to simply take your bike inside wherever you’re going. Not every shop or office will let you get away with it, but many will. Just do it confidently and lean your bike gently against the wall inside the building like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Get on with your business.

Two bikes lean on the wall inside a coffee shop
You wouldn’t be the first to lean your bike against the wall of a coffee shop. Just don’t block the cream and sugar! (© John Beans | Creative Commons)

Hide your bike

If you’re on a scenic ride and you’ve forgotten your lock (or maybe you just didn’t want to carry the bike lock this time around), this solution can work. Hide your bike somewhere nearby while you go off trail to explore, use the restroom, go fishing, or take a lunch break. Hide it behind a large boulder, inside a cave, under a bridge, up a tree, or insert it into a bush. The options are almost limitless.

If you’re in the city, you can try hiding it behind a dumpster, a portable toilet or an abandoned building. This carries some risk, but not as much as leaving it on the sidewalk.

Fake a repair

If you’re really stuck, try simply turning your bike upside down and resting it on its seat and handlebars. This is the pose of a sick bike. It might make a thief think your ride is in the middle of a repair, and you could pop out of the nearest doorway with a wrench and a rag at any moment.

A bicycle upside down on the sidewalk
An upside-down bike always looks like it has problems. (© Kai Hendry | Creative Commons)

Don’t let yours be their first choice

Bike theft isn’t as bad as it used to be. According to Outside magazine, FBI stats show that the number of bikes reported stolen in the U.S. declined in eight out of 10 years from 2005 to 2015. Unfortunately, the average value of stolen bikes went up.

This suggests that thieves have been picking their targets more carefully. There are ways you can use this to your advantage if you find yourself caught with no bike lock.

Let your bike get lost in the crowd

Look for the most crowded bike rack you can find and insert your ride into the middle of the pack. Thieves don’t have a lot of time, and it’s not always easy for them to tell which bikes are locked and which ones aren’t.

A large crowd of parked bicycles
Hopefully your bike won’t stand out in a crowd.

Park next to a nicer bike

Yes, you have an awesome bike, and many people may want to steal it. But what if you put it next to an even more amazing bike that is also unsecured? The likelihood is, the better and more expensive bike will be the one that is stolen.

Either that or someone will take both bikes. Look on the bright side—you and the other bike’s owner might become good friends as a result of your shared loss.

Improvise a makeshift bike lock

Bike chains and locks aren’t the only way to attach your bike to something.

Zip ties

Keep a few zip ties in your saddle bag and you’ll be able to tie your bike to a rack or railing in a pinch. It might not stop the most ambitious of bike-stealers, but it should keep lazier letches from trying to take what’s yours.

Zip ties around a pole
Zip ties can be used to secure just about anything—for a short time. (© Paul Sableman | Creative Commons)

Vines and twigs

If you’re in a wooded area, you can even use a sturdy vine or long, flexible twig to attach your bike to a tree.

Bungee cord

If you have a rear rack with a bungee cord to keep things in place, you can wrap the bungee around your back rim a few times and then hook it back up to the rack. This can be dismantled, but it’s going to take some time. In a bike theft, every second counts.

Bungee cords on a bike rack
If you can’t take your bike with you, take the sleeping bag and use the bungee cord to tie up your bike. (© David Pena | Creative Commons)

Helmet strap

Similarly, you could strap your helmet onto one of the bike’s wheels. If it’s on the back wheel, the thief might not notice it right away. The wheels won’t spin until they unstrap the helmet. And if you wind the strap around the rim a few times before clicking it shut, that’s a few more seconds of inconvenience you’ve caused the thief.

Dismantle your bike

Of course, you can always make things inconvenient for a thief by taking your bike apart.

Remove a wheel

If your wheels are quick-release, you can simply take the front one off and keep it with you. Very few bike thieves want to steal a bike they can’t get away on. Even if they have a pickup truck, they still have to go out and buy another wheel and it may not be worth the trouble for them.

Quick release on the front wheel of a bike
Release your front wheel and take it with you. (© Ray_LAC | Creative Commons)

Loosen a wheel

If you’re into sabotage, another way is to loosen the quick-release completely but leave the wheel on the bike. If a would-be thief lifts your bike, the front wheel will fall off immediately. This will give them pause. They may simply put the wheel back in place, tighten the quick-release and ride off, but you will have bought a little time if you are nearby. And you may instil just enough panic for the thief to move on.

If the thief doesn’t notice the wheel has been loosened and just hops on, they won’t get far. They may also break a clavicle when the wheel comes off. Would they try to sue? Probably. That would be fun to watch.

Keep in mind that your bike could suffer as much damage as the thief in this situation.

Dislodge the chain

Another great trick is to take the chain off the rings. Most people do this at the front rings, which isn’t bad, but the chain is trickier to put on at the back so I think you will slow the thief down more if you remove it there. It’s also a little less noticeable, so he might try to ride away and it will throw his plans into chaos.

Take this tactic one step further by wrapping a piece of wire such as a large paper clip through the chain links and twisting the ends. The thief won’t spot this, and will have a really hard time stretching the chain enough to get it back on the rings. If they manage it, the pedaling won’t be smooth.

Take your seat post

Another piece you can remove is your seat post. It’s relatively easy to carry. This probably won’t deter thieves in a van or truck, but anyone who was hoping to ride away on your bike will think twice knowing they’ve got nowhere to sit. Thieves don’t like pedaling out of the saddle any more than you do.

Park in a high gear

Finally, you can buy time by shifting into your most difficult gear right before parking your bike. This does two things.

First, it means the gears will behave erratically as soon as a thief starts pedaling, and that might be enough to throw them off, or at least make them stop for a moment to see what’s going on.

Secondly, the bike will become extremely hard to pedal from a standing start. The rider will wobble, and might even go down. This might give you enough time to catch them red-handed.

Keep these ideas in mind if you’re ever caught out on a ride without your lock. There are no guarantees, but by using one of these tactics or—even better—several of them in combination, you can turn your bike into a much less likely target.