top of page
  • Peter D. Bouloukos

Smash & Grab Theft at Trail-heads in Bozeman, Montana

Most human beings go about their day with great heart, passion, and trust. People are generally compassionate, possessing mutual respect for humanity and nature. As a matter of course, most would never perceive the danger around what security experts refer to as “hostile vegetation.” It is a subject and terminology you do not hear every day and most human beings would never ascertain crime or at very least danger exists when hostile vegetation is present. In security circles, intense discussion has occurred about whether thorny rose bushes could deter burglars from entering ground floor windows in a residential property. Not a typical police response to a crime problem, correct? Vegetation in wild spaces let alone landscaping around businesses and at home can create both perceived and realized safety issues.

Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED, pronounced sep-ted) is a multidisciplinary approach to deterring criminal behavior. CPTED places great focus upon changing how places are laid out, look and feel. At core, Environmental Awareness is critical when considering how and where we do something as simple as parking our vehicle!

Environmental Design too is vitally important where any gathering place like a trailhead parking lot is concerned. CPTED addresses both the obvious things people can see, as well as subtle things people might feel but fail to completely perceive. Criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey coined the term in the 1970s around the same time architect Oscar Newman’s ideas about “defensible space” took hold.

Fundamentally, CPTED suggests you can manicure how people act in a place by altering design as well as maintenance elements. The ultimate goal is to reduce crime and fear whilst improving quality of life. ___________________________ NATURAL SURVEILLANCE: Fundamental principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) include “natural surveillance.” This hearkens back to the early 1960's looking at how signage, lighting and maintenance reflect care for a parking lot, neighborhood or business.

Natural Surveillance obviously includes line-of-sight things. It can be something as simple as an over-grown bush or a tree that has not been trimmed on its bottom. This obscures people who may be hiding. It also may block your vehicle from sight lines to a window, or a building exit where members of the greater community can watch out for each other. More recently, on social media there has been a push to place video surveillance into popular parking lots as a crime deterrent. This is not exactly going to stop “Smash & Grabs" from occurring. This is especially true if natural surveillance lines-of-sight are obscured or not part of any planning process. Cameras might provide a false sense of safety or security, and that can be dangerous in itself. Awareness of the total environment is critical. The simple truth is we have hundreds of trail-heads and some of the most pristine alpine terrain in the world here in the Treasure State. It should be enjoyed without fear of criminal activity or vandalism of any kind. Around town, don't be shy about telling the manager of a business if the parking lot is in disarray, lights are broken or landscaping is out of control. They may not understand the inherent dangers present and should want their employees and customers to be safe! ________________________________ 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 to the soul of the mountains to have anyone of low moral authority place 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 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.” This is unsafe from any security experts viewpoint, and with growth, these types of urban planning discussion need to occur. Smash & Grab theft is not just a discussion for hikers, it’s ever present across our urban sprawl here in Southwest Montana. “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.” - Wallace Stegner 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, absolutely ruins what our wild spaces are supposed to represent. MY GOAL HERE IS SIMPLY TO SHARE EXPERIENCE AND KNOWLEDGE INCREASING AWARENESS TO A GROWING PROBLEM AT OUR TRAILHEADS IN GALLATIN COUNTY, MONTANA...

This is Keke...also known as SIster the Cat.  She speaks five cat languages.  Hiking Bozeman Parking Safety Expert Cat!



It is critical in any Crime Prevention discussion to possess "Environmental Awareness" while removing "Incentives." Criminals are generally opportunists. Crime Opportunity Theory suggests offenders make rational choices and thus select targets offering high reward with little effort or risk. Smash & Grabs are crimes of “opportunity.”

The occurrence of a crime primarily depends on two things:

  • The presence of at least one motivated offender who is ready or willing to engage in a crime.

  • The environmental conditions where the offender is situated, to wit, commit the offense.

Daily activities create the convergence in both time and space of certain elements necessary for a crime to occur: motivated offenders, suitable targets, and the absence of capable guardians. Available opportunities are an important component in the crime calculus. In economics we might call this "opportunity cost" or in other applications "risk vs. reward."

In "Smash & Grabs," thieves quickly spot and snatch bags, electronics and other valuables from vehicles parked on the street, in parking lots and parking garages. It takes a few seconds.

Smash & Grabs occur everywhere. But here, they are more apt to occur in a small 15 mile radius of box store shopping. I don't know about anybody's pending cases but Wal-Mart and Target are two possible places with available self-checkout lines.

Wal-Mart is 3 minutes from Drinking Horse and “The M.” Target, Ross, Bob Ward’s and Five Guy’s Burgers (Thieves like cheeseburgers) is under 7 minutes using Oak, 7th to Baxter.

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. In other jurisdictions surveillance among other basic guidelines are required for a business to receive its occupancy permit. But 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.” 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.


Smash & Grab Fundamentals: 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. Never “Lay-in-wait” or attempt vigilante justice by the way, that can compound the potential for trouble. 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 30 yards. Depending which way the wind is blowing, the sound of glass being smashed during a break-in might only carry about 50 yards. On a peaceful day the sound may carry 80 to 100 yards if you are lucky. Your ability to hear also depends on birds chirping, the sound of your footsteps and of course your own breathing. So at 120 to 200 yards, if you hear it, and are an olympic sprinter, you still are not going to catch the culprits. They are gone in less than 20 seconds.

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. The parking lot at Kirk’s Hill is obscured by trees and bushes, hostile vegetation at its fundamental best.

Hiking Bridger Bowl with Kona the Golden Retriever Trailhead Safety and Crime Prevention in Bozeman Montana


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. Then hold your ground from that distance until the subject leaves the area. If it feels totally awkward here, call the police and report what you are seeing. 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. If they leave and look nervous, take a photo of the vehicle or get the plates. But never confront anyone. 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. Finally, do not park in any place be it downtown or at a trail-head 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 “M” Trail: Bozeman, Montana

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. So don’t count on passer-by-drivers to be watching out for your valuables. After-all, 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.

Gallatin Valley Hiking Trailhead Safety Vehicle Break-ins


Alarm Systems:

For under $200 you can purchase a vehicle alarm with sensors that will chirp or vocally warn people adjacent to the car. The keyless range of these systems is sometimes as far as a mile unobstructed. In theory, sitting on a bench at the “M” you could chirp you alarm to scare a friend. But this still will not protect the vehicle if toys and bags are visible to the eye. Tinted windows don't work. Blankets or coats over valuables on the floor don't work. If the Trunk can be accessed from the interior of the vehicle, the trunk doesn't work. Anything you or I can grab in under 20 seconds time is "fair game" to bad guys who don’t care how nice or good hearted you are. This is a problem in itself, just because you consider yourself to be a loving, caring and compassionate human being, does not mean you are safer than the next person. As sad is it may seem, always be aware and make zero assumptions. Be safe.

South Bozeman near Kirk's Hill.  Trailhead parking security and hiking basics Montana


Camera Systems:

This discussion would have to include government, city and county officials to include law enforcement agencies. Camera systems are a good deterrent but do not prevent vehicle break-ins by any stretch of the imagination.


Coco the Soccer Dog!  She would make a fine car alarm too!  Hiking Bozeman Parking Safety & Crime Prevention

Peter D. Bouloukos is a Business Consultant and Security Expert. He is a Food & Beverage Professional, youth football and soccer coach and father of two daughters, three cats and an avocado lover. Please reach out if you would like to learn more natural surveillance. #hikingbozeman #bozemanoutdoors #crimeprevention #trailheadparkingsafety #smashandgrab #cpted #security

Peter Bouloukos Food & Beverage Consultant, Restaurant Expert, Bozeman, Montana

112 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page