You can tell just how important lock picking is to survival by how it is used as a plot device in pop culture. It is taken for granted that a lock that is in the way can be picked if you need to get in. But that is simply not the case. And just as you should know how to build a fire, you need to know how to pick locks and not just think you will figure it out in the moment.
Lock picking will allow you to get into a shelter, regain access to locked supplies, and help you escape from illegal restraints. But using lock picking reliably means being aware of some of the big myths centered around this skill.
What is Lock Picking?
Lock picking is any method used to open a lock without the proper key. It is also a covert method of entry, meaning it does not damage or mark the lock in an obvious way (though lock picking, done poorly, can do both of these things). In the case of survival, lock picking allows you to regain entry into a shelter after you have lost your keys. Whether it is a car, or some other structure, getting inside can protect you from the elements, animals, and anything else that could do you harm. So you can add lock picks to the list of great survival gifts.
Where do the myths come from?
Most of the myths and misrepresentation around lock picking come from good intentions. Some sources even purposefully misrepresent lock picking. People are concerned that having such a tactic being widely understood will increase crime. But in the age of the internet, the mysterious art of lock picking has been demystified, and it is very easy to learn the finer points of the skill and buy tools. For those reasons, among others, this concern is largely unfounded.
Myth 1 | Lock picking is predominately used for criminal activity
Publications, news outlets, and other places that depict lock picking do not want to educate the public on what is widely considered to be a burglary tactic. However, lock picking is rarely ever used as a tactic for burglary. The exceptions you will see to this often revolve around instances like Watergate, where highly paid and specialized agents are involved.
Most criminals overcome locks or security through destructive entry. This is because there is almost no skill or knowledge needed to reliably use such tactics. Only security professionals, hobbyists, and survivalists learn how to pick locks. If the talent is mastered, there is more opportunity for legal and legitimate ventures. It is also a great skill to have in your survival arsenal, even if you have no interest in professional usage.
Myth 2 | Lock picking is instantaneous
In many movies and television shows, a person will pick a lock instantaneously by inserting the tools and making one or two movements. This is rarely the case. Even on very low-security locks, it could take 10 to 15 seconds to open the lock.
For more complicated locks, it is more likely to take minutes. But all of this takes skill and success is not a given simply by virtue of using lock picks. In a professional setting, this time frame is not an issue, but it can be devastating in a survival scenario.
Add the stress of severe weather or the threat of an animal attack, and picking the lock is likely to take much longer. Using this skill practically means being calm and being able to focus on what you are doing. You have to be meticulous and consistent with your approach, or else you are leaving the picking to chance. When lock picking is done wildly, there is no way to reliably predict how long it will take.
Myth 3 | Lock picks can open any lock
I see many survivalists discuss standard lock picks to the exclusion of many other tools. Standard lock picks will not open every lock. The tension wrenches and picks often highlighted are ideal for basic locks, called pin tumbler locks. But for older locks, you may need warded lock picks. If you lose keys to some briefcases/gun cases, you may need a tubular lock pick. There are also disk detainer locks that must use a particular type of tool to open. Even automotive locks will need special considerations.
Another aspect of this myth is that padlock shims can open any padlock. You will see many videos online claiming that with a pair of scissors and an aluminum can you have a universal key. This is not true. For every bypass or lock picking technique, there is a product that has taken steps to protect against that vulnerability.
Without knowing certain things about the lock, many lock picking techniques will be fruitless. For example, if you are illegally restrained in handcuffs, you will need a handcuff key or handcuff shim. And without the proper proportions for those tools, you are not picking the lock.
Myth 4 | If you can’t pick a lock, you should break in
Many survivalists scoff at lock picking because, as the popular quote goes, “Why pick a lock when there are windows and rocks?” This is a bad idea. Breaking into a shelter compromises the shelter. In movies, there will often be materials within the shelter to patch the damage done by kicking in a door or breaking a window, but repairing the damage (even when possible) will take much longer than safely unlocking the shelter.
In the extreme, and an unlikely scenario where you are being pursued by people who wish to do you harm, breaking your shelter is going to do a couple undesirable things. A damaged structure is going to compromise your security. Now someone else will have an easier time getting it. Also, you will have given away your position.
Myth 5 | It is easy to make improvised lock pick tools
This is the myth that is most dangerous. It is very difficult to make improvised lock picking tools on the fly while contending with the stress of survival. You will also need certain tools and materials to make your lock picks. The materials will have to be strong yet malleable enough to shape. Finding the right materials can be near impossible in the wilderness even if you have tools like scissors or needle nose pliers.
If you look at a film like the second Terminator, Linda Hamilton did successfully pick the lock her character picks in the scene where she escapes captivity. However, the paperclip used for the lock picks changes to one that is longer, thicker, and shaped expertly in a way she would not have been capable of doing in her situation. Also, the actual picking was said to have taken all night (even though she had been trained and practiced extensively). This little example is to show you how difficult it is to use improvised tools, even when you cheat.
Final Thoughts on Survival Skills
There are a lot of things that survivalist believe because it makes it possible to overlook an obstacle. But just as you should not eat snow, you should not take lock picking for granted. It is not going to be something you can learn when you are trying to survive against all odds. You need to train. You need the right tools. And you need to unlearn all the myths surrounding this survival skill.