How to Pick a Lock for Survival (An In-Depth Guide)

By James Barton •  Updated: 07/09/20 •  17 min read

Life can be unpredictable. That’s why you need to be as prepared as possible and have a set of skills that allows you to survive even in the most challenging conditions.

In this post, we’ll look at how you can pick a lock for survival, but there are many other reasons you should learn how to do that.

First of all, lock picking allows you to understand just how vulnerable your house locks can be, even though they might make you feel safe.

Lock picking can make you handy and even help you save the life of someone you care about. Just imagine the following situation. One of your parents is in danger and they aren’t answering the phone. You rush over to their place only to find that you forgot your keys at home.

If you can’t kick a door down or break a window, you will have no means of getting inside and seeing if they’re okay. This is just an example of how useful learning how to pick a lock can be.

how to pick a lock
Mature Male Lockpicker Fixing Door Handle At Home

Why Should You Learn How To Pick A Lock In The First Place?

Some circumstances where you might need to pick locks include:

1. You Lost Your Keys

All padlocks require a correct key, but keys have a way of being lost. You might say that if this happens, you’re going to call a locksmith and solve the problem with the help of a professional.

But what if you don’t have any money? What if you can’t wait any longer to open a door, whether it’s the one to your house or your car? Sure, you can destroy the padlock by yourself, but to do that, you will need a set of bolt cutters, and they tend to cost a fortune.

Picking a lock can be cost-effective and can solve the problem as swiftly as possible.

2. You Can Get Shelter Against The Elements

Since the topic of today’s article deals with lock picking for survival purposes, this is one of the most important reasons to learn this skill. If you have to break into a cabin to escape a storm or a wild animal, you will not want to break any windows or run any doors down.

If you live in an area where natural hazards tend to happen from time to time, you might have to get into a shelter or an abandoned home. Doing so can protect you from extreme weather, but it can also feed your family in a horrible emergency.

3. You Can Escape

As unlikely as this situation might seem, the fact of the matter is that people get kidnapped every day and in many places across the globe. You can be held against your will for a variety of reasons.

Instead of waiting for the police to make an appearance or for your family to be notified by your kidnapper in an attempt to procure a ransom, you might be able to escape if you have lock picking skills.

Naturally, if you aren’t tied up and you have two bobby pins with you, you can get away from a room where you are held, hostage. Knowing how to pick a lock is a rural and urban survival skill since you never know where you can end up.

4. You Can Make Profit

If you practice enough, you will be able to become a seasoned locksmith. As previously noted, locksmiths can make a decent living, especially since their services are almost always required in an emergency.

People are willing to pay to get their locks picked, so that means that you can turn your skills and proficiency into an additional or even your main source of income.

What Types Of Locks Can You Pick?

Not all locks are made equal, and you will have to learn to use different basic lock picking tools and techniques for each. It’s true that over time, locks have become more and more sophisticated in an attempt to make it difficult, if not impossible, for thieves to break into homes.

Locks differ in terms of design, but they also differ when it comes to the amount of effort you will have to put into picking them. You can’t compare using a paperclip to get outside a bathroom that you’ve accidentally locked yourself into with picking a modern deadbolt.

Without further ado, here are three of the most common locks that you can learn how to pick.

1. Combination Lock

These are typically found in gym lockers. They can come built into high school lockers, for example, but you can also encounter them in older safe models.

It’s quite likely that you came across such a lock at one point in your life. To open it, you need a combination of numbers. If you forget it or you can’t get in touch with someone who knows it, you’ll have to pick it up.

2. Pin Tumbler Locks

The pin tumbler lock is by far one of the most common ones that exist today. You can find them in a wide range of places and in the vast majority of homes, warehouses, cabins, sheds, and many others.

This is a type that can be found in standard exterior door knob locks and key-based padlocks, for example. They’re also found in deadbolts.

3. Tubular Lock

This is a rather unique kind compared to the ones that we have already described. To pick a tubular lock, you will have to make use of a specific set of tools, which you might not have access to all the time.

As for where they are used, they can mostly be found to protect RV compartments or file cabinets. In any case, they’re used for smaller containers such as drawers.

lock picking process
several lockpicking to open a lock on a door

How Do Locks Work?

The vast majority of door locks are made up of two main components — the pins and the barrel. The barrel is the chamber where the key is inserted. The pins consist of small cylinders that effectively sink into the barrel and hold it in place until the moment a key pushes them away.

When the halfway mark lines up with the barrel and the pins are cut in half, you are able to turn the lock and get anywhere you want.

Since you do not have the key, you’re forced to push up against each of the pins manually so as to get them in the correct position. Once you’ve achieved this, you will be able to turn the barrel so that the pins don’t accidentally fall into place again.

What Tools Do You Need To Pick A Lock?

The tools you are going to require for this task depend on the exact type of lock you want to pick. Here is a shortlist of some of the most commonly used tools by a lock picker. Keep in mind that you don’t need all of them.

5 Great Ways Of Picking A Lock

Some of the best ways include:

1. How To Pick A Door Lock With Bobby Pins?

To pick a lock with bobby pins, you will need at least two. Start by pulling apart from one of the bobby pins until it becomes a long metal wire. Use the lock to bend the tip of the pin so that it becomes a pick.

Turn one tip of the pick into a makeshift handle by grabbing its longer end and getting it to bend onto itself so as to create a loop. If you do this, you will apply additional pressure while picking the lock.

When it comes to your other bobby pin, you have to bend it to the right angle. To achieve this, you can use your pliers or even your fingers. This other bobby pin is what you will use to turn the lock once you have gotten the pins into the right position using the first bobby pin.

Insert the bent tip of the bobby pin into the lock’s lower half as low and deep into the lock barrel as possible. Use a rotational movement to turn the lock in the orientation you’d normally rotate the key in.

While you are putting some pressure on the lower half, get the pick into the superior half. Then focus on how you’re feeling the lock pins. Whenever you find one, add it to the count.

Find a pin that doesn’t want to move and push it upwards until it makes an audible click. All the while, put pressure on the lock using your lever. The click is the signal that the pin is out of the lock’s way. Continue with the rest of the pins, and once all of them are pushed, you can simply turn the lock and open that door. Don’t put too much pressure as slight pressure is needed here.

2. How To Pick A Lock Using A Card?

As impossible as it might sound, you can use a credit card to open a spring bolt lock. It might not work with a deadbolt, of course, but in all honesty, most doors have spring bolt locks anyway.

Laminated cards work better for this purpose. Decide on which one of your cards you will use and consider that it might get seriously roughed up in the process and become unusable. If you have a store membership card, use that rather than your debit or credit card.

Wedge the card of your choice in the vertical crack between the area where the doorknob latch is and the frame. Then bend the card in an opposite direction from the doorknob. This will make it possible for the card to slip under the bolt-angled part and into the door.

While you’re doing this, you are supposed to lean against the door so as to pop it open. Then push and wiggle your card, and if it doesn’t seem to be working, cut a notch into the backside of it and then fit the V around the latch so as to pull it down.

At the end of the process, the slide latches back, and the door becomes open.

3. The So-Called ‘Scrubbing’ Method

Start by inserting the tension wrench into the bottom part of the keyhole. Apply pressure until the wrench rotates the lock cylinder (but don’t push too hard). Insert your pick into the top of the keyhole and slide it to the back of your lock.

Then lift the pick rake upwards into the pins and draw it forward. The pins are lifted upwards as the pick slides across each of them. Repeat this process two to three times until you’ve managed to bring all of the pins in the right position, and the cylinder has turned farther.

Be gentle as you turn the lock cylinder on the tension wrench to open the door.

4. How To Pick A Tumbler Lock?

For this task, you will require a tension wrench, but also a piece of metal. Use them both to slide in and put some pressure on the snake pick from under the pins.

It’s a little more complicated if the lock is a 5-pin tumbler as you will have to do the same, but it will take more time and effort. The important thing to keep in mind is that you will feel the pins move as you slide the snake tool down the rake.

Maintain the tension until the snake tool hits the bottom of the lock. The basic pin tumbler lock should click open as you hold both tools in place and twist.

key pins
Close-up Of Lockpicker Hand Fixing Door Handle At Home

5. Picking A Tubular Lock

Tubular locks are the safest of all and if you do not have the appropriate tools, you’ll find them impossible to pick. So, for this purpose, you will need a tubular lock pick set as they call for the least amount of effort and time.

A tubular lock pick comes with a handle that’s attached to a piece of round metal and that fits the key-way. There are several needles (pick wires) on the circular metal part, and they can be retracted or protruded.

Before the whole operation begins, you will have to calibrate the tool. That means setting the right number of needles for the lock you want to pick. In most cases, they’re either 7 or 8.

Gently insert the pick into the lock and let the needles map the corresponding stacks of pins. Apply torque (left to right) and get the lock to pop open. In the end, you can even secure the pick wires in place so that your lock pick acts as a key pin.

It all sounds easy, but you need the right tool, and you need to practice using it.

Practice Makes Perfect

Lock picking is a bit of an art rather than a science per se, so in order to learn how to do it, you’ll have to practice as much as you can. Get yourself a couple of pin and tumbler locks, for example, and keep them at hand.

When you watch TV, YouTube, or just relax on the couch, you can practice picking a lock at the same time. That certainly takes the cake when it comes to multi-tasking, right?

The legality of lock picking naturally depends on which lock you want to pick.

If we’re talking about your own (if you’ve locked yourself outside your car or your house, for example) or if you’re desperate and have to take cover from the elements or an animal, everything goes.

There are situations in which you might think that your life’s in danger. For instance, if you’re out in the woods and you know of a cabin nearby, and you’re unlucky enough to be followed by a predator, you’ll have to pick a lock as soon as possible.

It’s far better to do this and get indoors using this method rather than by breaking a window.

There is a misconception according to the only individuals who are legally allowed to use lock picking as a practice or lock picking tools are locksmiths. However, there aren’t specific regulations put in place for all circumstances.

If you don’t plan on using your lock picking skills to break into someone’s home, you are allowed to legally own tools for this activity, so you can carry and utilize them, too. Even so, just to be on the safe side of things, make sure you check the lock picking laws in your state or country.

When Everything Else Fails?

If you can’t seem to pick the lock no matter the method you’ve tried or the tools you have used, there are some other ways of circumventing this issue. You can overcome a lock by thinking outside the box. Here are several examples.

1. Bend A Door Frame

If you have your vehicle jack on you, you can try to bend the frame of the door. Unfortunately, this method calls for a series of tools such as a hydraulic bottle jack or, in any case, a high-capacity one.

Such a tool will allow you to put a lot of pressure and force on the frame so that it starts breaking down at some points.

The jack has to press toward the outside of the door frame. When you have a decent gap, you can simply pop the latch free and open up the door.

2. Destroy The Lock

If you want to remove or unlock a padlock, you can always use a large hammer or even the wrench to completely destroy it. We wouldn’t recommend using this method on a door, though, unless you have a drill (and you’ll find the drill method described below).

lock pins
Broken chain with padlock

3. Remove The Door Hinges

If you’re lucky enough to have a door that has exposed hinges, you will be able to remove their pins. Naturally, in some cases, they can be screwed in, but there are doors that are equipped with simple and straight pins, too.

If the pins are screwed in the door, you might have to use a special screwdriver or an Allen key to get rid of them. If they’re simple straight ones, you will be able to remove them by inserting a flat screwdriver under their heads. Proceed by slowly prying upwards.

Some pins might be stuck, in which case you will have to resort to using some oil or lube. One thing we have to note is that you always have to start unhinging the door with the bottom pins first.

If you don’t, the weight of the door might make it impossible for you to remove the lowest pins. Once you’ve taken all the pins out, just remove the door from its frame by swinging it open from the hinge side first.

4. Use A Drill

Desperate times call for desperate measures. You can use a drill to get your locked door open without needing to resort to calling a locksmith.

As extreme as it might seem, consider that a drill is used to install the lock or doorknob on the door in the first place. So you are merely disassembling the lock. You might end up destroying it in the process since the drill will break the lock tumblers.

5. Use A Metal Coat Hanger To Open Your Car Door

The best thing about a metal coat hanger is that you can basically turn it into a lock picking tool. You will have to bend the hanger into the right shape and slip it past the weatherproofing of your vehicle’s door.

Cut one of the hanger sides and stretch it out. Then using the side that has the hook on it, bend it to make it a little skinny. You can slip this part in-between the crack where the window meets the door. Once the hook is inside, all you have to do is turn it and move it up or down until you’ve unlocked your door.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What Is Binding In Lock Picking?

Binding is the first step of lock picking. You get a feeling when you’ve hit the binding pin which allows you to tell that it’s the right one and that once you’ve pushed it, you can open the lock.

When you apply tension to a lock, if you use a hook pin, you will be able to feel every pin on its own. You’ll feel them being springy to the touch apart from one that will feel tighter than the rest. This is the one that’s called a binding pin and you will have to try and set to the shear line.

What Is Counter-Rotation In Lock Picking?

When you push at the pin, it will automatically try to straighten itself by making a pivoting move around the area where it’s snagged. This makes the opposite side of the driver pin push back against the plug and rotate it at 180 degrees.

This is what involving driver pins is known as a counter-rotation in lock picking.

Where Can I Buy Lock Picking Tools?

Unfortunately, you can’t really find these tools in any store. The reason for this is that they bear a stigma. Store owners can’t afford to be sued over them, and since lock picking tools can be used as burglary tools, there’s no point in them facing any risk.

More often than not, you will have to resort to manufacturing the tools on your own (which will take time and effort) or ordering them online. A standard kit costs around fifty dollars and can be found at many online marketplaces.

You might not be able to get a set in the United States, even online, for the same reason that we have mentioned. However, you can order them from other countries.

James Barton

James Barton

Hi, I'm James. I am the founder and main editor for The Survival Corps. I have been a part of the survival and prepping community since my mid 30's as I downsized and started to prepare to be self sufficient in a time of crisis.