You've been planning an adventurous, bucket list trip to Patagonia for nearly a year. You've been training at home for just as long. Your route is mapped out. Your permits have been secured. Your plane ticket was purchased months ago. Now, for the not-so-fun part: Figuring out the logistics of getting your gear on the plane.
Flying with backpacking gear can be a tricky undergoing. At the very least, it requires a lot of research and planning.
You're probably already aware that not everything you would normally pack will be allowed on an airplane. (Bear spray, anyone?) True, there are workarounds for some items, such as having them as checked luggage. But, some items you will simply have to purchase when you arrive at your destination. Or, send them in the mail ahead of time.
Is your head swimming yet? Not to worry. We realize how confusing this aspect of traveling for a backpacking trip can be. That's why we're sharing all of the information you will need to be prepared and ready to fly!
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What CAN'T I Pack?
It might be easiest to start with what you can't take. (Or, at the very least, have to put in checked bags.) Most of these items are pretty obvious from an airport security standpoint. Prohibited items include:
- Bear spray
- Knives and multi-tools
- Cathole digger
- Camp stove fuel
- Axes and hatchets
- Ice axes and picks
- Some rock climbing equipment
- Backpacking saws
- Zip ties
- Flares and flare guns
- Some bug sprays
- Lithium batteries
As we said, most of the items make sense. The majority of them can be used as weapons or to subdue or restrain people. Aerosolized cans, such as bear spray or some bug sprays, contain propellants. Differences in pressure and temperature in the sky can, rarely, cause these to leak, ignite, or even explode. As for lithium batteries, there are many stipulations regarding them. You might be better off just acquiring what you might need when you get there. Check out this fact sheet from the FAA for all the details on lithium batteries.
It's worth noting that you might want to invest in an alcohol stove. The fuel for them can be found much more readily if you're traveling in other countries.
As with all rules, there are exceptions. The items listed below are the most common when it comes to luggage.
- Safety matches, lighters, and sporks are acceptable.
- Tent stakes can go in checked luggage, but they must be wrapped up. Knives may also be allowed if they are wrapped up.
- Mace and bear spray might be allowed in your carry-on luggage. It must have a safety device to keep it from accidentally going off.
- You'll need to take smaller quantities of some items. These mostly include personal hygiene products, such as shampoo and toothpaste. Many airlines have a “liquid and gel limit”. In general, you will likely have your toiletry items in your carry-on bag. But, you can also find those products easily once you get to where you're going.
- Power banks can go in your carry-on, but not checked baggage.
- Bug sprays that do not have the “hazardous material” warning should be fine to check.
It is also worth noting that some food items aren't a good idea to take aboard a plane. These generally consist of snack foods in bags, such as chips and cookies. These bags can expand at high altitudes and even pop. Snack foods are a dime a dozen. You can always buy them when you land. Dehydrated meals should be fine on the plane, though.
Checked Baggage or Carry-On?
We've talked about the items that need special consideration. Now, to decide whether to check your gear, use your backpack as your carry-on, or a combination of the two. As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages to these options. Let's take a look at them.
Checking your baggage is convenient if you don't want to deal with a bulky carry-on bag. You also won't have to re-organize much before you hit the trail. (Assuming you pack as many of your items as allowed in checked baggage.) You'll likely have items that can only be checked anyways, such as tent stakes and possibly trekking poles.
This option does have two major disadvantages. One, it costs more than just taking a carry-on bag. Two, you'll worry about your pack getting damaged from rough handling, straps getting caught in conveyor belts, and so on.
With that being said, there are a few ways to protect your gear from damage.
- Place your backpack in an old duffel bag or suitcase. This will prevent your straps from getting snagged and provide some extra cushion in the cargo hold. (Note: This option is only feasible if a) It's a really cheap bag you don't mind getting rid of once you arrive or b) You plan on staying at a hotel or have a friend nearby that doesn't mind stashing it for you temporarily.)
- Place it in a contractor bag. Be sure to leave easy access to the top/opening so that TSA agents can check it if need be. While it doesn't provide as much protection as a suitcase or duffel bag, it does have its advantages. For one, it's cheaper. Two, the bag, even wadded up, won't take up much room in your pack and weighs very little. Barring that, you can make it do double duty. Use it as a liner inside of your pack, adding an extra layer of rain protection. Or, you can even use it as a rainfly for your backpack. Who knew a trash bag could be so versatile?
- Place it in a cardboard box. Simply recycle or toss the box once you arrive. The only downfall of this is that you will need to find another method to protect your pack or take your chances on the flight home.
It's also recommended to give your bag some extra cushioning inside to protect its contents. Use clothes to wrap up pointed objects, such as tent stakes, cathole diggers, etc.
This is a good option if you want to know right where your gear is. Plus, you won't have to worry about it getting lost, stolen, or damaged. And, you can skip going through the whole baggage claim thing. This means getting to the fun part of your trip sooner!
The downside of this option is that you will have to pack lighter. This likely means going without some items (more on this below). Some of which could be important. Keep in mind that there are usually weight limits for carry-on bags.
If you tend to pack too much, this could be a good chance to narrow things down. More and more hikers swear by cold-soaking their food. This saves on weight and space in your pack. Plus, then you won't have to worry about finding stove fuel at your destination. As you can see, there is a work-around for everything!
Research or Ship Ahead of Time
Not a fan of checking any of your precious backpacking gear? Understandable. After all, you haven't been saving up and collecting your favorite gear for years for nothing, right? You have a few options.
Your first option is renting gear when you get to your destination. This might be especially handy for some of your bigger items and those that come with stipulations, such as tents (the tent stakes) and trekking poles.
Not thrilled by the idea of borrowing used gear? Pack light and locate outdoor retailers near your destination. You can buy the few items that you may need, such as stove fuel.
Finally, another popular option is to send some or most of your gear to your destination ahead of time. This can save you some hassle at airport security. It also comes in handy for bulkier items that may not fit in your carry-on baggage, such as your sleeping bag. (Though it would be perfect for wrapping up your tent stakes and trekking poles in a checked bag.) Most places will hold your package for a certain amount of time, so it does take some planning to get it there at the right time.
Final Thoughts on Flying with Backpacking Gear
Of course, every airline differs, every country differs, and every TSA agent differs. You might have a friend who was allowed to check their cleaned camp stove and empty fuel canister (which, by the way, is technically allowed) while your other friend got his confiscated. When in doubt, check with the airline. Otherwise, it's a bit like playing roulette. Maybe you'll get lucky, maybe you won't.
Have you had good experiences flying with backpacking gear? What recommendations would you give others?
Looking for more backpacking-related info? Check out the following blog posts:
Looking for trip ideas? Check out these amazing backpacking trips by visiting The Trailhead, our interactive hike map. It contains a curated list of dozens of hikes, each with a detailed write-up.
Finally, check out our comprehensive list of backpacking articles that cover just about everything there is to know about backpacking. If you're just starting out, our Backpacking 101 section covers all the basics. If you already have a few trips under your belt, you can find more advanced topics covered in our Expert Articles.