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Travel Logistics for Backpackers

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Heading to another state, or even country, to tackle a backcountry hike you've been dreaming of is undoubtedly exciting. However, traveling with backpacking gear, or even figuring out car logistics, can present a unique set of challenges. We hope to help shed some light and provide some tips on these subjects before you head out on your next adventure!

Packing for an Airplane

Packing your backpack for a plane ride can seem impossible at first. 

  • What items can you bring in your carry-on? 
  • What will you be required to check? 
  • What items can you not bring at all? 
  • How should you pack your bag? 
  • Can you bring your backpack as a carry-on?

    And the list goes on. Fortunately, there are tons of options on how to handle your backpack when it comes to flying. No one way is right or wrong. Below are several different options. We'll leave it up to you to decide which method suits your needs and preferences best.

    Check Your Pack as Checked Baggage

    Many hikers simply check their backpack as checked baggage. More than likely, you may have some items that you will be required to check anyways. If you go this route, it is highly recommended to place your pack inside of a large, durable duffel bag to prevent your straps from getting snagged on conveyor belts and just to help prevent general wear and tear from traveling to the cargo hold on and off of the plane. 

    It is also worth noting that it is a good idea to fill your bag up as extra cushioning for fragile gear and to prevent everything from getting jostled around too much. Wrap clothes around pointed objects, such as trekking poles. 

    If you'd like something a little cheaper or lightweight than a duffel bag, a sturdy compactor-style trash bag works well too. Make sure to wrap your bag up with this method in such a way that there is still easy access for TSA agents to check the contents if necessary.

    Treat Your Backpack as a Carry-On

    For various reasons, people aren't comfortable with checking their packs, preferring to take them as carry-on bags. As mentioned above, you may still likely have some items that will need to be checked, but most things in your pack should qualify as acceptable carry-on items. You can always choose to do without the items that would need to be checked, either leaving them at home or renting or buying cheaper versions when you arrive at your destination. Having your backpack with you throughout your flight can alleviate a lot of worry about whether your items will get damaged in transit and having to deal with baggage claim when you land. 

    If the airline you are using has weight limits for carry-on bags, some people choose to do without cheaper items and food on the flight and purchase them when they arrive. You can get most items at local sporting goods stores (REI), convenience stores, or even department stores. Especially amongst ultralight hiking enthusiasts, cold-soaking food is rising in popularity. It saves on food costs and space and there is no need to worry about a stove or fuel. 

    Mail Your Gear in Advance

    Another feasible option is to send your gear in advance. There are a lot of variables that can go into this: How far you are sending your pack, how much your package weighs, etc. With that being said, shipping your gear can sometimes cost about as much as checking it with an airline, but sometimes it can cost much more. This is especially true if you are flying internationally. In general, you can ship a wider variety of items than you can take on a plane, including stove fuel. Therefore, you could choose to send in advance the items that you would need to check on an airplane, keeping with you all the rest as a carry-on. Another perk of sending gear ahead of time is that you are less encumbered during your trip through the airport, which is especially nice if you have any transfers on your journey.

    What You Can & Can't Take

    This is the age-old question when flying, especially for backpackers. Many hiking items can pose as potential weapons. Let's talk about some of the “grey area” items when it comes to backpacking gear and flying.

    • Knives, trekking poles, tent stakes, cathole diggers, pickaxes, and multi-tools should all be allowed but will need to go in checked luggage. If you have a metal spork or the kind with the knife-edge, you will likely need to check it as well. 
    • Camp stove fuel is not permitted at all on planes. As previously mentioned, you will have to purchase this at your destination or send it in advance. You may take empty fuel containers so long as TSA agents can see inside of them. Stoves themselves are fine to be checked or carried on as long as they are not deemed to be emitting any fumes. 
    • Lighters and one pack of safety matches are allowed in carry-on luggage. The liquids restriction of toiletries and such in carry-on luggage should not be too much of an issue since travel-sized bottles will likely be all you need. You can usually find those items fairly easily at your destination too. 
    • A lot of hiking gear comes with rechargeable batteries nowadays, but if you need to take some lithium batteries for whatever reason, they can only go in carry-on bags in their original package.

    This article on the TSA's blog should give you some more insight as well as contact information if you have any further questions.

    Shuttling Services, Key Swaps, & More

    Figuring out the logistics of how you are going to get to and from trailheads can be a tricky one, especially if you are far away from home and/or doing a point-to-point trail. Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of some common ways hikers use to get where they're going.

    Shuttle Services

    Shuttle services can be very handy if you don't want to rent a car or need a lift from the end of a point-to-point trail back to your car at the beginning trailhead. However, they can also be quite costly.

    Luckily, there are shuttle services for many major hiking areas. Type in the name of the trail (or even wilderness area, national park, etc) that you will be hiking in plus “shuttle” or “shuttle service” and you should quickly be able to allocate an option, if one is available. You can also contact local hiking groups or inquire with the airport you will be flying into if they offer shuttle services to your trailhead of choice.

    If you do use a vehicle on your trip, try to park it at a campground or other secure location. Lock your valuables up or leave them at home. It is also suggested to pull into a spot head-on, not backing your vehicle into it. 

    Double Car Method

    If you will be hiking relatively close to home and have a partner, a good plan is for each of you to drive. Each of you will drive to the trailhead you will finish at, parking one car, then both of you traveling to the trailhead you will start at. Once you finish, the person who dropped their car at the end will drive the other to the beginning trailhead. While it may cost a little extra in gas costs, it should still be less expensive than a shuttle. 

    Have a Friend or Family Member Drop You Off

    Although you may end up having to wait for your ride a bit or vice versa when you finish your hike, this method saves you the hassle of driving yourself and worrying about your car getting broken into or vandalized while out on the trail. (Be sure to offer your ride gas money too.)

    Key Swaps

    Another method that is quickly gaining popularity is the key swap. This works especially well for solo hikers. It is essentially like the double car method, except that two people or groups start at different trailheads at the same time and swap keys when they meet in the middle. Once finished, the two parties drive to a pre-determined location and switch vehicles back.

    There is always the possibility that one of the parties has issues and finishes later than the other, causing one party to wait for the other. Unless you are doing this with friends, this method requires quite a bit of trust too. Many solo hikers are partnering up with other hikers on Reddit and local Facebook groups to do this kind of swap, which can leave you very vulnerable. As always, trust your gut and abort the arrangement if something doesn't feel right.

    Traveling for a hike doesn't have to be a hassle. With the right research and preparation, your backpacking trip abroad can be as effortless as any other.

    Do you have any travel tips for other backpackers that we haven't covered? If so, share them in the comments!

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