Considerations when flying to a backpacking destination

If you need to travel long distances, perhaps over several days, to reach a backpacking destination, how you can assure that you’ll have all the necessary gear when you finally get there? I suggest two measures:

  1. Choose the most appropriate method of travel, and
  2. Plan around known restrictions.

The easiest & fastest option: Fly and check a bag

For faraway destinations, flying is often the fastest, least expensive, and most convenient method of travel.

If you decide to fly, consider checking your backpack as luggage because many critical items are not allowed as carry-on baggage, including but not limited to:

  • Crampons
  • Insect repellent aerosols
  • Knife/multi-tool
  • Liquids over 3.5oz/100ml (nut butters included)
  • Stoves (acceptable if there is no lingering fuel or vapors)
  • Tent stakes & poles
  • Trekking poles
  • Trowel

See the full list here.

Note that some items cannot be carried on or checked, including bear spray and gas canister fuel. These products must be purchased locally.

While there are instances of TSA agents allowing or overlooking some of the aforementioned items, it’s generally not worth risking critical gear on the unpredictable whims of security personnel.

If you decide to fly with these items in carry-on, which I do not recommend, arrive early and have a Plan B if you are turned away at security. Specifically, be prepared to check your bag, ship the prohibited items, or throw them away.

Most airlines charge $25-$40 each way for a checked bag, which is much cheaper than having to repurchase confiscated items later. The exception is Southwest Airlines, which allows two free checked bags for all passengers.

Although there is some risk that the airline may lose your bag en route, this can be substantially mitigated by avoiding tight airport connections and giving yourself extra time before starting your hike in case of delayed luggage arrival.

Preparing your Pack for Checked-Bag Travel

Pack your gear so that it’s evenly distributed throughout the pack. Cover the tips of your trekking poles with cardboard covers and place inside your pack or strap securely on the exterior to avoid jostling en-route. Secure the hip belt around the pack and tighten.

From here, you have several options for transport:

  • Bundle your pack in plastic wrap and packing tape. This will keep everything tight, secure, and visible.
  • Place the pack inside a large (clear) trash bag and secure with clear packing tape.
  • Nest the pack inside a larger duffel bag that you intend to give away or dispose of upon arrival at destination.

Alternatives to checking a bag

If checking a bag for your flight is completely out of the question, there are several alternatives which may or may not work given your personal situation:

Travel over land. Depending on the distance and your personal comfort, you might consider renting a car, hitching a ride from a friend, or taking a train or bus to your destination. All of these options are less hassle than flying but also significantly slower and often more expensive. 

Ship your gear ahead. If you are adamant about taking your pack as carry-on baggage, you can ship some of your gear ahead to avoid the risk of it getting taken away at the airport or your checked bag being lost in transit. If you have a small amount of gear that is prohibited to carry-on, this can be an effective strategy. Triangle tubes work best for trekking poles and other miscellaneous items, but be sure to secure them properly to avoid damage. That being said, shipping is often much more costly than checking a bag.  

Rent or purchase gear at destination. Items such as trekking poles, stoves, or bear canisters can often be rented from local outfitters or REI if the destination is popular enough to have such services. This is especially useful if you don’t already own the items and would like to try them out before purchasing your own. However, things like  insect repellent and stove fuel should be purchased upon arrival.

Leave it behind. If transporting gear via checked baggage is not an option, nor is purchasing or renting gear locally, you may choose simply not to take them. For example, you could leave your trekking poles behind if your tent doesn’t require them for setup, and you could cold soak all your meals to avoid needing a stove. While not the most practical or comfortable, it is an option for many items.  

In the end, the method of gear transportation is a personal decision and may change from one trip to another due to unique circumstances and local amenities. Be sure to consider all options and choose whichever is most fitting for your trip, comfort, and wallet. 

Posted in on February 26, 2021
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8 Comments

  1. Ted on February 27, 2021 at 6:58 am

    I’ve used an Osprey Airporter to check my backpack on flights and train rides with good success and often left that and more comfortable travel clothes and other non-backpacking essentials with a hotel I’ve reserved for a night or two before and/or after a trip. They’re usually happy to hold them while I’m off in the woods. That way, I can travel more comfortably, shower after a long trip, and not have to carry items I won’t use while backpacking. It also allows for a bit more flexibility in your itinerary.

    I’d worry that if TSA wanted to inspect my tightly wound & taped backpack, they’d just cut off my wrapping work. Is that not a concern? Plus, what do you do for the return trip?

    • Brandon Chase on February 27, 2021 at 3:11 pm

      That’s a great point, Ted – if you’re departing from the same place you are arriving then leaving a bag at a hotel you plan to return to is a solid choice. However, for longer trips/thru-hikes or point-to-point hikes it doesn’t work as well.

      I’ve not had TSA rip open my covering before, but anything could happen. If that’s a concern for you, I recommend using a clear garbage bag (can double as pack liner if it survives the trip) or the duffel bag method. You could also wing it and not cover the at all and as long as everything is secure (and trekking poles inside the pack).

      On the way back, I usually use my clear nylofume pack liner as a bag.

    • Slim on February 28, 2021 at 8:19 am

      Same concern. I have not used the plastic wrap method in a long time. But every time I have flown in the last few years, all my (regular duffle and ski) bags get opened up and dug through.
      I can’t imagining the TSA takes a less interested approach to a backpack wrapped in plastic.

      • Brandon Chase on February 28, 2021 at 8:46 am

        I suppose it depends on the staff. If that worries you, a cheap duffel bag should do the trick (or a spare bag that you plan to leave behind until you return).

  2. sophie on March 4, 2021 at 6:27 am

    Hi everybody
    Is the walking poles restriction on flights specific to the US?
    In Europe and Israel, local and international flights, I get on planes with the poles, never had any problem with that.
    Thanks for your great blog 🙂

    • Brandon Chase on March 4, 2021 at 8:49 am

      It really depends on the airline overseas as it varies both in restriction and enforcement. I successfully flew to Scotland with trekking poles in my carry-on on a low-cost airline, but when going to New Zealand I didn’t take the chance because they are known for scrutinizing baggage. Your mileage may vary!

  3. ron on March 18, 2021 at 8:40 pm

    I wrapped a bag like that once, due the zipper being broken, and TSA cut right through the plastic wrap and the bag itself to see what was inside. My ruined bag came off the luggage belt with the content coming out.

  4. Andrew Robinson on March 19, 2021 at 12:12 pm

    A note on Train and Bus travel from Washington to Utah/California and Montana/North Dakota:

    Amtrak prices were* half of a flight and buses half of a train. Covid doubled train prices to account for using 2 seats but the prices still come out to just under a plane ticket for these routes.
    If time of travel is not a concern, I stick with them as my options to save money. Often, $100-200. Roughly, the cost for bus and train is half to equal what would be paid in gas traveling by car.

    Carry-on enforcement is quite relaxed, and extra bags are cheaper ($20) if enforced. I’ve yet to be charged for a checked 100liter duffel with 2 large carry-ons in the past 15 years, or had a single security check.

    My hikes include climbing and mountaineering. If I take a plane I must ship some items ahead to avoid potential loss from extra vigilant TSA agents. I’m always at ease planning a trip by train and bus.

    I like the thought checking your pack in a duffel or contractor bag. That will come in handy, thank you.

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