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:
- Choose the most appropriate method of travel, and
- 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:
- Insect repellent aerosols
- Liquids over 3.5oz/100ml (nut butters included)
- Stoves (acceptable if there is no lingering fuel or vapors)
- Tent stakes & poles
- Trekking poles
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.