Air Travel with Your Backpack

Air travel can greatly extend the reach of your backpacking experiences. But there are some tricks to flying with your backpack. The first question that typically comes up is should I check or carry on my pack? I always check my pack, but many folks do carry them on. The restrictions are a little different and there is a chance your pack won’t be allowed due to size. The typical carry-on size restriction is 22″ x 14″ x 9″.  Most, but not all, will fit within these dimensions, but some airlines also limit the weight of carry-on bags. Check with your airline to be sure.

Personally, I usually stay in a hotel at least one night and so will take a separate day pack with fresh travel clothes and toiletries. I always check my backpack so I don’t have the hassle of juggling multiple packs through the airport. On the other hand, many airlines charge a fee to check luggage, so that may be a consideration for your travel budget.

Below are a few tips then, mostly based on my perspective of checking my backpack.

Protecting Your Pack

When checking your backpack, you want to ensure that the straps are secured so that they won’t get tangled in the conveyor equipment. In a pinch, I’ve used stretch wrap / film wrap. It works, but if TSA decides to inspect your bag, they’ll but through the wrap and they won’t re-wrap your bag. A better option is to check with your airline to see if they will provide you with a protective bag. You’ll often see them offering these to passengers with car seats. Just ask at the counter and they’ll likely give you one. They are heavy-duty, clear so that TSA can see the contents, and generally free.

Another option is to place your pack inside a commercially available duffel. Any duffel large enough will work, but there are a few made just for flying with your backpack.

Osprey Airporter

Available in a few different sizes, all weighing about 1lb or more. Good option but given the weight, you will likely want to store it somewhere as you hike (rental car, hotel, etc.).

REI Co-Op Pack Duffel Bag

One size, over 1lb.  Good option, but again you will likely want to store it somewhere while you hike.

Zpacks Airplane Case

DCF and only 3.2oz, so feasible to simply carry it with you as you backpack.

Ikea Frakta

This is a popular option because it is cheap (< $10). Durability is a concern. I have had multiple failures, but they should be fine for a trip or two.

TSA and Hazardous Items

First, you should always check the FAA Packsafe site for the current definitive status for any items. I am providing a quick reference here for convenience, only.  Also, be nice to TSA. You may encounter agents that might be unfamiliar with certain items. Feel free to reference the Packsafe site, but don’t be defensive, just give them the opportunity to ask questions and determine you and your items are safe. Allow extra time in case you get held up, and always have a backup plan.

Sources:

TSA – What Can I Bring?

FAA – PackSafe for Passengers

Ok, that out of the way, here’s a quick list of relevant gear that you can either check or carry on:

Gear ItemChecked Bag OK?Carry On OK?Notes
Bear SprayNoNo
StoveYesYes
Empty Liquid Fuel BottleYesYesMust be completely free of any fuel, any residue of fuel. If you can smell it, wash it out with soap and water.
Fuel Canisters or any other flammable fuel.NoNoThere is really no exception to this.
Bug SprayYesYes
Power BanksNoYesThis really applies to any loose lithium batteries. So even your rechargeable AA or 18650 batteries if you use those.
Lithium Battery LightersNoYesArc lighters, for example.
Garmin inReachYesYesThis falls under the category or an electronic device with an installed lithium battery. It is OK to check but it must be powered off.
Bic LightersNoYes
MatchesNoSafety OnlyStrick anywhere matches are prohibited even as carry on.
Tent Stakes and PolesYesNo
Hiking PoleYesNo
KnifeYesNo

What About Fuel?

Since you can’t travel with your stove fuel, you should plan to purchase fuel at your destination. Map out the closest outfitter to the airport and plant to make a stop there. If you are traveling somewhere very remote, with no options for isopro canister fuel, you may want to consider alcohol stoves, or a multi-fuel stove like the MSR Whisperlite International (not the regular Whisperlite).  The multi-fuel stoves can burn kerosene, which is usually widely available, as well as unleaded gasoline.

Consider as well the other items that you may want but can’t travel with and make a list. Matches, bear-spray, etc.

What If The Airline Loses My Backpack?

It’s definitely possible, though unlikely. Less than 1% chance of the bag being mishandled on most airlines. But that’s still a chance that you should be prepared for.  First though, do your best to prevent your bag from getting lost. Ensure the airline bag tags are secured to your pack.  Have a clear and visible name tag on your bag. And put a name tag inside your bag. In the worst-case scenario, your bag will be found without bag tags or name tags and wind up in an airline central baggage warehouse. There it will be inspected for any means of finding the owner. A name tag inside the bag will be a huge help.

Next, have a contingency for your trip if your bag is lost on the outbound leg. You may need to stay in a hotel for an extra day or two while you wait for your bag to get re-routed to you and you may need to cancel and return early if the bag is truly lost (they are usually not).  Be prepared for the extra cost and the being comfortable. When I travel for backpacking, I almost always rent a car and stay in a hotel the first night and the last night (I like to fly home clean!). So, in addition to checking my backpack, I take a small carry-on pack with a change of clothes, toiletries, etc.  Some airlines also have a stock of toiletry kits they will offer customers that have lost luggage on an outbound leg and the result will usually reimburse the cost of toiletries. But I prefer to be prepared and travel with them.

Now, before your fly, pack your backpack well. Secure the contents, don’t have anything in exterior pockets. You don’t have to pack as you would for the trail, just pack everything securely in the main compartment. Take an inventory, including pictures of everything. Then take pictures of everything packed up. If your pack is lost or damaged, you’ll want to have all of this handy.

Do not leave the airport if your bag doesn’t arrive or arrives damaged. Go directly to the baggage service office for your airline and file a claim. Again, take pictures of the damage if applicable. Get a copy of your report or take a photo of it.

The airline will call you daily to report the status of a lost bag (they are required to do this) and they will deliver it to you (again, required).

Final tip here: Be Kind. The folks working in the baggage office didn’t lose your bags. Their job is literally to help you out and they have a  lot of discretion in how far they go to assist. Be someone they’d love to assist.

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