So you’ve decided to take a flight! Most backcountry backpackers or front-country campers will find themselves packing their bags and boarding an aircraft at some point in their lives. A dream destination that is located all the way across the country will call your name, and though a road trip sounds tempting, you conclude that a flight will drastically reduce your travel time and increase your time spent outdoors.
So now that you’ve decided to fly, and you are ready to pack for your trip, you are likely to run into the hurdle that most first-time flyers who have to bring along camping and/or backpacking gear face: What exactly is allowed on a plane and what should be left at home? What can be put in my carry-on and what should go in the checked bag?
I’ve written a comprehensive guide to help you understand what backpacking gear is allowed on a plane and what isn’t and what should be put in a carry-on versus a checked bag with a sprinkling of tips on how to have the smoothest experience hauling your precious gear.
Backpacking Gear on Airplanes
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Pack as Lightly as Possible
First, when you begin packing, consider what you actually need versus what can be left at home. Most airlines charge a hefty fee for every bag that you bring, so keep that in mind before you toss those extra comfort items in your suitcase.
Double-check your airline’s current guidelines on weight and size restrictions before you pack your bags. I have a luggage scale at home to ensure that my bags don’t exceed the weight limit at the airline counter.
Backpacking gear will be the lightest and least bulky. If you attempt to haul oversized camping gear into a suitcase or backpack, you will have a difficult time squeezing everything inside without surpassing the weight limit or having to utilize multiple suitcases. I’m not saying that it’s not possible to pack regular camping gear on an airplane- it’s definitely been done – but consider investing in backpacking gear whether you are going to be camping on a mountain summit or in a crowded campground.
Backpacking gear will cost quite a bit more, but it’ll be worth it when you go to pack everything up and realize that your load is significantly lighter.
Free up space by reducing clutter and packing lighter.
Protect Your Gear and Make the Most of Your Space
Checked baggage will surely get tossed around by airline associates. We’ve all seen the baggage handler heaving our precious cargo down a ramp, sending it tumbling haphazardly on its side. It honestly makes me cringe!
Though we can’t prevent the baggage handlers from mistreating our luggage, we can decide how our items are packed. To prevent anything fragile from breaking inside, be sure to appropriately pack your bags and avoid packing anything glass or irreplaceable.
Understand that there is always a risk of lost, damaged, or stolen goods. Though most airlines are liable for lost, damaged, or stolen goods while luggage is in their care, they will give you money, not goods. Since you will be responsible for replacing your own items for your trip, try not to bring anything too special or priceless.
To prevent damage to your backpack, always carry it with you on the plane; do not check it. Adjust all the straps so that the pack is as tight as possible to avoid tearing and potential damage to the fabric.
Use organizational cubes for checked bags to help you locate items quickly, keep things organized, and prevent damage. Utilize stuff sacks in your backpack to compress things like sleeping bags and clothes to maximize space.
What’s Allowed on an Airplane: Carry-On
Backpackers, always carry your pack on the plane as your carry-on.
If you check your backpack, the straps, zippers, and fabric are all at risk of getting damaged under the plane. Keep it with you on the aircraft so that you are the only one handling the bag (except for the TSA agent at the security checkpoint).
The following list of basic backpacking items IS ALLOWED in a CARRY-ON bag:
- Tent (no poles or stakes) + footprint
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Headlamps or flashlights (with batteries)
- Map, compass + SAT phone
- First aid kit (no scissors or liquids over three ounces)
- Portable charger + cords
- Empty water bottles + water filters
- Camp stove (no fuel or fuel residue)
- Cookware + dishware
- Hygiene essentials (no liquids over three ounces)
- Clothes + accessories
- Bear canister
- Bug head net
- Camp light or lantern
- Electronic gear such as cameras and drones with all batteries inside the devices)
- Safety matches
What’s Allowed on an Airplane: Checked Baggage
Essentially, anything that could be used as a weapon is strictly prohibited in the cabin. If you have to ponder whether or not a particular item could be used as a weapon or not, it’s best to throw it in your checked luggage.
The following backpacking and camping items must be left in your CHECKED baggage. None of these items are allowed on the plane or inside carry-on luggage:
- Microspikes or crampons
- Trekking poles
- Aerosols like insect repellents
- Knives and multi-tools
- Liquids over three ounces
- Tent poles and stakes. (The fabric of the tent is allowed inside your carry-on bag, but the poles and stakes are not. Instead of separating the different parts of the tent, I just put the entire tent system inside my checked bag).
- Ice ax and climbing gear
- Camp chair + table
What’s Not Allowed on an Airplane at All
The following backpacking and camping gear items are NOT ALLOWED on an airplane at all (NOT inside a carry-on and NOT inside a checked bag):
- Camp stove fuel
- Bear spray
- Strike Anywhere Matches. (One book of safety matches – one that requires a match to strike across the package – is allowed on your person in the aircraft, but it’s best to leave these at home).
Alternatives to Flying With Your Gear
Purchase the Prohibited Items at Your Destination
If you need one or more of the TSA-prohibited items on your trip, you will need to purchase these at your destination.
Before you hop on a plane, be sure that there is a store nearby where you can purchase your gear. Places like REI, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and even local outfitters are likely to have fuel, bear spray, lighters, matches, and any other essential camping and backpacking gear.
Ship Your Gear
If you have an overabundance of gear or simply don’t want to deal with the hassle of security combing through your belongings, you can ship your gear via UPS, FedEx, or USPS. You can then pick up the package at a local shipping store.
This will cost you a pretty penny to do this, and you will have to ship it back once your trip is over, but some people prefer to avoid the headaches that come with TSA.
Also, be sure to check shipping guidelines before attempting to send anything hazardous or flammable.
Anything bulky or anything you may not use aside from the particular trip can sometimes be rented at your destination.
Check with ranger stations and local outfitters about renting something like a bear canister or borrowing past hikers’ unwanted items like bear spray and partially used fuel canisters.
A new facility, Wilderness EDGE, (currently near Glacier National Park with plans to expand to other National Parks) offers convenient camping and backpacking gear rentals.
Go on an Organized Trip That Includes Gear
Imagine flying to a destination and not having to worry about an itinerary, food, or gear. Simply show up with your clothes and have a guide provide you with all the necessities to enjoy a great vacation. If that sounds like your cup of tea, consider booking an all-inclusive trip.
Examples of trips that you could book that include all or most of the gear that you’ll need for the entire trip:
- River rafting (kayak, pack-raft, whitewater raft, dory, canoe)
- Multi-day backpacking
- Multi-day backcountry horseback
- Fishing charters
These tour companies usually charge a hefty fee, but in return, you will be rewarded with a tour guide, food, an itinerary, and all or most of the gear and supplies necessary for the entire trip.
If your gear load is just too large or you want to bring a plentiful amount of comfort items, it might be a smart idea to consider road-tripping instead. Taking a road trip would allow you the freedom to bring heavier and more gear.
Once you’re at your destination, you can still tent camp, or you can try car camping. You won’t have to skimp on all of the luxuries that you crave while in the woods.
If you are still unsure of a particular item or want to reach out to the TSA, visit this website to see a full list of prohibited items and information on how to contact them with further questions.
Also, be aware that each airline will have its own specific set of rules and regulations, so it’s important to contact the one that you book so that there are no unpleasant surprises at the gate. The last thing you need is to be told you can’t have a certain item onboard or a piece of gear needs to be tossed or taken back out to your car.
Though passing through security is rarely a smooth experience – there’s sure to be a TSA agent who suspects you of smuggling drugs, who swipes you for bomb residue, who wants to pick apart your tent light with a fine-tooth comb, or wants to take a sample of your protein powder to submit to a superior (yes, that has all happened to my wife and I) – it’ll be over soon, and hey, the stories that come out of an airport could be some of the best.
Wherever your travels may take you this year, I hope you stay safe and enjoy your time spent in the Great Outdoors!