Tips for Flying With Your Backpack from A Flight Attendant

Hi! If you’re just jumping in, I’m Sarah, aka Lil’ Bear. I started section hiking the Appalachian Trail three and a half years ago in 2019. I’m still actively working towards completing it, and at the time of this post I have finished about 80% of the trail. I’ve also been working as a flight attendant for about nine years.

From the comforts of my couch one day, I realized that my combined experiences of section hiking plus my job as a flight attendant might give me some credit to shed light on the topic of traveling with hiking gear from both sides of the equation.

I have to begin with this statement—the most important statement in this entire post. I am NOT the TSA. Any time I discuss what can or can’t be carried through airport security, I am drawing entirely from my personal experiences. Have you ever had an item that has gone through security plenty of times, then all of a sudden, one day, it’s an issue with that one TSA agent? So have I.

When it comes to TSA regulations, I welcome you to use my experiences as a valid point of reference, but please also check guidelines directly from the TSA website if you have an item in question. 

Packing Your Backpack For Travel

I pack my pack differently when I’m about to travel by air or bus than I do when I’m actually about to set foot on the trail.

Everything should go inside the pack. This means nothing in any pocket that can’t be closed, and nothing clipped on or sticking out.

Examples of things I put inside my pack when I travel that are usually on the outside while hiking:

  • Trekking Poles: Break them down or carry them separately to place in an overhead bin. Must have the rubber tips on.
  • Tent Poles: Bonus points if you have a trekking pole tent and don’t have these. I haven’t jumped on that train yet.
  • Water Bottles and Filter
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Bandana
  • Garmin inReach
  • Whistle
  • Hiking Shoes: Although they may be clean enough to wear on the plane before the start of the trip, they might not be at the end. You may think they don’t smell, but they probably do. I try to wear camp shoes for the travel portion of the trip, but it’s just a personal preference.

Not enough room in your pack for these extra items? Here’s a strategy to help:

Whether you plan to check your pack or carry it on, use a separate small bag for valuable items that should stay with you at all times. I use my sleeping bag stuff sack for this purpose, and just stuff my sleeping bag loose in the bottom of my pack for travel. Not a stuff sack type of person? Use a grocery bag or other bag that you can dispose of at your destination. Bonus points if you hike with a fanny pack, as it will also serve this purpose.

I use this bag or stuff sack like a purse, and its contents usually include my phone, battery pack, inReach, charging cords, ID, credit card or money, first aid kit, toiletry items, snacks for the day, and a water bottle. I keep my jacket or puffy with me as well. I’ve found that since I’m carrying these items separately, there is generally enough room to fit the additional items in my pack for travel that usually reside on the outside.

So what can happen if you don’t do this?

Time for a personal flight attendant example:

A woman boarded the aircraft with a backpacking-style pack near the end of the boarding process, and it didn’t quite fit in the overhead bin space we had left. We offered to check the pack for her, and she was gracious about it, yet she had to stand there in the middle of the aisle on an already-boarded full flight while we helped detach her shoes from the outside of her pack and pull out other miscellaneous items that were not all the way inside the pack, leaving her to have to carry all of these things separately while an antsy customer service representative was likely tapping his foot at the aircraft door, eager to close on time.

It’s just part of my job, and I love to help, but I know that as a passenger, it’s generally not fun to be the center of attention while on an airplane and also suddenly have a handful of things you’ll have to carry through the airport that you didn’t expect. If everything is completely inside your pack, and you have a separate bag to put under the seat in front of you for miscellaneous items, you’ll avoid a last-minute airplane-aisle re-packing situation like this one.

To Check or Not To Check Your Pack

The million-dollar question. I’ve done both, and each option has pros and cons.

Checking Your Pack

Pros: You don’t have to worry about carrying it through the airport and fitting it onto the plane. You don’t have to worry about what will and won’t get through security. At the end of your hike, you don’t have to be self-conscious about that smell you’re carrying around with your pack even though you can’t smell it.

Cons: By separating from it, you risk it getting lost or damaged.

What I Do When I Check My Pack

I’ve heard of people buying a cheap large suitcase and putting their pack inside so that it doesn’t get damaged during travel. This sounds like a great idea, but I don’t have much to say about it because I’ve never tried this method.

I just make sure everything is completely inside the pack and that any straps that can be buckled are buckled, and I check it as-is. I’ve never had an issue with my pack getting damaged, and I’ve also noticed that when it comes out at baggage claim, it’s usually sitting in a bin. I don’t know if that’s standard, but it makes me feel better that the airlines must do this for certain types of luggage, and it at least gives me a more peaceful image of my pack floating down the conveyor belt rather than the straps getting snagged all over the place.

Carrying-On Your Pack

Pros: You have more security that the pack won’t get lost or damaged.

Cons: You have to worry about what items might get taken at security. You might wind up having to check it anyway. You have to carry it around with you, and you probably smell if you’ve just completed a hike. (I know, I know, some people won’t care about this last one as much as I do. When I travel as an airline employee, it’s required that I be extra presentable.)

Flight Attendant Advice: If the flight is full, there is simply not enough overhead bin space for everyone to bring a large bag on board. At a certain point, we have to start checking any bags that won’t fit underneath the seat in front of you, and a hiking pack is very unlikely to fit under an airplane seat.

In fact, I would just assume that your pack will not fit under the seat.

I promise we’re not mean, we’re just required to maintain safety standards set forth by the FAA, and a bag that won’t squeeze all the way underneath the seat in front of you is a safety hazard in an evacuation situation. All airlines have different policies, but I know that on mine, it will be free of charge if you have to check your pack during the boarding process. You will either have to claim your pack at baggage claim at your final destination, or it will be brought up planeside when the flight lands depending on whether you’re flying on an “express” (such as United Express, Delta Connection, etc.) or “mainline” (United, Delta, American, etc.) aircraft. You can check the specific rules on the website of the particular airline you’re flying to prepare for this potential scenario.

How do you know whether or not you’ll have to check your pack during boarding?

If your flight is relatively empty, there will likely be room for your pack without any issues. If the flight is full, but you have status with an airline, your chances increase of boarding the plane earlier during the boarding process and finding a space for your pack.

If you don’t fly often or find yourself looking at your boarding pass and see something like “boarding group 4,” for example, this is a good indication that three other groups of people will board before you, and the overhead bins might fill up. I know that our packs can feel like extensions of our own body, so you might want to be mentally prepared for the possibility of having to check your pack at this point. Every airline is different, but these general guidelines should apply to all in some way.

Side note—if there is plenty of overhead bin space on the airplane, yet you are standing in the aisle hammering your pack into the bin from every which angle unsuccessfully while a flight attendant pretends not to notice for fear of having to come break the news that you might be carrying too much weight for a long-distance hike, this might be a good indicator to do a little self-assessment of whether or not you can eliminate anything from your pack when you reach your destination. I’m joking around a little here, but it has to be true, right?

What I Do When I Carry On My Pack

After working on these aircraft and seeing this all the time, I assume that I might have to check my bag on every single flight on which I travel as a passenger, and I prepare accordingly. This is especially true as an airline employee since we travel standby and are the last to board on many occasions. Even if you have status with a particular airline and are used to boarding early, what if there is a delay and you have a tight connection, and suddenly you’ve run from gate to gate and are last to board with no overhead bin space left?

The old myth is also true: it may have fit into the overhead bin on the last flight but might not on this one, as every aircraft type is different. Never rule out the possibility of having to check a bag during the boarding process to avoid a stressful surprise. This is why you’ve already packed everything inside the pack that normally goes on the outside and have a second small bag for valuables, right? 🙂

Behold, there can be a real advantage to checking your pack during the boarding process.

Your pack will be less likely to get lost since the employees will be taking it directly from the jetbridge to the cargo hold of the aircraft. Now you also don’t have to deal with finding a place for it onboard! Sometimes it’s even worth it to do this on purpose, when the customer service representatives will inevitably ask for volunteers who would like to check a bag planeside before the boarding process begins if the flight is full.

My ideal happy-medium situation is to bring my pack as a carry-on item but check it at the gate.

What Can Or Can’t Go Through Security?

Items I Was Unsure About That Have Always Made It Through Security

  • Trekking Poles: With rubber tips.
  • Tent Poles
  • Tent Stakes
  • Camp Stove: No fuel.
  • Trowel
  • Small Lighter
  • Nail Clippers
  • Tweezers
  • Food

Remember: The TSA has the final say. You can check their website here. Just make sure your trekking poles have the rubber tips on, even if you plan on taking the tips off to hike. The TSA is not a fan of pointy trekking pole tips.

Items I Hike With That Cannot Be Carried On

  • Fuel: Cannot be transported by air, period.
  • Pepper Spray: Just make sure it has a safety mechanism so it won’t accidentally discharge if you put it in checked luggage.
  • Knife: I carry a cheap knife from Walmart so that I can buy a new one at my destination or leave it behind at the end of a hike in the event that I’m not going to check my pack.

 

What to Do About Your Hiking Food

Purchase It at Your Destination

This is my least favorite option. I’ve noticed that I like to have my food for the first stretch of the hike ready to go so that I can arrive at the trailhead on the same day as my travels and start the hike without having to worry about taking the time to get to a store and figure it out. This is particularly true if I’m going on a shorter hike that lasts less than a week because I want to spend that precious time on the trail and not in a grocery store.

If you’re beginning a long-distance hike, getting your food ready at your destination may not be as big of a deal. It might actually eliminate some stress to travel without any food in your pack and then take an extra day before you begin the big adventure to rest up and go grocery shopping locally. Another option might be to send yourself a package to your destination with your food in it so that all you have to do is pick up the package and throw the food in your pack.

Put It Together Before You Travel

This is my favorite option. It feels good to put my food together at home and rest easy knowing that it’s done, but this can make travel a bit more stressful at the same time. Depending on how long your first stretch of trail is, this can add an extra ten pounds to your pack that you have to carry around the airport, along with taking up more space when you’re already likely trying to fit items inside the pack for travel that don’t normally go there. It also makes the pack larger and more difficult to fit into an overhead bin.

How I Travel With My Hiking Food

When it comes to going through security, I’ve learned that sometimes the TSA likes to search for certain powdery or liquidy food items like protein powder or tuna packets. I’ve never had an issue taking these things through, but on more than one occasion, they’ve asked to see what they were. One of the TSA agents gave me a tip to keep these items easily accessible at the top of my pack.

I have a new favorite way of both having my food ready to go and avoiding the stress of carrying it through the airport that my hiking partner and I tried out on our last two hikes. We put our hiking food together at home, then packed a small cardboard box with any of our food items that were on the heavy side or questionable with security, such as big tubes of squeeze peanut butter or liquids like honey. As a bonus, I was able to throw in my knife and pepper spray so that I wouldn’t have to acquire new ones at the destination. We sealed up the box and checked it at the airport. (Make sure anything that could puncture or spill is in a plastic bag and leave water bottles empty, as they can easily be filled at the destination.)

When we arrived, we collected the box at baggage claim and found an empty bench at the airport. We re-packed our packs for hiking and put the food in our food bags, then disposed of the box. This enabled us to go straight from the airport to the trail and completely eliminated the stress of having to carry the extra food weight through the airport and onto the plane, along with the worry that any of it might get taken at the security checkpoint. It also enabled us to keep our valuable hiking items with us onboard, but if anything were to happen to our checked box, we could go to the store and easily replace what was in it.

Yes, as it turns out, you CAN check a cardboard box!

A final tip to make traveling with hiking food easier: Go stoveless.

I finally experimented with going stoveless on a hike this past year, and I am hooked. There is no circumstance in which a fuel canister can be transported by air, at least that I know of. It felt so good not to have to worry about going to the store to find fuel when I arrived at my destination before the hike, and I didn’t feel wasteful because I didn’t have to leave it behind when the hike was over.

Of course, sometimes fuel will be necessary, such as if you need hot meals for cold weather hiking or simply prefer it, but my new preference is to go stoveless whenever possible. I loved how easy both the travel and the actual hike were without the camp stove and fuel.

The Takeaway

Traveling with your pack before a big hike can be a stressful experience. I know that at one point or another, I’ve asked all of the questions: Should I check my pack or not? Which of these items will not be allowed through security? What if it doesn’t fit on the plane? What if something gets lost? Along with that, I know there’s so much talk in the news these days about crowded, understaffed airports and massive flight delays.

If my words have eased at least one of those anxieties, I’ve done what I set out to do with this post. Airports may be crowded, but they’ve always felt that way to me, and while frustrating and unacceptable, flight delays are nothing new. I believe that if you go into your travels mentally prepared that some of the aforementioned things might happen and plan some leeway for them, you won’t be as surprised or stressed if they do come to fruition.

I’ve worked with so many wonderful coworkers that I can confidently say most of us flight attendants love our jobs, and we are happy to help you out with whatever stresses you might have when it comes to being on the plane. Bonus points if you come prepared and are nice to us! I’m always hopeful of striking up a conversation on the aircraft when I see someone with a hiking pack.

So what is my number one tip for traveling to a backpacking trip in the least stressful way possible?

Drive! 🙂

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Comments 6

  • Pinball : Oct 21st

    Thanks Sarah. As a fellow section hiker, (that’s going to have to fly for several remaining sections of the AT) this is helpful. A few nice tidbits.

    Reply
  • Stiff Sox : Oct 24th

    I check in my backpack. I use my military duffle bag. To date, I have not had any problems

    Reply
  • Chicago : Oct 25th

    Interesting read.

    I just purchased a 28L pack for quick weekend budget airline hiking trips that can be considered a “personal item” and is small enough to fit under the seat.

    No sooner did I receive the pack I looked on the TSA site to see that trekking poles, tent poles, and tent stakes are all prohibited items. Meaning what would of been a $60 round trip flight would now be a $150 round trip flight because I would have to check my bag, which upset me because if I knew this fact I would of just ordered the larger 35L pack.

    I know you said to take this information as your experience but the fact you said that you’ve never had issues with trekking poles and tent stakes leaves me some hope.

    Reply
  • Marshall : Oct 30th

    Great read Lil’ Bear – useful in planning my next thru. Ive sent myself a lot of resupply packages so the idea of downsizing the pack by sending myself my food bag and potentially problematic gear took the edge off. Flying home after completing trips, I was was never very anxious about loss, theft, or damage. Clearly its not an ideal situation, but the trips over; if it happens before, the trip may not be possible. Thanks for the knowledge.

    Reply

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