Flying with Backpacking Gear

Many thru-hikers fly to a local airport before they start out on the trail.  Some NOBOers on the PCT fly to San Diego.  Many AT thru-hikers fly to Atlanta.  Here are some tips for flying with backpacking equipment.

Save Bucks at Goodwill

Some backpacks will fit into the overhead luggage.  Some do not.  For example, the ZPacks Arc Blast fits unless you get the large torso size, I think.  Measure carefully before you fly.  You DO NOT want your pack thrown into the cargo area.  In reality, even when you put your pack into the overhead bin, it likely needs protection.  People are not at all careful about how they slam their suitcase next to or even on top of your pack.  People are rushed and accidents happen.  A broken frame before you even start hiking would not be an ideal way to start.

So how can you protect your gear during a flight?

Duffle bags are almost pointless when it comes to protection unless you wrap your pack in bubble wrap or a blanket.  I still would not bet the farm on that being safe, because your pack is essentially the farm for your thru-hike.  You need to protect it.

A suitcase provides the structure to keep your pack safe and allows you to check all or most of your gear.  Here is where Goodwill and thrift shops come into play.

Goodwill almost always has suitcases for $10 to $15.  Not a bad investment to keep your stuff safe, huh?  Measure your pack and make sure it fits in your thrift shop find or drag your backpack to your local Goodwill and see if it fits in the suitcase.  Wheels on the suitcase are an added plus.  In reality, it is essentially a one flight suitcase as far as your needs go, so do not be too picky.  You are going to ditch it before you ever start hiking.

Hostels and Shuttles Understand Used Luggage

When you arrive someplace like a hostel or trail town motel, most owners are used to thru-hikers leaving their stuff behind including luggage. Typically, they keep castoff suitcases for SOBOers or for people who quit after a day or two on the trail.  That happens. Hostels will give your suitcase to other hikers for their flight home.  Others might take them to Goodwill or sell them on Craig’s List.  It is all good, in my view.  They are reused, and nobody is getting rich shuttling thru-hikers or running a hostel.

A Few Important FAA and Airline Rules That You Need to Know

  • Hiking poles are specifically called out in FAA rules as not being allowed in the passenger compartment – best reason to just buy a used suitcase and check your stuff.
  • Lithium batteries MUST be in your carry on luggage or personal item. They are not allowed in checked luggage. You will be specifically asked about having them at check-in.   If you have almost anything that can be recharged (battery packs, headlights, GoPro, etc.) it likely has lithium-ion batteries and has to be carried onto the flight as there is some history of exploding batteries and lithium-ion batteries starting fires.  It all sounds pretty much like medieval alchemy to me.  Know anyone who has had their house or apartment burn down due to spontaneous lithium battery fires?  Me neither.
  • Fuel canisters are not allowed on flights PERIOD. Not in the passenger area.  Not in the luggage area.  OK, I am tracking with this rule.  It makes sense. You will need to get fuel when you arrive close to the trailhead or cold soak your food.  Here is a recent article from  The Trek on cold soaking.
  • You may carry one cigarette lighter onto a flight. Like those pesky exploding lithium-ion batteries, they are banned from checked luggage and, I believe, you must keep them on with you and not in the overhead bin.

 Final Suggestions

  • I would verify that your hostel or shuttle actually wants to deal with your used suitcase before your head toward the airport.
  • Do not cause a terminal evacuation by deciding to empty your suitcase in the bathroom and leaving it in the stall. I am guessing that is likely some type of federal offense and just bad manners.  Nobody wants to be standing outside the airport with a few thousand new friends while the bomb squad determines that your abandoned suitcase is not a bomb. BTW, if you pull this stunt, and please don’t, remember that your luggage tag will likely result in you getting a visit from TSA or the FBI or someone with a very stunted sense of humor.  Of course, you will be on the trail, but none of us want a potential visit from the feds.
  • Some outfitters will ground ship a fuel canister to a motel or hostel. Before you pay to have one shipped, verify that the motel will accept the package and let them know that it is a fuel canister.  The box will be marked flammable and/or explosive.  I learned this the hard way in France before I started a backpacking trip when I got quite the lecture from a hotel manager.  I speak about enough French to order dinner or buy some cheese in the market, so I am not sure what the heck he was saying but it sounded like something about my mother, prostitution, and to be polite here on The Trek, poop. Désolé.  Je ne parle pas français.
  • See if your shuttle or hostel sells fuel. That is part of the way they make money.  Support those who support backpackers at the grassroots level.
  • Fuel canisters are often available from local outfitters or big box sporting goods stores. Again, my preference is to spend fifty cents or a buck extra and support a hostel.

What Did I Forget Plus Info for Greyhound Riders

I am sure I am forgetting something, so please add anything I might have missed in the comments.  I think that fuel is banned from buses, so if you are taking The Hound, you might want to not take a fuel canister.  To be honest, “I cannot recall” if I have always been so compliant with that rule, but I am officially advising you not to take fuel on a bus.

Exploding buses, like the exploding lithium batteries and subsequent jet fires, are theoretically ugly events and are certainly not leave no trace.

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Comments 13

  • Avatar
    Emma Slaughter : Jan 21st

    So many good tips. I’m planning a CDT hike next Spring and will need to fly out there so this will definitely be bookmarked for then too! I had no idea hostels occasionally take luggage.

    Good luck on your trip!
    -Thirteen

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Alyssa Chrisman : Jan 21st

    This is helpful if my TCT hike ever gets rescheduled! The last line made me LOL.

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Eileen : Jan 22nd

    Great post!

    Reply
  • Avatar
    JustBob : Jan 22nd

    I am glad you brought up the topic of poles. The last 4 times I have flown to Spain on Iberia Airlines from the USA I have NOT been asked to check in my pack, which had my poles exposed on the exterior of my pack. The weird part is each time on those same trips I have been told by Iberia Airlines in Spain my poles would not be allowed onboard and that I needed to check my pack into luggage storage.
    Just weird how it is okay to have them onboard in one direction, but that they would not be allowed in the opposite direction by the same carrier!?!?!?!?!?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 23rd

      I’ve seen people bring hiking poles onto flights. However, the are listed as not allowed in the passenger compartment by the FAA. I’m not willing to take the risk to make the choice of trashing them or flying or having them moved to the luggage area when I am on the ramp to get on the flight.
      thanks for reading.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Rick : Jan 22nd

    Thanks for a different take on hike prep and planning. You didn’t mention trains. Amtrak does not allow “Incendiaries, including but not limited to flammable gases, liquids, fuels, fireworks and other explosive devices” in carry on or checked bags. Seems that would include fuel canisters. Technically, Amtrak website says no knives either: “Sharp objects, including but not limited to axes, ice picks, knives, spears, and swords
    *Scissors, nail clippers, corkscrews, and razors are allowed in carry-on baggage.
    **Sheathed equipment, to include fencing equipment, are allowed in checked baggage.” Seems trekking poles are in this category somewhere. But archery equipment including arrows are allowed in checked baggage if in a hard case.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Jan 23rd

      So I am old enough to *mostly* follow rules as the alternative tends to run the risk of more problems than solutions. My guess is that that Amtrak is filled with items that are not allowed on every train, every day.
      I guess I’d check my luggage. However, I lived most of my life in the NE corridor and have very little trust that Amtrak will not screw-up anything whenever they can.
      Thanks for pointing out trains. I actually took the MARC train from DC to Harpers Ferry several times as an easy way to get to the AT.

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Rick : Jan 23rd

        Agreed. I have taken Amtrak many times from Baltimore to NYC and wondered sometimes if the conductor would ever get around to checking my ticket. I doubt there is much thought given to carry on bags. If I ever get around to thru hiking though, the train will be my choice of southbound transportation.

        Reply
  • Avatar
    Todd : Jan 23rd

    I’ve been in many online discussions where people insist they can take poles in a carry-on. I make sure those who follow these fora understand the implications of this advice. As you pointed out, there is a real chance you will loose your poles to TSA.

    Also, it’s not enough to just measure your carry-on. Weigh it too. On several flights I have had my carry-on rejected at check in for being too heavy. I was able to move stuff around to make the weight limit, but if I showed up with no checked bag expecting to take my pack as a carry-on, I would be screwed. This seems to be more of an issue with you international flights.

    Reply
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    AA : Jan 23rd

    I used to work for American Air and know for a fact, they do not allow camp stoves as checked or carry on baggage, used or unused, period. Other airlines might be different. The TSA says they are OK if there isn’t any fuel residue, so go figure. Check your airline !!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      David Smith : Feb 1st

      Interesting. I am not sure that they are checking? Isn’t it TSA who inspects checked luggage? I’m asking since I almost always fly AA and have never been questioned about my Jetboil or MSR whisperlite. Of course, I have forgotten things in my carry-ons that TSA totally missed.
      Thanks for the update. I will see if my stove makes it to Tri-Cities in about. a month.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Big Cranky : Feb 4th

    We took Amtrak from DC north to hike the Long Trail several years ago. I know we had our fuel canisters and hiking poles. I, er, do not recall seeing anything about that on their site when I bought tickets. (But then, back in the 80s I took the train home from college with a fancy .22 target rifle in a hard case. It was real obvious what it was. No one said a word.) We had obvious hiker backpacks. The staff were very pleasant and it was a great way to travel.

    Exploding lithium batteries are a thing. They don’t often burn down houses but they can cause extensive damage. I would not want to be on an airplane when this happened in the cargo hold. (You can really go down the rabbit hole looking at exploding lithium battery stories on Google and Youtube.)

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Simon Leigh : Feb 5th

    Airlines etc are usually very happy if you tape the terminals of your spare batteries and then bundle and tape them together. Check on youtube for what happens when you put your batteries in your pocket along with keys and coins. Not relevant to this discussion, but when we get to travel internationally again, be aware that many countries like India and Nepal ban any GPS device which can send or receive text messages. So inReach, SpotX etc. They will confiscate the device and fine you, demanding payment of the fine before allowing you to continue, or even jail you. There are exemption processes rumoured but I havent found any yet.

    Reply

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