If you have flown anywhere in recent years you likely know the list of items you cannot bring along in your checked or carry-on luggage is rather extensive. For the average business or vacation traveler the challenge of packing is complicated enough; however, for those of us who like to spend our vacation time tromping through remote wilderness locations with a backpack full of gear, the challenge is even greater!
In this article I will focus on domestic air travel in the US, not to exclude anyone, but rather because the rules and regulations of international air travel include not only the safety and security concerns of our own US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) but also those of similar agencies in other nations. Keep in mind that customs and immigration laws unrelated to air travel safety will also apply, so even if an item can be transported in a carry-on bag, it may not be legal to bring that item through customs; for example many countries, including the US, ban the import of certain food items. My only recommendation, if you are planning an international trip, is to start your research early.
Do I Need to Check Baggage?
The short answer is yes! If you are flying and bringing your own gear it is safe to assume you will need at least one checked bag for your gear if you are day hiking, and likely one checked bag per person if you are backpacking. You need to research the checked baggage policies and fees when booking your flights as checked baggage fees can add up quickly, often $30 or more, per bag each way depending on the airline. Some carriers like Southwest Airlines still offer two checked bags per ticketed passenger at no extra charge. With their already low prices for airfare and the bonus of not having to pay extra for checked bags they are my personal favorite for our adventure travels whenever routes and schedules allow!
On the ground at Denver International Airport
Other Gear Transport Options
There are other options such as shipping your gear via a land based carrier, though, based on what I have paid to send Christmas gifts through various shippers in the recent years, the costs are significant, and restrictions still apply. In addition to the cost, there are many logistical and timing issues you will need to work through if you go this route. Another option I will mention is working with an outfitter who rents gear at, or will ship it to, your destination. I have done a cursory look around the internet and know there are a number of companies who do this, but cannot comment on the cost or availability of these services, which I expect vary significantly depending on where your adventures take you and what time of year you travel. Even if you use one of these options there are still items you will need to purchase at your destination, so planning and research are always a must.
If you have special dietary needs or require special medical equipment, supplies, or medications you need to do your homework regarding air travel restrictions. If there are items you plan to purchase at your destination, I expect most cities large enough to have an airport will also have places to purchase whatever you need, but do not take this for granted, especially in more remote destinations. Spend some time on the internet researching options, and by all means, follow up with a phone call, especially for highly specialized or critical items.
Planning Ahead and Preparing to Pack
Start gathering your gear at least two weeks before your trip. Our dining room becomes a staging area for gear before any backpacking trip, but this is especially true for our trips that include air travel. Waiting until the last minute is a sure way to forget a critical piece of gear or leave something in a carry on bag that causes TSA agents and local police to take unwanted interest in you at the security check point! The later situation is certain to result in confiscation of the overlooked item, like a favorite pocket knife or multi-tool, or still worse, it could turn into a complete search of your person and baggage, a missed flight, and potentially a fine or even arrest, depending on what the item is.
Backpacking gear gathered in our dining room before a trip.
Check all the pockets in your backpacks and clothing to make sure there isn’t a spare lighter, fire starter, knife, or some other restricted item tucked away. And keep in mind that some outdoor clothing lines have hidden pockets and compartments for survival gear built into their clothing, so extra diligence is warranted with these types of items.
Packing Your Bags
The weight limit on checked bags is generally 50 pounds, with additional fees for oversize and overweight bags. As you pack your gear consider the fit as well as weight of each item. Once your bags are packed you should weigh them and make adjustments as needed.
Packed bags ready for weighing.
Having more than one checked bag gives you flexibility as you can shift items between bags to balance the weight and keep them all below the limit. If you check only a single bag you will need to closely watch the weight or just plan to pay the overweight baggage fee.
Hanging the bags on a luggage scale to ensure they are within the weight limits.
Guidelines for Specific Items
The table below is my attempt to cover the some of the most common items hikers and backpackers might carry. Though this is certainly not an exhaustive list, I have tried to make sure I included any gear I personally had questions or concerns about in the past. With a few items I could not find specific TSA guidelines. In those cases I have given my personal interpretation and practices which err on the conservative side, as I prefer the no hassle approach and would rather not risk losing valuable gear. As their website says on practically every page related to security guidelines, “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”
If you have other items you are concerned about I suggest going to their “What Can I Bring?” page that allows you to search for guidelines on specific items yourself (their MyTSA App also has this feature). They also have an “AskTSA” service that allows you to send a photo of an item and ask questions through Facebook Messenger or Twitter (8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET weekdays; 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends/holidays). If you exhaust all these resources and still have questions, I suggest contacting the manufacturer of the item as they are likely to be aware of restrictions that apply to their products.
At Your Destination
Another practice I recommend is taking time before your trip searching the internet for outfitters, grocery stores, and other vendors where you can purchase supplies once you arrive at your destination. This saves time, allows you to find the stores closest to your road travel route, and gives you an opportunity to call ahead to check hours and make sure any special items you need are available.
We tend to purchase most of our supplies in the cities where our flights take us. Cities with airports tend to be larger so the stores have a better selection and usually cheaper prices. That said, the stores we have patronized in and around the national parks have not had significantly higher prices. And, although the selection of items is usually limited, you should have no problem finding the basics of food, water, and fuel. Taking the time to do a little research in this area will save you time, frustration, and disappointment which is not what any of us want when we are tired from spending hours airports and sitting on a plane!
If you want to avoid hassles, delays, or the confiscation of an important piece of gear, I strongly suggest you err on the conservative side and leave questionable items at home or plan to purchase them at your destination. Consider every item you take, large or small. And, finally, make sure you check and double check your gear to ensure you don’t forget anything critical or leave a restricted item in a carry on or checked bag that will cause problems going through security screening at the airport.
Travel safe, hike safe, and by all means get out there and explore this vast, amazing, and beautiful world that God has blessed us with!
Todd the Hiker
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015-2020.
Relevant TSA Website Links:
What Can I Bring?: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/whatcanibring/all
Liquids & Gels: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/liquids-rule
MyTSA App: https://www.tsa.gov/mobile