Air Travel Tips for Hikers & Backpackers

IMG_20150511_065141If 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 $25 or more, per bag each way depending on the airline. Some carriers like Southwest Airlines 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!

IMG_20150511_072601On 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 past few years, the costs are significant, and there are still restrictions that 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.

Special Considerations

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.

IMG_5815Backpacking 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.

IMG_5817Packed 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.

IMG_5820Hanging the bags on a luggage scale to ensure they are within the weight limits.

Guidelines for Specific Items

The following table 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 tried to include many of the pieces of gear I have 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 you my personal interpretation and practices, which generally err on the conservative side. I prefer the no hassle approach and would rather not risk losing valuable gear! If you have specific items you are concerned about I suggest reviewing the TSA’s list of Permitted and Prohibited Items yourself or using their “Can I bring my…?” tool, that allows you to search for guidelines on specific items. If you review these resources and still have questions I suggest calling the airline or contacting the manufacturer of the item.

airtravelrestrictions

At Your Destination

Another practice I recommend is spending some 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. I usually plug the addresses into my GPS unit before the trip, as well, making navigation quick and easy.

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 in airports and sitting on a plane!

Final Advice

If you want to avoid hassles, delays, or the loss 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 & 2017.

Relevant TSA Website Links:
Permitted & Prohibited Items: http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/prohibited-items
Liquids & Gels: https://www.tsa.gov/travel/security-screening/liquids-rule
“Can I bring my…?”: http://apps.tsa.dhs.gov/mytsa/cib_home.aspx

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Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild, and Wonderful

01_SwiftcurrentLake_IMG_8173Morning mountain reflection on the still waters of Swiftcurrent Lake in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park.

The vastness of Glacier National Park is incredible! Its beauty is impossible to capture in mere words, and photographs only partially convey the wonders we discovered in this amazing corner of God’s great creation. It really needs to be experienced in person to be fully comprehended!

Traveling to Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park is located in northwestern Montana and borders Waterton Lakes National Park (Canada) in the southwestern corner of the province of Alberta. If you plan to visit Canada bring your passport and do some research, so you know what items you are allowed to bring with you going into Canada, as well as returning to the US.

The closest airport is the aptly named Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana, about 30 miles from the western entrance of the park. Kalispell is also large enough that you can find any gear and supplies you might need for your adventure, at competitive prices. The tables and chart below will help orient you with the area, and also provide drive times and distances between major areas around the park, as well as to other airports in the region.

02_GNP_TravelTimesDistancesWhen to Visit

While you can visit Glacier any time of year, keep in mind much of the park is inaccessible in the winter, and the season when all the roads are open is relatively short. Going-to-the-Sun Road, the only road that fully spans the interior of the park from east to west, typically opens in early July and closes in late October; but, I strongly urge you to check the NPS website regardless of when you plan to visit as construction and weather can influence that timing; for example, a portion of Going-to-the-Sun Road will be closed earlier than normal (late September) in 2015 due to construction.

Where to Stay

Whether you plan to stay in one of the grand old lodges, a rustic cabin, a front country campground, or do some backcountry camping, there are plenty of options available. The one common element, regardless of your choice, is the need to plan well in advance of your trip. The lodges book early; and, while there is a mix of reserved, as well as first-come-first-serve campsites, you want to know what to expect. Rather than going into great detail here I suggest starting your research at the following pages on the NPS website:

Camping: There are 13 campgrounds with over 1000 sites, which should keep my fellow Campstake users busy for many years posting photos and reviews!

Backcountry Camping: As with any national park, if you plan to go backpacking and backcountry camping many regulations apply and permits are required, so do your homework.

Lodging: There is a variety of lodging options in and around the park, though the prime months of July and August book up quickly, so make reservations as early as possible. We booked in January for a mid-August trip and could only find openings in the East Motel of the St. Mary Lodge & Resort. The room was quite expensive. It was clean and adequate, but very small with no frills! Remember you are paying for the location, and hopefully you haven’t traveled all this way just to sit around in your hotel room! The food and service were good and the stores appeared to have everything you might need at fairly reasonable prices, though we had stocked up in Kalispell before heading to the park, just in case.

Be Prepared

Glacier National Park is a vast wilderness and, depending on which trails you hike, the number of people you encounter can vary significantly. Even on the busiest trails we sometimes went a while without encountering other hikers. Also, do not expect to be able to use your cell phone to call for help as service fades quickly once you enter the park.

As with any mountain wilderness outing, you need to be equipped with proper clothing, gear, and supplies, including extra warm layers, raingear, a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen, some form of makeshift shelter, sufficient water and/or a way to purify water, food, first aid kit, flashlight or headlamp, whistle, emergency fire starting materials, and, finally, a good map and compass.

03_GrizzlyBear_IMG_8271Grizzly bear eating berries along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

This is also bear country, home to both grizzly and black bears. We saw several of both during our visit, most from the safety of our vehicle, though we did encounter one grizzly, about 30 yards away, while hiking the Iceberg Lake Trail. Read up on bear safety and heed the recommendations to not hike alone and have every adult carry bear spray. Also, if you are traveling by air, you cannot transport bear spray in either your carry-on or checked luggage, so you will need to purchase it upon arrival. I did some research when we took our trip and found a used sporting goods store in Kalispell, Replay Sports, where we were able to purchase bear spray for $25 a canister and return it for a $10 refund (2012 rates), assuming the canister was not discharged. Considering a canister of bear spray currently costs around $50, this is a good option to explore to save a bit of money.

Hiking

There are six major areas of the park including, Logan Pass, St. Mary Valley, Many Glacier, Two Medicine, Lake McDonald Valley, and Goat Haunt which is in the remote, northern end of the park. We did not do any hiking in the Lake McDonald Valley, though we did drive through on Going-to-the-Sun Road, but never even came close to Goat Haunt.

There is a great shuttle system with numerous stops along Going-to-the-Sun Road that is available at no extra cost. This is a convenient way to do some point-to-point hikes along Going-to-the-Sun Road. It is also a great way to get to Logan Pass without the concern of finding a parking spot; plus, you get to watch the scenery along the way rather than the road and other vehicles. Pay close attention to the shuttle times, though, especially later in the day, as you do not want to get stranded at the end of a long hike without a way back to your vehicle, except a long walk in the dark.

In all, we hiked about 45 miles over seven days and barely scratched the surface of the 740 miles of trails Glacier has to offer. As I said earlier mere words cannot do justice to this magnificent place, so I will provide only brief technical information about each hike and let the my photographs do the rest. All the trails we hiked were well marked so navigation was not difficult, though having good topographic maps does provide an added measure of confidence.

Highline Trail to Haystack Butte from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 7.2 miles out-and-back; some ups and downs along the way with a sizeable climb at Haystack Butte.

04_Highline1_IMG_7836Bighorn sheep ram charging down the narrow Highline Trail and frightening hikers near Logan Pass.

05_Highline2_IMG_7879Indian paintbrushes with Haystack Butte in the background.

St. Mary Falls & Virginia Falls from the St. Mary Falls trailhead (St. Mary Valley); 2.9 miles out-and-back; some minor ups and downs along the way with a moderate climb to get up to Virginia Falls.

06_StMaryFalls_IMG_7913St. Mary Falls.

07_VirginiaFalls_IMG_7972Posing in front of Virginia Falls.

Siyeh Bend to St. Mary Falls from the Siyeh Bend/Piegan Pass trailhead on Going-to-the-Sun Road just east of Logan Pass; 5.0 miles one-way with a return trip via the park shuttle. There is about a mile of uphill hiking at the beginning of this route, but then it is all downhill except a brief, easy climb to the St. Mary Falls trailhead and shuttle stop at the end.

08_Siyeh_IMG_1977Todd the Hiker at the Siyeh Bend trailhead. (Photo credit: Leah Nystrom)

09_DeadwoodFalls_IMG_8028Deadwood Falls on Reynolds Creek in the St. Mary Valley.

Upper Two Medicine Lake from the Boat Landing on the west end of Two Medicine Lake; 4.6 miles out-and-back; this is a moderate uphill hike on the way to Upper Two Medicine Lake and downhill on the return. We chose to ride the boat out to the trailhead (for a fee); this is not required, though it is almost triple the distance if you choose to hike the whole route starting near the Two Medicine Visitor Center.

10_Upper2Medicine_IMG_8140The windblown waters of Upper Two Medicine Lake.

11_RunningEagleFalls_IMG_7975I recommend a stop to see Running Eagle Falls on the way up to Two Medicine.

Iceberg Lake from the Many Glacier Visitor Center; 10 miles out-and-back; there is about a two thousand foot elevation gain on this hike, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is a tough hike so give yourself plenty of time, with margin built in to rest and take in the scenery at the top.

12_IcebergLake1_IMG_8190Beargrass and the incredible mountain views along the Iceberg Lake Trail.

13_IcebergLake2_IMG_8205Mountain meadow wildflowers with Iceberg Lake in the distance.

Grinnell Glacier from the Swiftcurrent trailhead (Many Glacier); 9.6 miles out-and-back; this is pretty much the same configuration as the Iceberg Lake hike, with about a two thousand foot elevation gain, all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. This is another tough hike so, again, give yourself plenty of time to rest and take in the scenery at the top.

14_GrinnellLake_IMG_8316Fireweed accents the view overlooking the sparkling blue waters of Grinnell Lake.

15_GrinnellGlacier_IMG_8346Spectacular view from above Grinnell Glacier.

Hidden Lake Overlook from the Logan Pass Visitor Center; 2.6 miles out-and-back; this is a short and fairly easy hike, though it is all uphill on the way out and downhill on the way back.

16_HiddenLake_IMG_8417Enjoying the view from the Hidden Lake Overlook.

17_MountainGoats_IMG_8477Mountain goats in the snow above the Logan Pass Visitor Center.

Our time in Glacier National Park was an amazing experience! The most difficult task I faced in writing this post was deciding which of the over 1000 photographs to include. I hope the ones I chose provide you with the inspiration to take a trip there yourself, you won’t regret it!

18_StMaryLake_IMG_8369No visit to Glacier National Park would be complete without a stop to snap a shot of the iconic St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island from the scenic overlook along Going-to-the-Sun Road.

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2015.

Note:  This has also been published as a Campstake Field Guide, under the title, “Campstake Guide: Glacier National Park,” as well as on Sportoddy.com, under the original title, “Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild, and Wonderful.”  It can also be found under the original title “Glacier National Park: Vast, Wild and Wonderful” on the RockyS2V Blog along with other great articles from my fellow RockyS2V Ambassadors (#TeamS2V) and guest bloggers.

Press On Toward the Goal

Philippians 3:7-14 (ESV) – But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith–that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (1-IMG_3174)A view looking west from one of the side trails along the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. The furthest ridge in the center of the photo is our goal on this hike.

On a backpacking trip to Kentucky’s Red River Gorge early this fall, we decided to explore a trail that was new to us, the unofficial Star Gap Arch trail. Though I knew from our outrageGIS map and the description in Jerrell Goodpaster’s book, “Hinterlands,” that there were many spectacular views along the way, and at the end of the hike, there were still a few times we considered turning back. The hike was difficult at times, involving rock scrambles and thick brush; but, having a goal in mind and some idea of what lie ahead, were key to our perseverance.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (2-IMG_3204)A closer view of the end point on the Star Gap Arch trail.

Even though you may not get a complete picture of what to expect when hiking in a new place, or even on a new trail in a familiar place, it is worth taking time to do some research. Studying topographic maps, reading a guide book, or finding online reviews from other hikers, can give you motivation to both start and complete a new adventure.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (3-IMG_3178)The final climb up the ridge at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

In many ways our Christian walk is like a hike in the wilderness. Fortunately, God has given us the ultimate guide book for our journey, the Bible. However, the Bible is far more than just a simple guide book it serves a much greater purpose, pointing us to the ultimate goal, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Personally knowing the author who actually wrote the guide book is our best assurance of all. We will probably never endure the trials that Paul suffered, but we still need to realize there will be good times and bad, easy days and difficult ones in our lives, but with Christ we can be certain that we will make it to the end.

2014-12-17 - Press On Toward the Goal (4-IMG_3193)One of several spectacular views that awaits you at the end of the Star Gap Arch trail.

There is a price to taking a backpacking trip, we give up modern conveniences, endure difficult terrain, and occasionally suffer cuts and bruises, but getting to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the way and the spectacular views at the end of the trail make it worth the effort. There is also a cost to following Christ, the Bible makes this clear, but how much more incredible will the end of our life’s journey be when we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Read more about my “God is Revealed…“ category of posts

© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014.

New Page: Red River Gorge – Off-Trail

I have added a new page to Todd the Hiker titled “Red River Gorge – Off-Trail”. If you want to explore the backcountry of Red River Gorge this page will give you some tips to get started:

Take a look:  Red River Gorge – Off-Trail.

NOTE:  This article is also featured as a guest post on Campstake.com’s Campstake Journal blog (blog.campstake.com).  After browsing for a while here at Todd the Hiker, you may want to go over and check them out!

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© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2014