Big Questions: How (to Fly With Gear)

I’m happy to say that two soon-to-be-former friends agreed to join me for the first few days of my Appalachian Trail journey. It will be great to kick-off the walk with some friends in tow, and although I’m eager to meet others on the trail for the long haul, some known faces will be a welcome treat at the start. They’ll earn their own trail names once boots hit the ground, but for now, I’ll call them Keg and The Captain. Welcome!

In discussing logistics with The Captain today, he asked how I plan to fly with all my camping gear? Do I check or carry on? Should I have separate travel clothes? And what about things you can’t bring on an airplane? And why did I agree to this again? The Captain also discussed his admiration and adoration for this blog, so to that honor, I thought I’d summarize everything one needs to know for flying with backpacking gear.

Disclaimer: I don’t claim to have all the answers, as other opinions have been shared elsewhere by reputable sources like here, here, and here. But I’ve flown for my own backpacking trips in Washington, Montana, California, Wisconsin, and Alaska, and I’ve learned what works best for me.

Here are my tips and tricks for flying with gear.  If you have more, share them in the comments. Hello Neiman!

  1. Check your Luggage.  I carried on once and regretted that decision for 2 big reasons: 1) TSA will absolutely stop your bag and take everything out for examination. It’s time-consuming, annoying, and frustrating to explain everything. 2) Many items you want to bring can’t fly, such as a knife, fuel canister, lighter, etc. They will confiscate these items, or you’ll have to ship them in the airport to your destination. I had to mail my tiny swiss army for $10 once. Don’t try to be cute and beat the system, just check your bag. Yes, there is a risk your bag gets lost, but go with an airline you trust and buy your ticket on an American Express or another credit card that insures personal luggage. If your bag is lost, you are definitely screwed, but only temporarily.
  2. Enclose Your Bag.  Here’s how I prep my backpack for the airline. Wrap the hip belt around the back and snap it closed, tighten all straps and tuck them in somewhere so no loose ends are hanging out, and enclose the bag. Either wrap it in heavy duty saran wrap, tie a cheap plastic tarp around it, or my personal favorite, put it inside a larger rugged duffel bag. I use an old army surplus duffel bag with shoulder straps so I can carry it easily.
  3. Travel Clothes.  I made a BIG mistake once of flying home after 4 days in the woods. Sure, I showered … but I didn’t do laundry and my clothes reeked of campfire and sweat. I felt very sorry for everyone sitting near me, though in truth, the whole plain could smell me. For short trips like Keg and The Captain are doing, I recommend you leave your bag enclosure with these travel clothes in a locker at the airport (Atlanta’s can be found here). For this thru-hike, I plan to cleanse myself of (read: throw away) my clothes in Maine and buy something new for the flight home.
  4. Fuel Canisters.  Remember, you CAN NOT fly with a pressurized fuel canister or bear spray, even if in checked luggage. Leave this at home either way. For those not using an alcohol stove, stop at an REI if you have time, or arrange someone to get a fuel canister for you. Our AT driver was happy to bring one for us, for example. In Denali, our pre-trip hostel owner did the same. For bear spray, most national parks sell them where you pick up your permit – and in my opinion, you don’t need bear spray for the AT.
  5. Trekking PolesTSA currently does not allow these for carry on. It must be a new policy though, as I flew with them fine 10 years ago. You could call the airport to confirm, but better off packing them with your bag. Make sure you cover the tips and secure them with a lot of protection (e.g. wrapped socks) so they don’t poke any holes in your other gear.
  6.  Essential Items.  Just like with normal travel, make sure your essentials are on your body. Wallet, phone, camera, meds, guidebook, Frisbee, etc. … Damn right the Frisbee is essential.
  7. Whiskey. No good backpacking trip is complete without a little moonshine and what better reason to take advantage of duty free than this, right? No need for a 1.75 handle like The Captain is used to, but get a little treat to warm up those cold nights and dull conversations. Remember to transfer it to a plastic bottle though, and splurge for the good stuff, the others will thank you.
  8. One Last Request.  As hinted at early, do everyone a favor and schedule some personal hygiene time before the flight home. If you didn’t bring extra travel clothes, at least wash the ones you have, and don’t carry on anything that still smells of your trip. It may be the Minnesota Nice in me, but I just think it’s a small effort to help keep those around you from having a bad experience. Smelly Hiker vs. Crying baby … tough to choose the lesser evil.

In addition, here is a good article from the TSA on other items that can and cannot be carried on to an airplane.  When in doubt, call and ask. Hello Neiman!

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