Packing for a Backpacking Trip Requiring Air Travel

Considering a backpacking trip requiring air travel? Not sure how best to pack all your gear, or how to plan your food supply? Read on for tips to help you streamline the process and avoid hassle and delays.
Cheryl Talbert Cheryl Talbert
Global Adventures Leader & Super Volunteer
December 08, 2021

Travel by air to a backpacking destination requires some additional planning and organization, as well as awareness of the baggage restrictions of the countries you are visiting. In this article, you'll find information to help you prepare for your trip.

Carry-on and checked baggage restrictions

At airports in the U.S., Transportation Safety Administration rules include the following restrictions for common backpacking gear:

Trekking Poles

Trekking poles must be in checked baggage, they cannot be carried on. Some people have even had tent stakes taken away from them at security, so I'd suggest checking those too!

Sharp Objects

Sharp objects, including knives, blade razors, hatchets, and ice axes must be placed in checked baggage. Scissors that are metal with pointed tips and a blade longer than four inches are not allowed in carry-on or checked baggage, but shorter or rounded-point scissors are allowed in checked baggage. Double check your first aid kit to make sure that all your materials follow these rules. 

Fire, fuel, and aerosols

Canister fuel, white gas, denatured alcohol, strike-anywhere matches, and pepper sprays larger than 4 oz are not allowed in carry-on or checked baggage. These must be purchased at your destination.

Small cigarette lighters, normal matches, and small containers of aerosol toiletries can be carried on. One 4 ounce container of pepper spray is permitted in checked baggage if it has a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge.

Aerosol insecticides are not allowed in carry-ons. However, they are allowed in checked bags as long as they don’t have a HAZMAT label.

Batteries 

Battery packs must be carried on, and cannot be checked! Keep in mind that if battery packs are found during a TSA inspection, they will be removed and your bag may be delayed.

Firearms

Firearms and ammunition are prohibited in carry-on baggage, but may be checked. Different airlines have different rules regarding storage and locks, check in with your airline prior to travel to learn the specifics. 

Liquids, creams, pastes, gels

Liquids, creams, or pastes in quantities under 3.4 ounces can be carried on if they can fit in a single clear quart-size plastic bag.

TSA also limits the quantity of most individual liquids, pastes or gel toiletries, and food or drink containers (yogurt, creamy dips/cheeses, syrup, jelly, soup, alcohol, shampoo, toothpaste) to 3.4oz in your carry-on baggage. You need to fit all of your liquids into a single quart bag to go through security. You can carry any quantity in your checked bag as long as you meet luggage weight restrictions, additional restrictions may apply to food items at customs.

Luggage weight restrictions

For most major airlines, the weight limit for each checked bag for economy passengers is 50 pounds (23 kg) with a maximum dimension (sum of length + width + height) of 62 inches including wheels and handles. In general, heavier bags are allowed on the plane, but excess baggage charges will apply. For carry-ons, passengers are generally allowed one bag no greater than 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches including handles and wheels, plus one personal item such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag, or other small item of maximum dimensions 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches.

Smaller carriers and some domestic flights on larger carriers often apply lower weight limits. Be sure to check the baggage weight limits for each of your flights before you leave for the airport to avoid a mad scramble at the check-in desk or gate.

Packing tips for air travel

Packing your gear requires a little extra thought when your trip requires air travel. I've found two strategies that can be used, depending on your personal preferences and trip itinerary. 

Option 1: Check your loaded backpack

Check your loaded backpack as your checked bag. Because pack straps can catch on things during loading and unloading of the plane, I'd recommend buckling your straps tightly around the pack before checking it, or even putting the pack into a heavy-duty garbage bag tied with a twist-tie or bar-loc.  Be sure that your name and contact phone number are clearly marked on a label on the outside. Then, carry on a small daypack or duffel with a few items that you wouldn’t want to replace or do without if your checked luggage was lost or significantly delayed (boots and your good rain shell, for example). I also carry a set of hiking clothes in my carry-on and wear my one set of ‘town clothes’ on the plane.

Option 2: Carry your backpack on

Carry your backpack as your main carry-on, with items that you couldn’t easily replace or do without at your destination. Wear your boots or carry them on in your backpack (I like slip-ons for airport security lines!). Check a separate bag with the remainder of your gear that you're not allowed to carry on. 

Tips

If you plan to use a large backpack (usually anything over 60L or with a large rigid frame) that can’t easily fit front-to-back in an overhead bin, then the strategy #1 is your best option. This is also the best option if you are going to be hopping from place to place and want to carry everything in your backpack without a second bag to worry about. 

If you use a smaller backpack with an internal frame, it can usually be used as your carry-on bag as long as you don’t stuff it full (though many airlines do now require that your carry on will fit into their metal box at the check-in desk).  With this second strategy, you don’t need to worry about damage to your pack during loading and unloading of the plane, but more of your gear will have to be checked in a duffel or other bag and loaded into your pack after you get to your destination.

Consider a pocket daypack (such as the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil) as your allowed personal item to carry on. Keep in mind that this bag must be small enough to fit under the seat in front of you.   In this bag, put those things that you will want to have with you or within easy reach from your seat on the plane (headphones, earplugs, eyemask, toothbrush and toothpaste, phone or tablet to read or watch downloaded movies, and all of your important documents, credit cards, and currency). Plus, this bag can serve as an ultralight pack for side trips during your backpack itinerary. 

Packing food

I personally find it quite easy and fun to shop for my trail food at supermarkets and specialty shops after I arrive in my destination country, and you will often find some tasty and interesting items that aren’t available at home. 

However, if you have very specific food preferences or dietary requirements, some parts of the world may not stock the items you need and you will have to find a way to bring food from home.  (Though you’d be surprised how much of the world serves gluten free and vegan diets as well or better than the U.S. these days!) 

If you plan to bring food from home, be aware that some countries severely limit the food items that are allowed into the country through customs. Most commonly prohibited items are raw seeds, fresh fruit and veggies, dairy and meat, and dried, cured, or smoked meat. Usually cooked and commercially freeze-dried or dehydrated foods in their original store packaging are allowed, but not always, so be sure to check the customs and biosecurity regulations for your destination country with plenty of time to make your plans. Home-dried and packaged foods without a nutrition label are at risk of being confiscated at customs upon arrival.  

Finally, even if you think the food you're bringing is allowed, always declare any food items when you get to customs at your destination.

Note from the author

This article is a work in progress based on my own personal experience. Please keep in mind that some methods will work better than others for different people and various trips. Be sure to always check the latest TSA restrictions, which may change from what is described here. In the meantime... happy trails!


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