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Flying with Backpacking Gear: Essential Tips and Tricks

Just imagine standing at the ticketing desk getting ready to hand over your checked bag when suddenly you start panicking because you remembered that you didn’t unpack everything from your backpack and having to dig through your whole bag to remove batteries from your headlamp and a lighter from your checked bag. There is a line of people behind you staring as you awkwardly fumble to get in your hiking pack in the duffel you are about ready to check.

This is precisely what happened to me on my last trip, talk about embarrassing! In this blog post, we will explore the essentials of flying with backpacking gear and why I think having a checked bag and a carry-on is mandatory. I know no one loves to check a bag, including me, but with TSA rules, it’s the only way to get everything I need to the destination. I would love to road trip, but that would take more time than I usually have, and I would rather spend my time exploring and I bet you would as well.


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Keep reading to learn about those pesky TSA baggage rules, tips for getting your gear to your destination, and ideas on how to pack everything you need for your trip. Please note that some people push the rules and try to pack things in their carry-on, such as trekking poles, but I rather know for sure my equipment isn’t going to get taken away, so I will be outlining items as the rules for TSA. I have not traveled internationally with backpacking gear and don’t have any knowledge of this, so will leave it out of this post as my primary focus is traveling within the United States and National Parks.

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Can you take a backpack on a plane?

The short answer is yes, but you probably know that if it was that simple, we wouldn’t need an article exploring the logistics of getting your gear to your hike. As a side note, I love my backpack as a carry-on when not going on a hike at the end destination; I have used it for many running destination trips.

Are hiking backpacks allowed as a carry-on?

The standard domestic carry-on luggage size is 22 x 14 x 9 inches. Be aware if you choose to fly a low-budget airline such as Spirt or Frontier, their personal item sizes are quite a bit smaller, 8 X 18 X 14 inches or smaller, so it would make taking a backpack much more difficult. Flying domestically I have used my Deuter 45+10 Liter Backpack without issue. 

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What items are allowed in the plane cabin?

If you are taking a day pack, you can load it up with the items you plan to take on the plane.

  • Lighters or safety matches can be taken in your carry-on.
  • Batteries
  • External chargers, including solar chargers 
  • Bug spray without “hazardous materials” listed on it
  • Sunscreen

What items must be checked?

This, unfortunately, is a longer list and one of the main reasons I think it is necessary to have a checked bag when trying to get hiking gear to your destination. Most items on this list make sense as they could be used as weapons, and safety is essential for everyone.

  • Utensils including sporks (this is one of those items that I’ve heard of people taking in their carry-on, but why risk it?)
  • Trowels
  • Tent poles and tent stakes (pretty crucial if you plan to sleep in a tent)
  • Trekking poles
  • Knives and multitool
  • Axes
  • Crampons
  • Saws
  • Lithium-ion batteries

Items that are prohibited on a plane anywhere

There are a few items that you will likely want on your trip that can’t be taken on a plane, so you will have to arrange to buy them at your destination or ship them to your destination ahead of time. Bear spray is on the TSA no list. Look into an outfitter where you are going or see about renting it; when I went to Yellowstone, there were many places available to rent it. Another item that is not allowed is fuel for camp stoves.

Pinnacles National Park hiking
I flew with my backpacking gear to hike Pinnacles National Park

Should you check or carry on?

Okay, so now that we have exposed some items that must be checked and others that aren’t allowed in the cabin, what do we do? I choose a combination of a carry-on and a checked bag to get everything I need and want to the trailhead.


I like to pack my essentials in my carry-on, such as my navigation tools, electronics, chargers, batteries, and a couple of changes of clothes.

Some people recommend just going light without some things, but I don’t want to get caught on the trail without my essentials.

How to protect backpack when checked as luggage

Checking a bag can provide the convenience of not flying with a bulky bag. However, many flights fill up quickly and require people to gate-check their bags; this happened on both of my recent flights, so plan ahead so your bag is secured to your liking. Depending on who you choose to fly with, it can cost extra for a checked bag; however, I enjoy flying Southwest due to their bag policy; it’s free for your first two checked bags, and who needs more than that, especially on a hiking trip?

Options to protect your gear from damage:

  • I like to pack my backpack in a separate duffel bag along with my trekking poles. If you are also taking a sleeping bag or jacket, you can use it to pad your poles to help prevent damage. This works great if you rent a car or have a place to store the duffel. If not, check your local thrift store for a cheap bag you can re-donate when you get where you’re going.
  • Pack your backpack in a cardboard box that you can recycle when you get to your destination.
  • Loosen the shoulder straps and loop them to the front of the pack. Wrap the hip belt around to the front and buckle it (don’t do this if your hip belt is not flexible, as you can damage the pack). Once all straps are on the front of the pack, cover the whole thing with a rain cover or contractor bag.

I don’t recommend just putting your backpack in checked baggage without covering it for some protection. There are too many straps and buckles on a pack that can easily be damaged in transit, and the last thing you want is a broken backpack at your destination.

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Ways to mitigate losses

  • Wear your hiking shoes on the plane; if your bag is lost, you do not want to have to break new shoes in on your trip.
  • Be sure to take pictures of everything in your checked bag in case of loss, so you can file for reimbursement.
  • Make sure your bag is easily identifiable; you don’t want it to look like everyone else, or it could be easy to take the wrong one.
  • Get an airtag so you can track where your luggage is.
  • Purchase travel insurance or book your plane ticket with a credit card that will cover losses. 

Shipping Items Ahead

I have never done this personally. This method involves many logistics, including timing, where it’s being shipped to, who will receive it, and added expense.

  • Timing: You have to ship early enough to arrive by the time you will be there but not so early it could get lost or stolen.
  • Where’s it being shipped to, some destinations take longer than others. Does the location receive deliveries regularly?
  • Who will receive the package for you? Do you know someone in the area who can receive your package? Will your hotel or Air BNB hold it for you?
  • The cost of shipping, packing supplies, and the potential cost of holding your package at the destination should all be considered.
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Renting Equipment

Another option is to rent equipment at the destination to avoid the logistics of packing two bags and making sure everything is separated. The downside is that not every destination will have a place you can rent from or the equipment you want. The cost of the rental must also be factored in.

Research ahead of time!

Know where you will get the items you can not take with you on the plane, such as stove fuel and bear spray. You don’t want to spend a lot of precious trail time trying to find out where to get these things when you want to head out or, worse, find out the store is closed.

The party is over, and now you must go home ☹

Repacking for the return trip is as critical for flying with backpacking gear. Remember my opening story: Don’t be like me with your socks, books, and gear all over the floor at the ticketing counter. Be sure to lay everything out and separate items you have combined in your backpack for the hiking trip! Every airline and TSA agent may have slightly different rules, but just stick to the official rules listed by the TSA website to be safe; don’t gamble with your gear.

Have a fantastic trip exploring! If you’re interested in day hiking, check out my article on what to pack for a day hike.

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