Going to California to hike a portion of the John Muir Trail back in the summer 2009 (read about my trip out there here) required doing something I had absolutely no experience with: packing backpacking gear for an airline flight. In fact, I had not even flown on an airplane in almost a decade prior to the trip. Many changes occurred since my last flight, which was pre-911, pre-shoe bomber, pre-liquid ban, and, well, you get the idea.
Naturally, I consulted the Internet for some material on packing backpacking gear for an airline flight. Surprisingly, there was very little.
After reading what little I could find on the subject I turned to an always credible personal resource, my friend Dave. Since he had a lot of experience packing backpacking gear for airline flights I picked his brain on several occasions for ideas on how to pack my own gear for the flight.
The following insights about packing backpacking gear for an airline flight are an amalgam of ideas obtained via the Internet, my friend Dave and my own imagination. I hope these ideas are useful when packing for your own backpacking trip.
Follow the Rules:
It should go without saying that first and foremost check with the rules and regulations of the airline with regards to backpacking gear. This is especially important in regards to stoves, fuel containers, fuel, matches and anything even remotely flammable. Some of these items are completely forbidden (e.g. fuel) while others might depend on the specific airline (e.g. stoves). If in doubt, do not bring it on the plane or be prepared to forfeit any questionable gear.
Also, check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) guidelines for traveling with outdoor gear on airline flights in the United States here.
Your packing should start with a complete inventory of everything being taken on the airplane. Make three copies of this inventory: one for the checked luggage, another for your carry-on bag and a third left at home just in case. This inventory allows for checking that all your backpacking gear arrived at your destination, and when you return, made it back home.
In addition, take digital pictures of each of the item being taken on the trip. These pictures may come in handy if something turns up missing out of your checked-in baggage.
Divide and Conquer:
Once the inventory is complete all the backpacking gear (and any other ancillary stuff brought for before or after the backpacking portion of your trip) should be separated into two piles: one for the carry-on and the other for the checked-in baggage. Having the gear separated beforehand makes it much easier when you are attempting to pack and it is much less likely that you will forget to bring something.
The Carry-on Backpack:
A daypack can be used for the carry-on bag. I used my Golite Breeze backpack for my trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is a pretty narrow pack making navigating the airline aisles without smacking other passengers in the face much easier regardless of whether I was wearing it on my back or just carrying it in my hands.
In the carry-on backpack place your extra clothes (for the time before and after the backpacking trip) and your most precious gear. Anything small and expensive is better kept as close to your person as possible. In addition, it might be smart to carry some extra toiletries to be used before and after the hike but make sure not to include any fluids so as to avoid the restrictions on such items in carry-on luggage.
In addition to my extra clothing and toiletries I carried my new digital camera and my compact binoculars in my carry-on backpack. Both of these pieces of equipment are fairly expensive and I did not want to risk the possible damage (or worse) by placing them in my checked-in baggage.
The Checked-in Duffle:
The equipment you plan on including in the checked-in baggage should be placed in a large duffle or travel bag. The checked-in baggage should include all the bulkier gear such as backpack, hiking poles, sleeping bag, shelter, etc. Also, include any item that might cause your carry-on pack to gather unnecessary examination such as sunscreen, insect repellant, first aid kits, etc.
The size of the checked-in baggage will be dependent on the amount of equipment required for your backpacking trip. Duffle bags tend to come in larger sizes than travel bags and for this reason tend to be more convenient. Duffle bags range in both size and materials. The cotton ones work well but are probably heavier than the nylon ones available. A large travel bag with wheels might be useful to avoid some of the excessive carrying required to and from the airport.
For my John Muir Trail trip, I used a large green canvas duffle, which I had handy. This duffle worked fine but it was heavier than many of the nylon ones available on the market.
Make Your Baggage Stand Out in a Crowd:
It is best to mark your duffle on the outside for proof of ownership just in case someone has an identical looking one on your flight. Also make sure your name and address are present in your bag somewhere just in case the tags placed on the outside get ripped off in transit.
In addition, it is a good idea to mark your duffle to make it easily identified from a distance. An easy way to make a duffle recognizable from a distance is to wrap colored duct or electrical tape around the handles. This makes identification of your duffle easier to spot when it is traveling around the baggage carousel.
I wrote my last name with large letters on my duffle with a Sharpie as if it was a pair of pre-adolescent underwear. In addition, I placed my name and address written on a piece of paper in a zip-lock bag inside. To make my duffle easier to identify from a distance I wrapped yellow tape around the handles on the side and both ends.
Packing Your Checked-in Duffle:
It is important to pack the duffle carefully so it is both relatively easy to carry and the contents are secured so as nothing becomes damaged in transit. The duffle should be able to sustain having multiple other bags placed on top of it and being hurdled through the air a modest distance. This is especially necessary if you have many connecting flights.
Pack your backpacking clothing, shelter and sleeping bag loosely in the backpack being placed in the duffle. Do not attempt to carefully pack your backpack as if you were taking it on a long hike so that if searched it will be easy for the TSA personnel to repack it. Place any semi-fragile things (e.g. cooking pan, etc.) in the middle of the backpack to protect them from any possible damage.
In the duffle I included my fully loaded backpack, my non-telescoping lightweight hiking poles, and my bear canister full of food. On the bottom of the duffle I placed my inexpensive blue closed-cell foam sleeping pad unrolled as much as possible.
My duffle became increasingly more difficult to schlep around the airport and eventually I resorted to dragging it by one end. With the bear canister in the end farthest away from me the duffle increasingly appeared as if it contained a dead body.
Do Not Poke Yourself With the Sharp Stuff:
Special attention is necessary for any gear with sharp edges that might rip or tear either the duffle or your other equipment. This includes all tent stakes and hiking poles. The sharp points of both stakes and hiking poles should be covered to ensure there is no ripping or puncturing of the duffle or the other gear.
Telescoping hiking poles should be made as small as possible, while non-telescoping poles can be packed in cardboard poster tubes. If poster tubes are used be sure to clearly identify the contents on the outside of the tubes. Rubber point covers can be used for most hiking poles but if unavailable the points can be wrapped in duct tape.
Tent stakes should be taped together and the points covered with duct tape. The stakes can then be placed in small cardboard boxes with a prodigious amount of packing material. Mark the stake boxes identifying their contents just like the poster tubes used for the hiking poles.
For my Yosemite trip, I placed each of my lightweight, non-telescoping hiking poles within two cardboard poster tubes with one tube being slightly larger than the other. Unfortunately I did not have a big enough tube for both hiking poles together so each hiking pole went in its own set of two poster tubes.
An old sock was stuffed in the smaller of the two poster tubes to reduce the risk of the pointed end of the pole puncturing the taped end. The smaller poster tubes went into the larger ones when I put them together with the pole inside and the tubes were taped securely together. Each set of poster tubes was well marked to identify the contents.
Do Not Forget the Eats:
In some situations you might want to pack backpacking food in your checked-in luggage. For any foods not in their original packaging (e.g. portioned out in plastic bags) be sure to mark the plastic bags indicating the contents. This is specifically necessary when different spices are included in small plastic bags as these could easily be mistaken for some illicit substance.
We had an aggressive schedule when flying out west for our John Muir Trail trip and we did not want to spend any of our precious time shopping. So all of my food was packed in my bear-proof canister and ready to go from the moment we got there. Since bear-proof canisters were required in the area we were hiking through anyways there was no reason not to completely pack the canister with food before leaving on the trip. The canister was packed in the opposite end of my duffle from where my fully-packed backpack was located.
If any prescription dugs are included in your backpacking first-aid kit ensure that they are in their original container. The prescription should be up to date too. Without the prescription you run the risk of having them confiscated if your luggage is searched.
Got a light?:
Take care with stoves and fuel canisters. Most of the online information indicates there is a wide range of experiences and rules with regards to these backpacking items. Some online accounts recount tales of stoves and/or canisters with even the suggestion of a scent of fuel being confiscated while others tales are much less extreme. If in doubt it is probably best to purchase a low-cost stove/fuel canister when you arrive at your destination or have your current equipment shipped to your destination.
In my situation I was using a Pepsi-can alcohol stove and a 0.5 L Platypus collapsible bottle as my fuel canister. I thoroughly washed out the bottle so there was not even a hint of a scent of alcohol left. The stove was placed inside my MSR kettle, where I typically place it so it does not get crushed. Both were placed in my checked-in duffle with the majority of my other equipment.
No flammables can be included in the checked baggage. This includes both matches and lighters. It is best just to pick these items up when you arrive at your destination. Be sure to discard any left-over items (preferably by giving them to another hiker in need) before you board the plane for your flight home.
Sweat the Small (and Fragile) Stuff:
For smaller and more fragile equipment it is best to purchase a crushproof plastic case to ensure these items cannot be crushed and/or damaged while your duffle is being moved from the terminal to the airplane and back.
Enjoy Your Flight:
These simple recommendations should get your backpacking equipment to your destination via airplane without too much difficulty. Then you can enjoy your outdoor adventure as you intended. That is the reason all the careful packing was necessary in the first place.
Have a great flight and enjoy!