Flying with Backpacking Gear

Many thru-hikers fly to a local airport before they start out on the trail. Some NOBOers on the PCT fly to San Diego. Many AT thru-hikers fly to Atlanta. Here are some tips for flying with backpacking equipment.

Save Bucks at Goodwill

Some backpacks will fit into the overhead luggage. Some do not. For example, the ZPacks Arc Blast fits unless you get the large torso size, I think. Measure carefully before you fly. You DO NOT want your pack thrown into cargo area. In reality, even when you put your pack into the overhead bin, it likely needs protection. People are not at all careful about how they slam their suitcase next to or even on top of your pack. People are rushed and accidents happen. A broken frame before you even start hiking would not be an ideal way to start.

So how can you protect your gear during a flight?

Duffle bags are almost pointless when it comes to protection unless you wrap your pack in bubble wrap or a blanket. I still would not bet the farm on that being safe, because your pack is essentially the farm for your thru-hike. You need to protect it.

A suitcase provides the structure to keep your pack safe and allows you to check all or most of your gear. Here is where Goodwill and thrift shops come into play.

Goodwill almost always has suitcases for $10 to $15. Not a bad investment to keep your stuff safe, huh? Measure your pack and make sure it fits in your thrift shop find or drag your backpack to your local Goodwill and see if it fits in the suitcase. Wheels on the suitcase are an added plus. In reality, it is essentially a one flight suitcase as far as your needs go, so do not be too picky. You are going to ditch it before you ever start hiking.

Hostels and Shuttles Understand Used Luggage

When you arrive someplace like a hostel or trail town motel, most owners are used to thru-hikers leaving their stuff behind including luggage. Typically, they keep castoff suitcases for SOBOers or for people who quit after a day or two on the trail. That happens. Hostels will give your suitcase to other hikers for their flight home. Others might take them to Goodwill or sell them on Craig’s List. It is all good, in my view. They are reused, and nobody is getting rich shuttling thru-hikers or running a hostel.

A Few Important FAA and Airline Rules That You Need to Know

  • Hiking poles are specifically called out in FAA rules as not being allowed in the passenger compartment – best reason to just buy a used suitcase and check your stuff.
  • Lithium batteries MUST be in your carry on luggage or personal item. They are not allowed in checked luggage. You will be specifically asked about having them at check-in. If you have almost anything that can be recharged (battery packs, headlights, GoPro, etc.) it likely has lithium ion batteries and has to be carried onto the flight as there is some history of exploding batteries and lithium ion batteries starting fires. It all sounds pretty much like medieval alchemy to me. Know anyone who has had their house or apartment burn down due to spontaneous lithium battery fires? Me neither.
  • Fuel canisters are not allowed on flights PERIOD. Not in the passenger area. Not in the luggage area. OK, I am tracking with this rule. It make sense. You will need to get fuel when you arrive close to the trailhead or cold soak your food Here is a recent article from The Trek on cold soaking.
  • You may carry one cigarette lighter onto a flight. Like those pesky exploding lithium ion batteries, they are banned from checked luggage and, I believe, you must keep them on with you and not in the overhead bin.

Final Suggestions

  • I would verify that your hostel or shuttle actually wants to deal with your used suitcase before your head toward the airport.
  • Do not cause a terminal evacuation by deciding to empty your suitcase in the bathroom and leaving it in the stall. I am guessing that is likely some type of federal offense and just bad manners. Nobody wants to be standing outside the airport with a few thousand new friends while the bomb squad determines that your abandoned suitcase is not a bomb. BTW, if you pull this stunt, and please don’t, remember that your luggage tag will likely result in you getting a visit from TSA or the FBI or someone with a very stunted sense of humor. Of course, you will be on the trail, but none of us want a potential visit from the feds.
  • Some outfitters will ground ship a fuel canister to a motel or hostel. Before you pay to have one shipped, verify that the motel will accept the package and let them know that it is fuel canister. The box will be marked flammable and/or explosive. I learned this the hard way in France before I started a backpacking trip when I got quite the lecture from a hotel manager. I speak about enough French to order dinner or buy some cheese in the market, so I am not sure what the heck he was saying but it sounded like something about my mother, prostitution, and to be polite here on The Trek, poop. Désolé. Je ne parle pas français.
  • See if your shuttle or hostel sells fuel. That is part of the way they make money. Support those who support backpackers at the grassroots level.
  • Fuel canisters are often available from local outfitters or big box sporting goods stores. Again, my preference is to spend fifty cents or a buck extra and support a hostel.

What Did I Forget Plus Info for Greyhound Riders

I am sure I am forgetting something, so please add anything I might have missed in the comments. I think that fuel is banned from buses, so if you are taking The Hound, you might want to not take a fuel canister. To be honest, “I cannot recall” if I have always been so compliant with that rule, but I am officially advising you not to take fuel on a bus.

Exploding buses, like the exploding lithium batteries and subsequent jet fires, are theoretically ugly events and are certainly not leave no trace.

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