If you plan to go hiking or backpacking in a foreign country or travel out-of-state by plane, here are 10 packing tips to help guarantee that your backpacking gear does not get lost, destroyed by luggage handlers, stolen, or confiscated by airport security.
1. Don’t Check Luggage
Pack light, pack small and carry your backpack on the plane with you instead of checking a bag for the luggage compartment. If you have to, suck it up and pay extra for carry-on luggage if your airline charges extra for it. Your gear is far more likely to arrive with you if it never leaves your possession.
2. Wear Your Hiking Clothes on the Plane
Don’t pack your hiking clothes in your pack, wear them, especially the bulky ones. This will give you more space in your backpack. If you’re too warm, you can take off any extra layers in the plane.
3. Buy What You Need When You Arrive
If you’re having difficulty reducing your pack size or weight, eliminate everything you can buy at your destination, such as food, toiletries (especially), even extra clothing items like underwear, socks, and t-shirts.
4. Send or Ship Gear to Your Destination by Post or Express Shipping
Absolutely need a certain kind of food? Worried about your hiking poles? Send them to a B&B using DHL (best for international packages), FedEx, or UPS or have it held at the post office. Many countries have postal services that will hold a package for you at the post office (called General Delivery) which you can pick up with a picture ID like a passport. Search on the web for county-specific instructions and give your package adequate time to arrive before you travel.
5. Don’t Buy a Travel Backpack
If you’re a serious backpacker, don’t be tempted by so-called travel backpacks like the Osprey Packs Porter 65 or Farpoint 80 that have hideaway straps or wheels for rolling around airports. While convenient for business trips or touring out of hotels, they’re too heavy and awkward to use for backcountry backpacking.
6. Carry Irreplaceable Items
If you must check a bag (really a last resort), separate irreplaceable or expensive items like your backpack, trekking poles, sleeping bag, tent, GPS, etc. and carry them on the plane with you, while checking all other items in a cheap duffel bag like the Northstar 75L. Why a cheap duffel bag? – so you can discard it when you reach your destination and not feel too bad about it. You really don’t want to lug an empty duffel bag with you during your hike.
7. Pack your Backpack in a Duffel Bag
If you must check your backpack (again, a last resort), pack it in a tough duffel back to protect its straps and compartments. The aforementioned NorthStar 75 duffel is an excellent option with rugged fabric and a heavy-duty zipper.
8. Don’t Carry Stove Fuel
Don’t try to carry any stove fuel on the plane, including ESBIT cubes. It’s flat-out illegal. Don’t even carry an empty liquid stove fuel bottle if you can avoid it, since it can have residual fuel or fumes, and be confiscated by security authorities.
9. Switch to an Alcohol Stove
If conditions permit, use an alcohol stove on your trip. Denatured alcohol, methylated spirits (or “meths”), and ethyl alcohol (190 proof or better) is available worldwide so you don’t have to pack any or worry about finding it at your destination.
10. Don’t Carry a Knife
Don’t bring a knife, a multi-tool or a machete. Easy to forget if you’re packing on autopilot, but Take Stuff Away (TSA) can take it away, so leave your blades at home.
Shouldn’t step one be “plan international trip”?
With the clothes tip should add – don’t bring extra “casual” clothes. Use things that can be worn around town and out on the trail. Went to Thailand years ago and knew that I’d be doing stuff in the city before heading to the country so bought some zip off convertible pants so I could have long pants when visiting religious sites and shorts when in the jungle.
Also, buy a travel scale so you can weigh things at home. We got our packs to exactly 50 pounds (or whatever the limit is) one trip by weighing and swapping items in the comfort of our our home.
One last one – check the requirements of ALL flights, not just the main ones. Many of the smaller planes you might travel on to reach remote locations may have more restrictive guidelines.
All good advice, but for your last point you can actually get “TSA approved” multitools, which don’t have knives or pointy bits. The Leatherman Style PS removes the blade and replaces the pliers with a scissors. It is actually completely legal to bring on a plane. But of course, if you actually care about losing it and value it, I still wouldn’t bring it. Some of those TSA people are overzealous and can make up their own rules and deem it not safe to bring with you. So, you need to make a judgement call if you are going to do that or not. But I’ve seen people take similar ones through with no problem. Just depends on the staff and the country you are in.
Honestly, wearing your hiking clothes on the plane is the best thing ever. It’s comfy, and you will still look 10 times better than the average airline passenger wearing sweat pants and a hoody!
I have a Leatherman PS just for those trips when I’m only going with carry on. Once, a young TSA guy told me I couldn’t have it. His supervisor overruled him. You’re right, some make up their own rules.
My wife and I did the Camino in 2015 and took a Leatherman PS. Once in Spain, we picked up a cheap pocket knife for cutting food and some cheap hiking poles. When it was time to return home, left the knife and poles in a hostel’s hiker box for someone else to use.
Another addition to list would be a small, very lightweight pack or bag. You can use it for in-flight items, so you’re not getting into the overhead compartment for your full pack. It’s also handy in town when shopping or sightseeing.
I got my leatherman PS taken in Western Europe (forgot what country). I tried explaining that it was TSA approved and had not blade. Their response was that they do not allow tools either.
My wife and I took a fly and drive camping trip up to your neck of the woods a few years ago. We were trying to limit our checked baggage so I was wearing multiple layers of clothing and I also had a Ribz vest packed with books and gear under my rain shell. A rather zealous TSA person decided that looked like a suicide vest and he paid special attention to me all the way through the line, wanting me to keep my hands visible at all times. They thoroughly inspected the vest, they swabbed my hands and swabbed a bunch if gear I had and ran everything through the scanner several times. Thanks to him, Logan Airport was safe from two tired travelers. Although he was rather humorless and it was an inconvenience for us, I thanked him for his diligence and watchfulness.
Stick some flies to it and they’ll think you’re a fisherman.
By that time, we were attracting the REAL flies. I think the rest of the crowd in aromatic range wanted TSA to hurry up with us.
Tired, middle aged, Caucasian campers is a demographic so far unexploited by ISIS and the like. TSA was just making sure.
One thing I learned recently the hard way: don’t try to bring your trekking poles on the plane. They don’t care if they’re collapsible or if the tips are rubber or not even sharp. They didn’t even know what they were but knew that I wasn’t allowed to have them. Oh well. I guess if you really need them, get a poster tube and check them at the gate.
Or send them to yourself via post as I suggest. It really works well.
If you have extra gear you do not want to carry all the time, train stations in Europe have lockers you can rent. I did that on a combo work/trek trip
Don’t try to take a Bic lighter through China. On my way to Mongolia for some backpacking with my son who was posted there, I changed planes in Beijing and the Chinese equivalent of TSA re-inspected everyone coming through the airport. They took away my Bic lighters that I’ve carried through North and South American airports many, many times. “NO LIGHTER!”, yeah, ok lady, whatever…
Oh, this reminds me of the fun on the trip back, too. I bought a bottle of water on the concourse in Beijing while waiting for the plane back. The security forces had set up an inspection station right in the jetway (!) and confiscated all sorts of stuff from people just as they were boarding the plane, including my bottle of water.
Isn’t the how the attitudes of the TSA folks and their foreign cousins become so similar the world over ?
Here’s an anecdotal story. So, after clearing through passport control in Bucharest (but still in Romania within the airport), I tried to buy a drink of something, pop or water, can’t remember and tried to pay with Romanian money. The counter refused to take it and insisted on “real money”; dollars, pounds, francs, or marks. Moral of story is carry a lot of small denomination “real money” for tips and miscellaneous purchases in awkward spots.
Kids: Also leave the MJ at home… might be legal in your state… but not where you’re going! Don’t ruin college by having to do 5-10 in a THai prison
Sending some of your things ahead of you to Europe is a good idea – one thing you might want to be careful of is declaring the value of the goods. Keep the amount as low as possible as you might run the risk, that the receiver might have to pay taxes on the value declared when the package is being delivered.
I find my Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil® Day Pack (or equivalent) handy when traveling to a backpacking destination. 2.6 oz; very stuff-able. I use it under the seat for valuables or items that you want to use under way. It can get a larger pack down to carry-on size. It’s also a man-purse in town, an organizer for stuff in the tent, a stuff sack and a day pack on zero days.
I don’t fly. Problem solved.
But good to know so I can pass it on. Although the overzealous moms insist that they buy everything possible. I always push the cheap duffel.
In addition to poles and multi tools, stoves are becoming a problem. A friend almost had her Pocket Rocket taken on her way here. Spent 30 minutes with TSA supervisors.
Trekking poles, tent stakes & anything else that can be remotely construed as pointy or sharp are a ‘problem’ in Europe. I take to checking this stuff into the hold & carrying everything else as hand luggage. If the luggage goes missing, as it has, I can usually replace easily & quickly. The loss of a nice cuben shelter or custom down quilt would pretty much ruin the trip. Also taken to making a new alcohol stove before the trip so there’s not even the faintest whiff of fuel.
Not true, I have zero issues flying with trekking poles, small pocket knives (less than 6 cm blade), Jetboil stoves, stakes et al.
Always handy to check local avaiation rules and have a print or link ready to present to overzealous “officers” at security.
My trekking poles were refused passage through security in Aberdeen airport.
Warning: I had my Jetboil taken away from me on my way back from Banff. I didn’t have any stove fuel (I’m not that dumb) but the stove apparently had “propane residue” on it so I wasn’t allowed to bring it in my carry-on. I’d packed it in my checked luggage on the way there and it wasn’t an issue, but I got lost on the way back to return my rental car and was so flustered that I forgot to put it into my checked bag when I was packing to go home. And because of the aforementioned getting lost, I didn’t have time to go back and recheck it.
I. WAS. PISSED.
Has anyone else had trouble with bringing a backpacking stove in their carry-on??
“Camping stoves” are prohibited as carry on or checked baggage. Consult your airline or the TSA/prohibited-items site. If undeclared, you are liable for a fine and imprisonment. If someone got their stove passed TSA, then the agent probably didn’t know what it was, too lazy, or didn’t care. Best to mail ahead or buy at the arrival destination.
Not true. They are allowed in checked baggage as long as you do not have any fuel containers, full or empty.
Actually we are both wrong. TSA hiker blog site says stoves are good as carry on or checked as long as no fuel odors. Also containers are ok too as long as TSA can inspect inside of them. However, AA’s site says no stoves. UA says they must be brand new or purged of fuel with a letter from the company that did it. DL says camping equipment containing fuel residue is not allowed. Does that mean a dirty stove ?
Like I said – switch to alcohol. You can find cat food the world-round!
Just had my jetboil (stove only, no fuel) confiscated from my checked luggage when returning from Banff as well (Calgary airport). Perhaps they have a good market for second-hand backpacking gear up there…
in Europe they put all backpacks in the hold. Anything jaggy gets packed in the bag. I no longer fuss about a stove i make one from the bottom of a soda can and three tent pegs. They are fussy about lithium batteries.big time. I buy toiletries when I arrive or if i am staying at a campsite. I manage to purloin toiletries that have been left behind (apart from hairy soap). It is customary in europe to give consumables to your neighbours if you are leaving a site so nits easy to pick up a few things
Big packs, that’s for sure. Which is why I use a small ultralight backpack, bring minimal stuff, and carry it on. Even in Europe.
I love this topic..lol. It’s for sure one that people have mixed experiences. The article is good. I would love to see trip reports with gear lists of these international trips that Philip has done to make it sound so easy ; ). The main issues seem to be how to handle tent stakes, stoves, trek poles, knife, lighter and tent poles. Some are addressed with others are not.
The bottom line is, “The final decision rests with the TSA officer on whether an item is allowed through the checkpoint.”
I have gone through multiple airports in the US and Western Europe holding all my gear in the carry on. Stakes, butane stoves, lighters and tent poles have so far not posed a problem. Of course, I guess they could always tell me otherwise, as it happened to Lizz above, so I may have just been lucky. We make at least a trip a year. So I will probably keep bring the same set up.
I don’t bring knives. And I have heard of too many people getting their trekking poles taken away, so I also give those up. If I am checking in baggage, I will put an inexpensive Mora knife in there, so there is not problem with TSA and I don’t have to shop for one at the destination. If it gets misplaced, it’s an inexpensive blade. I have resigned myself to not bring trekking poles, as I am worried they will be damaged in the checked baggage and they are spendy.
I had no issues so far with z-poles, Carbon fiber tent stakes, a cat stove and alcohol (100 ml) inside the pack for cary on. Last time I flew from Germany to Spain and back. I did not bring a knive. But it is a thrill every time…
Can you recommend a good lightweight pack that’s suitable for carry on? I really don’t like dedicated travel packs like the Osprey Farpoint, but am having difficulty finding a 30-35L hiking pack that works well for travel too. Ideally it would have some zipped access and different storage options. Any suggestions?
Try a Kelty Redwing 32
I have taken my MSR Pocket Rpcket on several foreign trips in my checked bag in its little triangular case and never had any trouble. I doubt most officers would have any idea what it is or would bother to inspect it let alone reject it. In Peru for 2 weeks this winter I only brought a carry-on the Osprey Porter 46 and that 20L Sea to Summit Ultra Sil Daypack which I used for a few 6-8 mile dayhikes. I need hiking poles so I bought a pair of collapsible poles for $10 in Ollantaytambo. They were a bit heavy but worked perfectly, as good as $100 poles here. I left them with the hotel owner, he was thrilled to get them. My $2 emergency poncho worked fine in some rain as it was the rainy season. It is so handy in many ways not to bring a big checked bag.
I bought my Osprey Atmos 50 pack online. When it arrived I kept the box. Total dimensions are 54″. I’m thinking of placing my pack in the box, shoving all my other gear around it, tape or shrink wrap it up and check it as luggage. I found this link from others who have done this (not necessarily with backpacks).
Downsides I see are 1) TSA getting into it and not packing or re-taping properly, and 2) hard to carry around a big cardboard box (I could just pack my pack and discard the box at arrival airport). Thoughts?
The TSA won’t bother it. They Xray stuff. The biggest problem is that baggage handlers will see it’s a commercial product and might rip it off. Better just use an unmarked box.
Has anybody had any luck – domestic and/or international – with “cheating” the carry-on size limitations a little bit?
I have a Sierra Designs Flex Capacitor 40/60 that is, in its compressed 40L form, essentially 23″ x 15″ x 10″ – that is to say, one measly inch too “big” for each dimension for the standard airline carry-on rules. I’m preparing for a week-long hike on the Welsh coast in May. This trip will also involve quite a bit of “secondary travel” – train, ferry, bus – to get to the trailhead, and I’ll also have a half-day to explore Dublin on foot before getting to the airport, so the last thing I want to have with me is a wheely-bag suitcase to lug around.
I’ve had fairly good luck in the past with the “play ignorant and gate check” ploy when it comes to suitcases, but I’m worried an oblong backpack will be less inconspicuous at check-in.
If your pack is cinched down to 40 L and not fully extended, it should probably fit. Carry on limitations are usually enforced by the airline, so sometimes there is a little flexibility if the flight is not full. Since most flights are full or even overbooked, however, that is increasingly unlikely. First or business class might offer more flexibility than cattle class, but it still depends on how full the flight is. I have sometimes worn any bulky coats or sweaters while boarding, and take them off and stuff them wherever they fit once aboard, even if I have to sit on them. Sleeping bag in a compression bag will usually fit under the seat in front of you. I never travel with a knife, since that is easy to buy locally and give to a local as I leave. The randomness of these rules knows no limits. I had a problem in Nepal because the belt on my trousers was attached and could not be removed.