Why buy good luggage? You only use it when you travel. –Yogi Berra
A persistent question on backpacking forums is How do I pack my gear for traveling?
And very easy to see why this question is so prevalent. With increased security and changing security procedures, packing for a backpacking trip when you are traveling, flying especially, seems a daunting point of logistics!
Here is an overview of what I find works for me and some caveats when traveling by flying, bus, or train.
Note: This information is subject to change. Though I feel the information is correct as of July 2018, wading through bureaucracy is always interesting. When in doubt, always call the appropriate commercial or government entity for the final word. And remember, even if the individuals at an organization may not know the actual rules and regs, the individual is ultimately the person who makes the final call unless you get a supervisor involved. Is it worth your time and possibly money because of a delay in your trip? When in doubt, I find it is better to be conservative and take a more “under the radar” approach that involves less hassle. YMMV.
Traveling via flying
Though the TSA site has an extensive catalog of do’s and don’ts on their website, sorting through the myriad of regulations can be daunting. And individual airlines often have their policies that are stricter than the TSA!
The TSA also has this caveat on their website:
Translation: If you get a TSA agent not familiar with all the regulations or wants to be cautious, they might confiscate your item anyway. And you do you want to risk a delayed flight while debating a TSA agent?
So, yes, a bit daunting.
Some enterprising people do mail their gear ahead and pick it up at the post office in town. Or perhaps a hotel room where they are staying. A good option in some cases. However, that option is not always a viable one depending on your trip timing and itinerary. And if you are traveling internationally, there could be a delay due to customs. Naturally, you’ll be out of some of your gear and won’t be able to make use of it while it is being shipped to other places.
Finally, sometimes shipping may be convenient, but the cost of shipping an item may be more expensive than the item itself.
The surplus duffle helps protect your gear and make the equipment less conspicuous. When I get to the destination, I give the bag away.
And if you are using a rental car at your destination? Use the same bag for the return leg of the trip.
Once I get the duffle bag, here is how I break it down for carry-on items vs. checked items:
Note that any lithium battery-based electronics can’t be checked in per the TSA. So your SPOT, inReach, Anker box, etc. can’t be checked in..nor would you want to I suspect! These devices must be packed in your carry-on luggage.
If I were to take my two-person backpacking tent, I’d be cautious and put the small tent poles in the duffle bag as TSA prohibits tent poles. And, well, see above about being at the whims of individual agents!
TSA and airline caveats:
- Lighters are allowed as carry-on. However individual agents may differ in their interpretation or even airlines for that matter. Far easier to simply purchase a lighter at the destination location. A quick $1 purchase vs. potential headaches. No brainer!
- Stoves and fuel bottles are typically the biggest headaches when traveling by plane. Technically stoves are allowed as checked in luggage or carry on per the TSA:
However…What does the TSA consider detectable residue?!?! Depends on the TSA agent!
An alcohol stove, besides not even looking like a traditional camp stove, will have any remaining fuel evaporate quickly. A white gas or isobutane stove is obviously a camp stove to most TSA agents. And they just may “happen” to smell residue to be cautious. Also, as noted earlier in the article, individual airlines often have stricter regulations and will prohibit *used* stoves outright. Naturally, specific airline policies vary, too.
What to do?
- Go stoveless
- Pack an alcohol stove if a viable option for the area and conditions.
- Ship the stove ahead if an option. If you have an expensive stove such as a Jetboil or an MSR WindPro and don’t wish to spend more money on one trip, perhaps the best option You’ll need to ship the stove back when done. If that is the case, you may as well ship the gear you planned to check in, too.
- Purchase a brand new stove, leave it in the box, and pack it. Ship the stove back when the trip is completed and eBay the stove (props to Karin for that suggestion).
- Buy stove at destination. Ship back when done or donate it.
- Or purchase an inexpensive stove, pack it in its original box, and give it away when you are done with the trip. The slight weight penalty is made up for by the easier logistics for some.
- Fuel – Don’t even think about packing white gas or fuel canisters! And alcohol may be dicey depending on the individual agent or airline. Purchase when you arrive. Naturally, canisters can be less common so research the area ahead of time. But, if you are flying into a major metro area or even a smaller municipality with an active outdoor community, you should be able to find canisters or white gas.
- Bear Spray – People are increasingly worried about bears. To the point where the Colorado-based Costcos sell bear spray…when there are black bears only in the state! You can not transport bear spray via air travel per the TSA website.
If you prefer having bear spray:
- Purchase in your place of destination. Locations in Alaska, Montana, British Columbia, etc. all have stores that sell bear spray nearby.
- Want to ship it ahead? Ground transport by USPS is allowed domestically via ORM-D regs: “ Bear spray is classified as a hazardous good and may not be delivered by regular mail. Bear spray can only be shipped as Other Regulated Materials-Domestic (ORM-D).”; but that is a lot of potential paperwork and hassle. And the local postal official may not even be aware of the legality as evidenced by their reluctance to ship fuel canisters in some cases (for example).
- Another possible option is to purchase the bear spray online and have it sent ahead. Let Amazon or another retailer do the paperwork for you! Naturally, contact the place where you wish to mail the bear spray ahead of time for details and to see if they are OK with receiving your package.
Traveling by bus or trains?
Traveling by bus or train is much more straightforward than by plane. No long security lines, less hassle, and generally more relaxed policies. Of course, bus and train travel does take longer and is not always as convenient compared to air travel. And sometimes, esp long bus rides, the journey itself can be ah, “interesting.” 🙂
Overall, Greyhound and Amtrak have similar policies. Luckily fewer headaches, too. (Amtrak does require a knife to be sheathed in checked luggage).The rules are substantially the same as flying regarding carry-on vs. checked luggage and similar restrictions (fuel, bear spray) but without the possible caveats of individual airlines policies or agents interpreting the rules differently. Less hassle through security in general.
The major difference overall between taking a bus or trains vs. flying? Much easier to pack a stove or empty fuel bottle via checked luggage vs. airlines.
Countries outside of the US will have different policies. So research for your country of destination or departing. Canada, for example, has (from what I can tell) identical Greyhound rules. But defers to the airlines for camp stoves and otherwise has the same policies as the US.
Overall summary for traveling:
With some planning, and a willingness to part with a duffle bag or perhaps shipping ahead some items, packing gear for traveling when not using an automobile does not have to be difficult.
Bringing a use-only once duffle bag, such as found on eBay surplus stores, or a large gym bag is still my go-to suggestion be it by bus, train, or plane: Inexpensive, protects your gear, does not stick out like your backpack, and is easy to transport.
Keep the bag of course if using a rental car at your travel destination. Use it for the flight back.
- Check your stove, tent poles, stakes, hiking poles, knife or anything sharp or pointy.
- Remember the stove caveats for flying as detailed above
- Carry-on your electronics, travel sized toiletries, clothing, and any paperwork-type items.
- A lighter is probably OK for flying; better to buy when you arrive
- Fuel of any sort is prohibited. Buy on location.
- Bear spray looks to be banned be it by plane, train, or bus. Buy on location (easiest) or ship ahead commercially or via ORM-D USPS ground shipping.
Happy Traveling to your happy trails!
This song has absolutely nothing to do with any traveling I am intending. But it is a great version of a classic sea shanty. Give it a listen!