I frequently see in online forums people asking questions about flying with backpacking equipment to distant hiking places. Having done so over two dozen times I thought I would condense all of the tips I have learned over the years as well all of the associated dos and don’ts, especially since 9/11/2001 changed air travel.
I try to take every detail into consideration so that the trip from home to the trailhead is as fast, smooth and easy as possible with the fewest possible screw ups so I am assured of a great and trouble free backpacking trip which is why I am going in the first place.
My typical trip is one to two weeks long and we will be renting a car or someone I am hiking with will pick me up with their vehicle. This is an important distinction in planning because I will have an easy place to leave any extra stuff while out hiking, in the car, in contrast to those who might be flying to do a long thru hike or long trips where they are living out of their packs for months at a time while traveling around and most likely not returning to the same airport or city.
Airlines and airports
Most of my trips to backpack have been from the East coast (North Carolina) to the desert Southwest but I have also flown to many other places in the US and Europe. I essentially will only fly Southwest Airlines domestically unless they do not serve the airport I want to fly into. The key point here is that you can check two bags for free, if you compare what looks like a cheap fare with another airline and then add the checked baggage fees most times you will end up paying more. The reason this is important is that unless you ship things ahead of time to your destination (an unneeded and equally costly pain) you will have to check certain items which I will cover below.
The other reason to fly Southwest is that, for me, they have always been reliable and on time (I have had only one flight with a substantial delay of several hours due to mechanical issues) and they have large planes with large overhead bins. If I have to fly another carrier it would be Delta. United is the bottom of the list.
With Southwest you do have to check in up to 24 hours in advance to get the highest boarding number which I do as close to the 24 hour mark on the flight out but usually pay for the Early Bird check in on the way back as I may not be in cell phone range 24 hours in advance. This assures that I will have the aisle seat that I prefer on long flights and plenty of open overhead bin space on full flights.
I have flown into San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas to backpack. The cheapest airports to fly into are San Antonio, Albuquerque and Las Vegas. When looking at flights I have three things, besides price, that I consider. First- non-stop or one stop only flights offer less chance they will lose my checked baggage on the way out (less of an issue on the way back). Two- if there is a stop and plane change, and generally there is, I want a long enough layover time to both make the next plane and for them to get my checked bags over to that plane, anything less than 30 minutes is bad, 45 is about the sweet spot. Third- In the winter I want to fly through a southern airport which reduces the chances of delays or other weather related issues, summer is less of an issue but you might want to pass on places like Dallas which routinely have bad thunderstorms.