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 but I have suggestions for that below.
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 earliest/lowest 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. An early boarding number 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 four 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 a concern 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 (maybe longer with the current 2022 airline problems). 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. Four- I try to avoid the major hub airports like Atlanta, Dallas and Chicago which can have more schedule and cancelled flight troubles.
I have already talked about seasons but the time of day to fly is important to reliability. In general the first flights of the day are the most on time because the plane has been sitting there all night. The farther into the day the more likely it is the airlines have issues that can back things up causing delays or missed connections. For years I would take the first flight in the morning, like 5:30 or 6:00, that met my needs. That would get us into the western destination airport early enough to get on the road and make it to our hiking area by nightfall but it makes for a really long day and that is if everything goes well. The drives from airport to trailhead are typically 3 to 8 hours or more.
Lately and mostly because I have a 45 minute drive to the airport and hate getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning, I have been flying out later in the day and getting to my destination airport midday or early evening and staying somewhere nearby and then drive to the trip area or trailhead the next day. This a much more leisurely approach and it allows time either the day I fly in or the next day for buying fuel canisters and last minute food stuffs, getting permits, caching food and water or other logistics before getting to the trailhead and either getting a late start on the trail that day or an early start for a full trail day the next morning. This adds a day to the total trip, which when younger I did not have the luxury of either the time or money it requires, but it is much more civilized. I make sure I have a good amount of layover time for connecting flights if flying in the afternoon.
On the way back home I am usually staying right near the airport and have to return the rental car so I still take an early morning flight and get home at a decent hour.
I try to fly mid-week and avoid holidays both for the cheaper plane tickets and the chaos associated with weekends and holidays; less chance of delays, missed connections and lost bags.
If you are meeting others who are also flying into the destination airport you will have to coordinate times but know that you will have to build in extra time and that people coming in from the west will not be able to arrive as early in the day as you can from the east, you can sometimes use that lag time to go and get the rental car.
Remember to take changes in time zones into your planning. Generally I am flying just one or two time zones over and gaining some extra time but an extreme example is flying into Las Vegas and driving back east to Utah or Arizona where you fly into Pacific time and drive back to Mountain time or in the case of Arizona, which doesn’t recognize daylight savings time, it is Pacific time in the summer and Mountain time in the winter. This became really tricky on one trip to southern Utah when we were meeting a shuttle in Arizona to be driven up into Utah on the weekend that the time changed. We had to make very sure with the shuttle driver exactly what hour we were to meet him, Mountain time or Pacific time.
As either the first or second most expensive cost in a trip it is important to consider both the kind of vehicle and which airport. I usually plan my trips so that I can reach the trailhead with a passenger car as they are cheaper to rent and get better gas mileage. We have rented SUVs a few times in the past due to certain trailhead issues but because the car will just be sitting for a week or more, we want the cheapest option possible. Know that most rental car agreements don’t allow you to take them off of pavement, even SUV’s.
Sometimes it pays to change airports to get a less expensive rental car. Austin can have slightly less expensive flights but more expensive rental cars than San Antonio so I will price both when going to Big Bend. Similarly Las Vegas and Albuquerque have both cheap flights and cars but Phoenix and Salt Lake City more expensive cars. This mostly has to do with what State and local use taxes are added to the cars, at least this was true before the pandemic
Carry On and Checked bags
I prefer to carry on so that I know I will have my stuff when I land, on overseas flights we always carry on our bags for the flight over but we are not backpacking. Technically there are certain backpacking items that cannot be carried on and have to be checked.
On backpacking trips I divide my gear and supplies into two bags and a small day pack. In a soft sided rolling suitcase I carry on all of my specialized and expensive gear and clothing, anything that I cannot easily replace at my destination. In the day pack I carry all of my electronics, lighters, compass, maps, guidebooks, permits and other important small stuff. In a large duffle bag I pack all of the things that cannot be carried on and are fairly easily replaced if the bag is lost.
If my checked bag is delayed or lost and I don’t want to or can’t wait for it I can always go to local sources to buy what I need and go on with the trip. The lost bag will show up eventually and if really lost then they will pay for what was in it, make sure you document what is in the checked bag. I have never had a bag lost, ever, but I do know people who have.
Size of the allowable carry on is important. The general official size is 22”X16”X9”. Southwest allows up to 24” and I have certainly seen plenty of carry-on bags bigger than these dimensions. The length is the critical factor and might be a reason to buy or use a pack that is less than 22” long so you can carry it on if you want to. My main desert pack has a 26” frame so it is the one “important” piece of gear that I have to check in my duffle bag but when I can use my frameless pack then I will put that in my carry-on bag.
What can’t you carry on?
For the official list here is the TSA guidance but for backpacking purposes I will break it down into three levels.
Cannot be on the plane on at all– Bear spray, fuel and fuel canisters, strike anywhere matches. These you will have to purchase at your destination, period. Interestingly you can check pepper spray but not bear spray.
Items you have to check– anything pointy, spikey, sharp. Tent poles and stakes, hiking poles, knives, ices axes and crampons. I have heard of plenty of people who packed their poles and stakes in their pack and carried it on without any troubles but I have also heard of folks who had to check them or lose them. It is generally best to check your food and certainly liquids as many times it looks like plastic explosives on the X-ray machines. If you carry on food, separate it out when going through the TSA checkpoints.
Be prepared for the TSA to go through your checked bag, especially food. If you have it packed in a bear can, leave the lid unlocked so they can easily get into it. They will leave you a nice note in your bag if they do and I have only had them inspect mine a couple of times.
The bottom line here is don’t mess with the TSA, it is not worth it, as they can delay you and ruin your trip, just follow their rules.
Items you can carry on– everything else is fine including stoves as long as they do not smell like fuel. Lighters and lithium batteries must be carried on, they do not want them in the airplane cargo hold.
Packing for the trip out
As I gather my equipment and supplies for a trip I check them off my list as they go in their respective bags. I am going a long way from home, for a long time and certainly want to make sure I have everything I need when I get there.
In the day pack or sometimes a soft briefcase go all the electronics (camera, batteries, battery pack, chargers, cables, headlamps, etc.), maps, lighters, compass (doesn’t like the pressure changes in the airplane cargo hold) and other sensitive things. Written materials, permits, guidebooks, plane tickets etc. Anything I want easy access to while flying, it goes under the seat in front of me.
Into the carry-on rolling bag go all of my expensive down, special clothing like sunshirts, wide brimmed hats, my inflatable sleeping pad, my cook kit with pot and stove (they have asked to look at it once), rain gear, gaiters, frameless pack. Again anything that would be hard to impossible to replace at my destination and would make the trip difficult to complete without.
The duffle bag is packed strategically to handle the abuse it might get by baggage handlers. It starts with a closed cell foam pad on the outside for general protection of the contents, the poles and other long skinny things go in next, disassembled so the sharp points are not near the ends of the bag. If I am using a framed pack that goes in next, the poles below it will help protect the frame. The core is filled with food, water bottles, city clothes, spare shoes, first aid, repair (with small knife) and toiletry kits, the ends are packed with soft items. The duffle bag I use is over 40 years old and still fine but I do put an additional strap around the middle to reinforce the zipper. It can hold two bear canisters. All of this, other than the pack and bear canister, I can easily replace if it gets lost. Both bags have a luggage tag with my cell number.
The duffle bag handles slip over the extended roller bag handle for easy transport around the airport and hotels, an ease factor not to be discounted. Here it is in the hotel room ready for the trip back to the airport. With the briefcase instead of the day pack.
I spend the evening, after I have arrived, packing my pack for the trip, usually in a hotel room or possibly a campground. Once done, everything that stays behind fits neatly into the rolling bag to be stored in the car.
For Thru hikers and open ended travelers
If one is traveling and using public transportation they can easily find someplace that will hold their extra bag for them. A very minimal approach would be to use your pack as your carry on (if it fits in the overhead bin) and check a small, light, duffle that is easy to carry with you on the backpacking trip or to store somewhere or a disposable package like a cardboard box or mailing tube and buy food when you arrive.
If you need to or have to check your packed backpack make sure you put it into a duffle or a bag of some kind, even if it is plastic, as conveyer belts and baggage handlers can destroy a pack with straps hanging off of it.
Packing for the trip home
On the way home I check both bags because if they get delayed they will get them to me eventually, I only carry on the day pack. I pack similarly but with less rigor and make sure they are balanced. If I am bringing things back home that I have purchased there it will determine what goes where and how protected it has to be.
Food and other supplies
Some people like to wait and buy their food once they land but unless it is a long and disjointed trip I like to prepare all of my food at home and bring it with me. This way I can take and eat what I know and like and I don’t have to spend the time shopping for and prepping food there. We will stop and buy some last minute things like cheese and road food.
As I mentioned above you will have to buy bear spray and stove fuel at your destination. Gas canisters can be gotten in lots of places like Academy Sports, Dicks and other local shops. If there is an REI then I will stop there if convenient on the way out of town. Where ever I get gas canisters I call ahead and have them hold them for me. I have had occasions where I showed up at an REI or other location and they were out and we had to scramble to find some.
Again I try and make the trip from home to the trailhead as fast, smooth and easy as possible with the fewest foreseeable hold ups. My goal is to be rolling and out of town in a few hours or less of landing unless I spend the night close by.
With this approach over many flights and years I have never lost a bag or arrived at my destination without all my critical gear, missed a connection, had a trip delayed by more than an hour or so nor have I had any issue with TSA.
Key take away’s
- Fly Southwest Airlines
- Compare airports and rental cars for overall cost
- Allow time for connections
- Carry on your sensitive and important gear
- Check your food, easily replaced gear and items that are not allowed to be carried on
- Plan ahead and secure permits, fuel and other needs
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