Packing for a backpack trip requiring air travel

Travel by air to a backpacking destination requires some additional planning and organization as well as awareness of the baggage restrictions of the country(ies) that you are traveling from and to. This article is intended to share some ideas and information that could prove helpful as you prepare for your trip.

Carry-on and checked baggage restrictions

At airports in the U.S., Transportation Safety Administration rules include the following restrictions on common backpacking gear:

  • Trekking poles must be carried in checked baggage; can’t be carried on.
  • Sharp objects including knives, blade razors, hatchets and ice axes must be carried in checked baggage; can’t be carried on. Scissors that are metal with pointed tips and a blade longer than four inches are not allowed in carry-on or checked baggage; shorter or rounded-point scissors are allowed in checked baggage (watch your first aid kit!).
  • Compressed gases, flammables and aerosols including canister fuel, white gas, denatured alcohol, strike-anywhere matches and pepper sprays > 4 oz are not allowed in carry-on or checked baggage. These must be purchased at your destination. (Small cigarette lighters, normal matches and small containers of aerosol toiletries can be carried on; One 4 fl. oz. container of pepper spray is permitted in checked baggage if it has a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge.)
  • Firearms and ammunition are prohibited in carry-on baggage but may be checked.
  • Liquids, creams or pastes in quantities under 3.4 ounces can be carried on if they can fit in a single clear quart-size plastic bag.
  • TSA also limits the quantity of most liquid or gel food items (yogurt, creamy dips/cheeses, syrup, jelly, soup, alcohol) to 3.4oz in your carry-on baggage, but you can carry any quantity in your checked bag as long as you meet luggage weight restrictions.
  • For a more complete list of baggage restrictions from the TSA, go to the following link:

Luggage weight restrictions

For most major airlines the weight limit for each checked bag for economy passengers is 50 pounds (23 kg) with a maximum dimension (sum of length+width+height) of 62 inches including wheels and handles (higher weight allowance for military and premium passengers). In general, heavier bags are allowed on the plane but excess baggage charges will apply. For carry-ons, passengers are generally allowed one bag no greater than 9 inches x 14 inches x 22 inches including handles and wheels, plus one ‘personal item’ such as a shoulder bag, backpack, laptop bag or other small item of maximum dimensions 9 inches x 10 inches x 17 inches.

Smaller carriers and some domestic flights on larger carriers often apply lower weight limits. Be sure to check the baggage weight limits for each of your flights before you leave home for the airport, to avoid a mad scramble at the check-in desk or gate.

 Packing your gear for the plane

Two major strategies are often used, with variations:

  1. Check your loaded backpack as checked luggage, with or without an additional separate checked bag. Carry on a small daypack or duffel with a few items that you could not easily replace or do without if your checked luggage was lost or significantly delayed (boots for example).
  2. Carry your backpack as your main carry-on with some lighter and less bulky gear loaded in it, and check a separate bag with the remainder of your gear. Wear your boots or carry them on in your backpack along with any items that you couldn’t easily replace or do without at your destination.

If you plan to use a large backpack (usually anything over 60L or with a large rigid frame) that can’t readily fit front-to-back in an overhead bin, then the first strategy is your best option. You might consider loading your backpack for the plane as you would load it for the trail (of course without the water or stove fuel) to save yourself the time of repacking when you arrive, then pack your separate checked bag with items that you will wear or use only in town before or after your trip, as well as items that might be stored or dropped off as a resupply.  Pack straps can catch on things during loading and unloading of the plane and can take a beating; to minimize the chance of damage, when you check it in you should buckle your straps tightly around the pack, put the pack into a heavy-duty garbage bag tied with a twist-tie (the check in desk at the airport will often have these), use one of the baggage wrapping services available at the airport, or place your pack inside of a larger duffel. Of course be sure that your name and contact phone number are clearly marked on a label on the outside.

If you use a smaller backpack with an internal frame, it can usually be used as your carry-on bag even if the length of the pack is technically an inch or two longer than the stated limit, as long as you don’t stuff it full for the trip. Load your backpack with your boots and some of your other small or readily compressible gear items such as sleeping bag, clothing, or tent (keeping to the list of items allowed in carry-on baggage of course). With this strategy, you don’t need to worry about damage to your pack during loading and unloading of the plane, but more of your gear will have to be checked in a duffel or other bag and loaded into your pack after you get to your destination.

For your ‘personal item’, you might carry a ‘pocket daypack’ (such as the Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil, )that could also serve duty as an ultralight pack for side trips during your backpack itinerary, or any small compact bag. In this bag, put those things that you will want to have with you or within easy reach at your seat on the plane.

Packing food for your trip

Some destination countries severely limit the food items that are allowed into the country through customs. This means when you are packing for a backpack trip to such countries you will need to purchase those food items after you arrive. Usually commercially sealed foods in their original store packaging are allowed but not always, especially when it comes to some vegetables, fruits and meats. Be sure to check the customs and biosecurity regulations for your destination country with plenty of time to make your plans.   Actually, it is often quite easy to shop for your backpack food at supermarkets and specialty shops after you arrive, and you will often find some tasty and interesting items that aren’t available at home. Bring plenty of zip-loc bags with you because you will want to break down store-bought items into smaller quantities and discard bulky packaging.

If you are not restricted by food import limitations at your destination, it’s a good idea to shop in advance for your backpack food or make it at home. This is the best way to be disciplined about the weight and calorie efficiency of your food, saves money, and allows you to bring home-made items. Again, be sure to repackage purchased food items into single-meal zip-loc bags and get rid of bulky packaging (including those foil pouches used for freeze dried meals – bring just one, repackage the rest of your freeze dried meals into zip-locs, and re-use the one foil bag as a cozy for rehydrating the rest of your meals along your trip.) If you will be resupplying along your trip, you may want to bag up up your ‘first carry’ and your individual resupply bags into separate labeled stuff sacks at home and load them that way into your checked bag to minimize the hassle at your destination.

This article is a work in progress based on personal experience. Some methods will work better than others for different people. Look for updates in this information as time goes on!