It’s fun to go backpacking that starts out as a long drive to a scenic location. It’s more fun to do it when you expect to trek around in an exotic location that requires you to board a plane to reach your destination.
What to do about all of the gear you stash in your backpack that’s necessary to maintain you during your hikes? Bring some of it. Leave some of it. But can you take a hiking backpack for a carry-on?
Here’s what I discovered:
Yes, you can carry a backpack full of gear in an overhead bin or beneath your seat. But apply due diligence when packing since every carrier has its own carry-on rules, and you don’t want to start your adventure on a negative note.
What size hiking backpack can you carry on?
Having already checked with your airline and told them that you’re going backpacking at your destination, your service agent will be happy to provide you with a recommended size. If she fails to do so, you’re on your own, so here’s the skinny: Backpack sizes range in size between 18 and 85+ liters and tend to be categorized as small and very large (65L). You could have a problem getting an 85L bag on board unless you check it.
Read more: Best Hiking Backpacks Under $100
Mid-range (35L to 45L) backpacks are ideal and will likely be accepted as a carry-on. In general, carriers allow anything measuring no more than 22- x 14- x 9-inches into the cabin. This standard may not hold true for budget airlines that tend to be pickier about what’s allowed in overhead bins and under seats, say experts writing for the Tortuga Backpacks.
TSA Regulations for hiking backpacks
While the TSA hasn’t updated its website page related to carrying backpacks onboard since 2014, we understand that gate agents don’t “regulate the size of carry-on baggage,” and they advise passengers to put their backpacks into plastic bags or bins during security check-ins, so straps don’t get caught in conveyor belts. That stated, the contents of your bag are a different matter.
Anything that can be used as a weapon (e.g., camping knives and axes) isn’t permitted in the cabin, nor are trekking and hiking poles or propane tanks. Tools and utensils can’t measure more than 7-inches. For a full assessment of items that can and can’t be brought on board as carry-on or checked luggage, compare items on this TSA page to the items you are thinking about bringing along.
How to sort out a hiking backpack for plane travel
If it’s to be your first international backpacking trip, the following tips will be lifesavers for you, so adopt all of them, courtesy of experts at the Section Hiker website who are eager to make sure your gear “does not get lost, destroyed by luggage handlers, stolen or confiscated by airport security.”
1. Resist the urge to buy a tricked-out backpack that will be too burdensome and awkward on the trail.
2. If you know where you will stay, pack items that won’t pass muster with security and ship the box to your arrival destination via UPS, FedEx or another shipper.
3. Don’t check your backpack unless it’s filled with items guaranteed to be rejected. Take the advice of the Section Hiker folks: “suck it up and pay extra for carry-on luggage if your airline charges extra for it.”
4. If you check your backpack, put it into a duffle bag to protect outer pockets, straps and fittings.
5. Set aside money to purchase toiletries and mundane items after you arrive at your destination.
6. Wear your the bulkiest items in your wardrobe on the plane to save space in your backpack.
7. Stow essential, irreplaceable items on your person (medicine, cash, cards, etc.).
8. Organize items to maximize space using stuff sacks and vacuum sealed bags.
9. Pack things that are important (e.g., travel documents; phone charger) last for fast retrieval.
10. Find more excellent tips here.
Can you take along a daypack as your carry-on?
While the TSA no longer publishes their definition of personal items, daypacks tend to be one of the most frequently designated personal items carried on by flyers. That stated, every airline is different, so you are wise to ask the ticketing agent whether your daypack qualifies as a carry on when you buy your airline tickets.
Can you carry bear repellent in your carry-on?
Bear repellent is not allowed in either carry-on or checked luggage. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while bear spray isn’t permitted, hikers can bring a 4-ounce can of mace or pepper spray in a checked bag.
“If you need bear spray, the TSA suggests you buy it at your destination and leave it behind when your trip is over. That’s true of your fuel, lighters, matches, fire starters, and bear spray – all can be purchased” at one’s destination, say government officials.
What about the essential gear needed to sustain your hike?
While the word essential is relative, hikers require a specific collection of items if they are to survive in the wilderness, but many of these are enough to get one pulled over by airport security since they’re not permitted in backpacks under any circumstance.
This means that gasoline, “strike anywhere” matches, flare guns and camp stoves, weapons and ammunition are verboten, as are matchlite charcoal and sterno. Camp stoves and fuel are permissible on some airlines, but the stove’s condition could cause it to be rejected.
Items you can bring in your carry on
Believe it or not, lots of airlines will let you bring a tent as a carry-on, but you can’t bring stakes. Flashlights are allowed, and while hikers are not encouraged to bring poles, frequent flyer-hikers have been known to slide them into a piece of PVC pipe or document/poster tube, tape both ends, and shove them into a backpack, say bloggers writing for the Embracing the Wind website. Don’t discount the idea of renting items you need for your hike once you reach your destination.
What if you push the rules and get caught?
Given the changing nature of the travel industry where rules and regulations are reset on a regular basis to contend with terrorism threats, Covid-19, and other crises that impact air travel, plenty of hikers still take a chance on pushing the rules and you could be one of them.
We’re not here to judge; just a word of warning, because even if you have been traveling with your poles as a carry-on for decades, there may come a time when you get caught, say bloggers writing for The Trek website.
If you find yourself in these circumstances, fess up, be polite, patient, and don’t try to justify your actions because you could wind up digging yourself into a hole and possibly miss your flight. Agents working for the TSA are not targeting you; they’re trying to keep everyone safe. You can contribute to that effort by playing by the rules, so you don’t start your overseas hiking adventure on a sour note.