Learning how to pack for backpacking when flying can put more destinations within your reach! Here are tips for meeting the challenges.
Are you planning a backpacking trip?
For us, we prefer to go backpacking when we can do it as part of a road trip, without flying. But that doesn't always work out.
Backpacking via plane is definitely more complicated than taking a road trip, but it also opens up a lot more destination options, especially when your travel time is limited.
For instance, when we had two weeks to travel, we drove our own car (with all our gear) to Colorado and did this Elk Park to Needleton backpacking route in the San Juan Mountains. More recently though, with only one week to travel, we hopped on a plane to backpack the West Rim in Zion National Park.
If the thought of taking a flight to go hiking and camping seems daunting at first, don't worry!
With enough planning, it may very well be something that can work for you. Here are some ideas for how to pack for backpacking when flying.
What Bags Can Be Carry-on vs. Personal vs. Checked?
You should always double-check the bag dimensions that your specific airline allows for each option. In general, though, this is what we’ve found to work well:
Use a daypack backpack (like my Osprey day pack).
If your daypack includes a water bladder, it’s probably easiest to remove the water bladder and pack it separately.
Backpacking packs typically work as a carry-on. Depending on the size of your pack, you might need to avoid packing it completely full so that it’s not too large for the specific airline’s carry-on dimensions.
Obviously it would be difficult to carry more than one backpack while traveling, so you'll want to decide early on whether you're going to use a backpack as a personal item or a carry-on, and choose a different kind of bag for the other.
Checked Bag Options + Tips
For a checked bag, we prefer to use a standard suitcase or large duffel.
If packing long items (such as trekking poles) in the suitcase, check ahead of time to make sure everything fits.
A word of caution if you're thinking about checking your backpacking pack: If you do, make sure to secure the backpack straps before checking to avoid accidental damage to the straps.
Backpacking gear can be heavy, even when you’re using mostly ultra-light (or light-ish) gear. Weigh your checked bags before leaving to avoid extra baggage fees. Bringing a small portable luggage scale is also a good idea.
How to Pack for Backpacking When Flying: What Goes In Which Bag?
Since airlines typically charge per bag and charge different prices for carry-on and checked bags, it’s important to know what type of items can go in which bag.
Again, it's always a good idea to double-check the regulations for the specific airline you're using, but in general these guidelines apply.
Items That Go In a Personal Item or Carry-On
Anything with a lithium battery, such as a portable charger, headlamp, or GPS should be with you in the airplane cabin.
Items That Go In a Checked Bag
The following items are generally not allowed in the airplane cabin, and must be placed in a checked bag:
- Trekking poles
- Anything with sharp edges, such as a hatchet (sharp edges must be wrapped) or tent stakes
What Must Be Purchased After the Flight
The following items generally are not allowed on an airplane at all.
- Butane (or any type of fuel) for a backpacking stove
- Lighter with fuel (which I use as a backup for my stove’s automatic lighter at high elevation)
- Bear spray
After the trip, how can you dispose of partially used fuel canisters or other camp gear that you can’t fly with?
We’ve had success donating partially used items to local camp stores before leaving for home.
Skip the Checked Bag + Ship Items Ahead
Another option is to mail items to a location near your destination.
Keep in mind that, just as you can't fly with certain items, there are also items that cannot be mailed.
What About Renting Gear?
Renting gear is an amazing option, especially if you can find what you need at a good price. Here are some things to keep in mind.
Confirm that rentals are available before you go. If possible, reserve the gear ahead of time. Just because a gear shop's website lists an item as available doesn’t mean it will be available.
Confirm that the gear rental location allows you to use the gear you’re renting for the activity you plan to use it for. For example, in Zion, some gear shops will rent water hiking gear for the Narrows but not for the Subway, where you’re more likely to tear up their gear climbing over rocks.
If you’re renting gear, try to rent the gear that’s the most difficult to pack, or that would require you to pay for a checked bag (such as trekking poles).
Want to try out a higher-end piece of gear, but aren’t sure yet about buying it for yourself? This is your chance to see if high-end rental options are available!
Should I Pack My Backpacking Food When Flying?
It depends! We like to take freeze-dried meals on our backpacking trips, and it’s not always easy to find my favorite ones in stock, so I typically bring them along in our luggage.
Also keep in mind that outdoor gear shops near popular locations (such as national parks) will likely charge more than major retailers (such as Walmart or REI).
That said, some food is usually easy to find closer to your destination.
On our last trip, we stopped at a local grocery store and picked up oatmeal, coffee and a few other essentials.
It did take a few tries to find the Nespresso capsules (or similar style, like Peet's Nespresso pods) that we needed, so next time I’ll probably pack those too unless I know I’ll be near a major grocer.
How Do I Get From the Airport to the Backpacking Trail?
This one will totally depend on location, but here are some options.
In the past, we’ve had friends or family pick us up at the airport — obviously the cheapest option!
Renting a car is one of the simplest options (logistics-wise), but is also usually the priciest option. In some places, you might be able to find a more affordable car using Turo, a car sharing service where car owners set their own rates and will often deliver the vehicle for free to an airport.
We’ve also had success using Uber (or whatever ride share option is available) to get from the airport to our destination.
Are you figuring out how to pack for backpacking when flying and have questions that we missed? Or do you have more traveler tips? Let us know in the comments!