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Stratagies for protecting backpack as checked luggage?

What do you guys do when you have a trip when you must take you're pack as checked luggage with the airlines? I'm a bit worried that if I check my pack alone (external frame) and it gets tossed and lands on the frame, the frame will likely brake under the weight of a full pack. Not a good way to start a trip.

I'm thinking about getting an over sized duffel bag and putting an empty pack in there and packing all my gear around the bag for padding. Does anyone have any strategies that they use on trips involving airline travel?

That is what I do on the very few commercial flights I take. I wrap my expedition size packs in a huge nylon duffel bag, pad with gear and put the whole works inside a giant, in-expenive MEC zipper duffle. I have my name, etc. on this and it has done very well,so far.

I have been doing a fair amount of international travel for expeditions over the past 10 or 15 years, where I have to carry climbing, ski, and/or camping gear (including the "sharpies" that glacier travel and ice climbing require), things like skis, poles, snowshoes, ice axes and tools, crampons, etc. And I often have to get the stove and cook gear there as well. I haven't had anything damaged (yet!) or lost (yet!), although people in my groups have occasionally had problems with the baggage gorillas and conveyors (though more frequently with the airline getting the bags there late or losing them completely). Here's what I do:

1. Ski gear (skis, poles) goes in purpose-made ski carry bags. Ski gear and other "sports" gear is subject to special rules for the airlines (you can even take kayaks!)
2. Old style - I used to put the pack, containing most of the clothes, sleeping gear, tent, and cook gear (except stoves - see below), plus sharpies in a sturdy Outdoor Products duffle. My "blue foam" sleeping pad gets wrapped around the gear inside the duffle, and all sharpies are in cases or have covers over the points. This was checked as regular baggage. After a couple years, I started taking the down gear (sleeping bag, down parka, down pants) and the waterproof/breathable outer layers (shell jacket and pants) in my carryon, just to make sure they would get there, and I wear the boots (a bit of a nuisance with the TSA requirement of removing shoes, but then I know the boots and down gear get there, especially places where there are no good climbing shops that have double plastic boots with thermofit liners or the down gear, such as Punta Arenas, the jumpoff for Antarctica). Since then, the weight limit per bag has gone down, as has the "dimension" of each bag (exceeding these results in huge "overage" charges these days). I started getting worried when I would watch the baggage gorillas out the window of the plane as they loaded or transferred bags. So I went to:
3. New Style (last 5 years or so) - I use an Eagle Creek roll-around bag instead of the soft duffle. Because of the weight and size limits, I sometimes split the gear into the Eagle Creek and a medium duffle. The rollaround has a solid back frame, which protects the sharpies, snow shoes, and hiking poles, and is a lot easier to move around the airport and to and from the rental vehicle or public transportation (as my son and I did in Italy last year). This model of rollaround does not seem to be available anymore, and the one we got for Barb just before our Alaska photo and Denali trip is a bit harder to insert her Dana Terraplane. My Eagle Creek rollaround is nominally 3 inches larger than the current 62-inch limit, but cinching it tightly has so far gotten it past the checkin counters (the size limit is measured as length plus width plus depth, and is something like 62 inches - I find this method of measuring the geometric dimension incomprehensible as to the logic - why not volume?). If I am taking skis, I have to stick with just the one rollaround. And now, with United and some others allowing only one checked bag free for those of us flying on the tail, unlike the rich folk who ride in the front of the cabin, it gets hard to carry all the gear needed for an expedition.

Stoves are a special situation. The airlines differ in their rules, but none allow fuel (either liquid or compressed gas) or stoves or containers that smell of fuel. Some allow stoves and/or fuel bottles that pass the "sniff test" and have no carbon deposits or other indications of use (so you have to clean the stove thoroughly). Some allow new stoves in their original shrink-wrap commercial packaging. Some (most notably Alaska Airlines) do not allow stoves or fuel bottles at all. Check with the airline (you will get different answers from the website, on the phone, and at the airport checkin counter quite often). So what I have been doing is shipping my stoves and fuel bottles (empty, of course) by FedEx or UPS, depending on the destination and their service there. In some cases, you can ship it to yourself at the shipper's office in the town you are going to (I have done this in some foreign countries), but often you have to ship it to someone you know (which can be the hotel you will be staying at, a friend who lives there, or if you are using a guide service, to the guide service office).

I suspect you are more likely to be headed for something lower key than the expeditions I have been going on, but the basic idea of pack inside the duffle or rollaround will still work just fine. You might have a problem finding a rollaround with a hard frame wide enough to take your external frame pack (in my first few trips to Europe as a student, I just checked my Kelty (original version) without the duffle or other protective outer cover. After seeing a few straps ripped off other people's packs, I got a duffle and just put the frame pack inside it (I see lots of packs coming off the conveyors at airports with straps ripped off and have seen a few actually get caught on the conveyors).

More than you wanted to know, but you should be able to extract the information pertinent to your situation.

What Bill said.
Also remember that the airlines (most cases) have dropped the max weight limit per bag to 50# and now some are charging extra for anything over 1 checked bag. Call your airline to get details or better yet find the info on their website and print it to take with you to the check in. Lot's of the agents are misguided in their interpretation/memory of the rules so you'll have their own rules with you to refresh them with.

glad I don't work for an airline anymore.

I'm a manager with an airline --- the external frame packs hold up a lot better with our gorillas than the internals. I've watched rampers for other airlines *SNAP* internals to shreds cause they grab whatever is handy to throw the bag from the cart to the bag belt, or vice versa... at least with an external they see the metal frame and grab that.

If you don't pack it in a duffel bag, I've seen boy scouts use duct tape and trash bags.... not sure how "fashionable" you'll feel in line with that (Unless you are flying USAirways.. hah).

I just flew Knoxville (AT was FUN!!) - Ft. Lauderdale on Allegiant and took my internal - I felt comfortable with everything lashed on, made sure my water bottles were secured via the load compression straps, and everything was double-secured. TSA didn't touch my whisperlight (thank god) nor anything else *whew*. Pack made it back in same shape i dropped it off in!

good luck!

Some airlines, such as Westjet in Canada, will provide large, clear, durable, plastic bags to protect your pack - be sure to ask if your airline provides them when booking your tickets.

travelnate, it's good to have an industry insider's view. Keep reading and posting. This type of question comes up all the time.

I'm curious how you got away without TSA confiscating the stove. I have heard of people "getting away with" stoves in their checked luggage. But I also have had the experience of having an "extra" inspection triggered by the "sharpies" in the bags, and about a quarter of the time traveling with climbing and backpacking gear finding my indicator-type TSA lock on the duffel showing "RED" (indicates that TSA opened the bag) along with a card in the bag saying they had inspected it (nothing ever confiscated, though - apparently on the return flights, they are put off by the "aged for 30 days" stinky long johns and socks that I put right on the top). Returning from foreign destinations, I have also had the Agriculture people (who stand alongside the Customs folks) ask about whether I had been on farms (since they spot the boots in the duffel - I usually pack them in the duffel on the return trip, but wear them on the outbound trip, since I can't easily buy climbing boots at the destination).

Maybe that's one of the privileges that airline employees get? Like free tickets for themselves and family members?

Bill, I don't think stoves & emtpy fuel cannisters are an issue with the TSA (couldn't find it on their website) but an issue with the respective airline.

Free flgiht for airline employees comes with a cost such as unexpected hotel stays and extra days off when you can't get an empty seat, endless hours in airports waiting for said empty seat (multiply that by the size of your family traveling w/you and it's get even more entertaining). It's worse now that some airlines (my former employer included) seem to think that it's better to sell an empty seat for 1/2 price on priceline and other online ticket sources than it is to fly it empty and get $0 for it. So there's even fewer seats available to the employee.

flying confirmed 1st class most of the time now


The first thing people don't do is tighten their shoulder harness and wrap the hip belt AROUND the backpack -- i've seen many hip belts get destroyed because they catch on something on the bag belts or bag carts.

Regarding TSA, the only stoves I've seen confiscated are the ones which have a fuel reservoir. Fuel is a big no-no (i've actually been "given" a few cans of IsoPro :)

The biggest complaint we have is when TSA does a physical search and they don't know how to repack a backpack -- I've had one of the supervisors call me before asking me to come down and help them! Not a week goes by that a TSA agent goes thru a hiker's backpack and can't get everything to fit -- that's when there is definitely a major problem. Unfortunately, some TSA agents just leave the items as "missing tag" and send the bag on its way - less whatever they can't fit.

As a possible alternative (since someone would be hard pressed to actually add something in face of all the experience so far), remember that you can mail your items to yourself general delivery and pick them up at your destination. This solution is becoming more and more viable as airlines increase baggage costs due to rising fuel cost.

One article I read stated that a TSA official stopped a tree climber from carrying his climbing rack on board because carabiners could be used as brass knuckles. My keys, cell phone, shoes, and even my carry on bag itself can be used as weapons. Where do we draw the line?

In 06 when flying to Utah, My pack(in a clear plastic bag) and a seperate wheeled bag with all of my climbing/rescue gear in it, flew without incident. Delta never even opened the bags.

Strange, I have never seen carabiners made from brass ;)

I assume the pack and bag with climbing/rescue gear was checked? Most of the time, my bags do not get opened when checked, but the times they have been were all when I had sharp tools (crampons, ice tools, ice ax) in the bag that got opened. I don't recall ever having the bag with rope, chocks, cams, carabiners, ascenders, belay devices, etc having been opened (I would know even without the note, since I use the locks with the warning indicator). The times with boots have all been returning from abroad by the agriculture people at Customs when they ran the bags through the Xray and spotted the boots, then asked me to open the bag myself.

Nate, in the Anchorage airport, there is a case displaying confiscated items. It includes several varieties of backpacking stove with the fuel container separate - screw-on canister stove tops, Whisperlite, XGK, and some others. There are a number of ulus as well ( - it has always seemed strange to me that these rather vicious Inuit knives/kitchen tools are sold at souvenir shops right there in the airport, between where you leave the check-in counter and shortly before you get to the security checkpoint.

Brass - funny!

The bags were checked. As for locks (or string, or zipties, or whatever you might use to keep your bags secure)I've heard horror stories of agents cutting the cloth of locked bags. Delta specifically told us NOT to lock them for just that reason.

I was cautioned about bringing any type of screw top fuel bottles, even if packed open, empty, and with the tops removed. Agent said explosives sniffer dogs or devices might hit on the smallest bit of residual fuel - even if the bottle is completely dry inside. I'm glad my My JetBoils (we packed 2) made it through with no problem - minus the canisters, of course. Those I purchased at Cabela's upon arrival just outside SLC.

We shipped some gear home at the end our trip though, to reduce the hassle, and lighten the load.

There should be no problem with checking locked bags IF the locks are TSA-approved. You can check this when you buy the lock, since it should be labelled "TSA-approved" on the packaging, and the lock itself should be labelled for the appropriate key. Mine are labelled TSA001 (a key-lock type), and TSA002 and TSA004 for combination types (002 is a 4-digit combo, 004 is a 3-digit combo. 001 and 002 have the key slot in the bottom and 004 has a key slot in the side). Between Barb and me, we have several of each type. They all have the official TSA "hollow box" logo on them. While I have heard of non-TSA locks and tiewraps getting cut, I haven't heard of an approved lock getting cut, plus all 4 brands of lock we have have free replacement guarantees if one gets cut (the lock, that is). I had one lock get damaged though not apparently by TSA, which the company did replace. My locks have been through a number of airports in the US, plus Canada, Mexico, Chile, Italy, and Netherlands, and my son's through England and New Zealand as well (Heathrow, at that) with no problems of cutting.

If the airline allows empty fuel bottles, and for UPS and FedEx, the best way to clear them is to wash with soap and water, then let them air dry in the sun for at least 24 hours. For UPS and FedEx, I have always taken the package unsealed to the shipping office, handed them the empty bottles to sniff, then sealed the package (sometimes if the people in the office don't know you, they will ask to inspect the contents). By the way, I have had it happen (once on Alaska Air, which has the reputation for being super strict) that I took the bag to their air freight office with a "forbidden stove" in it (which is ok for their air freight, and was in the list of contents they carefully read through as I filled out the paperwork), then watched as I sat in the plane as the freight, including my bag, was loaded onto the same flight - so why, when the freight goes on the same flight, is something strictly forbidden in checked luggage, but ok in freight? Admittedly, this was 1998, before 9/11/01, but still, Alaska Air was confiscating stoves at that time and before.


Air Freight is handled differently than checked luggage... has everything to do with training in the freight department for hazmat (hazardous materials) and customer service...

my freight guys go thru about 3 days of dangerous goods handling/haz mat training while my customer service agents do about a 4 hour video course.

for instance, you can't ship boat oil as part of your checked luggage, but you can if you ship it as air cargo.

Just got back from my hike (Hawaii by the way). By the way, Bill S, wrapping the sleeping pad around the pack worked great, never thought about that one. Thanks for all the help.

We just released a radio program/podcast on this topic this past week. Unfortunately, we were done with interviews and pre-production for the show by the time this thread started.

My only flight ever to a wilderness trailhead was in the nineties. A lot has changed in air travel since then. So I decided to investigate the issue in last week's edition of The WildeBeat, titled "Flying Backpacks":

I posted a thread asking people for their advice and experiences traveling with backcountry gear on commercial airlines here:

Of course, if you have a really good story, or a really useful tip, in addition to posting it in these forums, I'd appreciate it if you'd call it in to our toll-free comment line: 866-590-7373

speaking of Hawai'i, did you visit the Na Ala Hele site? (I think its or .org)

TSA in Hawai'i is notorious for going thru your backpacks and not being able to pack them.

I'm seeing more people do what bill mentioned (sleeping pad around pack) - and I'm also seeing them laying on the ramp, which means TSA is not repacking them once they go thru your backpacks, so beware!

FYI, baggage handlers in Hawaii are notorious thieves. If something is missing, it probably wasn't TSA. I left there before 9/11, but the problem was pretty rampant.

One of the last times I flew Southwest, I called them in advance to ask about my stove and fuel bottle. The website said no, but over the phone they said yes. I had a big check in bag with snowshoes, poles, stove, bottle, etc. and it got a cursory look with no problem. I flew from LAX to SMF (Sacramento) and back with no problem.

Way back when I flew to New Zealand a couple of times (pre 9/11). All the Kiwis seemed concerned about was not bringing any dirt into the country that might have some strange bugs in it. Ah yes, the good old days.

Needing a new stove and dealing with the confiscated stove/fuel bottle issue has me leaning towards an alcohol burner. Just have to make sure some form of iso, Heet or denatured is available at the destination.

The duffle bag, wrap your pack with your pad is a great idea. The only issue I have is having to waste space and the additional mass of carrying around the duffle. Have not tried it, but was thinking about using the pack raincover, sleeping pad wrap finally covered by tent ground cloth. Anyone try using their tent footprint/groundcloth as a wrap using some web straps to keep the package together?

Just returned from Venezuela. All the airports down there had a shrink wrap service available at the checkin. Been a few years since I've flown out of MIA, but remember Miami International had shrink wrap available. A final layer of real environmentaly unfriendly (minimal) protection.

related question: I am going home for the fourth of July and my mom always has a family reunion/campout on our farm. She wants me to bring my tent despite the fact it so so small, I gave up arguing with her long ago. so i have to fly with the tent. Will I be able to bring the tent, poles, steaks etc as a carry on? I hate checking luggage especially for what is only going tobe a four day vacation. Otherwise I just might ship it, or better yet leave it...

turneej asks


Will I be able to bring the tent, poles, steaks etc as a carry on?

Probably not the steaks, since you will need dry ice to keep them from going bad, and besides the other passengers will be asking you to share.

Oh, wait ....

You can bring the tent as carry-on, as long as it fits within the size limits (42 inches total dimension, I think). But TSA might not let you take the poles or pegs - some of the inspector types might think they look like pointy weapons, though some might pass them. There is a lack of consistency there. I have gotten hassled a couple times for a camera tripod, though they did let me take it (doesn't even have sharp pointy ends to the legs). I would suggest you pack the tent with all accessories in a box and send it ahead of time via FedEx Ground (cheapest way) or UPS Ground. This will require about a week in transit, but does avoid the hassles. You have an address to ship it to and someone who can accept the package, after all (or is your mom trying to send you a message by insisting you have your own tent ;)?) If you are willing to pay the extra, you can use Blue Label, 3-day, next business day, or other faster mode. Maybe it would be cheaper to buy a kid's play tent once you get there? Or maybe this is the time for a tarp - the blue plastic tarps are about $10-15 at most hardware stores. And if you have to "suffer" with the tarp, maybe Mom will take pity on you.

Sometimes moms can be funny - my mother always wanted me to go over her finances and enter them on the computer. So I would dutifully bring my laptop. Then she would complain that I was spending too much time looking at the screen, shuffling papers, and typing at the keyboard and not talking to her. Never argue with your mother - Mom is always right.

October 23, 2020
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