Flying With Backpacking Gear: What to Pack Where for Airport Security

Are you planning an exciting hiking trip in a faraway land? Lucky you! Hiking is such a splendid way to explore, but flying with backpacking gear can be a bit tricky. The last thing you want is to have your beloved and mission-critical gear confiscated by airport security on the way to your dream trip. 

I’ve flown with backpacking gear enough times to know there are some critical must-follow rules, and also some gray area. When flying to or from the United States you’ll need to consider rules from the TSA, your airline, and security organizations in other countries on your itinerary. Do your research and pack carefully, but don’t worry. With a little preparation you’ll most likely have a smooth trip. 

This post will walk you through each potential trouble item, how to fly with it safely if possible, and what to do if it’s not allowed on the plane. Are your tent stakes considered a weapon? What about trekking poles? Do you know which common items of hiking gear can actually be packed in your carryon but not your checked luggage? Read on to find out!

Disclaimer: I am not the TSA, nor is this official TSA or airline guidance. I’m simply a frequent traveler and hiker sharing my experiences and research. This post is here for your convenience, and you should consult the rules of your airline(s) and the security organizations involved in your trip for the final word. 

When you buy through affiliate links in this post, I may earn a small commission. Thanks for your support! I always offer unbiased opinions based on real experience from the road and trail. Learn more.

Understanding Regulations

TSA may be the first organization that springs to mind when you think about flying with camping and backpacking gear, but there are actually several sets of rules to consider: airport security (TSA in the U.S.), the airline(s) you’re flying on, and sometimes customs and local laws in your destination country. Though often in agreement, airport and airline security rules can differ slightly or may be interpreted with different levels of strictness. If you intend to venture into gray areas, look up each organization’s rules separately. 

Enforcement is up to the individual on duty at the time you pass through. Some transgressions, like a knife in your carry-on bag, are always strictly enforced. But gray areas like stoves, hiking poles, and not-so-pointy tent stakes might have different outcomes for different travelers at different times. In these cases you take some risk of having gear confiscated if you pack it in your carry-on, but you also might get away with it. 

If you make a mistake and your hiking gear is confiscated by security, don’t count on getting it back. If you arrive at the airport early enough you might have time to go back and check your luggage (have a plan for this), or possibly even mail an item home to yourself. Checked bags may be searched after they’re out of your possession, so you may not even have a chance to make your case for a particular item. Think carefully before taking a risk while flying with backpacking gear!  

Overview Table

Here’s quick summary of hiking and backpacking gear to be mindful of when packing for a flight that starts or ends in the United States (many other countries have similar rules). Keep reading below for more detailed advice and possible workarounds.

ItemCarry-On LuggageChecked Luggage
Knifenoyes
Multitooldependsyes
Tent stakesnoyes
Tent polesyesyes
Hiking polesnoyes
Pepper spraynoyes (under 4 oz and 2%)
Bear spraynono
Stove fuelnono
Stoveyes (must be clean)yes (must be clean)
Lighteryes (1 per person)no
Matchesyes (1 box non-strike-anywhere only)no
Crampons and Microspikesyes? (really?)yes
Ice axenoyes
Sunscreen, bug spray, other liquidsyes if less than 3.4 oz each and fit inside quart bagyes
Batteriesyes (including lithium)yes (except lithium)

Hiking Gear on Airplanes: Item by Item

Here’s a breakdown of common hiking and backpacking gear that may be restricted in either carry-on or checked luggage. Some of these are obvious (knives, flammable liquids) but there might be a few you haven’t thought of!

Knives

Let’s start with an easy one. The TSA prohibits knives — including pocket knives, utility knives, and multitools with knife blades of any length — in carry-on luggage. Checked luggage is fine.

Be sure you know where you’ve tucked your camping knife, especially on your way home from a hiking vacation, as they have a tendency to hide in pockets and other stealthy places. If you accidentally leave a knife in your carry-on bag, even a teeny-tiny one, you can expect a thorough pat-down and will definitely lose your knife (don’t ask me how I know.) 

Depending on where you’re traveling to or from, other knife restrictions may apply. The TSA has the toughest policy prohibiting blades of any length, but Canada allows blades shorter than 6 cm in carryon luggage. 

It’s also worth knowing local laws in your destination regarding possession of weapons. For example, Canada has laws against certain types of knives including switchblades and concealed knives. According to CATSA (the Canadian version of the TSA) if one is found in your luggage it “could lead to charges and prosecution.”

Multitools

Multitools are a bit of a gray area depending on their specifics. If there’s a knife blade, it definitely needs to go in checked luggage when flying to or from the US. Other types of sharp tools could potentially be a problem depending on who happens to scan your bag.

Small multitools with no blades or tools over the permitted length (7 inches) are technically allowed. The Leatherman PS, for example, has no blade and is TSA-compliant. I’ve carried the Leatherman PS through security on occasion and they have always inspected it closely and then let it pass. I only try this when traveling carry-on-only, otherwise I recommend packing any multitool in checked luggage just to be safe.

Tent Stakes

Tent stakes are prohibited in carry-on luggage by both the TSA (United States) and CATSA (Canada). Apparently they’re sharp and pointy enough to be considered a weapon, though this may depend on your specific model of tent stake and the discretion of the security official.

Though I don’t recommend it, people do successfully fly with tent stakes in carry-on luggage from time to time. I’ve flown with stakes like these in my carryon luggage (they’re less pointy than a ballpoint pen) and I would think these plastic pegs might have a chance, but I would not try with these pointy ones. To be safe, pack any tent stakes in a checked bag unless you absolutely must fly carry-on-only, and in that case have a plan to replace them in your destination if they are confiscated.

Tent stakes come in a variety of shapes and sizes, some more likely than others to be viewed as a weapon.

Tent Poles

Despite some articles claiming otherwise, you can indeed fly with tent poles in carry-on luggage according to the TSA website. Of course they must fold down small enough to fit within the airline’s carryon limit, and TSA reserves the right (as always) to make a final decision based on the apparent danger of your tent poles.

Screenshot from TSA website

Hiking Poles

If you want to bring hiking poles on a plane they must go in checked luggage. They are not allowed in carry-on luggage, presumably because of their sharp tips. Most telescoping models won’t even fit in a carryon-size bag, but if you have a z-fold design like the Black Diamond Distance Z you might be tempted to try it. 

I happen to know of a few people who managed to carry trekking poles in a carry-on bag by removing the pointy tips and packing them elsewhere in the bag. This is risky, as the poles could easily be confiscated at security. If you’re going to try this (not that I’m recommending it!) I strongly suggest you leave time to check your bag as a backup plan.

If you must travel carryon-only and don’t want to risk losing your poles, look into shipping some gear ahead or renting poles at your destination.

Pepper Spray and Bear spray

Pepper spray and bear spray are both definite no-no’s in carry-on luggage. Don’t try it!

According to the TSA, a small (4 oz) container of pepper spray is allowed in checked baggage “provided it is equipped with a safety mechanism to prevent accidental discharge” and contains no more than 2% tear gas. I’ve carried this type of pepper spray on planes many times, always in checked luggage of course, and it’s never been a problem.

Bear spray, on the other hand, is totally prohibited in checked and carry-on luggage. This makes sense since it’s basically pepper spray for bears, and a typical container of bear spray is around 9 oz, well over the 4 oz limit for pepper spray. The good news is that bear spray is probably available for purchase in most destinations where you’ll need it (grizzly country). Pick up a bottle from REI or another outfitter when you get to Banff, Missoula, etc.

If traveling internationally, it’s worth noting that some countries have laws against the possession of pepper and bear spray. Check before you go.

Stove Fuel

Flammable materials of any kind, including gas canisters, liquid fuel, and fuel tablets, are not allowed in either carry-on or checked luggage. This rule is definitely enforced, so don’t try it!

Arrange to buy stove fuel at your destination, and keep in mind that US-style Lindal valve gas canisters are not available in some countries. For some destinations (Kyrgyzstan and Nepal come to mind) you may need to visit a specialized gear outfitter in a major city, or consider a different type of stove.

Stove

If you want to fly with a backpacking stove, pay attention. This one can get tricky and I’ve been burned by it (pun intended) in the past.

A backpacking stove can technically be packed in either carry-on or checked luggage IF it is brand new and unused, or has been thoroughly cleaned of all fuel, fuel residue, and fumes. If using a liquid fuel stove the fuel bottle must be detached, empty, and clean. The best method for cleaning depends on the stove and fuel, but a thorough scrub with warm soapy water should usually do the trick. I’ve also seen cooking oil mentioned as a “neutralizing agent.”

Screenshot from TSA website

Even if you clean your stove before taking it on the plane, there is some risk it could be confiscated. This unfortunately happened to me on a flight home from Canada. My JetBoil was taken from my bag after I checked it in, ostensibly due to fuel residue, though I can’t help wondering if someone is selling used stoves on the Canadian black market…

In some cases the airline may have their own policies regarding stoves. In my case, flying home from Banff, it was actually Air Canada (the airline) that took my stove, not the security department. Their rules are quite specific:

I’ve successfully flown with a backpacking stove many other times, even without cleaning it (canister stoves don’t really have much to clean), but I recommend playing it safe. Clean it thoroughly and pack a note alongside saying something like “This stove is being transported without fuel and has been thoroughly cleaned of any fuel residue.”

Lighters and Matches 

Flying with a lighter is counterintuitive. You are allowed one lighter per person in your carry-on luggage (presumably a nod to the tobacco industry) but are NOT allowed to pack a lighter containing fuel in your checked luggage (unless in a special DOT-approved case). The rules for electronic lighters are similar (carry-on but not checked) and require a safety latch, battery removal, or some other way of preventing accidental activation.

Though these rules are fairly lenient, lighters are cheap and available anywhere in the world, so this one isn’t worth stressing over.

If you carry matches in your hiking kit, note that strike-anywhere matches are prohibited in both carry-on and checked bags. Safety matches (not strike-anywhere) can, like lighters, be packed in your carry-on but not in checked bags. 

Fire starters are, according to the TSA Twitter account, not allowed in checked or carry-on bags. Presumably this applies to the backpacker trick of cotton balls soaked in Vaseline, but I’d be shocked if anyone has ever had these confiscated. 

You might not expect that lighters and “safety matches” (non-strike-anywhere) can be packed in your carry-on but should not be packed in checked luggage.

Crampons and Microspikes

Crampons are fine in checked bags, as are Microspikes. To my surprise, TSA says “Crampons are generally permitted in carry-on bags. However, TSA officers have the discretion to prohibit an item if they feel it may pose a security threat.” Presumably this goes for Microspikes too.

Really? Has the TSA actually seen a crampon? These look more menacing than my hiking poles, for sure.

Personally, if I were trying to carry on crampons I would leave plenty of time to go back and check my bag, and ideally I would simply check them to begin with. Non-spikey traction devices like Yaktrax are presumably no problem, though their use is limited to tamer conditions.

Ice Axe

An ice ax is a definite no no in your carry-on bag, but can be packed in checked luggage.

Sunscreen, Bug Spray, Other Liquids:

Liquids like sunscreen and bug spray are subject to usual carry-on restrictions. For travel to and from the US liquids must be packed in containers of 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and placed in a clear, resealable plastic bag (I love these 3.4 oz containers for this purpose). Aerosols of all kinds are prohibited in checked and carry-on luggage, but these aren’t as common nowadays. 

Larger quantities of liquids, like you might need for a long trip, should be packed in checked luggage. I suggest packing them inside a ziplock bag in to protect the rest of your gear from leaks and spills. If you really want to fly carry-on only to your hiking destination, look into buying liquids once you arrive.

Related: What’s in My Lightweight Backpacking Toiletries Kit

Batteries

Small batteries like standard AA or AAA are fine in both carry-on and checked luggage. Spare lithium ion batteries, like the kind you might use for extending battery life of a SPOT Gen 3, can be packed in carry-on luggage but cannot be checked.

Food

Your backpacking menu is almost certainly fine in either carry-on or checked luggage (except for liquids larger than 3.4 oz, of course). But if flying internationally, check the customs restrictions of your destination country to make sure a key part of your food supply isn’t confiscated on arrival (more on this below).

First Aid Kit

First aid kits come in a wide range and most are fine to take on a plane, even in carry-on luggage. If your kit includes any of these (mostly uncommon) items, take note:

  • Liquids: should be less than 3.4 oz per container and should fit in the quart plastic bag with all other liquids. In practice I have never been asked to remove any of the tiny liquid pouches or tubes from my first aid kit, but technically it could happen.
  • Scissors: blades over 4 inches (measured from fulcrum) are not allowed in carry-on luggage by TSA.
  • Needles and syringes: Check TSA regulations. If they’re in your first aid kit for emergency use (not for medication you take regularly) they should be in checked luggage.
  • Prescription meds or controlled substances: More of a customs issue than an airport security issue. Make sure you’re carrying the required documentation (usually a copy of your prescription) and keep the medication in its original labeled container.

Backpack

Carrying your hiking backpack on a plane is simply a matter of size. Each airline has their own carry-on size limits, so check carefully to see if your backpack will fit. A frameless 40 liter pack, for example, will likely be fine while a large 65 liter pack (especially with rigid frame) will need to be checked.

If you do check a hiking backpack, it’s smart to shorten and buckle straps and try to tie any loose ends out of the way. Some travelers even wrap their backpack in a sturdy outdoor garbage bag to make sure straps can’t catch on anything.

If your pack is close to the carry-on size limit, try removing the stays (if that’s possible) and packing them diagonally across the center of the pack. Use the pack’s compression straps to cinch it down to carry-on size and pack it loosely so it can be smushed into the overhead bin more easily. 

Flying Carry-on Only with Hiking Gear

As a fan of minimalist travel and saving money on airfare, I appreciate the desire to fly with all your hiking gear in a carry-on bag. It can be done, but you’ll need to arrange for a few errands at your destination and accept some risk of losing gear or needing to check your bag. 

If flying carry-on only you’ll definitely need to buy some items when you arrive: stove fuel, knife, possibly bear spray or pepper spray, large amounts of sunscreen or other liquids over the 3.4 oz limit.

In popular trekking areas you may be able to rent or buy gear from outfitters at your destination. Trekking poles are the most obvious example, but stove and tent stakes are other possibilities. A friend of mine rented trekking poles to climb Kilimanjaro, for example, rather than carry them in his pack from the US.

If you’re going to try flying with higher risk items like tent stakes or hiking poles in your carry-on bag, arrive to the airport early enough that you can return to the check-in counter and check your pack if security doesn’t allow some of your items.

For trips closer to home, another option is to ship a box to your destination with all the troublesome gear (stove, tent stakes, trekking poles, knife, etc.). In the US you can use USPS General Delivery or find a local business (hotel, outdoor gear store, etc) to accept a package and hold it for you.

Country-Specific Customs Restrictions

Hooray, you’ve cleared security! Now you’re home-free, right?

Not quite… You may still run into issues bringing certain items into certain countries. New Zealand, for example, has some of the strictest biosecurity laws in the world. Their extensive customs rules are designed to protect their isolated ecosystems from foreign diseases that could devastate their agriculture industry. Travelers must declare an extensive list of food products, some of which could be found in dried backpacking meals and other hiking food. Hiking shoes and tents will be inspected and possibly washed on arrival (but not confiscated). 

Related: 3 Week New Zealand Itinerary for Outdoorsy Adventurers

Most countries aren’t as strict as New Zealand, but it’s worth checking customs regulations before an international hiking trip. Food is usually the biggest issue, particularly if you make your own freeze dried backpacking meals. The EU has restrictions on dairy and meat products, for example, which could impact your hiking menu.

Country-Specific Laws

One last thing to consider: the legal codes of some countries prohibit possession of a few items that might be on your hiking gear list. This mostly applies to potential weapons like knives, pepper spray, and bear spray.

Pepper spray, for example, is illegal to possess in many countries including the UK and Singapore. Knives with certain blade designs (switchblade, button activated) or knives disguised as other items (pen knives) are illegal to possess in some countries, including Canada. Know the rules of your destination and how strictly they are enforced before packing any of these items.

Medication is another potentially risky area, so take note of what’s in your first aid kit. General best practice is to carry medications, both prescription and OTC, in their original labeled packaging labeled and to carry copies of any prescriptions. You won’t have an issue bringing a ziplock of Ibuprofen into most countries, but do your research and take special care with prescription medications that are controlled substances in your destination.

In Conclusion

As you can see, flying with hiking and backpacking gear can be a bit tricky, but don’t let it stress you out. Check the regulations in advance, leave yourself time to make last-minute changes if necessary, and plan to pick up a few supplies after you arrive at your destination. You’ll be off the plane and onto the trail in no time, which is when the real fun starts. Happy hiking!

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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