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What Hiking Gear Can I Take on a Plane?

Or: Hiking Travel With a Smile

By

If you're one for hiking vacations, your home-to-trailhead commute may include airplanes and the TSA. Here's the latest scoop on what hiking gear you can carry on or check, and what gear you should just leave at home. I've also put together some advice about how to handle the logistics of hiking travel.

If you're at all unsure whether you can carry something on or not, take the safe route and check it. If an item is listed as allowed in checked (or carry-on) luggage but you suspect it might generate some controversy... good luck! Your best bet is a pleasant attitude and a printout of the page on the TSA website which says you can bring said item. You can also access the "Can I bring...?" search tool or use the "My TSA" app (available for both iOS and Android devices).

1. Cooking & Fire

  • Camp stoves: "only if they are empty of all fuel and then cleaned such that no fuel vapors or residue are noticeable." (From the My TSA "Can I Bring?" tool) Camp stoves are one of the few items that receive fairly strong "TSA gets the final call" wording (lighters are another), so be extra careful with that cleaning to make sure you don't lose your WhisperLite at the security checkpoint.
  • Empty fuel canisters: TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers says that you take clean, empty fuel canisters aboard, although she recommends placing them in checked baggage to avoid confusion. If the canisters are brand new, Dankers recommends leaving them in their original packaging to underscore that fact.
  • Fuel for your stove: Not a chance. Plan to buy it at your destination. If you use disposable canisters, return unused canisters to the store at the end of your trip. Donate partial canisters to your favorite locals.
  • Lighters: The rules for these are a little confusing. Lighters without fuel are allowed in checked luggage. You can have up to two fueled lighters in your checked bag, but only if they're in a DOT-approved case. One lighter is allowed in carry-on luggage, although some strong wording makes it clear that the TSA can take your lighter, anyway, if they want to. Torch lighters are prohibited completely.
  • Matches: One -- and only one -- book of safety matches ("non-strike anywhere," says the TSA) are permitted in your carry-on. Surprisingly, you're not allowed to check matches through at all.

2. Defense Items

  • Bear spray and other self-defense sprays: Prohibited in carry-on luggage. You can check these if they're 4 oz (118 ml) or smaller, with no more than a 2% concentration of the active ingredient. In practical terms that means bear spray is not allowed at all in your checked baggage -- it's too big -- but some personal pepper sprays are.
  • Firearms: You can't carry these on, but in most cases you can check them through. Always double-check with the airline you're using about any limitations, including specific packaging requirements and fees. Flares and straight gunpowder, including black powder and percussion caps, are completely prohibited.

3. Pointy Things

  • Knife: A good knife is a critical part of most hikers' gear, but of course they're not going to let you on the plane with that. Put your beloved pocketknife in your checked bag to make sure you don't lose it in the last-minute hustle through security.
  • Trekking Poles: Check only -- which is much easier to do if they're the collapsible sort. If you still have rubber tip guards, put them on so your poles don't end up tearing through the side of your pack/suitcase or puncturing anything else.

4. Misc. Tools

  • Cordage: Carry on or check, according to Dankers. If you think your cordage might look suspicious for some reason, though -- maybe you're carrying a lot of it? -- better check it through just to be safe.
  • Duct tape: Carry on or check.
  • Zip ties: I love having these around for emergency repairs, and you're allowed to carry them on or check them through.

5. Personal Care Items

  • Insect repellent: You can take insect repellent in your carry-on if it follows the standing TSA regulations for liquids: 3.4-oz or smaller container, and it has to squeeze into the single, quart-size zip-close plastic bag of liquids and gels that each passenger is allowed. Larger containers can go in your checked luggage.
  • Sunblock: Ditto the above.
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