An experienced backpacker’s guide for flying with camping gear

What to know about bringing outdoor gear on planes.
A man sitting on an airplane at sunset and looking into his backpack.
This is the worst time to realize you've forgotten to pack all your socks. Bambi Corro / Unsplash

Every time I travel by plane with my camping gear, I go through a process I’ve perfected over a decade of backpacking: I sit on my living room floor, carefully organizing all the camping gear I need. My top priority: make sure all items are accounted for (I once packed a tent with no tent poles) and that I haven’t forgotten anything important (like my backpacking stove or hiking boots).

The next step is crucial for air travel: ensure every piece of gear is in the right bag. After all, I’ve had to ditch pocket knives at security because I forgot they were in my carry-on, and I certainly never want to repeat the time I had to trash a whole bag of mole paste from Puebla, Mexico, because I didn’t realize pastes counted as liquid.

If it’s not clear yet, transporting camping equipment can present plenty of packing conundrums beyond what you’d expect from a typical vacation. So if you’re traveling with outdoor gear, especially for the first time, these are the tips you need to ensure you make it through security and safely to your destination with all your stuff.

General carry-on restrictions

First, a quick refresher on the general rules and guidelines for carry-ons. The size of your carry-on matters, of course, but dimensions and restrictions in that department are up to individual airlines, so check the airline’s website or app to see what size bag you can fly with.

The most important rule when it comes to making it through security with all the items you packed, including your precious mole paste, is TSA’s 3-1-1 rule: All liquids that you put in your carry-on must be 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less and inside a single clear, one-quart zip-top bag. Anything larger than 3.4 ounces has to go in your checked luggage.

According to AskTSA on Twitter, that includes any item you can “pump, squeeze, spread, smear, spray, or spill.” Think toothpaste, peanut butter, sunscreen, liquid electrolytes, and bug spray. If in doubt, put it in your checked bag or leave it at home.

What can travel in your carry-on

Plenty of camping and hiking gear can go into your carry-on as long as it fits: tents (though poles and stakes may be restricted at the discretion of your airline or the security officer on duty), backpacking camp stoves (make sure there’s no fuel canister attached), and even your cooking and eating utensils (but any metal knives have to have rounded blades, like a butter knife). Scissors, too, like a pair you might have in your first aid kit, are OK as long as the blades are shorter than 4 inches measured from the pivot point. If they’re longer, you’ll have to check them.

[Related: How to pack exactly what you need to travel]

Electronic lighters and arc lighters can fly with you if they run on batteries, but they must be in a protective case, have a locking mechanism, or have their batteries removed so they can’t ignite accidentally. Likewise, you can take a single book of safety matches in your carry-on, but a larger quantity is prohibited, as are strike-anywhere matches.

As for batteries, they are not a security threat on their own, but the Federal Aviation Administration considers some to be hazardous material, says Lorie Dankers, spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), so pack with care. Everyday use batteries like AAs and AAAs, even Cs and Ds, can go in any bag, as can lithium-ion batteries if they are less than 100 watt-hours, which includes phone, laptop, camera and GPS device batteries. If your lithium-ion batteries are more powerful (101 to 160 watt-hours), you’re limited to two in your carry-on baggage. And while batteries already in your devices can go in checked luggage, extra lithium-ion batteries cannot.

What goes in your checked baggage

“Good general advice when it comes to any club-like item, knives, shovels, sharp items, is that those things should be in checked baggage,” advises Brad Birkinbine, a TSA officer in Boise, Idaho. That includes trekking poles, foldable shovels, ice axes, and ice picks.

Firearms can go in checked luggage, as can ammunition, but the TSA says guns must be unloaded, packed in a locked, hard-sided case, and declared to the airline at check-in. It’s a good idea to check with your airline too, to ensure that they allow firearms in checked bags.

You can also pack bug spray as long as it doesn’t have a hazmat warning and is for personal use (as opposed to products like insecticide foggers that you might use to bug-proof your whole campsite—these are not allowed). Afraid bug spray will spill or leak? Choose insect repellent wipes or bracelets instead.

Traction devices like crampons, snowshoes, and spikes that attach to the bottom of your boots are a bit trickier. The TSA’s website says some might be allowed in a carry-on, but also notes that officers can prohibit any items they feel might be a security threat. So your best bet is to check them.

Finally, reusable lighters can go in your checked luggage as long as they are empty. Full or partially full lighters are a no-go, so either buy disposables or refill reusable lighters once you arrive at your destination.

What to leave at home

As we just hinted and you may have expected, there are several items that aren’t permitted anywhere on an airplane. You’ll have to pick up those supplies when you arrive at your destination. At the top of the list is any sort of stove fuel, including solid fuel tablets. It may go without saying, but if a fire happened to break out on the plane, your packed-up fuel could help it burn longer. The Federal Aviation Administration is serious about this: it qualifies fuel as an incendiary device. You can bring an empty refillable liquid fuel bottle, though.

Matches and torch lighters should stay behind too. So go ahead and give up on the idea of making camp creme brûlée.

Bear spray is also off-limits, as the FAA categorizes it as a disabling chemical. Eliot Freeburg, another TSA officer based in Boise, explains that bear spray or pepper spray could accidentally discharge, get into the air circulation system, and be distributed throughout the plane. “That would certainly not be enjoyable or good for anybody,” he says.

[Related: A 500-pound black bear keeps breaking into California homes]

So if you’ll be camping in an area that’s home to black bears or grizzly bears, pick up a can when you arrive. Before you head back to the airport to fly home, offer any unused bear spray canisters (or stove fuel) to campers who look like they are just arriving at the park or campground. You’ll likely make their day.

Pack right

Before you fly, double-check the TSA’s prohibited items lists, and, if in doubt, turn to the AskTSA Twitter account for easy clarification. You can also download the MyTSA app, which features answers to frequently asked questions and a searchable database of questionable items.

Then, Freeburg suggests arriving at the airport early enough that if something in your bag does get flagged as you go through security, you will have time to check your bag, take gear back to your car, give it to someone who may have dropped you off, or prepare to ship it back home. As a last resort, you can leave prohibited items at the TSA security checkpoint for disposal.

When checking a backpack, place it in a duffel or larger bag if possible, or wrap it in protective material to keep delicate fabrics like stretchy pockets from snagging on equipment. At the very least, cinch and store all the cords, straps, and loose material that you can, and fasten all buckles and clips.

Then fly off to your next adventure, knowing you’ve packed smart and have everything you need to spend a few nights under the stars.