You’re about to go camping at the destination of your dreams. But you’ll need to fly this time rather than drive. How can you pack everything and make sure your gear gets there safely? What could go wrong?
I’ve wondered about the same thing. After flying with my camping gear twice a year for several years (and losing a backpack in the process), I put together everything I learned so that you don’t make the same mistakes I made.
This guide begins with the rules and restrictions from the TSA and airlines. Then it’ll walk you through what to pack as well as some packing tips. And in the end, you’ll find some alternatives to flying with your camping gear.
What Are the TSA Rules for Flying with Camping Gear?
Before we jump into how to pack, save space, etc. it’s important to know what you can and cannot bring. Everything in the table is pulled from the official TSA website.
I’ll try to update this post as often as possible, but please click on the links in the table below to double-check on TSA’s website before you actually head to the airport. Rules may change over time.
The general rule of thumb is that inflammable substances (Aerosol, fuel, propane) are strictly prohibited. And sharp objects are allowed in checked bags but not carry-ons; these include knife/pocket knife, axes, hatchets, large scissors, trekking poles, tent poles, etc. Also, liquids are only allowed on carry-ons if packed in containers less than 100mL/3.4oz. These include detergent, bug repellent, sunscreen, water, etc.
Be 100% clear on what you can have in your carry-on vs. checked bag. You’ll have to repack your bag, or the TSA agent will throw your stuff away if you try to take something prohibited through security.
|Item||Allowed on Carry-on?||Allowed in Checked Bags?|
|Shelter & Sleep|
|Stove and Cookware|
|Camping Stove||Yes, with no fuel||Yes, with no fuel|
|Knife / Pocket Knife||No||Yes|
|Scissors||Yes (<4in from pivot)||Yes|
|Multi-tools||Yes (no knife)||Yes|
|Axes and Hatchets||No||Yes|
|Cast Iron Cookware||No||Yes|
|Cooked Food (No Liquid)||Yes||Yes|
|Disposable & Zippo Lighters||Yes||Yes, with no fuel|
|Safety Matches||Yes (1 book, non-strike)||No|
|Lithium Battery Powered Lighters||Yes||No|
|Gel Ice Packs||Yes (frozen at checkpoint)||Yes|
|Safety & Other|
|Bug Repellent||Yes (<3.4oz for liquid)||Yes|
|Detergent||Yes (<3.4oz for liquid)||Yes|
Keep in mind that even if something is allowed based on the guidelines, the final decision is ultimately up to the TSA officer at the airport. So the TSA officer can open up and search your bag if he’s suspicious, or even confiscate certain items that do not abide by the strict regulations. Which leads me to…..
Don’t fly with anything you aren’t willing to lose! Especially if they have sharp edges, or are inflammable. Once my checked backpack was opened and searched because the tent stakes looked suspicious from the scan. Then the officer repacked it. And guess what? One of the tent stakes was poking out of the backpack when I picked it up from the carousel. And I had to replace the backpack.
Can I fly with my camping stove?
Yes, as long as you clean all fuel on the stove. Like ALL droplets of fuel. I’ve heard stories where a TSA officer confiscated a camping stove because there were remnants of fuel on it. And you don’t want that to happen. Just rent at your destination if you don’t want to take that risk.
Can I fly with stove fuel?
NOPE. According to the TSA, they are not allowed in checked bags or carry-ons. You have to buy it near your destination and dispose of it as you leave. It is the same story with other inflammable substances like propane and cooking spray.
Can I fly with lighters?
Pick your lighter carefully. According to TSA, disposable & zippo lights are allowed in both carry-on and checked bags. But they have to be emptied of fuel before going into checked bags. Lithium Battery Powered lighters are allowed in carry-ons but not in checked bags. Gas torches and torch lighter are not allowed in either carry-on or checked bags.
Can I fly with a tent?
Maybe. TSA allows it, but you will have to check with your specific airline. But the tent poles and tent stakes must be in checked baggage as they are considered sharp objects. The mallets you use with tent stakes will have to go into checked bags as well. Don’t forget that.
Can I fly with my cookware?
This can be easily overlooked. According to TSA, cast iron cookware and cutting boards cannot be on carry-ons. Knife, scissors, and multi-tool with knives are allowed in checked bags only. Remember these objects also have to be fully wrapped so that they aren’t revealing any sharp edges.
Can I fly with my coolers?
According to TSA, you can take coolers both as a carry-on and as a separate checked bag, but it needs to be empty. You can also bring gel ice packs, but they need to be frozen when going through the security checkpoint. I recommend renting a cooler since it’ll take up a lot of space if you fly with it. And renting one for 3 nights costs around $10, way less than taking it as a checked bag.
What Are Airline Regulations for Flying with Camping Gear?
OK, now we have covered the regulations from the TSA. Let’s think about what your airline wants, especially the size and weight of your luggage.
I compiled the table below for the most popular airlines. Keep in mind that you need to include the handles and wheels when measuring the sizes of your bags. Confirm whether your backpack should be checked or taken as a carry-on. You can also bring a personal item that fits under the seat in front of you.
|Airline||Carry-on size limit||Checked bag size limit||Checked bag weight limit||First Checked Bag cost||Second Checked Bag cost||Overweight penalty / Bag|
|Delta||22” x 14” x 9”||62 in||50lb||$30||$40||$100 for under 70lbs|
|Southwest||24” x 16” x 10”||62 in||50lb||Free||Free||$75 for under 100lbs|
|American||22” x 14” x 9”||62 in||50lb||$30||$40||$100 for under 70lbs|
|United||22” x 14” x 9”||62 in||50lb||$35||$45||Up to $200 for under 70lbs|
|Jet Blue||22” x 14” x 9”||62 in||50lb||$35||$45||$150 for under 100lbs|
|Alaska||22” x 14” x 9”||62 in||50lb||$30||$40||$100 for under 100lbs|
|Spirit||22″ x 18″ x 10″||62 in||40lb||$35||$45||$30 for under 50lbs|
Southwest Airlines is especially generous with its baggage policy by including up to 2 checked bags for free. And they also have the highest carry-on size limit among airlines. I always look at Southwest airlines first when I have a lot of gear to haul around. And Spirit Airlines is especially “stingy”, with a checked bag weight limit of 40lbs. You may want to avoid this airline if you have heavy luggage.
A tip to protect your backpack is to check it at the gate rather than right after entering the airport. You can take your backpack all the way to the gate where you board the airplane even if it’s too big for carry-on. And the agents will happily check the bag for you at the gate. Then they’ll put your backpack in a special storage area on the plane, and it’ll be right there waiting for you after you exit the airplane.
This may be better than checking it at the airport and picking it up on the carousel since the latter carries a higher risk of damage. But keep in mind that some airlines still take bags checked at the gate to the regular baggage claim area.
Weigh your luggage at home before getting to the airport if you even remotely suspect your bag is overweight. You can do so with a regular scale or a luggage scale. The penalties are quite high for all airlines. If you find your bag to be overweight at the airport, you’ll need to open and reorganize it. Trust me, you don’t want to waste half an hour unpacking and repacking.
Limitations from Other Legs of the Trip
You’ve checked the TSA website and talked to your airline. But before you begin packing, think about how you will get from the airport to your campsite. You will have to walk around with all the weight at some point.
If you are jumping straight onto a rental car from the airport, then easy. Just get those pullers and put your suitcases on them, push them to the rental car, put your bags in the trunk or back seat, and you’re set. It’s similar if you call a taxi or Uber.
But if you are taking the shuttle or any other public transportation, things are a lot trickier. You’ll have to think about whether you can walk with all your gear from the baggage pick-up to the bus/train station, as well as loading and unloading them.
How Do I Pack My Camping Gear for Flight?
This is where the action begins. All the stuff before this is just planning in your head. If you are hesitant about flying with your camping gear after reading about all the limitations, check out alternatives like renting or shipping. Otherwise, read on.
There are 3 key considerations for packing your camping gear for a flight: packing light, protection, and saving space.
How Do I Pack Light?
Stick to the essentials
This one should be self-explanatory. Do you really need that dutch oven or that screen house? Anything beyond the list of essentials below is a camping “luxury”:
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag
- Headlamp or flashlight
- Weather appropriate clothing
- First aid kit
- Personal items for health and hygiene
What NOT to pack and to buy at destination
I recommend buying matches, stove fuel, bear spray, and food at your destination. Stove fuel and bear spray are strictly forbidden, so don’t even try. Though you can bring 1 book (~20 matches) of safety matches in your carry-on, you’ll likely need more. So why not just buy near the campground? They are cheap and accessible too.
For food, according to the TSA, you can fly with frozen food, cooked food, and perishables. But it might just be easier to get something on-site so that you don’t have to worry about stuff melting or going bad. This one is totally up to you, though.
Don’t bring what your campsite comes with
Make sure to research your campsite amenities. Spare that camping chair or table if there’s a picnic table. Leave your grill in your backyard if your campsite offers it. Bring less or no food if there are many general stores nearby.
Share as much as you can between campers
Consider asking one person to bring the tent poles and stakes and another to bring just the tent. And can your group do it with just one bottle of soap? One camping stove? One set of cookware? You get the idea.
Downsize your gear
Do you really need that 6-person tent or can you make do with a 3-person one? Resist the urge to bring the fanciest gear with you. Can you do without a cot or air mattress? Also consider purchasing lightweight versions of your gear, such as ultralight sleeping pads and sleeping bags. While this involves an upfront investment, it’ll save you time and space down the road if you were to attempt backpacking or fly with camping gear again.
How Do I Protect My Camping Gear?
Make sure there are no hanging straps from your backpack if you have to check it. The shoulder strap and waist belts could get caught and ripped off. Or your backpack may not appear on the carousel altogether. A simple solution is to place your backpack in a large duffel bag or heavy-duty trash bag. You can also tighten the shoulder straps as much as possible and tape the narrower straps along the exterior of your bag. Also, buckle the waist belt backward and tape it to your bag.
Wrap your backpack or soft suitcases for extra protection. Try to do this at home since it’ll cost you some money to do it at the airport. You can get some luggage wraps here.
Make sure you wrap sharp objects like trekking poles and tent poles. You can use a bag designed for this, plastic caps, or even your towels. This not only ensures that the sharp tips won’t damage other stuff in your suitcase but also help you pass security.
Pack your gear in hard-sided suitcases as much as possible. This provides the best protection against the rough handling of luggage during transport. You don’t want your expensive camping gear to break!
How Do I Save Space?
When you fly with camping gear, you have much more limited space compared to driving to your campsite. So here are some space-saving tips.
Wear bulkier layers at the airport and pack lighter layers. Assuming weather permits of course.
Use compression sacks to make clothing sizes more manageable. You can pack anything with a lot of air in it, from pajamas to pillows to sleeping bags.
Get some camping towels. These are usually micro-fiber towels that are very light, packs down to nothing, and are quick to dry. Regular bath towels are significantly bulkier and take longer to dry. You don’t want a breeding ground for bacteria in your suitcase or backpack.
Nest your cooking gear. Some even come with nesting designs. And plan your meals accordingly given this limitation.
Carry empty and even collapsible water bottles. You can always fill them up after getting through security. Collapsible bottles will save you both space and weight.
Place bigger items first and use smaller items to fill in the gaps. A lot of the time, you can take apart larger items, such as a pack of ramen.
Use storage containers for smaller items. I like to put all kinds of spices and a can opener together in a small box.
Download or program maps of your destination and hiking routes on your phone or GPS before arrival. Then you won’t have to worry about losing the signal and getting lost, or wasting precious time at your destination.
Alternatives to Flying with Camping Gear
Here are some alternatives to flying with your camping gear. You can pack less by renting certain items at your destination or shipping them.
What Are the Costs of Renting Camping Gear?
This really comes down to personal preference as we go over the pros and cons below. But generally speaking, renting bulkier items like tents, sleeping bags, and camping chairs will save you the most space and are hence the most worthwhile.
I put together a cost comparison based on REI’s rental program. You can rent an entire kit or only big-ticket items, like coolers and tents. The kits include the essentials for two people, along with camp chairs, camp tables, and one cooler. The cost is high for the first night but much lower after that.
|1 night||2 nights||3 nights||4 nights||5 nights|
|Car camping kit||$114||$141||$168||$195||$222|
|Lightweight backpacking kit||$163||$194||$225||$256||$287|
|4-person tent (car camping)||$40||$46||$52||$58||$64|
|2 Sleeping bags (Synthetic)||$36||$42||$48||$54||$60|
While there are other rental programs like Outdoors Geek, I picked REI for comparison since they have the widest network and great prices. I’ve also been using REI rentals myself, so I think it’s a good reference.
I’ve only included prices for REI members; prices for non-members are ~50% higher. A lifetime membership costs only $20, so the savings from rentals significantly outweigh the cost.
And I found the kits to have much better value than renting a la carte. Take car camping for example. It’ll cost you the same $114 if you rent only the basics a la carte: 4-person tent, 2 sleeping bags, 2 sleeping pads, 2 headlamps, and 1 stove. So why not get the kit with more items at the same price?
Now let’s go over some pros and cons
- You can have a lot more “luxuries” with you compared to packing and flying with all your gear. Things like camp chairs, camp tables, and coolers are quite difficult to bring. With a rental, you don’t have to settle for anything less than what you are used to.
- There are absolutely zero risks of gear getting lost, damaged, delayed, or confiscated during transport. Remember the stories of camping stoves being taken and backpacks being destroyed? You don’t want to be a part of those stories.
- Convenience. You don’t have to think about what to pack or obsessively look over your checklist to make sure you got everything.
- It can save you some money if you don’t already own certain items. Probably doesn’t apply to seasoned campers.
- The cost!!! You’ll most definitely spend more than what you would on checking your bags. 2 checked bags would only be $60 – $80. But to rent, a 3-night car camping trip will set you back $168.
- You are not guaranteed to get exactly what you want. Certain gear may be unavailable during the peak season, and availability varies by location. Call the rental shop at your destination to reserve ahead of time. Bring your own if you can’t get what you want. On top of that, renting may not be for you if you are very attached to your tent, or any other camping gear for that matter.
Shipping Camping Gear
Many consider shipping their gear to destinations ahead of time due to all the restrictions on flying with them or renting them.
Prices can vary a lot depending on how much gear you are shipping, how you pack your gear, how far you are shipping, how you insure it, and how fast you want it to arrive. It can come out to be less than flying, or more than $100.
Beyond the cost, here are some pros and cons to consider:
- Generally much fewer restrictions
- Don’t have to worry about TSA searches and repacking
- Peace of mind to know that your gear is waiting for you at your destination
- You need someone or some organization to pick up your gear for you. It could be a friend, a motel, an outdoor gear shop, or a private campground host. But there has to be someone, so you’ll need to plan ahead of time. There may also be charges to hold your camping gear before you arrive, so take that into consideration.
- Your gear will take a few days to arrive unless you are doing next-day shipping. Again you’ll need to plan everything out
The Bottom Line
There you have it. All you need to know about flying with your camping gear. To summarize, you should begin by learning about the rules and regulations on what you can bring. Check with both the TSA and your airline. Then think about what you really need to bring. And as you pack, remember to add adequate protection and use tips for better organization. If you changed your mind about flying with camping gear, you can always rent or ship.
Check out this checklist to make your packing easier. I wish y’all a fantastic camping trip and all your gear arriving safely.