Can a hiking backpack be a carry on?

Table of Contents

You are about to hop in the car to head to the airport for your next outdoor adventure.

Except you have waited till now to consider whether your hiking backpack will be allowed as your carry on.

Plus, what about that backpacking gear that you left at the bottom of your bag, is that allowed?

I have flown many times with hiking packs as my carry on and as a checked bag.

To address the questions about using your pack as a carry on, I researched TSA regulations and individual airline policies to compile the information into one place.

Whether you fly Delta Airlines, United Airlines, or one of the domestic budget airlines, this article contains the information you need to avoid a last-second hang up at the airport.

traveling with a hiking pack

Are you allowed to use a hiking backpack as a carry on?

Yes, you can use a hiking backpack as a carry on.

There are a couple of things to consider before you head off to the airport, though.

Airlines have different maximum size dimensions that they allow for carry ons, and some hiking or backpacking gear that you may have in your hiking backpack is not allowed in carry on luggage.

Items you may have in your hiking pack

I went through the full list of TSA prohibited items and identified common items that may or may not be in your carry on bag.

Item

Can you have it in your pack?

Alcohol

Yes, if less than 3.4 oz and 140 proof

Batteries

Yes

Bear spray

No

Bug spray

Yes, if less than 3.4 oz. and has a button/nozzle

Camp stove

Yes, as long as it doesn't have fuel attached to it

Crampons

Yes, but TSA as authority to deny if they feel they pose a threat

Disposable lighter

Yes, non disposables must have no fuel in them

Flashlight

Yes

Fuel

No

Hand warmers

Yes

Ice axe

No

Knives

No

Lithium battery

Yes

Multi-tool

Yes, unless it has a knife

Scissors

Yes, if under 4 inches long

Tent stakes

No

Trekking poles are a bit of a tricky one for most people, so I will address it outside of the above table. Canes or other walking sticks that are needed for mobility are allowed. Since hiking poles are not needed, they are not allowed in your carry on.

As is standard for travel, all liquids must be 3.4 oz.

What size backpack can I use as carry on luggage?

The average maximum size for a carry on bag is 22″ x 14″ x 9″.

Some airlines have slightly different dimensions, so I compiled a list of major US airlines and their maximum allowed size for carry on luggage.

Airline

Maximum Size Dimensions

Alaska Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Allegiant Air

22" x 16" x 10"

American Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Delta Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

Frontier Airlines

24" x 16" x 10"

JetBlue

22" x 14" x 9"

Southwest Airlines

24" x 16" x 10"

Spirit Airlines

22" x 18" x 10"

Unitied Airlines

22" x 14" x 9"

In my experience, it is not common for airlines to measure your carry on, so if yours is within an inch or so, you may be fine. That said, don’t rely on it if your backpack is over the limit.

airport

Are there weight restrictions for a carry on?

Most airlines do not note a weight limit for their carry on luggage. Some do, like Frontier limits it to 35 pounds.

So for most airlines, I would try to keep it under that 35-pound limit.

I also could not imagine hauling around 35+ pounds in most day hiking backpacks.

What if my backpack is too big to carry on?

If your backpack is too big, you will have to check it.

There are some items that are allowed in a carry on that are not allowed in checked luggage.

So if your pack is close to the size limit, I would always check it at the ticketing desk versus getting to the gate and having to check it there. It will save you from having to pull items out of your bag.

For example, some lithium-ion batteries are prohibited from being in your checked luggage. If you have an external battery power bank, to recharge your electronics on the trail, it cannot be in your checked luggage.

You can save yourself some headaches by knowing whether your hiking backpack is too big to carry on and what items are not allowed.

airplane seat

Can I use my hiking backpack as a checked bag?

Yes, you can use hiking backpacks as checked luggage.

If you have a larger day pack or a backpacking pack, you will have to check it if you want to bring it with you.

Generally, the weight limit for checked is 50 pounds. Beyond this, you will get into extra charges, so if you are going to be close to that limit, have a carry on or personal item that you can pack some items in.

Getting to the counter and realizing you’re going to have to pay an extra fee is a great way to start your adventure out on the wrong foot.

How to pack your backpack as checked baggage

There are a couple of things you should consider before checking your backpack.

  1. Pack any fragile items (or any expensive or irreplaceable gear) in the middle of the pack, preferably surrounded by something soft. (I.e., wrap it in your sleeping bag)

  2. Make sure all the buckles are either clipped in or removed. These can easily get caught and ripped or broken throughout the loading/unloading process. You do not want to arrive at your destination with a couple of broken buckles.

  3. If possible, tie your shoulder straps together. This can also get caught on something during the loading/unloading process, and you do not want to get to your destination and realize some stitches holding your shoulder strap on were ripped.

  4. Pack your backpack within a duffel bag. If your hiking bag fits within a larger duffel that you have, do that. It better protects the backpack from damage. I once did the three things listed above, only to have the mesh pocket of my pack ripper when I picked it up off the baggage carousel.

Can I use my hiking pack as my personal item?

Yes, a lot of day packs fit the size requirement for use as a personal item.

As with carry on luggage, each airline has different maximum sizes. I went ahead and researched each major US airlines’ personal items policy and put it into one table.

Airlines

Maximum Size Dimensions

Alaska Airlines

No specific dimensions, must fit under seat

Allegiant Air

18" x 14" x 8"

American Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"

Delta Airlines

No specific dimensions, must fit under seat

Frontier Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"

JetBlue

17" x 13" x 8" (must fit under seat)

Southwest Airlines

16.25" x 13.5" x 8" (must fit under seat)

Spirit Airlines

18" x 14" x 8"

United Airlines

17" x 10" x 9"

Generally speaking, if your pack fits underneath the seat in front of you, it can be used as a carry on.

For reference, the REI Flash 22 is 19″ x 11″ x 8″. So if you had this pack (or a similar-sized pack), it would be close to use as a personal item. As long as you don’t have it fully packed, you should be fine, though. It can compress a little bit to meet most of the size dimension limits.

Conclusion

Using your hiking backpack as your carry on is an easy way to bring along a lot of your gear, and in some cases, it allows you to avoid checking a bag.

Though, there are size restrictions for how big of a bag you can bring. A popular pack like the Osprey Exos 48 is not going to cut it as a carry on. But if you have a day hiking backpack in the 20 L range, it will most likely work.

Also, make sure to do a double-check through what you are packing because some common hiking gear is not allowed in your carry on.

Nothing starts your next outdoor adventure off right quite like getting through airport security without a hassle and all of your gear arriving in good condition!

backpacking trip picture

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