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Flying with Climbing Gear

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
4 min read

The thought just occurred to me, as I packed my shoes, chalk bag and harness for another flight, that I get asked about flying with climbing gear regularly but don’t recall ever doing an actual post on the topic. Here goes!

While the TSA has addressed camping, fishing and hunting gear on their (sometimes amusing) blog, I still haven’t seen any specific recommendations with regard to climbing gear. I’ve heard all sorts of anecdotes, but here’s my personal experience… your air mileage may vary!

Climbing gear in carry-on baggage
I’ve traveled more times than I can count with climbing shoes, harness, and chalk bag in my carry on. I typically put the chalk bag in a ziplock bag to contain chalk dust. I haven’t once had an issue with TSA with those items, on domestic flights… although, I’ve heard more anecdotes of issues with international flights. It seems to me when flying internationally, I’d lean toward checking a full chalk bag rather than carrying it on, and would take one that — if there was an issue and it was confiscated for some reason — I wouldn’t be heartbroken. Or, as an alternative, I’d clean out the bag as much as possible, and pack chalk separately.

I’ve also traveled more times than I can count with my trad and sport racks in my carry on. My Fish Products Atom Smasher Haul bag (aka, my cow-print Fish baby pig … click here for pics of my “extra special custom” model) seems huge, but actually arguably fits into the carry-on requirements, if I don’t overstuff it so that it’s “flexible” for squishing into the overhead compartment. I have done trips with that as my only luggage, and carried it on with no issue with TSA or the airlines.

I have read reports of confiscated nut tools at TSA checkpoints, so if you don’t want to risk losing a nut tool, check it. Finally, I don’t think you’ll be able to sweet talk most bouldering pads into a cabin, no matter how long your eyelashes or how sparkling your smile. Plan on checking that bad boy.

Checking climbing gear
My Fish Pig is also my bag of choice for checking climbing gear, when I have gone the checked-baggage route. It’s durable, protective of my precious gear, and between the drawstring top and straps I can fold over and secure with a carabiner, it keeps the contents inside despite airport handling. The backpack straps and hipbelt come off, and tuck inside the bag, so that there’s less risk of damage to the bag itself during handling.

Short of a haul bag, a duffel bag is an inexpensive choice for checking gear. The “Base Camp” line from The North Face are killer for this purpose… they have backpack straps for ease of carrying (although, I wouldn’t say they double as a climbing pack — depending on where you’re going, you’ll probably still want a separate pack), are super durable, and come in varying sizes for your purpose. I don’t own one myself, but I’ve used them with friends for trips, and have been quite impressed with the features and relative carrying comfort compared to a plain old duffel.

Don’t forget that you can carry just about any duffel sherpa-style… just use the handles as (sometimes uncomfortable) shoulder straps. It might be uncomfortable, but when you’ve got 50 lbs of gear in a duffel, carrying it by hand can be difficult!

Checking a backpack
It is possible to check backpacks… some airports have services that will actually shrinkwrap them for you; other airlines provide plastic bags to keep the straps from catching while handling and in transport. I’ve read anecdotes of folks dressing their packs well and tucking in straps, and checking an unwrapped backpack… but based on how beaten up my luggage and checked items get (seriously — even my carry-on luggage looks like it’s been through a war) I, personally, don’t trust the airlines with an unwrapped pack, especially given that my packs (other than my Fish) are getting lighter and lighter in terms of the materials used. If I were going to check a pack, I’d wrap or bag it.

And, when you just need wheels…
When wheeled luggage is necessary, I have a huge (but not oversize) wheeled duffel I picked up at Costco some time ago… check out this old post from the archives, about packing for a flying camping trip in it (scroll down for the part about the suitcase). It’s still my least damaged, most frequently used piece of wheeled luggage… they don’t seem to have one available at Costco right now, but they come in and out periodically so keep your eyes peeled.

Sharps and borderline items
I check trekking poles, ice axe, crampons, and my stove (without fuel) when I am traveling with them. I always worry a bit about my stove in checked baggage, since it’s not new, and may have residue… but so far, I haven’t had an issue. As I said, I think I’ve always checked my nut tool… I may have carried it on once or twice clipped to my rack in my carry on, but as a general rule I check it.

The thing I ALWAYS forget…
I carry a pocketknife for work and for my camp kit, and I have lost four to TSA… two, at one security checkpoint, a few months ago. I usually exercise great care to ensure that I’ve checked my knife… the typical scenario for losing a knife to TSA for me isn’t that I intend to bring a knife on board. It’s usually that I get to the airport and my checked bag is overweight, I pull out a little bag of climbing gear and tuck it in my carry-on, forgetting that there’s a sharp tucked in there. Some airports have services to allow you to mail yourself such items… many don’t (or, aren’t available 24 hours a day, which is what I’ve run into).

What has YOUR experience been traveling with climbing gear? What have I missed? Speak up, in the comments!

GearThe climbing life

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.