Traveling with backpacking gear can be a challenge. Many airlines restrict what you can and can’t bring in both your checked and carry on luggage, so determining how to pack your gear is no easy task.
But while some pieces of equipment, like fuel for your stove, are clear no-nos on a plane, figuring out whether you can bring other items can be a bit of a struggle. In fact, one of the questions we’ve often asked is “can I take a backpacking backpack as a carry on?”
Some small backpacking backpacks meet the size requirements for carry on luggage at many airlines, but the majority of packs don’t. Ultimately, you need to check the size limits for whichever airline you’re flying with to determine if you can bring your backpacking backpack as a carry on:
- Alaska Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in
- American Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in
- Delta Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in
- Frontier Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 in
- JetBlue Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in
- Southwest Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 in
- United Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in
We understand first-hand how tricky it can be to fly with backpacking gear, so we’ve put together a quick guide to answer some of your most important gear-related travel questions. Up next, we’ll discuss the ins and outs of taking a backpacking backpack as a carry on so you can decide how to best prepare for your upcoming travels.
How To Use a Backpacking Backpack as a Carry On Bag
You can use a backpacking backpack as a carry on, but only if your bag is within the size limits for the airline that you’re flying with.
Every backpack and airline is different, so we can’t give you a blanket statement as to whether your pack will work as a carry on. This is particularly true if you’re flying with low-cost or budget airlines as these companies often have very strict limits on the size and weight of passenger’s carry on luggage.
To see what we mean, consider the following carry on bag size limits from some of the biggest airlines in the US:
Alaska Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm)
American Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm)
Delta Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm)
Frontier Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 in (61 x 41 x 25 cm)
JetBlue Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm)
Southwest Airlines: 24 x 16 x 10 in (61 x 41 x 25 cm)
United Airlines: 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm)
Keep in mind that these carry on size limits are set by the airlines (not TSA) and that they can change at any time. Always double-check the current baggage restrictions with your airline before you start packing.
But as you can see, most airlines in the US have similar size requirements of around 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm). These limits are more or less the same overseas, too, give or take a few inches.
The problem is that most backpacking packs over about 60L in size are much larger than these size limits.
For example, the Osprey Aether Plus 60 is 31 x 15 x 13 in (79 x 38 x 33 cm) in a size small/medium. The Gregory Baltoro 75 also measures about 30 x 14 x 14 in (76 x 36 x 36 cm) in a size medium.
Therefore, unless you’re using a small or ultralight pack, most backpacking backpacks don’t meet the size requirements for carry on luggage at major airlines.
Of course, if the airline never asks you to measure your carry on during the boarding process, you might be able to get away with using your pack for your luggage. But doing so risks having your bag checked at the gate, which could lead to an unexpected travel cost and hassle.
Can I Check a Hiking Backpack as Luggage?
You can check a hiking backpack as luggage at most major airlines without any issues (but always double-check your airline’s checked bag requirements). The only thing to watch out for is the weight of your gear as going even half a pound over an airline’s checked bag weight limit could lead to an oversized bag charge—yikes!
That said, we should warn you about the risks of using a hiking backpack as your checked luggage.
Bags tend to get a little beaten up in transport, so there’s always a chance that your pack could get damaged if it’s placed in a plane’s cargo hold. We’ve personally seen a number of pack buckles and straps break during our travels, which is problematic if you’re heading straight from the airport to the trailhead.
One of the best ways to combat this problem is to place your pack in a duffel for extra protection before you drop it off at the checked bag collection point. Some companies like Osprey actually make lightweight pack covers for this purpose (check out the Osprey Airporter LZ Pack Duffel if you’re interested). But pretty much any duffel that’s big enough to hold your pack will do the job.
What Size Backpack is Allowed on a Plane?
Maximum luggage sizes vary from airline to airline, so you need to double-check the requirements for your specific flight when determining what backpack to use for your travels.
However, you can generally bring a backpack that’s up to 22 x 14 x 9 in (56 x 35 x 22 cm) in size as a carry on bag with most US-based airlines. Additionally, most airlines allow a personal item that’s up to 18 x 14 x 8 in (46 x 36 x 20 cm) in size, which is good enough for some small backpacks.
As far as checked bags go, you normally won’t have any problem size-wise with a backpack.
Most airlines let you check a bag with maximum linear dimensions of 62 in (157 cm) without paying oversized baggage fees. This number represents the combined total length, width, and height of your bag, so you should be fine with most backpacking backpacks. Just be sure to keep your pack under your airline’s weight limit to avoid any overweight luggage charges.
You may be able to use your backpacking backpack as a carry on with some airlines, but most packs are better off as checked luggage. Unless you happen to have a very small backpacking pack, your bag will probably be too big for use as a carry on.
You might be able to get away with using a backpacking backpack as your carry on, but doing so runs the risk of having your bag checked at the gate. The better option is to safely pack your backpacking pack into a duffel and to check it so that you can get through your travels with as little stress as possible.
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David is an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.