Flying a backpack full with gear is probably the single scariest thing that I do when I’m travelling. I don’t worry about the steep cliffs, the scary bears or those creepy spiders. For me, my biggest fear is arriving at my destination and finding that my backpack is somehow stolen, damaged or missing. Airports are the worst places for backpacks. All of the conveyor belts that move your backpack from check in to pickup will chew, tear, rip, break, and bind your backpack into a crumpled heap of back-pain.
When I first started travelling, the airlines were king and they could charge whatever they wanted to, to ship your bags. Lugging my 50lbs+ pack through the airport would generally cost me around $100 each way (totaling $200). For that kind of money, I started using either FedEx or UPS to ship my goods as it was more secure, faster, and cheaper. Since the cost of travel has started dropping and airlines are starting to provide free bags (thanks, Southwest!), it’s become easier to just check my pack rather than ship it. While this solves the issue of price, it doesn’t solve the issue of loss or damage. Fortunately there are a couple of tricks that do.
Use a Large Duffel Bag
The first and probably most effective way is to fly your pack inside of a large duffel bag. Forget your designer duffel or your brand new Nike hockey bag, go out and get yourself and old, raggedy looking canvas sack, like the army used to use. The advantages these bags have are: (1) they will fit your pack; (2) they’re durable as hell, (3) they look old and raggedy. Let’s break that down. First off, fitting your pack and all of your stuff is obviously important. Second, having a ton of durability means they can be dropped, rolled, beaten and dragged all the way from your house to the airport to India to the top of a Land Cruiser, and back again. Third, they look old and raggedy. This is good because it decreases the chance of your bag being stolen. A brand new pack with shiny gear and expensive equipment is a lot more likely to be taken than an old beaten up rucksack. I once learned this the hard way in Kenya.
It should be noted that there are a couple of drawbacks to this as well. The most important of which is that these bags are heavy and bulky, so they’re hard to actually backpack with once you get there. Finding a place to store your duffel is helpful, or you can drop it off at the local Salvation Army and try to pick up another when flying home. The other major drawback is that most old duffels don’t lock. This is totally a preference thing, but I find if you’re doing some extensive travel a locking duffel is nice to have.
Use a Box
Admittedly, this is probably my least favorite way to fly my goods, but I have friends who swear by it. It’s as easy as it sounds. Find a box, put your pack in it, tape it up and throw it away when you get there. The obvious benefit to the box method is that its free, you can trash it when you get to your destination and get another on the way home. The downside to boxes is that if they tear, they tend to keep tearing and you might find yourself with no box. They also don’t carry very comfortably. If you box your goods up you lose the function of straps, handles or other carrying aids. Hauling a 50 pound pack in a box from the car to the check-in can be awkward and difficult. Again, not my favorite way to travel, but it works.
The Osprey Airporter LZ
Yes, this is a super shameless product plug. It’s also probably the best way to fly your pack. Osprey makes this wonderful bag that slides over the top of your pack. Its large enough to fit your entire pack AND all your other stuff. It’s got room to attach hiking poles, boots, extra clothes, etc. etc. It comes with a reinforced strap and has locking zippers. It’s also made of lightweight materials so if you do have to hike with it, it’s not the end of the world. It is a little bit more expensive than the other options, but in my opinion, if you’re travelling a lot, it’s well worth it.
A Bed Sheet
Using a bed sheet is cheap, convenient and often comes in handy. Unfortunately, you don’t get a strap with this setup, but you do get a sheet. It works like this. Take a sheet, fold it in half. Sew it along three corners (like a sleeping bag). Drop your bag in, gooseneck the top and be on your way. The sheet will work to protect your buckles and straps from being ripped on off the pack. It also doubles as a sleep sheet, so if you’re staying in hostels or rentals or even dirty hotels you’ve got at least one layer of protection around you. It’s not a perfect system, but it can help keep away bed bugs or other unfriendly germs. If nothing else it’ll give you some peace of mind. This is particularly ideal if you’re traveling from city to city rather than campsite to campsite. This is sometimes called “furoshiki,” based off of an ancient form of wrapping.