The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 132: Flying Backpacks

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Heading to a distant wilderness trailhead? That might mean air travel, which can be a hassle if you don't plan ahead and prepare. This week on The WildeBeat; Flying Backpacks

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News from the WildeBeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number one thirty two, made possible by Alpine Aire Foods.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: When you start looking into some of the most diverse and interesting wilderness areas around the country, you'll find that some of the most interesting ones aren't necessarily in your back yard. To get to them means a long road trip, or for many people, travel on a commercial airline. I'm not a frequent flyer myself. In fact, I haven't been on an airplane in several years. But from what I hear, traveling with unusual items like outdoor gear and supplies has become a bit more complicated since two thousand and one. But even before then, getting all of your gear on and off a plane could be tricky.

STEVE: Listener Jeremy Sullivan had this experience several years ago.

JEREMY SULLIVAN: And I had always used a backcountry camp stove; one of these all-in-one backcountry camp stoves... So I was taking that all-in-one unit on an airplane. I mean, I'd emptied the fuel, of course, and I remember checking-in at the counter and the woman asked me if I had anything, and I said something like, "I've got my camp stove," I said, "but it's empty."

JEREMY SULLIVAN: She said, "well you can't take that on the airplane." And, you know, I said, "Well, why not?" And quite an angry tone she said, "well, because you'll blow up the plane!" And, you know, that really frightened me. I mean, ...I, of course, didn't want to blow up the plane. So, I was able to check my stove in a, you know, somewhere at the airport, so I was able to claim it on the way home.

STEVE: I wanted to get the official word on how best to pack my backcountry gear for air travel, so I visited the offices of the Federal Aviation Administration near the San Francisco Airport. There I met Robert Cassidy. He's a hazardous materials specialist for the F-A-A.

STEVE: So Robert, I brought a pile of gear here, and let's just go through this stuff... Some of this stuff I know you're going to find totally OK, and some of it I suspect you're going to tell me I need to re-think my packing process. So if I showed up at the airport with this pack, trying to decide whether to carry it on or check it, it's obviously almost small enough to carry on, right?


STEVE: And one of the other things I'll have with me these hiking poles, and so let's start with these. These have these carbide tips that aren't terribly sharp, but they're not entirely blunt either.

ROBERT CASSIDY: Obviously they're not hazardous materials, but you may have a concern with T-S-A as you're carrying those on. Your best bet of course would be to check that.

STEVE: OK, and then stuff like mattresses and foam padding and that. [Fade Under]

STEVE: My simplistic attempt to get quick, clear answers by laying my gear on the table in front of them, turned into almost half an hour of tediously examining every tiny item in the pack. For each item I pulled out, Robert carefully read the regulations. Some of these regulations were established by the F-A-A, but many of them are, instead, established by the T-S-A.

ROBERT CASSIDY: When you go through security you're going through a T-S-A, a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, and they're looking for, among other things, security related items. Also, ...the air carriers that you're traveling on have their own restrictons that are sometimes above and beyond what the Federal Aviation regulates.

STEVE: What's the public's best bet to determine how to organize their packing for a particular outdoor adventure so that everything they need gets there, or when they get there they have to spend the least amount of time trying to find the things that they weren't allowed to bring?

ROBERT CASSIDY: The easiest way to look into it is probably going to be with the air carrier that you're flying on is to ask them specifically if they can bring that. All items do have an M-S-D-S, a materials safety data sheet, and if you had access to those, of course that's going to tell you if it is considered flammable or hazardous... Some of the more common things that would be prohibited would be matches or any type of fuel or flamable liquids, some of your camp stoves, the fuel portions of it, C-O two, anything that's a aerosol would be prohibited unless there was a certain passenger-related exceptions.

STEVE: We've heard the stories of people having to throw out things like mother's milk and shampoo and other really innocuous-sounding substances and not being able to take them on the plane. That's, I think, what confuses the public so much, and can the public be prepared when it seems so arbitrary to them?

ROBERT CASSIDY: Ahh, that's a good question. Short of having some paperwork with you that shows that the product that you have is not hazardous, really even then the carrier and the screeners have the ability to decline to allow things to pass through the security checkpoint, or to allow things on to their aircraft... Sometimes you're kinda just going to be out of luck if you want to use that carrier.

STEVE: Well is there anything else that hasn't come up in our conversation so far that you think that a member of the public who wants to fly from here to there and go on some outdoor adventure needs to know or needs to think about?

ROBERT CASSIDY: There are a couple of things, one being batteries and lithium batteries that has drawn a lot of attention lately. The basic rule I would say for those are ...if batteries are in an item of equipment, it generally is going to be allowed on carry-on baggage. Some lithium batteries and their spares are not going to be allowed in checked baggage. Also, you said, a lot of the rules are changing. Right now you're allowed to take one lighter or one book of matches on your person. That would not be allowed in checked baggage... But either way, the best thing is to look at the Internet, the F-A-A and the D-O-T has a web site that lists a lot of items and gives you some good information, and then check with your air carrier before you go, and just ask for anything that you had a question about whether it may or may not be allowed.

STEVE: I got a lot of good information from Robert at the F-A-A. But the interview was a little frustrating for both of us because, the F-A-A doesn't have the last word. So then, after a bit more research, I was able to get Nico Melendez on the phone. He's the Pacific Region spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.

NICO MELENDEZ: I guess I could just make it easy. I can't think of an item that a camper or hiker or and adventurer of some sort would want to take on his trip, or her trip, that we won't allow. I mean, we will allow up to everything including a gun... Just put it in your checked bag and it won't be a problem. The problem does come in when a passenger tries to bring one or all of those things through the passenger check point. Because they're not allowed inside the plane where a passenger has access to them.

STEVE: Then lets get to something that I know with my earlier conversations with the F-A-A will be a difficulty, is the cook stoves... ...maybe you could tell me, what your best advice is to someone who needs to transport these items to their location.

NICO MELENDEZ: The best advice for any kind of a cooking item that requires fuel is, ...check with the F-A-A, what their hazardous material restrictions are, and put it in your checked baggage, and we won't have a problem transporting it, or letting it get through the baggage screening process and into the belly of the plane.

STEVE: Some of the more fragile items that a traveler might want to carry on the plane include some of these electronic devices, including a digital cameras, two-way radios, satellite or cell phones, navigation devices like G-P-S receivers and some of these other things... So typically a traveller would want to carry these more fragile, higher-value items on with them.

NICO MELENDEZ: Absolutely, and it's recommended that they do so. That they do carry their high-dollar items like everything you mentioned and if someone happens to be carrying jewelry or a large amount of cash, keep it with you. Keep it in your carry-on, take it through the security checkpoint, and there won't be a problem with us at the security checkpoint carrying that on to the plane.

STEVE: So why do you suppose there's segment of the population out there, a vocal segment I might be inclined to label them, who finds the experience of going through ...the security checkpoints to commercial airlines a sort of very arbitrary and frustrating experience where they never know what of their posessions are going to be rejected or otherwise a problem for them?

NICO MELENDEZ: Ahh. You would have to ask them why they feel that way. I would --

STEVE: But you must hear some of the complaints.

NICO MELENDEZ: Oh yeah, you hear some of the complaints, and I think a lot of times the complaints come from the people who didn't do their homework before they came to the airport... They need to educate themselves... You should know what you're allowed to do when you come to the airport, what you're not allowed to do when you come to the airport. We do ask passengers to play their part, and that is to prepare themselves... We need to take responsibility for our actions, and as passengers we ask them, "Take responsibility and know what's allowed, what's not allowed. Familiarize yourself with post nine-eleven security, and come ready."

STEVE: I got some other tips from my talks with these two officals. If you can, try to enclose your backpack in a larger, heavy-duty duffel bag. If you have time, ship your supplies, especially fuel, by ground ahead of time. Keep valuables, such as cash and small electronics, with you as carry-on baggage. And finally, the Leave No Trace principle of plan ahead and prepare applies to packing your gear for travel as well.

STEVE: Have you experienced complications flying to a backcountry destination? Do you have handy tips and advice for people who are about to do this for the first time? We'd like you to share your stories and ideas, and we always like to hear any other comments you have about our show. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You can find links to the T-S-A and F-A-A web sites, and download an extended version of this show, on our web site. WildeBeat members can download my first extended interview with the F-A-A from out WildeBeat Insider's web pages.

STEVE: Our thanks to Alpine Aire Foods for their support. Producing natural, gourmet freeze-dried foods for over twenty-five years, AlpineAire features ready-to-eat instant meals for your outdoor adventures, available at A-A dash foods dot com. Become a new WildeBeat member and get a three day Alpine Aire meal kit, an over fifty five dollar value, as a thank you gift.

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Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. If we helped you get into the wilderness, could you help us do the same for others? Just click on our support link and become a member. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a nonprofit educational project of Earth Island Insitute.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number one thirty two. Thank you for listening.

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Next time -- The Sol Enchilada.

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