Slow and Heavy: 7 Tips for Surviving Climbing Travel

Even if your climbing style is fast and light, air travel as a climber is often anything but—sport climbing trips to Thailand excepted, perhaps. Here are seven pointers for surviving the duffel shuffle of expedition travel when your whole kit is on the line.

Embrace your obsessive side: inventory and label.
Base camp tent, sleep system, stove and mess kit, water filter — if your climbing destination requires backcountry travel, your gear needs multiply far beyond the rope and rack, whether you’re headed out for an extended expedition into the mountains or just a few days at a backcountry crag. Add an aid climbing objective or a ski approach or even some light photography equipment and you’re facing some serious luggage wrestling. One tip I’ve learned traveling with my adventure-cameraman husband: label each bag with its own number using a Sharpie and some duct tape. I like to label both ends so you can easily identify each bag in a pile.

Keep an inventory of the bags as you pack them and take the written log with you in your carry-on. Then when you get to your destination and you need to quickly find a jacket or change of clothes, you don’t have to explode every bag in front of curious airport crowds.

While you have the Sharpie out, you might consider indelibly marking each bag directly on its fabric with your name and contact information — your cargo is too precious to trust to flimsy luggage tags!

Distribute the essentials.
Is half a rack better than no rack? A few technical clothes more helpful than the travel outfit you’re wearing? As you’re packing your checked luggage, consider the possibility of one or more pieces becoming delayed or not even making it to your destination. Sometimes an entire expedition can be salvaged despite a piece of lost luggage if a few key items are distributed well beforehand.

Inside the black hole: How Type A do you want to be?
When it comes to gear organization inside your luggage, I’ve seen all methods work, from intricate bags-within-bags systems to the barely contained explosions. I shoot for Type B+: using stuff sacks and ditty bags to corral the chaos but not being afraid to stuff a down jacket or pair of camp shoes into the interstices when needed. If you like the bags-within-bags method, try using different color stuff sacks for different types of gear and breaking out the Sharpie to label them on the outside. I know, sounds over-the-top A+ category, but it’ll save you time when it’s getting dark and you’ve forgotten which out of 10 ditty bags has your headlamp.

Don’t leave home without the luggage scale.
Traveling by air? That $10 gadget from your local big box store can mean the difference between a smooth-sailing check-in and an extra $100 charge on your credit card before you even make it to your departure gate. A loop of webbing hanging off a ceiling beam or hang-board in your house makes a convenient weigh-in spot before heading to the airport. And though it might sound counterintuitive if you’re counting every ounce, it’s worth saving room to bring the scale with you so you can use it on your return.

Wrestle duffels like a pro.
Bag choice can make all the difference if you have to schlep your own gear farther than the curb-side check-in. If you have the weight allowance to use rolling luggage, tether those babies together with some extra webbing and you’re good to go. But if every ounce counts, for me the 10 pounds or more packed on to each piece of rolling luggage is too much to spare. I like large, burly duffel bags that you can carry semi-comfortably on your back, or occasionally a haul bag if it’s useful in the field as well. (Caution: Take it from me, hiking long distances with a loaded haul bag instead of a real backpack sucks.)

If you’re traveling solo, consider picking up one of those folding rolling luggage carts before you go. I’ve made it across airports, city blocks, bus stations, and dusty dirt roads hefting one 50-pound duffel on my back and another strapped to a portable luggage cart with a piece of tag line. Most carts weigh less than 10 pounds and are easily tucked in with a carry-on.

Carry on for success.
It can be tempting to stuff heavy climbing equipment like your rack and rope into a carry-on to save weight in your checked luggage. And I know this can sometimes work, occasionally without even an extra peep at the security checkpoint. But I’ve also seen this backfire, with security agents not allowing ropes because they say they could be used to restrain passengers and hassling climbers about every item on a rack because they are so unfamiliar. I don’t want to risk missing a flight due to a delay at security, so I try to avoid those scenarios, choosing instead to carry on (or wear, if really needed) heavier mountain boots or anything else that’s easily recognizable.

When overweight is the only option, be smart.
Even with the most thought-out packing strategy, sometimes you just can’t make it work with two bags under 50 pounds. Or you clear the US luggage restrictions only to face stricter rules in another country en route (that one-40-pound bag limit traveling to Greenland just hurts). My advice? Beg. I’ve shown airline agents official-looking expedition plans, special equipment notices, media passes, you name it. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. If you know you’re going to be overweight before you go, it’s worth a phone call to customer service ahead of time to try to negotiate an equipment waiver or special rate. And I hear at some airports the old toe-lifting-the-front-of-the-scale trick has been known to shave off a few pounds …