Choosing the Right Backpack Size for Flights to the Trailhead

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If you don’t live within driving distance of the trail you are planning to hike and don’t want to have to leave your car flying may be the option.

Flights though have limitations with carry on gear and you don’t want to leave key gear in the hands of the luggage hold, so then what is the best size backpack for travelling via airplanes?

For hikers travelling to out of state thru hikes you need to take into mind how you will get your gear there safe and sound, for most “carry on” regulations you wont want to have a pack bigger than 45l and check their size guide for length, width, and height to make sure you are clear.

While this may make you weary of bigger backpacks you have some alternatives in attempting to either get these bags on the plane or at worst get them added to the luggage without checking and the abuse of the machines routing that gear.

Airline Carry On Standard Size Backpack Dimensions

I went and put together this chart based on all the major airlines in the United States to help you know the dimensions and needs for carry on at a glance so you can plan properly and adjust as needed understanding your key need of “will my backpack fit in the overhead”.

AirlineDimensionsWeight Limit
United22″ x 14″ x 9″None Listed
Southwest22″ x 14″ x 9″None Listed
American22″ x 14″ x10″None Listed
Alaska22″ x 14″ x 9″None Listed
Delta22″ x 14″ x 9″None Listed
Virgin Atlantic22″ x 14″ x 9″22lbs
Quantas22″ x 14″ x 9″15lbs
Frontier24″ x 16″ x 10″35lbs
JetBlue22″ x 14″ x 9″None Listed
Spirit22″ x 18″ x 10″None Listed
Domestic Carry On Limitations to Check Your Backpack

Now that we have a solid understanding of the airlines and their limits you may be wondering “will my backpack fit in the overhead?”. The easiest answer to this is to get the size your airline allows and a scale.

Then go fill your backpack with everything you know you can bring and that the airlines allow and then measure to see where it sits in accordance to guidelines above (always revalidate changing terms on airline site).

Next take your luggage scale and hang your backpack to see what weight it comes in at, if you are largely over you need to re-evaluate what you can bring, need to ship or purchase once at your endpoint.

Travel tourist standing with backpack watching sunset at airport window. Passenger seat in departure lounge for see airplane, View from airport terminal.
Travel tourist standing with backpack in the airport

What About a 60l Backpack?

But you may wonder, I need a larger backpack though for my trip. Well this is not a hard and fast “rule” but more due to the size matching the airline required dimension and weight limits, so you can possibly skirt around by not having food or other gear you could get on site after landing.

Can I bring my 60L backpack as carry-on for planes? If your 60l pack is frameless and not filled to the max it should be able to fold into the carry on luggage space without being filled, though depending on what you add to it you may move past this mark for carry on based on overall size. If you have a framed pack more than likely it is larger than the sizing by default which will make it checked.

Is a 60l backpack carry on size then for most hikers who are travelling? In my opinion this is a no, but if they allow you to carry into the airport instead of direct checking this could be beneficial.

Then you may be able to sneak it onto the plane as checked at the gate which should result in better handling since no machines are involved in transferring it.

So can I carry on a 60 liter backpack on a plane, most definitely it could fit as your carry on.

You would also have to make sure you have dimensions and weight well understood along with knowing what to purchase on location.

What Happens if My Carry On is Too Big?

Now you have to think about what happens should your carry on be oversized at the gate. If you got this far then this is not as bad as checking your bag which allows your bag to be treated with more respect.

If you get to the gate and your bag misses the mark on check in they will “gate check” your backpack which means someone will take it at the end and load it into the storage after and it will be pulled for you to grab once you disembark making it get as best treatment as possible.

For me this would be a win as your primary objective was to avoid the machinery and mistreatment that occurs on checked luggage behind the scenes and ensures the best treatment possible if it won’t fit in the cabin.

Final Thoughts on What Size Backpack for Travelling

When looking to take your hiking backpack as an airline carry on you will face some hurdles due to the typically odd shape of your backpack. Since these will typically be prepared for days of hiking they will be very full.

This can cause them to fail fitting in the carry on limits whether by the weight or by the your hiking backpack carry-on dimensions. The dimensions you can manage by under carrying excess gear that could be purchased after landing.

The other alternative would be that you choose to box up goods that you worry about being on the plane and mail them to yourself at a drop point at the city or area you are flying into and pick it up then to add to your backpack.

This allows you to ensure your gear is treated well as airlines have a long history of damaging goods and the last thing you need before a long hike is to have trustable gear.

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