You needn't sacrifice basic preparedness — for the outdoors, for fixing stuff or for first aid — just because you're flying somewhere carry-on only. These are the tools you can take on planes, how to pack them and how to use them.
I've got one of those jobs that means I fly a lot, often to out of the way places. That means connections and connections mean you'll lose any bag you check. So, unless I'm heavily burdened with motorcycle gear, I go carry-on only. Heck, I once fit the entire dirt bike outfit you see here in my carry-on bag; necessity is the mother of invention.
It's also one of those jobs that throws curve balls at you pretty often. Again in the pictured trip, I had to take a connecting flight, then show up and ride a motorcycle off-road, a long way from nowhere. That means I have to deal with the potential for mechanical breakdowns, injuries, unexpected weather conditions or just the frequently bizarre nature of international travel.
No, I don't use all the stuff I take with me on every trip, but from dismantling a European outlet cover so a travel adaptor can fit into it, to dealing with a broken zipper, or simply strapping a bag to a motorcycle, a little capability can go a long way.
The TSA And Tools: Believe it or not, but you're actually allowed to take an awful lot of stuff with you through airport security, you just have to make sure it meets a very basic set of requirements. But, I do like to add one of my own: Don't take anything with you that you don't mind giving up. TSA regulations are pretty clear, but often the staff's on-the-ground knowledge of them isn't. If you're traveling internationally, you can also face some differences in what's allowed. Spanish airport security, for instance, is convinced dog whistles are weapons and will trash them on-sight.
The basic guidelines are:
- Nothing Sharp or Pointy.
- Nothing that's intended to be used as a weapon, this includes kubatons and similar innocuous looking impact and forced compliance weapons.
- No metal tools or similar objects over seven inches.
- No flammable liquids or gasses.
That actually leaves a lot of room for tools, but do check the TSA's master list of prohibited items if you aren't absolutely sure an item is permitted. And prepare for unpredictable interpretation of these rules, one TSA agent will take an item away while another at the same airport will let it through. Never argue with them, it's not worth the hassle. Also never try to sneak something through or pack a ceramic, plastic or carbon fiber knife, the consequences of it being found mean it's not worth it.
Tools For Everyday Carry: I've written about my keychain toolkit before and created it with air travel in mind. Everything on it goes through security just fine and delivers substantial capability. It forms the basis of my air travel load out.
As a further note on multools and scissors, my understanding is that the max length of the tool can't exceed seven inches; open it up, expand the tools and try to create a configuration that maximizes the tool's possible length. Under seven inches and don't have a knife blade? You're good. With scissors, the total length of the blade can't exceed four inches. The little scissors on most multitools are just fine.
The $20 Leatherman Style PS is purpose designed to be TSA permissible.
Tools For The Outdoors: In addition to the keychain I carry a wad of paracord (probably about 25 feet), one of those folded up plastic ponchos of the type they sell at music festivals, a Bic lighter and a few Vaseline-soaked cotton balls in a little baggie.
If I'm flying somewhere to do something substantial outdoors, I'll buy a Swiss Army knife or an Opinel at the airport or a gas station when I land. You can find those virtually anywhere and both are quality blades that are cheap enough you don't mind disposing of them when it's time to fly home. You can also ship a real knife to and from a hotel or any business you might be visiting.
The paracord is obviously useful for lashing things, but you can also use it as a clothesline, shoe lace or for any other job where you'd need cordage. It's strong and versatile and you can pull out the innards and use one of the strands as dental floss or wad them up and use them as tinder when starting a fire. But that's what the cotton balls are for; the world's best and cheapest fire starters, they're waterproof and indestructible. Bic makes the best lighters and they are permitted on planes, as is a single book of matches, but not the strike anywhere kind.
The poncho is there to supplement the clothing I take, providing a wind/waterproof barrier that can go inside the Barbour International jacket I typically wear when I fly to add warmth. That capability is probably a little extreme, but weather can turn unexpectedly bad very quickly, particularly in unfamiliar environments. It'd also keep a pack dry.
DPx Gear sells a perforated dog tag that snaps off to form a rudimentary knife. I don't carry one, but it was designed and is used by legendary adventure journalist Robert Young Pelton, who says he's never had one questioned at security.
Tools For Automotive/Motorcycle Repair: You're allowed to take a wrench or pair of pliers so long as they're under seven inches in length. A little adjustable wrench and little set of allen wrenches will nicely supplement the limited capabilities of stock tool kits and both perform jobs the pliers on the multitool can't.
I don't, but it'd be permissible to pack a ratchet and a few bits so long as you follow that same seven inch rule. If you're flying somewhere and hopping immediately into or onto some weird vehicle and taking it out in the bush, that could be a good idea, but that's obviously a very unusual use case for most people.
A small selection of zip ties will take up virtually no room and add no appreciable weight, but can be incredibly useful for small repairs or even changing a motorcycle's tire. They're also great for wardrobe malfunctions and can even fix a broken backpack strap.
Tools For Electronics: You're probably not going to need to to service your laptop, camera or phone while you're traveling, but a small phillips head, flat blade and the wire cutter on the multitool can come in handy if you need to re-wire a plug, modify an outlet or jerry rig a broken power cord. Duct tape can help with the same.
Foreign outlets sometimes aren't just a different configuration of holes, but rather that combined with weird plastic covers that can block plugs or adaptors that would otherwise fit. I've often found myself removing these fascias from plugs in hotel rooms in Russia or in various African countries.
Packing a Lok Sak sized appropriately for your gadgets is the easiest way to protect them from water, sand and dust if you might encounter those. Again, with virtually no weight or space penalty.
Tools For Your Body: There's very few minor injuries that can't be aided by duct tape and super glue. Carry duct tape on your keychain as described above or wrap some around an old hotel key card. Combined with a little gauze to cover the wound itself, duct tape makes the most effective possible bandaid and can effectively shield a blister or hot spot from further abrasion.
Super glue can stand in for stitches on larger cuts. Just seal the skin together with it. Pack a tube in that ziploc bag with your other liquids. Together with the tape, both are incredibly useful, multi-purpose items that are more than worth their extremely minimal space and weight penalties.
It's also a great idea to pack stuff like Benadryl, for allergic reactions. My otherwise healthy dad once had a severe allergic reaction to shellfish while we were visiting Malta. We didn't have Benadryl on us, so his head swelled up to the size of a basketball and his windpipe swelled closed, luckily there was a hospital nearby. In pill form, you can just throw some in the bottom of a pocket on your bag and forget about it.
Anti diarrhea pills, laxatives prescription painkillers are similarly useful, for all the obvious reasons. Yeah, you can buy them at local pharmacies, but your travel can take you away from easy store access and when you don't want to shit your pants, you really don't want to shit your pants. Make sure any medication is within its use-by date.
A little bottle of tincture of iodine 2% will kill any bugs in any water anywhere in the world.
How Do You Carry All This Stuff? Well, the trick is to keep it all light and simple. Cheap is a good idea too, in case you're asked to surrender any of it. Going carry-on only also obviously limits the size of the bag you can use, putting space at a premium. You'll want a strong, weatherproof, versatile, easily carried bag that maximizes useful space and helps organize stuff like your clothes as well as making room for your toolset.
I've used a Maxpedition Fliegerduffel for a few years now. It's never once failed to fit in an overhead compartment, even while stuffed to the brim and while flying on those little regional prop planes. That bag has proved to be solidly weatherproof, its 1000D Cordura construction is virtually indestructible, as are its heavy-duty zippers and a little bit of padding surrounding its main body helps cushion your electronics and other fragile items. Its main compartment is generously sized and slopes on both ends ensuring it'll fit in those very tight overheads on smaller planes. Organization pockets inside the lid, on top of it and on the sides make it easy to stow tools out of the way and in an ordered fashion. It also converts from shoulder carry to a backpack with ease and is comfortable to carry in either configuration. It's perfect for taking on a plane and works extremely well once you've reached your destination, too, handling overnight hikes or just the general hustle and bustle of travel. It even straps easily to the back of a motorcycle, thanks to its strong, versatile MOLLE straps.
In general, wheeled bags are going to be less ideal. Not only are they sometimes too large for overheads, but they limit your speed and maneuverability in an airport and can't be carried in the outdoors. Just being able to throw on a backpack and walk is a surprisingly useful thing pretty much anywhere, particularly if you're using public transportation or walking around a city.
A Note On Travel: It delivers the unexpected. From the mundane like needing to spend a night on a cold train station floor to a vehicle breakdown on the side of a foreign highway to flight cancellations, strikes and unexpected weather, this stuff can and will happen. It also exposes you to more serious circumstances like a car crash, robbery or corrupt law enforcement encounters. I've experienced most all of that during a lifetime of world travel, injured myself in strange countries (they've all got better healthcare than the US it turns out) and always made it home just fine. Its taught me to develop a flexible mental attitude backed up by solid preparedness, both in my own abilities and in the tools that complement them.
As I write, I'm sitting in seat 9B of a Virgin America flight bound for New York and I'll be visiting Toronto for thanksgiving on the same trip. I'm wearing a pair of boots supportive, strong and comfortable enough that I could go backpacking or motorcycling in them, but that look nice enough to go out to dinner in. The same goes for the rest of what I'm wearing right now and what I've got stashed in the overhead above me. If I have to fix a car, walk for help, aid an injured person or even just ride the subway during rush hour, I'm ready. This trip's an easy one, but that approach has worked equally well everywhere from Africa to Siberia. It'll work for you too, you don't have to leave things up to chance when you travel.
What tools do you travel with and how do you carry them?
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.