I remember the first time I watched an airline worker load my bow case on a plane. I stared out the window of the 747 and cringed as my bow was tossed around like an old rag. I was on my way to Idaho to hunt elk and I knew that when I arrived, the chances of my bow being in one piece were going to be slim. Sure enough, when my hunting buddy and I showed up at camp and opened our cases, we discovered the sight on my bow was knocked off and the cable guard on his bow was broken off. Fixing our bows took hours and destroyed our shooting confidence on the week long trip. What was supposed to be a great hunting adventure turned into a fiasco because of the gear mishap.
Since that hunt, I have traveled to dozens of states and Canada. I have learned through the school of hard knocks how to transport weapons, hunting gear and antlers. Below are a few tips and tactics for hunters who plan on traveling on an airline within the United States or Canada.
When you begin planning a trip, realize that you can't take everything except the kitchen sink on an airplane. Airlines have weight restrictions and dimension restrictions on luggage - usually 50 pounds and 60 inches. Every airline has different rules and regulations; make sure you check with the airline you are flying with about restrictions before you travel. Carry-on dimensions vary by airline as well; some allow one carry-on item, others allow one carry-on and a purse or laptop. If your carry-on is too large, most airlines will treat it like extra baggage. If you exceed the airlines limits, you will have to pay extra fees. If you know that you have more gear than the airline allows, ship it to your final destination ahead of time.
If you plan on traveling with a bow or gun, spend as much money as you can afford on a quality bow or gun case. Usually a $50 case won't do a very good job protecting your gear. There are several brands that make good cases - SKB, Plano, and Vanguard to include a few. Many hunters who travel on a regular basis rely on aluminum cases. They are very durable and can take a beating without getting broken.
Gun Case - Aluminum gun cases are popular because they are extremely durable.
When packing my case, I usually pack a lot of hunting clothes around my bow to protect the sight and rest. I pack lots of clothes in the case to eliminate extra room that my bow could wiggle around in if it came loose from the straps. Use a marker to mark where each pin is located is a good idea. If your sight gets bumped and the pins come loose, you can line them up with the marker line and shoot a few times to ensure the pins are positioned correctly before you go hunting. Once my case is closed, I head to the airport. I know that while at the airport, my weapon will be inspected very closely. The case will be opened and everything will be inspected.
Bow Case - a quality bow case is a must when traveling.
If you are traveling with a gun, keep your ammunition in its' original container inside the case or store it in an ammo box designed to hold ammo. Most airlines allow your ammo to travel in the gun case. Check with the airline a few days before you leave. If they don't allow you to put ammo in your gun case, plan to purchase some when you arrive at your destination. If you are traveling to Canada, plan on leaving your ammo at home and filling out some paperwork. Mike Mattly of Knight Muzzleloaders knows a thing or two about traveling with weapons. He states that you need to be prepared for airline travel. "On a recent trip, some friends and I started in Des Moines. We made a connection in Denver, and went on to Calgary where we went through Customs and Immigration. We had to take control of our weapons and other luggage at Calgary and then check them on through with the paperwork to our flight to Saskatoon." Mattly said. Mattly's preparation for the trip included completing a non-resident Firearm Declaration in triplicate.
"Do a search on Google for 'non-resident Canadian firearms declaration form.' You will pull it right up. It's very easy to fill out, but don't sign it until you get to the border and present three copies to the agent. Pay them the $25 fee and you should be on your way," Mattly added. If a hunter neglects to complete the form, it can be done at the border, but doing it ahead of time saves time and hassles.
Muzzleloading hunters may not bring black powder or percussion caps in their carry-on or checked luggage on any plane. This poses problems for hunters wanting to take a big game animal with the smoke pole. "You've got to have it shipped out to your destination if it's within the United States. If I am going to Canada, go to the Knight Rifles website and go to the dealer search. I plug in the zip code where I'll be hunting and locate a dealer there. I ask them to hold powder and primers for me and pick them up there," Mattly explained. Mattly said that this is where good outfitters come in handy. With enough lead-time, the outfitter should have powder and primers waiting for you when you arrive. If you haven't traveled, knowing what to do can be intimidating. Many hunters research every hunt they go on. When traveling, plan to research the airline you plan on flying with and learn their rules regarding weapons.
My story about having a busted cable guard is minor compared to what some people have dealt with. I've heard stories about gun cases showing up busted with everything broken inside. The best way to deal with this is to ask the person at the airport who is inspecting your case if you can duct tape the buckles or put bungee straps or lockable straps on the case. I like duct taping each latch on my case because latches and buckles often get broken off. A couple layers of tape protect them from abuse. This keeps everything in tact if the case gets damaged. Some inspectors will tell you that the case must be opened again after you hand it over at the ticket counter so it must remain unlocked and untaped. Speaking of locks, every gun case and bow case that travels on a plane must be lockable. If you forget your locks or your case doesn't have a place for a lock, the airlines will sell you locks or a case. Plan to pay top dollar for either if this happens to you. Not all locks are TSA approved so make sure you check the TSA.gov  website to make sure you are using locks that are approved.
When traveling with weapons, you may encounter a problem if your weapons, clothing, or gear doesn't show up for the hunt. A friend of mine recently went to Canada and his gun showed up three days into a five day hunt. If your hunting clothes don't show up, hunting in sneakers and blue jeans can be as big of a problem as not having your weapon. To avoid this, bring some of your must-have clothes with you as a carry-on or ship your clothes and gear a week before your hunt to the outfitter you are hunting with. As far as weapons go, shipping guns isn't allowed so asking an outfitter if they have a gun you can use beforehand is a must. Archery gear, on the other hand, can be shipped. Many hunters ship their archery gear via UPS a week before their hunt to ensure it gets there.
Another problem I've encountered is getting antlers and meat home after the hunt. I have a rotten moose head sitting outside right now that didn't travel very well. Getting antlers and meat home can be as costly as the hunt in some cases. By the time you are sitting around the dinner table enjoying venison tenderloin, the meat can cost up to $50 a pound. Regardless of what you do, getting the meat and antlers home in one piece without having them smell like a dump or breaking the bank can be challenging, but it doesn't have to cost a small fortune. The best way to save money is to do some research before you leave. Call UPS. Call Fedex. Call freight companies and determine what they will haul and what they won't. Some carriers won't ship antlers beyond a certain dimension. The same goes for airlines. Some airlines will allow antlers to be shipped as extra baggage but the cost can be very high. To save money, I have shipped them as freight. I have also used UPS. Rates are constantly changing so before I travel anywhere, I spend an hour on the phone calling freight companies to see which shipping method is the least expensive. Some hunters ship their gear home via UPS and have the airline take the meat and antlers as their baggage. Keep in mind that frozen meat can only be shipped with dry ice. Regular ice is prohibited. I have found that using a large durable cooler packed with dry ice and meat works best for airline travel, but there are several options. Investigating all of them will help you eliminate heartache and save money.
Airlines do not allow travelers to pack the butane cartridges used as fuel in the popular Thermacell mosquito repellant devices. These little cartridges are expensive, so do yourself a favor and purchase them after you reach your destination. If you pack them, the airlines will remove them when they go through your luggage and throw them away. The same applies to bear spray.
If you are planning to travel into the wilderness via bush plane, remember that their restrictions are even tighter. They usually only allow a few hundred pounds of gear per hunter. Bringing the outfitters' tent is out of the question! If you are planning to fly into the bush, it's wise to be choosy when packing your gear. Only bring what you must have. Most hunters who travel in the bush on a regular basis buy tents, cook stoves and sleeping bags that are extremely lightweight so weight isn't a problem.
Bush planes will only fly under good weather conditions. Just because you plan to get picked up on Thursday afternoon doesn't mean it will happen. I know hunters who have spent 3-5 extra days in the bush because planes couldn't fly.
Every airline operates a little differently. Every person at the ticket counter interprets the airline and TSA rules a little differently. You need to know the TSA rules and the airlines rules. Printing out a copy of the TSA rules from their website gives you a little ammunition (so to speak) if you encounter a problem at the airport.
No matter how many tips I share and how much I try to prepare you for traveling on airlines with hunting gear, if you haven't done it, it will be a nerve-racking experience. The best advice I can give you is: do as much of your homework before you leave home as possible, be prepared for the unexpected, and be prepared to roll with the punches.
Having a set of allen wrenches with you on a hunt is smart.
You can fine tune your bow accessories or scope once you reach your destination.
Tracy Breen is a full-time outdoor writer who writes for fifty different publications all over the United States including Outdoor Life, Buckmasters, Bowhunting World and Heartland USA, to name a few. He is also the Editor of God’s Great Outdoors E-zine. He lives in Muskegon, Michigan with his wife Angie and son Thane. Tracy has cerebral palsy and often writes and speaks about overcoming physical challenges to enjoy the outdoors. Learn more about Tracy and his many hunting adventures at tracybreen.com .