Air Canada wouldn’t allow my buddy onto his flight because he’d packed his moose meat in a Styrofoam cooler, which was the only type he could find in Smithers, British Columbia. Then they decided it could fly if he wrapped it with duct tape—for a $300 fee. In Vancouver, Randy had to change to another airline, which wouldn’t permit the cooler. He had to buy a waxed fish box and transfer the meat into it, then pay a $150 over-baggage fee.
His rifle, meanwhile, had been assessed a $50 fine to fly as baggage on Air Canada because, well, because it was a rifle. And it also had to be clearly labeled externally as a firearm. But when he transferred to the American airline, TSA regulations required that the container not be labeled a firearm. United Airlines added no fine for there being a rifle in the container, so things were looking up. Of course, U.S. Customs officials wanted a careful look at the firearm before waving Randy through to the baggage drop-off area.
All these machinations meant Randy had just a few minutes to catch his flight, but TSA security agents held him up at the baggage drop because he had a rifle case. “Open it.” Sure enough, inside the TSA-approved, locked, previously examined and now just X-rayed rifle case lay—a rifle! Just what the X-ray machine had suggested. But, now that a baggage transfer agent had seen it with his own eyes, it was judged safe to proceed.
Sweating and fretting, Randy raced to catch his flight, only to see that it had been delayed 2 hours. When he finally boarded, the jet sat on the tarmac another 2 hours before the captain told everyone to get off for the night. Randy had to collect all his baggage and move into a motel until the next day’s flight. His moose steaks weren’t improved in the process.
Most of us dream of an exotic hunt to the wilds of the Rockies or Alaska, Australia or Africa, or anywhere but our backyards. The grass is always greener elsewhere. Well, maybe not. But you aren’t going to shoot a mountain goat in Ohio, so. …
Hunting far from home can be more fun, more exciting and more complicated than hunting in your standard haunts. In addition to the challenge of outwitting your game, you enjoy the adventure of travel, meeting new people and discovering mysterious new lands. But you also suffer the hassles of modern transportation.
The Hard Truth About Flying
Commercial jet travel should make it easier to go hunting in the far corners of the world, but today it almost seems an impediment. Baggage restrictions, baggage charges, baggage overcharges, firearms restrictions, additional firearms overcharges ... and did I mention ticketing agents who don’t like hunters or guns?
“You have a firearm? You’re a hunter? Shame on you. Bad, bad, bad person. Please jump through this hoop. No, this other hoop. I’m sorry, that style of jump isn’t permitted. Please wait here for a TSA agent and fill out these forms while we look for more rolls of red tape in which to wrap you.”
Actually, it isn’t that bad if you know the rules and plan ahead. In fact, thorough research and planning are the keys to improving all facets of a long-distance hunt. The more you know, the more you anticipate and the better prepared you are to deal with all the contingencies of traveling to hunting paradise.
Drive Yourself To Camp
Instead Of Crazy Over the years I’ve traveled dozens of times to hunt on six continents and nearly every state and province in North America. I can tell you, unequivocally, that driving is better than flying. Hands down. You can haul more gear at less expense. You can haul meat and trophies home more conveniently at less expense. You can bring your dogs with less hassle and expense. And you aren’t helpless in the face of cancelled flights, airline strikes or bad weather in Baltimore, which has backed up flights out of Missoula.
The only downside to driving is time. If airlines fly on time and you make all your connections, you can save days. On the other hand, if a volcano shuts down all flights for a week, you could be camping on an airport floor way longer than you ever wanted to.
Take a camper or camper-trailer and you can save money on lodging, too, plus save time by not having to schlep gear in and out of motels. You can even haul your complete tent camp, boat or ATV. Thousands of hunters motor west this way every year because it’s most convenient.
If You Must Fly
Despite the hassles, most of us continue flying to our hunts. If they’re overseas, we have to. Much of the best Far North hunting is accessible only via planes. Fortunately, commercial air travel isn’t often as horrible as what my friend, Randy, endured.
Basically, you are allowed to fly with firearms if they are unloaded and locked in a “hard case,” meaning metal or stiff plastic. The locks can be integral or padlocks. Examples include Cabela’s aluminum cases, SKB polyethylene cases and TuffPak plastic cases. The locks don’t have to be TSA locks. In fact, once your rifle case has been scanned or visually checked by TSA, by law it cannot be opened again until you are resent. This makes sense. The fewer people along the way who have keys to that lock, the less chance any crazy nutcase could access the gun for mayhem. Ammunition (up to 11 pounds on most airlines) is permitted in checked baggage as long as it’s in factory packaging or boxes designed to segregate each round. This means handloads in MTM plastic cartridge boxes can fly, but not cartridges thrown together in a bag where bullet tips might impact primers. I find it wise to tape all ammo boxes shut, too.
TSA allows ammunition to be packaged in the same case as the firearm, but some airlines don’t. Some airlines limit the number of firearms you can put in one case, too. Most allow two or three guns, some more with additional fees. You must check with each airline to determine that. This is easy. Just go to your airline’s website and snoop around for information on flying with firearms and ammunition. Then do the same at TSA.gov for the official government position. Do this each time you fly because rules change from time to time.
If traveling out of country, it’s wise to take your guns to a U.S. Custom agent well before your trip and register each gun and all your optics on a 4457 form. This is a simple form dated, signed and stamped by the Dept. of Homeland Security that proves you own the firearm and aren’t smuggling it into the United States on your return. You retain the only copy of this Certificate of Registration.
If you have any questions about allowed gear or how to pack it and don’t find a satisfactory answer on the websites, call the airlines or TSA at your local airport.
More Baggage Rules And Costs
As a general rule, checked bags can’t exceed about 62 total linear inches or weigh more than 50 pounds without incurring a penalty of $25 to $175 (United) each way. By tomorrow they could raise this to $200. Who knows. Some airlines (Southwest) don’t charge for your first or even second bag. Some charge for every bag at everincreasing rates. Last time I checked, a fourth checked bag on a domestic Delta flight will set you back $200. As already mentioned, Air Canada charges an additional $50 each way if a bag contains a firearm. Most airlines won’t accept any bag weighing more than 100 pounds and charge extra for any weighing more than 50 pounds—more reason to check those websites and pack light. Minimize the weight of the bag itself. A light, nylon duffle might weigh 2 pounds while a wheeled suitcase with several zippered pockets could weigh 20 pounds— That’s nearly half your weight limit with nothing even packed yet!
In addition to checked luggage, which flies in the belly of the plane, you’re allowed to carry on board one bag of about 14x22x9 inches (specifics are on each airline’s website) plus one small personal item (purse, computer bag, briefcase). Check the TSA website for the latest banned items.
The smart thing to do with your carry- on bags is fill them with fragile items and essentials. I like a basic toiletries kit, essential medicines, compass, repair kit, first aid kit, emergency blanket, a complete hunting outfit (base layer, hunting pants and shirt, socks, gloves, gaiters, etc). In these I wrap my binoculars, camera, GPS and similar fragile gear. I wear hunting boots and strap my hunting coat to the pack or hang it over my arm. With this carry-on gear, you’ll at least be dressed to hunt with the outfitter’s borrowed rifle if your luggage gets lost. Instead of a rolling duffle, I use an expandable X2 Eberlestock backpack that then functions as my hunting pack.
Get Paper Proof
Print copies of the pertinent website information in case you need to argue with a ticketing agent. I’ve had agents tell me knives couldn’t be shipped as checked baggage and rifle cases had to look like rifle cases rather than golf club cases (which the TuffPak does). Neither was or is true, and I had the webpage info to prove it.
An alternative to flying baggage is shipping it ahead of time via UPS, FedEx, etc. This isn’t cheap, but it ensures your essential gear will be in camp, not lost by the airlines. You can even ship your rifle to an FFL holder (many outfitters have these or know of local gun shops that will let you ship to them.) The U.S. Postal Service lets you legally ship a rifle or shotgun to yourself at a buddy’s or your outfitter’s address. Check with them for full details.
Bringing Home The Bacon
If you anticipate flying home with a cape, small horns or deer antlers, there’s a chance you can fit these items in an oversized duffle bag. Add the trophies to it, padded with dirty clothing, for the flight home. You might have to pay an overweight fee, but not an additional bag fee. Alternatively, include a big but light nylon duffle in your regular bag and use this to contain your trophies for the return flight. It’ll cost you a third bag fee, usually $100-$200, but that’s sometimes cheaper than shipping the items UPS or FedEx, especially from Alaska. As for meat, it’ll cost an arm and leg to get it home. Buy a stiff astic cooler after the hunt, fill it with 50-100 pounds of boned meat and it’ll run you around $100-$200 as an overweight bag. It’s a good idea to donate the meat to your outfitter, guide or locals. You won’t have any trouble getting rid of elk, moose or sheep meat. If you do opt to fly some meat home, trim off all bones and excess fat, keeping only edible portions of the best steaks.
Larger antlers—moose, caribou and elk—have always been allowed to fly as checked baggage. The only requirement was that you clean up the skull plate or cover it and cover all points with a length of garden hose taped securely to prevent poking holes in other people’s luggage or the side of the plane. But last year United nixed all antlers, even the big mule deer rack I carefully packaged inside a cardboard box! The hue and cry from sportsmen made them rescind this, but watch for it to again rear its ugly head.
By now you can understand the need to pack light. Most of us never use half the stuff we drag into camp anyway. Bush pilots and horse packers often limit hunters to 50-75 pounds of baggage. And this almost always proves more than adequate for a 7- to 10-day hunt. Figure on wearing two changes of hunting outerwear, three to four of underwear. Small items can usually be hand-washed in camp, so there’s no need for 10 pairs of socks and briefs. Get some of the anti-bacterial or silver fiber socks and underwear from Cabela’s and apply anti-perspirant to your feet and crotch as well as armpits to stay smelling, well, reasonable for up to 4 days. Wear versatile clothing like polyester fleece that washes and dries quickly and doesn’t need ironing. Generally you can bring along a change of street clothes to use on the flight home. You might have to leave it at the outfitter’s base camp or in his truck at a trailhead, but you’ll welcome it when again interacting with polite company.
NAHC Travel Guide ‘Best Picks’
In a recent survey conducted on Huntingclub.com, we asked about travel experiences related to your annual hunting trips. Of those who participated in the survey—more than a thousand of you—93 percent stated that they take hunting trips each year that involve travel and an overnight stay—51 percent said they make one to three hunting trips per year that require an overnight stay.
Colorado and Montana were judged the most hunter-friendly states because there’s lots of public land and a variety of big game, especially mule deer and elk. Only 17 percent of respondents hunted outside the continental United States during the past 3 years, and 62 percent picked Canada as their top destination, 23 percent chose Alaska. Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland/Labrador ranked as the top three Canadian provinces, probably because there are a majority of NAHC members living in the Northeast quadrant of the United States.
NAHC members took planes, trains and automobiles to reach their favorite hunting destinations and were selective about their choice regarding where they were going to stay, where they ate, etc. We used your feedback and our own traveling experiences to select the cream of the crop in four travel categories—those companies that are doing the best job of catering to hunters. Here are our top travel picks.–NAH STAFF
MOST HUNTER-FRIENDLY AIRLINE
EDITORS’ PICK: Southwest Airlines
WHY: No excess baggage charges; friendly service; no hassles related to firearms.
BEST CAR RENTAL COMPANY
EDITORS’ PICK: Enterprise
WHY: Pickup and delivery service; competitive pricing; availability of trucks/SUVs.
EDITORS’ PICK: Best Western
WHY: Good price; proximity to field; hunterfriendly in terms of dogs, firearms, etc.
BEST RESTAURANT CHAIN
EDITORS’ PICK: Cracker Barrel
WHY: Good “home-made” food; good price; friendly service.
FRIENDLIEST NORTH AMERICAN CITY
EDITORS’ PICK: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
WHY: Montreal is truly the gateway city to all of the incredible hunting opportunity in the gigantic province of Quebec. Hotels, especially near Dorval Airport, are set up for transient sportsmen. Shuttles run at all hours. Hotel staff aren’t squeamish about firearms and camo in the lobby. They have coolers and freezers to handle meat and trophies in transit.
Unique to Montreal are top-quality meat processors who will meet your incoming plane, take the game you harvested, process it, package it, cool or freeze it, and have it back to your hotel room by 5 a.m. the next day for you to catch your flight home.
And finally, the people of Quebec appreciate hunters. Many are hunters themselves. They are genuine and enthusiastic in sharing the hunting tradition.
NAHC MEMBER TRAVEL TIPS
We asked NAHC members to share their hunting travel tips. Here are a few of our favorites.
• When using an ATV, always tread lightly and keep the rubber side down.
• Pack your equipment and clothing in small duffle bags because they fit better on small planes. Wear your hunting clothes if possible to save space.
• Ship your guns or bows ahead of time to avoid possible loss or damage by airlines.
• When hunting with other persons from one truck, make sure everyone has a key.
• Buy the best gun case you can afford. Take the foam padding out of your case and use clothing, gear, boots and any other equipment that can be stuffed around your rifle or bow. This cuts down on the number of bags you have to pay for when you fly.
• When you pack, think like a Boy Scout or Marine: Be prepared for the unexpected.
• When airline security asks you, “Do you have any guns,” don’t answer: “Are you looking for any particular model?”
• Do as much scouting as you can sitting on your butt at home. Check websites, hunter forums, maps and make calls to state game agencies.
• Don’t rush through your hunting trips; always treat each and every experience like it’s the most important trip of your lifetime.
• Always use the “slime” products in your vehicle tires. It permanently fills up to ¼-inch holes in tires and stops slow leaks.
• While booking hotels in Montana that I’ve stayed at previously, I let them know I’m an NAHC member. They have input that into their computer system along with my other personal information. When I’ve called at times to book a room and they say they are full, I tell them I’ve stayed there before. When they pull up my information, my hunting party and I have always gotten a room or rooms.
• And the NAH editors’ absolute favorite: Lay out all your clothes and all your money on the floor at home. Then take half the clothes and double the money!