I have been traveling and living out a gear bag — around the world and within the United States — for more than half my life. No matter how glorious or glamorous that may it sound, it gets old really fast.
I’m traveling this weekend for our first class of 2019 down in Florida. I get asked this all the time…how do you do it? Well, it is really not that hard. What I have learned from experience over the years continues to guide me.
The most often-asked question I get is how do I travel with my firearms and ammunition. Simple: know and follow the rules. That goes for both TSA rules and regs including the state laws and local regulations at your destination.
If you haven’t visited the Transportation Security Administration’s website and read up on their rules then don’t be surprised if you have an unpleasant experience. At the same time, be aware that you can do everything by the book and still get jammed up.
My first advice to traveling gun owners is to always be nice. A good attitude goes a surprisingly long way in getting you through problem situations. Do your homework, know the rules for checked baggage (no loaded firearms, ammo in a separate container) , and destination gun laws concerning possession of firearms (i.e., concealed carry no-go zones, magazine limits, etc.) pack well and leave early, check-in early and then…smile. I may know TSA’s rules and regs more than anyone at the airport, but I don’t flaunt it or shove it in their faces.
Everyone who travels with guns probably has a special travel horror story to share. I have my fair share, but I also have some absolutely hilarious episodes. When it comes to packing, my game is strong. I invest in quality, rugged luggage. It saves you time, hassle and money in the long run.
Remember, you’re restricted to 50 pounds per bag by just about every air carrier. But what I’ve found is, if your bag or box weighs much more than 25 pounds, you really have to re-think your plan.
I’m big on minimizing weight because I get really tired of paying the extra fees. My experience has told me to pack smart. Bring quality gear that’s both rugged and light. Think about items that can fulfill multiple roles and choose those over specialized items.
You may want to invest in a hanging scale to make sure your bag isn’t over 50 pounds. Sound crazy? American Airlines will charge you $100 if your bag weighs 51 pounds. If you travel much and pack a lot, a scale will pay for itself quickly.
I’m usually lighter coming home because I burn ammunition, but going out I am usually spot on to a pound. Remember, the bigger the bag…the more stuff you will pack.
As for packing stuff in my carry-on luggage, I bring only the bare essentials I need to teach. That really focuses on my schedules, rosters and supporting classroom material. Fortunately, most of that is digital so it makes it super easy.
Look for comfortable handles, big wheels and a sturdy frame. Also, you should expect no more than about a two-year useful life no matter the manufacturer. The airlines will not baby your luggage. That old American Tourister commercial wasn’t far off the mark.
On my very first trip with my current roller bag, with the tags still attached I lost a buckle, right off the bat. Expect it and don’t get too attached.
When it comes to your firearms you are limited to a hard-sided case. There are lots of them to consider, but keep in mind that 50 pound weight limit mentioned above.
I have two different load-out methods I’ve settled on over the years, one for handguns only and another for rifles and handguns.
When I’m only traveling with handguns I take a smaller hard-sided case and secure it in my checked luggage. The case is just large enough to secure both of my handguns. I also pack a spare set of locks and consider them to be consumable.
The worst case scenario is on your outbound flight, your locks get lost. I know that sounds strange, but it has happened to me enough times that I don’t even ask anymore. Bringing a spare set will save you time, aggravation and money when trying to find another set for your return flight.
When it comes to my supporting equipment my suggestion is to pack it in individual smaller bags. For this I have come to rely on the DAKA bags from Magpul. I have an assorted collection of them in a variety of sizes and colors. One for my holsters, one for my personal defense ammunition and magazines, one for my medical gear and my junk bag.
One reason is I try to be as discreet as possible when traveling. The other has to do with organization. Keeping things organized in separate bags makes it super easy to throw my gear into my larger roller bag. On the off-chance that I have a lot to pack more gear than normal, I will get technical and pack more carefully, but mostly I dump the individual bags in carry-on baggage and checked luggage.
Experience helps. After a few of trips, ask yourself if you really needed all the items you’ve been packing and eventually you will find your sweet spot.
I still mostly enjoy traveling. It’s become more my lifestyle than a vacation. Give some thought to some of these lessons I’ve learned. I learned it all the hard way when something has gone wrong. I hope my experience (again, know your destination’s firearm laws before you go) can save you some of the pain of that learning process.
Jeff Gonzales is a former US Navy SEAL and preeminent weapons and tactics instructor. He brings his Naval Special Warfare mindset, operational success and lessons learned unapologetically to the world at large. Currently he is the Director of Training at The Range at Austin. Learn more about his passion and what he does at therangeuastin.com.