Flying With Ham Gear and Navigating TSA

Many thanks to Michael (N7CCD) for sharing the following guest post:


Flying With Ham Gear

by Michael (N7CCD)

I often get asked “how hard is it to fly with ….”, or “what does TSA say about …” as my job has me flying a fair amount throughout the year. In fact, I’m writing this now while waiting to board my flight for a week in Georgia and Alabama, after having just gone through TSA.

In a recent QRPer post by Thomas, I posted a comment about my frequent travel with ham gear and Thomas gave me a gentle “hint hint” nudge to write up my experiences on the matter. I thought this trip would be a good time to share my experiences in traveling with ham gear in my check-on baggage, as well as my carry-on baggage and my process for each. I’m always interested in learning from other’s experiences, so if you have some ideas for the good of the community, please share them in the comments below!

Before starting this article, and out of curiosity, I checked my past calendar and figured out that I passed through TSA screening about 26 times in 2022. I would say that, since starting my current role four years ago, I have at a minimum hit that number each year.

To address the main question I get about ham gear (antennas, radios, batteries, etc.) and TSA, surprisingly TSA has very little interest in any of it.

In all of my trips through the x-ray machine, TSA has never once pulled my bag out to further investigate what was inside. They have asked about my thermal camera, but never my ham gear. Full disclosure, I am TSA Pre-Check which does exclude me from having to remove laptops, iPads, etc. However, on a recent non-business trip with my wife and kids to visit family in Mexico, I wasn’t pre-check and they still didn’t care about any of my radio gear.

Since I’m limited on the amount of stuff I can physically carry on the plane, and my work gear requires me to check a bag anyway, I have divided my radio gear between what I want with me on the plane, and what I’ll just pick up when I collect my bag at baggage claim.

I have settled on a hard sided suitcase after having to replace some of my work arc flash PPE (personal protective equipment) when baggage handlers cracked my arc flash face shield. After upgrading to a hard sided suitcase, I started adding more ham equipment I would otherwise worry about getting damaged. In the image below you can see what, at this point, I’ve included in my checked bag.

From top left to bottom right: Raspberry Pi kit (more photos on that below), CWMorse paddle in a dollar store container with cable, Buddipole PowerMini, charging cradle for HT, SignalStuff mag mount for HT in rental car, hand mic for HT for use in rental car, throw line and weight, AlexLoop w/ Amazon Basics tripod, US Road Atlas

The idea behind the Pi and AlexLoop antenna is I can work HF digital no matter where I am. This is more fun than watching TV in a hotel, but also gives me digital capabilities to send emails or texts over HF if I am stranded without service of any kind. The mag mount and HT hand mic allow me to use my HT in my rental car as a mobile radio. The same SignalStuff antenna on my HT can be transferred to the mag mount easily once I step into the car.

The throw line kit is straight from Thomas’s recommendations. I used to carry the larger arborist bag, but Santa came this year with a more compact solution. The antenna for this throw line I take in my carry on.

The Atlas is a recent addition. When my old territory was the Pacific NW and I drove everywhere, I would just keep maps in my trunk. Now that I cover the entire country, I added this Atlas in the event I am stranded or lost without cell service, or my phone decides to give up the ghost. We rely so heavily on smartphones these days…

Above: Check on bag with ham gear packed. I use the upper pouch for ham gear, and the lower pouch for work items and cloths.

Below is a close up of my raspberry pi kit in a Maxpedition EDC pouch. I use Jason – KM4ACK’s Build a Pi script. Inside is the pi, power cord, pen, spare USB GPS dongle for time keeping and data cord.

For my carry on backpack, I’ve loved taking the ICOM IC-705 with me on my travels since getting one a couple of years ago. It is the perfect jack of all trades (and in my opinion, master of all as well) radio with its all band, all mode capabilities, GPS, digital sound card, UHF/VHF, etc. I’ve slowly outfitted it with protection using the Peovi cage and Side KX protector. When I added those, I had to increase my carry pouch to a larger Maxpedition, but the increase in size is well worth it in added peace of mind for protection, and it didn’t change my backpack setup.

This image above shows everything that goes in the Maxpedition pouch. The images below will break it down to how I load the front pouch and main pouch.

The main pouch houses the radio itself. There is enough room on top of the radio to put in the factory power cord (for 10W), a 10 foot piece of coax and the hand mic. This all fits nicely and the pouch zipper closes easily around all of these items.

Above: Main pouch contents

The front pouch houses a 3Ah Bioenno battery. TSA allows you to carry on a lot more battery power than this (up to two – 160WH batteries), but 3Ah is all I need for this radio. I also keep a SignalStuff Signalstick antenna with 90 degree BNC adapter if I want to do UHF/VHF. The homemade tiger tail (white wire next to the battery in the image) made from a scrap piece of 14AWG house wiring clipped to the ground screw brings the SWR down nicely.

Lastly, I always keep an N6ARA TinyPaddle in the front pouch with a small appropriate cord to connect it to the rig.

Above: Front pouch contents

This 705 pouch sits nicely in the main pouch of may carry on backpack. Also in the backpack (besides my normal work items…book, iPad, etc.), is my HT. For that HT, lately I’ve been taking a Yaesu FT-4x just because it’s so darn small. I also won’t cry if I lose it…

The last ham related item I take in my carry on is the KM4ACK EFHW that my son and I built together as a fun project. It’s been my primary POTA antenna on these work trips. I used to put this in my checked bag, but I like the idea of having HF available to me in a pinch if I ever wanted, since I already have my 705 with me. It’s so small, it easily slides in the main pouch of my bag.

I did end up adding a layer of [this] heat shrink around the transformer to protect the magnet wire. I’ve had to do a couple of field repairs to this antenna while traveling (using my trusty Leatherman). This backpack loaded out fits nicely under the seat in front of me while on the plane (where I am now sitting as I write this).

Above: All of the ham gear that goes into my carry on bag. IC-705 with accessories, KM4ACK EFHW with heat shrink modification, FT-4x with SignalStuff antenna (antenna will go on mag mount while in rental car).

And that’s it. That’s how I’ve been traveling across the country for the past few years. I try to fit a little time in during my travels to hit a POTA and activate a park. It gets me out of the hotel while getting to enjoy the local scenery, and play in the hobby we all enjoy. It doesn’t always happen, but my goal is to activate as many different states I can while work is sending me new places. Below is my current list of activated states. Hopefully by the time you read this, I’ll have added Alabama to the list.

About a year ago I seriously started working on my CW proficiency. A large chunk of these activations were SSB only, but with my brother’s (N7BHP) and Thomas’s encouragement, I’ve been getting some CW activations in now as well. I appreciate all of the patience shown during these CW activations as I continue to get my feet under me.

Above: My load out waiting to hit the road

As I mentioned earlier in this post, if you have tips/tricks or just found something helpful while traveling with your ham gear, please share!

16 thoughts on “Flying With Ham Gear and Navigating TSA”

  1. Michael-

    Good article, and thanks to Tom for the gentle nudge!

    I’ll vouch for that Maxpedition case as well. Mine houses the KX3 on outings. It’s a snug fit but great protection for the rig. That was a recommendation from Jim- W1PID- based on his extensive portable operating.

    73- Dave, K1SWL

  2. Micheal- Very helpful article. Like you, TSA has generally had little interest in my Ham Radio gear. I do use packing cubes and I will remove them from my pack and place in a bin so the density of the pack does not cause the TSA to do a “re-scan” which can save some time and eliminates anxiety. The only issue with TSA I have had is with my SOTA Beams Tactical Mast (22′) which is normally put in a checked bag — the one time I had to carry on my bag the TSA flagged it and pulled the mast out. The TSA agent, asked “What is this?” I said “Ham Radio Mast” — she was confused and called a supervisor who let me go through. Whew! I did not expect to get through with it.

    73
    Tony
    W4TYB

  3. Excellent write up, thanks for sharing. My experience with TSA is the same, I’ve never been pulled out of line for the radio gear. I also have TSApre. Good luck on activating all states for POTA!

  4. I have never had any issues with CBSa, TSA, Japan, Jamaica, Mexico, Australian BP or in Europe

    Always carryon because I Have had checked baggage pulled off the belt and manually inspected. This could delay your bag being loaded onto your plane.

    I use various Lowe Pro and Think Tank camera bag products depending on my pack out.

    I had a FT891, Power Supply and Chameleon MPAS packed several times.

    Cuba will confiscate electronics of interest and my friend going to Aruba has to leave a refundable retainer listing all gear that is checked upon departure back home.

    Long term stays mean you could ship ahead anything.

    Copies of license, reciprocal permits and product brochures woukd be useful

    John VE3IPS

  5. Michael,

    Great write up, Im guilty of over packing all the time, and been thinking about how to slim down my pack. As you do, I travel for business about 20 to 30 weeks a year. I have been thinking about using my loop in hotels, since normally there is no sunlight by the time I arrive to the hotel. One question, what is th epurpose of the Buddipole power mini? I did not noticed you mentioning a solar panel.

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Ed,

      Great question! I didn’t really address that piece of gear did I?

      I don’t typically bring solar just because the 705 has so many options for charging (which is another reason I like it for travel) and I’m always going back to my hotel. Since I already have the PowerMini for long term field use, I throw it in as a power distribution option if I want to run the Pi and the radio off of the Bioenno at the same time. I could do the same thing with just a powerpole dongle, but this I already have, and I get the added benefit of being able to monitor my usage at the same time.

      I also have a portable battery bank I keep in my bag which could also power the Pi if I don’t want to use the PowerMini. I have found the Pi doesn’t like some of those though, and will give a ‘low voltage’ warning, so you have to experiment.

      As to the loop in the hotel, I have had some fun success even working OH to TX on SSB while sitting on my bed. Hotels are hit and miss on the amount of QRM. Some are atrocious, and other’s are not bad at all. I can almost always work CW or digital though.

      1. Michael,
        Thank you for your prompt response. That is exactly what I thought was your intention. I love my power mini, and is always in my bag. Regarding the hotels, I will have to give it a try with the loop. I previously try using my Komunica HF-PRO-2-PLUS-T, but too much noise inside the room. Looking forward to read future articles.

  6. In talking to TSA I was told I could carry LiFeP04 batteries up to 100A but they don’t trust standard lithium batteries due to possible fire hazzard. YMMV.
    I also put a copy of my FCC Amateur license in every carrying case along with a very brief explanation of the equipment. So if or when they open it, it will answer their first questions whether I am standing there or not.
    Things that are or look pointy to xrays (like a ground stake or spike) will usually grab their attention as would be expected. Best not to carry such items.
    Pete WK8S

    1. Interesting the TSA agent was okay with larger LiFePo4 batteries. I know each TSA agent has discretion on what they allow to a point, so I don’t think I’d risk one TSA agent knowing the difference between lithium chemistries, even though we know they’re safer. Of course, I can’t imagine needing to bring a 100Ah battery with me anyway!

  7. I recently took an IC-705 to Ecuador. The secret – at least in this case – in getting no real attention from either country’s authorities is to put the radio in a camera bag with photo gear. I left a long lens at home – the ‘705 fit into that lens’ space and (upside down) it was black, just like the camera body & lenses. No one batted an eye. It blended right in. Even the 3AH Bioenno battery went unnoticed.

  8. Thanks for the article. We recently purchased a efficiency condo in Cozumel. I would love to operate on the Island, but it appears that no one can operate a Ham radio from any island in Mexico. If you know different, would you please let me know? Thanks again.

  9. I have never had a problem flying with my gear. I do carry it all onboard with me. Since I am now only operating CW it is much easier in that my rigs can be much smaller and no microphones to lug around. Biggest rig I travel with is my KX2 and it’s easy since it has a built in tuner. Mostly it’s MTR3B or something single banded and a wire antenna. I got pulled to the side only once and that was to look at my LDG tuner for my 817. Thanks for posting this. Always like to see how people carry their gear.

  10. Great article Michael here in the UK airport security used to be very edgy about taking even radio scanners through X-ray pre 9/11 so I never risked it but since around 2009 they don’t bat an eye lid. I’ve never had issues traveling with a bag full of cables, wire antennas and electronics and even a handheld over the past 10 years or so. I’ve never put a full sized 12V radio in carry-on but have had no issues sending it into the hold. The Middle East are iffy with radio gear I’ve had a 4 plug extention lead taken off me in Dubai in late 2011 but they didn’t even question me about my huge mess of cables and the handheld. The only place where I’ve had a nervy time is in India where the machines are ultra sensitive and I had to give a demo of my gear to a team of security guys, the airport duty manager at Ahmedabad airport and the captain so obviously in an airport HF is just full of hash but after having a technical chat with the staff they let everything through the trick is to be calm and answer anything they throw at you. Mumbai airport is just as bad India use machines which have a very loud distinctive bleep which is off putting to put it mildley I’ve never come across agressive machines in other parts of the world like in India.

    In turms of batteries, I’ve had no issues flying out of the UK and in Germany with a 12v 12AH LFP battery but I do send the battery in its own tray and let the staff know but they never check the label it goes straight through. In Germany, they like taking a swab and very carefully checking the label but mentioning the battery is used for radio use helps a lot and of course the F2 terminals are covered with the protective caps and the battery is in its own clear plastic bag. In Türkiye they put everything through machines at the airport doors at the departure terminal so due to the sheer number of people on mass they are very jumpy. I was flagged up for having radio gear in my case but another officer let me through after reviewing the images but there was a 5 minute wait on the side with a lot of curious looks from the public so place to place the rules appear to be very different but the key is to stay calm and polite at all times.

  11. Good article Michael. My experience with the TSA has been similar. The few times my bag was pulled, it was to look at the battery pack. Traveled with a FT-817 for years until replacing it with a TX500. Current pack is the TX500, Emtech tuner, end fed antenna and a very small laptop all carried in an ikea messenger bag.

    You are correct, getting on the air beats sitting in the room with the TV every time.

  12. A note about arborist throw bags such as those from Weaver. I’ve been stopped by TSA twice due to my throw bag. That must look very suspicious on the scanner screen. Now, I make sure it is in a pouch with my battery pack that can be quickly accessed if there’s an issue.

    Pat NØHR

    1. Jonathan recently commented about this too. I assume those detectors are looking for explosives that might use lead shot.
      Hmmm…might be worth exploring TSA-friendly throw weight options some day. I know I might consider just using a water bottle. Also might be a good application for a golf ball with an eyelet screwed in.
      Cheers,
      Thomas

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