Packing A Bicycle In A Cardboard Box For Flying
It’s crucial to pack your bike well for a flight. How best to do that is a source of great debate among cyclists.
There are 3 basic options:
- Clear plastic bag. Simple and quick but arguably not the most protective and not accepted by all airlines. (See our experience flying a bike in a plastic bag)
- Hard case. Very sturdy but expensive to buy, heavy to carry and awkward to store.
- Cardboard bicycle box. Available most places in the world. Generally free but sometimes sold at airports.
This article focuses on the humble cardboard box.
Why Use A Cardboard Box
Here are the main advantages to using a cardboard box:
- It’s easy to find. Almost any bicycle shop should be able to give you one. Sometimes they charge a small fee
- The box offers some protection for your frame and other fragile parts of the bicycle like the derailleur
- You can put other things in the box (we always throw in our sleeping bags, camping mats and tent)
- Because it’s cheap and easily replaceable, you don’t mind throwing it out on the other end of your journey or passing it on to another cyclist
People who prefer other methods of bike packing will point out that luggage handlers may not treat boxed bicycles with as much respect as one wrapped in clear plastic. Heavy things could get piled on top of the bicycle. Boxing your bike also takes more time than just wrapping a bit of plastic around it and a boxed bicycle is cumbersome to transport. You may have to take a taxi.
What You’ll Need
The final choice on how to pack your bike is up to you but if you do choose to use a cardboard box, here’s what to gather beforehand:
1. A Box - Call your local bike shop a few days ahead of time and confirm that they have a box to give you. Get the biggest box you can, especially if you have a touring bike (as opposed to a road bike or mountain bike) because touring bikes tend to have a longer wheelbase, making it harder to get everything in place. Just 2 inches of extra length can make a huge difference. Ask as well for the plastic spacers which go into the empty forks and help prevent them being bent if the box does get knocked about.
2. Packing Materials - Have plenty of packing materials (bubble wrap, foam, newspaper, string, packing tape) on hand to protect your bike and close the box up securely.
3. Patience - This may take a while. Give yourself a bare minimum of 3-4 hours to pack your bicycle into the box the first time you do it. Once you get the hang of it, you can probably do this in an hour or so but until you do it once, you won’t know how much squeezing and manoeuvring will be required to get everything in the box.
Even if you can’t find a box, you can still pack your bike in a similar way. Use local packing materials such as string, foam and bath mats to hold everything together and add plastic wrap as a final packing layer. Photo by Vivente Bikes
Here’s how to take your bike apart and prepare it to go in the box.
1. Take the pedals off. This can be tougher than you think, especially if you don’t have a large pedal spanner to generate enough leverage to make those pedals pop off. Make life easier on yourself by putting a bit of lube on the pedal threads the day before you try to take them off and letting it soak in overnight.Even better, get your local bike shop to loosen the pedals for you. If you do try this at home, remember: the right-sided pedal unscrews counter-clockwise and the left-sided pedal goes clockwise.
2. Remove your handlebars. This is done by unscrewing the clamp that holds them in place, allowing the handlebars and all the attached brake and gear cables to be slipped neatly into the box, inside the triangle of your frame. Note that you are just taking the handlebars off. Do not play with the stem!
3. Take the wheels off (an easy job if you have quick-release wheels) and you can release a bit of air from the tires. This isn’t strictly necessary in our experience but some airlines recommend it.
4. Remove racks and mudguards. Reattach the screws to the racks and mudguards as you go, so you don’t lose the screws and so you remember which one fits which hole.
5. Protect your bicycle. We usually wrap some foam or bubble wrap around the frame and use cardboard to encase our back cassette and derailleur. To protect the derailleur, we remove it from the main part of the frame and make a cardboard box to go around it.
6. Remove the seat. That’s another easy job. Just make a mark so you remember how far to put it back in and maybe wrap a bit of foam around the tube so it doesn’t scratch anything.
Fitting It In
Finally! You are now ready to put your bike in the box.
- The frame goes in first. Ours goes in upside down, resting on the seatpost and the stem of the handlebars.
- Your back wheel should slide back into its normal position or at least roughly in the same location. Because the mudguards have been taken off, the wheel can be repositioned back in but with slightly more headroom between the wheel and the frame.
- Your front wheel should be able to slide beside the triangle of your bike frame. You may need a helper to hold the sides of the box out as you slip the wheel inside.
- Everything else (pedals, seat, lights and maybe your helmet, lock, water bottles or air pump) can go into the various crevices of the box. Fill up any big holes or places where things may be rattling by putting your sleeping bag and mat in there too. Crumpled newspaper is fine too if you’re travelling light.
- Close the box up with a healthy dose of packing tape and string and write your name and contact details on all sides with a big, black marker. Patch up any holes in the box from its previous life with tape.
IMPORTANT: When you go to the airport, bring extra tape in case you need to open your box for inspection and reseal it again. Hopefully the airline will reseal the box for you but sometimes they aren’t prepared.
Check in your bike and go for a well-earned drink at the airport!