How to Ensure Dry Gear in Wet Conditions

Ryan SmithHigher-end options for keeping gear dry on the trail include waterproof stuff sacks and dry bags.

After a day of rain-soaked hiking or water-logged paddling, few things are as satisfying as a set of dry clothes and a cozy sleeping bag. And few things are as unpleasant—and potentially dangerous—as soaking wet gear. To avoid the latter, solutions range from the simple and inexpensive to the high-tech and fancy. Here is a range of options for maintaining dry gear on the trail.

The ultimate in lightweight, inexpensive, stay-dry versatility, garbage bags can be used in two primary ways: as a waterproof liner inside your backpack or as inside-the-stuff-sack protection for your clothes, sleeping bag, and other gear.

For a pack liner, you’ll need a large, heavy-duty trash bag ample enough to accommodate all of your gear and durable enough to handle repeated use and abuse. Look for heavy-duty trash bags designed for outdoor cleanup with a thickness of at least 3 mil. Contractor bags work well; the best are orange or another bright color, which improves your visibility in the event of a survival situation. A heavy-duty trash bag can also serve double duty as an emergency shelter.

When lining a stuff sack, a lighter weight trash bag is both easier to work with and sufficiently protected from outside abuses. When stuffing your sleeping bag or clothes, first put the bottom of the trash bag inside the stuff sack, then stuff your gear inside the trash bag and stuff sack simultaneously. Twist or otherwise tightly seal the opening of the trash bag when you’re done.

Both garbage bag techniques have some drawbacks. The pack itself will get very wet without additional protection, which can add considerable weight; plus, items in smaller pockets will be at risk unless you give them separate waterproof protection. Similarly, any gear lashed to the outside of your pack (sleeping pad, tent, etc.) will be vulnerable.

Although you can use a garbage bag to cover the outside of your pack, it’s a poor substitute for an actual pack cover. Garbage bags flap wildly in the wind, don’t hold up well to brush and branches, and must be cut to allow shoulder straps to pass through. Pack covers, on the other hand, are typically made of lightweight coated nylon or ultralight silnylon, and feature an elastic cord that tightens around the pack, securing it in place. A cover protects most of your pack, as well as items lashed to the outside, from the elements.

Pack covers do have weaknesses, however. Most notably, they don’t fully cover the area around your shoulder straps and hip belts. The area immediately above and around your shoulders is particularly vulnerable. In a day-long rain, water will often find its way in. And while they’re considerably more durable than garbage bags, pack covers can still snag and tear on brush and branches in densely forested terrain.

Various sizes and materials are available. For a secure fit and maximum protection, select one that is just large enough for your needs. Oversized versions dangle loosely, making them more susceptible to snags and moisture. Pack covers run roughly $20 to $40, depending on the style and material.

To protect smaller water-sensitive items (maps, electronics, etc.), a durable zip-lock bag is hard to beat. Freezer-style versions are the best. They feature thicker and more durable plastic than lighter weight sandwich bags. (Most freezer bags are at least 2 mil; Ziploc-brand freezer bags run closer to 3 mil.) Avoid sliding closures, which are prone to failure after repeated use and often don’t provide a complete seal at the corners.

To minimize air inside the zip-lock, seal the bag nearly closed but leave a small opening at one end. After pushing as much air as possible out of the opening, use your mouth to suck out the remaining air and then quickly seal the bag closed.

In order for a stuff sack or dry bag to be completely waterproof, it must feature a waterproof material and a fully watertight closure system, typically a roll-top closure that seals with a clip. For hiking, lightweight coated nylon and polyester are common materials.

For paddling, heavy-duty waterproof dry bags made from vinyl offer the extreme durability necessary to withstand repeated crammings into tight boat hatches. Dry bags with a clear window, or ones made entirely from see-through material, are a plus for quickly finding the right item of gear. A range of sizes and shapes are available, so you should be able to find options that work for the shape and capacity of your boat compartments. Paddling dry bags range from roughly $20 to $60, depending on size and features.

One of the great challenges of a waterproof bag is getting excess air out so that you aren’t left with a puffy, hard-to-pack balloon. To avoid this, look for stuff sacks made with eVent, a fully waterproof material that keeps water out but lets air through, and dry bags that feature a one-way purge valve, which allows you to force air out while blocking outside air from entering.


About the Author…

Matt Heid


Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear expert: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.

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