7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry
By Michael Lanza
From the rainforest of the North Cascades and Olympic National Park to New England, from the Tour du Mont Blanc to New Zealand (lead photo, above), I’ve carried a backpack through many fierce, sustained downpours. I’ve tried virtually every strategy imaginable to keep my clothing and gear inside my pack dry—some which have failed spectacularly, and some which have worked flawlessly, no matter how wet I got. In this story, I share my seven top tricks for how I keep the rain from getting anywhere near my dry clothes, sleeping bag, and other contents of my pack.
#1 Pack Your Gear in Waterproof Stuff Sacks
Most backpacks, of course, are not waterproof (because of the expense and that making them waterproof restricts other design options and makes them heavier). For most backpacking trips, I prefer waterproof or water-resistant stuff sacks over a rain cover because I use stuff sacks for my sleeping bag and clothing organized, anyway, so I’m not adding a new item to my load.
See my favorite stuff sacks in my “Review: 20 Essential Backpacking Gear Accessories.”
A pack liner serves the same purpose and can act as a first layer of defense, along with stuff sacks, for very wet trips. I like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear XL DCF11 Roll-Top stuff sack and pack liner (which kept my pack contents completely dry through steady, wind-driven rain on the Tour du Mont Blanc). It functions as a pack liner, but doesn’t fill the interior of a midsize pack, so it’ll hold your bag, tent, extra clothes, etc., while leaving space above it in your pack for items you want to access during the day.
Zip-lock storage bags are a cheap alternative to waterproof stuff sacks, and generally reliable; plus their contents are easily identifiable through the clear plastic material. But they are obviously not as tearproof or durable as stuff sacks, and their seal can pop open. Avoid overstuffing them, which also makes it easier to pack multiple bags together without having pockets of unused space between them. A thick plastic trash bag works as a cheap liner (cut it down to fit in your pack); but I find the thin bag fabric gets in the way when I’m digging into my pack, and black trash bags make the pack’s contents hard to see. Trash compactor bags are white and tougher.
Do it right with my tips for backpacking lighter and the best thru-hiking backpack.
#2 Use a Rain Cover
I’ve used all kinds of rain covers on a pack many times, but I rarely do anymore—except a rain cover that comes with a pack, because those are made specifically to fit it and are more likely to stay on even in strong wind (if they have an elasticized perimeter, as most do). But even those are inconvenient in that you must remove it every time you want something inside the pack, and doing so exposes pack contents to rain (whereas waterproof or water-resistant stuff sacks protect contents when you open the pack, and they don’t present an obstacle to retrieving anything from inside the pack). Lightweight rain covers also eventually soak through in a sustained or heavy rainfall.
All that said, if I’m carrying a pack that has an integrated rain cover, it does provide an extra layer of protection; but I still want to have waterproof or water-resistant stuff sacks or a pack liner.
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#3 Minimize How Much You Open Your Pack
Pack contents are obviously most exposed to getting wet when you open the pack—so take steps to greatly minimize how often you do that, and try to do it only during breaks in the rain or in spots protected from the rain, like under a tree or rock overhang. Keep snacks handy in clothing pockets or your pack’s external pockets (side or hipbelt pockets are within reach). Preload enough water in bottles—and especially a bladder, because it loads inside most packs—to minimize the number of times you have to stop and refill.
Packs with a panel or side zipper accessing the main compartment, or external pockets large enough for items you want during the day, like a water filter or shell jacket, let you avoid exposing the top of the pack to direct rain. When loading your pack in the morning, if you expect rain, keep items you’ll want on the trail accessible.
#4 Use a Waterproof Backpack
Some backpacks, like the Arc’teryx Bora AR series (one of my 10 favorite packs for backpacking), are waterproof or highly water-resistant. Waterproof packs are typically made of material that’s also highly durable, but heavier than most fabrics used in the body of packs. Given the other options for keeping gear dry while it’s inside your pack, I would only consider waterproofness a high priority for a pack if I routinely head out in a wet place (like Alaska or New Zealand), or use gear hard and need superior durability.
Get the right pack for you. See my “Gear Review: The 10 Best Packs For Backpacking”
and my “Top 5 Tips For Buying the Right Backpack.”
#5 Dress For Rain Before It Starts
Rain doesn’t generally sneak up on us—we see it coming. Pulling on a rain jacket takes just a few seconds, but getting into pants requires a little more time. Change into your bottom layer of choice before the rain begins, so that you’re not getting your socks and boots wet (if you have to remove boots to pull the pants on) by changing while it’s raining, and you’re not soaking your shorts or nylon zip-off pants by wearing them in steady rain. Also, don’t wait until your shirt is soaked by rain before pulling on a jacket, because unless the air temperature is very warm, having a wet base layer can make you cold, and it may take time to dry it as you hike.
Stay dry, happy, and safe. See my “5 Pro Tips For Buying the Right Rain Jacket for the Backcountry”
and my review of “The 5 Best Rain Jackets for the Backcountry.”
#6 Pitch a Tent in the Rain Without Getting It Wet Inside
The tent interior is obviously most exposed to getting wet when you’re pitching it or taking it down. If possible, do it in a more-protected spot, like under a tree. Even if that’s not ideal ground for the tent—if, say, it’s not flat—once you have it set up with the rainfly on, you can simply carry it to wear you want it and then stake and guy it out.
If no such protected spot is available for pitching your tent, lay the rainfly out over the interior tent canopy as soon as you’ve placed the latter on the ground; then erect the tent beneath the rainfly, to keep the rain off it. The strategy is a little awkward, but worth it to have a dry tent interior.
Some tents, like the Sierra Designs Flash 2 FL and others in the Flash series, are designed with an integrated rainfly, so the interior stays dry when pitching and taking it down in the rain.
#7 Packing Up Camp in the Rain
If it’s raining, I like to load my backpack almost completely inside my tent, where everything stays dry, before going outside and taking down the tent. In steady or heavy rain, try keeping the rainfly over the interior tent canopy to shield it while unclipping and collapsing poles; then pack up the rainfly last, shaking excess water off it before storing it in an external pocket on your pack (or anywhere but inside with your dry gear and clothes).
Just as when pitching your tent, when taking it down, if possible, pull up the stakes and move it to a more-protected spot, like under a tree, before removing the rainfly and dismantling the poles.
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