Backpacking the Dusky Track through the Pleasant Range, Fiordland National Park, New Zealand.

7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

In Backpacking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , ,   |   5 Comments

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.

 

Trekking the Italian section of the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Fiona Wilhelm trekking through rain on the Italian section of the Tour du Mont Blanc.

#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.

 

David Ports and Jeff Wilhelm backpacking in the northern Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.

David Ports and Jeff Wilhelm backpacking in the northern Bailey Range, Olympic National Park.

#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.

 

I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life. Find out more here.

 

#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.

 

Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, the creator of The Big Outside, recognized as a top outdoors blog by USA Today and others. I invite you to get email updates about new stories and gear giveaways by entering your email address in the box in the left sidebar, at the bottom of this post, or on my About page, and follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

Backpacking in North Cascades National Park.

Backpacking in North Cascades National Park.

#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.”

 

Backpacking the Royal Arch Loop, Grand Canyon National Park.

Jon Dorn backpacking the Royal Arch Loop in the Grand Canyon.

#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.”

 

Backpackers on the Catwalk in Olympic National Park.

Jeff Wilhelm (in back) and me on the Catwalk in Olympic National Park.

#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.

 

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Backpacking in Idaho's White Cloud Mountains.

My son, Nate, backpacking in Idaho’s White Cloud Mountains.

#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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5 Responses to 7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry

  1. Mike Chirlston   |  August 23, 2017 at 4:28 pm

    Nice article with great tips for keeping your gear dry. I particularly like number 7 – packing gear/tent. Thanks.

  2. Chris Miles   |  August 23, 2017 at 6:28 am

    Good advice, although if you are trying to lessen weight then minimising the amount of stuff sacs is useful, and you really don’t need a pack cover. Using a water repellant spray can reduce any issues with the bag wetting out and thus adding slightly more weight to your carry, or you can use a poncho. The best advice though on top of what you have provided is to use the trash compactor bag only for you clothes, sleeping gear and anything else that is critical not to get wet but is not used until end of day. That way if you have to open your pack on the move or while you are getting gear out to set up camp, your critical gear is not getting wet. Additionally, if your shelter is wet the next morning, you can still store it inside the bag but outside the compactor bag until you get a sunny period to allow a little drying time ( if it is sunny and you have a mesh pocket on the outside, store it there to allow more drying capability).

    • MichaelALanza   |  August 23, 2017 at 6:32 am

      Thanks, Chris. I agree that I don’t use very many stuff sacks (I’m not carrying all that much in clothing). The other benefit of a stuff sack for your sleeping bag is to prevent the bag from expanding and occupying too much pack space.

      • Chris Miles   |  August 24, 2017 at 4:09 am

        I have tried a few packing methods, and have not settled on a single solution as I think there are too many variables. However, the argument for not using a separate stuff sac for the sleeping bag is that it allows you to fill all the little nooks and crannies in the pack better (within the protective confines of the trash bag, and still compressed somewhat by the weight of your gear). It does work to an extent, but I find it is very dependent on how big your pack size is and how you layer your items. I am not at the ultra minimalist with a very small size pack (25-35 litres) where this sort of approach to fill every nook is required, but I don’t usually take a stuff sac specifically for the sleeping bag in most cases just to lighten up and test efficiency. I think I will still be testing different approaches until I stop walking, which I hope is a lot of years away.

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