By Michael Lanza
From the rainforests of the North Cascades and Olympic National Park to powerful thunderstorms in the High Sierra and Wind River Range and steady New England rain, from the Tour du Mont Blanc to Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail to New Zealand (lead photo, above) and many more places, I’ve carried a backpack through many fierce downpours and endless showers. 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.
I’ve learned the tricks described below over more than three decades of backpacking all over the U.S. and around the world—formerly as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years and even longer running this blog. The seven simple tips in this article will help you keep your gear dry through the wettest adventures.
Click on any photo to read about that trip. Please share any tips of your own or your questions in the comments section at the bottom of this story; I try to respond to all comments.
#1 Pack Your Gear in Waterproof Stuff Sacks or Dry Bags
Most backpacks, of course, are not waterproof because of the added expense but also because making them waterproof restricts other design options and often makes them heavier. For most backpacking trips, I prefer using waterproof or water-resistant stuff sacks instead of a rain cover because I use stuff sacks for my sleeping bag and clothing, anyway, so I’m not adding a new item to my load. Plus, a rain cover makes accessing your pack less convenient and can get blown off in strong winds.
On a recent August backpacking trip in the Wind River Range, Sea to Summit’s 3L Ultra-Sil Dry Bag (sizes 3L to 35L, $23-$40, 1.1-2.6 oz.) kept my puffy jacket dry, and the brand’s Evac Compression Dry Bag UL (sizes 3L to 20L, $40-$60, 2-3.9 oz.) kept my sleeping bag dry through an afternoon thunderstorm and a torrential downpour that soaked through my backpack—even leaving a small puddle of water in the bottom of the pack. Those two sacks saved me from a cold, wet, miserable night. See my favorite stuff sacks in this review.
A pack liner serves the same purpose and can act as a first layer of defense, along with stuff sacks, for very wet trips. The 43-liter Hyperlite Mountain Gear Roll-Top stuff sack (sizes 3L, 10L, 25L, 43L, $49-$79, 0.8-2 oz.) has kept my pack contents completely dry through steady, wind-driven rain on the Tour du Mont Blanc, the Laugavegur Trail, and elsewhere. Made with waterproof, very tough and lightweight DCF11 fabric, it functions as a liner for much of a midsize pack, holding your bag, tent, extra clothes, etc., while leaving space above it in your pack for items you want to access during the day.
The Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Pack Liner (50L, 70L and 90L, $35-$45, 3.4-5.5 oz.), made of waterproof and lightweight, 30-denier Ultra-Sil Cordura, with double stitched and taped seams, will fill all or most of a pack’s interior and has an oval shape to easily fit a pack’s dimensions. With a wide mouth for easy access, its roll-top closure has overlapping fabric that folds, secures with hook-and-loop strips, then rolls down, reducing its bulk when sealed.
The more affordable Six Moon Designs Pack Liner (50L, $20, 3 oz.) has also kept my gear and clothes dry when rain pounded my pack. A roll-top, 50-liter sack that’s treated to repel water, it’s made of 40-denier ripstop nylon with taped seams.
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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.
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#2 Use a Custom Rain Cover
I’ve used all kinds of rain covers on a pack many times, but I rarely do anymore because of their shortcomings—but I make an exception to that rule for 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).
Granted, 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 can also eventually soak through in a sustained or heavy rainfall.
That said, a pack with a custom or integrated rain cover does provide an extra layer of protection—at no added expense.
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 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 within reach in your pack’s side or hipbelt pockets. 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.