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 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 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 now for many years running this blog. The seven simple tips in this article will help you keep your gear dry through the wettest adventures.

See also my ”5 Tips for Staying Warm and Dry While Hiking.”

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.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Please follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

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 added expense but also because making them waterproof restricts other design options and often makes them heavier). For most backpacking trips, I prefer 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 can get blown off in strong winds.

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 Roll-Top stuff sack size XL (which kept my pack contents completely dry through steady, wind-driven rain on the Tour du Mont Blanc). Made with waterproof, very tough and lightweight DCF11 fabric, 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.

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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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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 Custom 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).

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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Backpacking in the rain, under a rainbow, in Wyoming's Wind River Range.
Mark Fenton backpacking in the rain in Wyoming’s Wind River Range.

#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.

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9 thoughts on “7 Pro Tips For Keeping Your Backpacking Gear Dry”

  1. Thank you – very informative. I wish to travel only with bivy sacks. I want to find a way to keep pack dry while I sleep in the bivy. So far, I’ve decided on thicker plastic trash bags will cover pack, upright when feasible. Thanks again, Johann

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Johann. I’ve often just put a rain cover (when I have one) over a pack and rested it against a rock or log to keep it mostly off the ground. When possible, you could also hang the pack by its grab/haul loop from a branch stub under a tree, where it may be somewhat protected from rain compared to being out in the open. That also keeps the pack off the wet or muddy ground and out of reach of rodents and other small animals that may try to chew into it in search of food. Make a small hole in the trash bag you pull over the pack to have the haul loop out.

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

    Reply
  3. 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).

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply

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