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Waterproof Backpacks -
A Unicorn Hunt?

Waterproof backpacks are a nice idea in theory.

Sorta like unicorns.

But can you get your hands on one?

Excellent question, dear hiker.

Let's find out.


Waterproof backpacks -
who needs them?

Hikers live in fear of getting wet if the temperature is below what you would consider a balmy, mild summer day.

Why?

Lots of reasons:

  • The risk of hypothermia,
  • Chafed, chapped skin from damp clothing or wet gear,
  • The misery of a wet sleeping bag,
  • Having to air dry all of the contents of a backpack, after doing a little dance to entice the sun to shine

...to name just a few.


To be fully waterproof is a tall order for a hiking backpack. Read this for some info on the difference between water proof, repellent, and resistant.

So here's the pivotal question for you as a hiker:

Do you really need a fully waterproof pack?

Yes, if you:

  • want to protect expensive equipment from water;
  • expect to hike through lots of river crossings and want dry gear at the end of the day;
  • plan to rack up some mileage in notoriously wet conditions like parts of Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, or elsewhere on the planet that dumps rain during certain seasons;
  • are going to switch between water travel and backpacking, as in the fine sport of packrafting.

Otherwise, you might just need a waterproof pack cover to go over your water repellent backpack.

  • Be sure to re-apply the water repellency finish every season if your pack gets wet a lot.
  • Do a little test at home: spray water on the cover, and the pack, and see if it beads up and rolls off. If it soaks in, you need another application.
  • If you wash your backpacks, reapply once they are dry again. Don't take a chance out in the field with gear that might soak up water like a sponge.

Or buy a dry bag to protect the camera or sleeping bag.


Or use a large heavy duty plastic garbage bag over your pack. (Not recommended, by the way, unless you also have duct tape to repair the inevitable rips and holes.)



It all depends upon the level of risk of getting wet you want to assume, and the amount of money you are willing to invest in a pack that can stand up to the demands of your hiking trip(s).

I have both kinds of backpacks:

  • water repellent day and backpacking packs with fitted waterproof covers that attach via straps and elastic;
  • fully waterproof backpacks, with dry bags inside (I'm an over-planner, what can I say?) for river/hike combo trips.

When I'm way out in the sticks (Greenland, Alaska, Northwest Territories), I make sure I'm as protected from moisture as possible. There is very little margin for error out there, and the risks associated with getting wet are higher than on the PCT in August.

So pick your poison! I'd rather skimp on the shirt I'm wearing, and pay more for a backpack that will stand up to whatever Mother Nature throws at me.

Soggy sleeping bag after a hard day of hiking, yuck!!

Double rainbows enjoyed from the comfort of my dry tent, hurrah!


Waterproof backpacks -
what they offer

The features of a waterproof pack include:

  • material to exclude water completely, usually polyurethane or polyester with double-sided TPU laminate (a chemist's dream);
  • variable capacity, in liters (that's a good thing; why carry a bigger pack than needed?);
  • cylindrical shape and no options for loading other than the top;
  • heavy, at least 2+ pounds and usually 3+ pounds;
  • straps and harness not as adjustable for a custom fit, so may pull more on your shoulders and back;
  • won't stand up to lots and lots of water, or a complete submersion, forever;
  • are vulnerable to sharp edges - do your best to avoid contact with these, but always carry duct tape or other sealant methods.

Here's one similar to the one I use (I bought mine several years ago, so this is as close to mine as I could find): Sea to Summit Hydraulic Pack.


Note that this pack is not built for extended periods of hiking, but it can be used to haul gear during a portage or when bushwacking to a campsite. That's how I used it, and I know it works well.



Waterproof backpacks - the reality

Not every hiker should chase the holy grail of waterproof packs.

They are expensive, heavy, and don't fit well enough to be used for lots of mileage.

However, they are absolutely necessary when you are up against wet conditions or will be mixing extensive water travel with hiking.

Dry bags inside your water repellent backpack are a great solution to keeping certain items of technology (GPS, camera, phone, stove) safe and dry inside your water repellent pack.

  • They also protect vital gear that keep you warm and dry: tent, sleeping bag, clothing.
  • Choose the size (liters) that make sense for your gear.

Please don't skimp on keeping your gear dry, unless you really have no other options.

Getting wet outdoors is risky even in warm weather, and because we live in such a technology-heavy world there's no reason to take chances with hypothermia.

A happy hiker is a warm dry hiker. Repeat after me...



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