There’s no guaranteed way to keep your backpacking gear 100% dry. But there are plenty of options for doing your best, and being prepared will do you a world of good, especially if you know you’re heading into wet or unpredictable weather.
Keeping yourself and your gear as dry and protected as possible isn’t just about comfort, it’s about safety. Soaking through all of your layers and your down sleeping bag is a recipe for disaster, and while it’s very difficult to keep everything dry, you can pay special attention to your most critical pieces of gear (ie camp layers and anything that’s down insulated) and protect those the best.
We’ve outlined a variety of ways to protect your gear, and how to create a waterproofing system to keep your most vital items dry and protected. Mix and match these options based on the anticipated weather and duration of your hike!
The first and most obvious option is buying a water-resistant pack. The most reliable (and often most expensive) option is a pack made with Dyneema Composite Fabric, or DCF. DCF is an ultralight, ultra-durable, waterproof material that continues to grow in popularity among cottage-industry manufacturers.
Hyperlite Mountain Gear was one of the early adopters of this material, and now several other cottage backpack brands offer DCF bags in a range of customizable styles and patterns as well. Xpac is another popular water-resistant fabric used widely by cottage gear companies.
Pros: Very simple. A water-resistant pack is your first line of defense against precipitation and a wet ground.
Cons: The term “waterproof pack” doesn’t totally seal the deal—it’s not like you’re carrying a dry bag on your back. And despite the waterproof material, a waterproof pack will still have failure points, like seams, zippers, and roll-tops. Sewing inherently punctures Dyneema, because it’s a laminate, so seam-taping is essential to weather-resistance.
Also, DCF right against your back can be quite sweaty, so if you’re a sweaty-backed hiker, look for a model with some sort of suspension.
In my experience, a pack liner paired with stuff sacks (more on that below) is your best option for moderate-to-wet hikes. Packs made with Robic Nylon or other similar materials can do an adequate job of keeping your gear dry in light rain, but will eventually soak through. This is where a pack liner comes in.
Pack liners come in a variety of materials, and are a way to keep the entire contents of the main part of your pack dry. You can splurge on a $50 DCF liner, or you can buy a $5 glorified plastic bag. Trash compactor bags also work, and you can share the extras with your hiker trash friends. Be sure to get a large enough pack liner that you’ll be able to roll it multiple times.
Pros: Pack liners come in many sizes, price ranges, and materials, so there’s always something to suit your gear and your budget. This has also been the most reliable of any type of waterproofing system I’ve tried.
Cons: If all of your gear is in one giant pack liner, it won’t protect your dry items from your soggy gear, like your tent. The simplest solution is to roll down the pack liner to separate your dry items from your wet ones, and just throw the wet tent on top of the liner.
A pack cover is essentially a giant sack made with waterproof fabric that fits over your pack and cinches down around the sides to keep the rain off the pack itself, as well as protect the pack when you plop it on the ground.
This is usually the first method new backpackers try, as many big-box brand packs come with a pack cover included. Pack covers are a good option for light rain, but aren’t the most failsafe option since they don’t completely enclose the pack.
Pros: Pack covers are easy to use, and some packs from larger brands like Osprey, Deuter, and Gregory come with a pack cover as part of the package.
Cons: Pack covers are fine for light, vertical rain, but as soon as the precipitation starts hitting at an angle — you know, driving rain — it will come in the sides of the pack cover and collect in the bottom. This standing water can saturate the bottom of the pack and do exactly the opposite of what it’s supposed to do.
Stuff sacks can be used for gear protection and organizing smaller items. They come in a huge variety of sizes, protection levels, and closure options. For extended or rainy backpacking trips, I put camp layers in a smaller stuff sack, and my sleeping bag in a waterproof compression sack. Items that I don’t want to get wet, like phone chargers and battery packs, have an additional small stuff sack. The weight penalty is negligible, and it provides plenty of peace of mind.
Pros: Lightweight option for organizing items with tons of customization potential for your own packing preferences. Waterproof compression and roll-top varieties are some of the most reliable protecting your down items.
Cons: Some of the compression sack weights can add up with the straps and buckle closures. They can be expensive as well, but there’s really no other downsides.
DWR Treatment and Seam Sealing
If you don’t want to spring for a DCF pack or a more weatherproof sleeping bag, you can always treat your pack and gear with a DWR treatment and seal the seams of your tent yourself. This can also be used for older gear that might have seen better days. These come in spray bottles and washes for the DWR treatment, and easy-to-apply tubes for the seam seal.
Pros: Inexpensive, and offers a weight-free extra layer of protection on your non-waterproof fabrics. DWR is versatile, and can be used to breathe new life into rain gear, tents, and your sleeping bag face fabric.
Cons: DWR is a treatment, which means it doesn’t last forever. Look at the label of the treatment, and keep track of your usages and washes so you don’t get caught off guard on a rainy trip.
All this plastic talk … reduce, reuse and then recycle (mantra) … single use plastic for a hiker, really?
“Rain-Packing” is a learned art.
1. WPB parkas and pants WILL wet through if the DWR is not renewed at least yearly.
2. Tents MUST be chosen with a sheltering vestibule for well vented but sheltered cooking (i.e. “wedge” tents are a no-no for rainy weather. And double wall tents MUST be able to be set up without getting the inner tent wet. This eliminates many otherwise good tents.
3. Gore-Tex boots help a lot – IF maintained properly
4. Gaiters, even short gaiters, keep boots/shoes much drier.
5. Rain mitts are often worth their weight in gold.
6. A truly rotten rainy day is often best spent as a rest day in camp.
You only briefly mentioned the poor man’s solution to moisture control. Plastic bags. Sturdy garbage bags for pack liners, covers (and even ponchos) Gift shop bags for stuff sacks (they’re strong enough for fetching water too) Bread bags provide extra insulation for feet in unexpected cold snaps, and are a must for mountain adventures. Reuse or recycle afterwards.
An additional pro of the pack cover/poncho-over-pack system is that it helps to keep nylon backpacks drier, i.e. lighter (nylon is notoriously water-absorbing). I would always suggest pairing with a pack liner and/or stuff sacks for those most important items (sleeping bags and puffers).
If one is thru-hiking, keep in mind that some of this stuff can wear out, including pinholes. It’s hard to find a trash compactor bag in a small town, so maybe bounce one. The rainiest parts of the hike may be at the end (see first comment). I’ve always let my pack get wet and would (mostly) keep stuff inside dry with various combinations of your inside-pack suggestions.
When I learned BWCA camping in 1969 at a camp I counseled for, we were required to put our stuff in “stuff sacks”—AKA plastic bags. Items were grouped by logic (underwear, sox, campsite clothes…) and the bags were closed with twisties. Worked great. The smaller bags made it possible to stuff every gap in the Duluth pack. It also made it easier to keep track of things. Until the ‘70s, we didn’t use pack liners, but that was remedied; then everything was double-protected with 2 layers of plastic. Recycle-reuse.
After many years of hiking by far the best way of keeping you and your gear dry is a poncho; this doubles as emergency shelter. a ground cloth in a tarp or a door to the same. Some can even be used as a hammock. Mine weighs 250 g and is silicon proofed, it is also cooler in warm weather when sweat permeates even the best waterproof. Last but not least they can cost as little as $4.00
Great summary and consistent with what I’ve experienced and seen. I’m a fan of Ziploc bags and double-bagging the really important things. After a cold, wet, day on the trail, you really want some dry clothes and a dry bag!
I would only add one element the cons of pack covers: Wind!
Keep up the good work.