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 even longer running this blog. The seven simple tips in this article will help you keep your gear dry through the wettest adventures.
See also my ”10 Expert Tips for Staying Warm and Dry Hiking in Rain” and ”How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking.”
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.
Table of Contents
#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 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. 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. 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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#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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#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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