Talking about backpacks recently, my buddy Tom mentioned something about backpacks that claim to be waterproof not actually holding up to heavy rain. For some reason, I’ve heard a lot about people expecting their backpacks to be waterproof recently (rather than using a rain cover or pack liner). This seems to me like wishful thinking. I gave up on trying to keep my pack dry years ago, and I think the conversation about waterproof packs should change. Here’s why.
When hiking, you have a lot of gear that will get wet anyway, and eventually goes into your pack. Rain jacket, tent, cooking gear, a food bag that’s been hanging in a tree overnight as a bear-bag– some things just get wet and there’s not much you can do about it. If your equipment is wet, and you put it inside your pack, that ability of the pack to repel water is useless. The water gets inside one way or another.
Even if you keep all wet things outside the pack, there’s still the imperfect outer layer of the pack. The outside of the pack can protect your gear from abrasion on rocks or snagging branches, but most people will eventually put holes in their pack from some kind of encounter. What good is a waterproof pack when there’s a hole in it? Most packs come with lots of holes in them anyway, from the stitching necessary to sew the pack. Water will eventually get in there, too.
But when you look at all the equipment you carry, how much of it really needs to stay dry? For me, it’s only my spare clothes, my sleeping bag, my down jacket, my first-aid kit, journal, phone, toilet paper, and some food. My cook kit still works when wet. My tent is made to get wet. My sleeping pad doesn’t absorb enough water to make a serious problem, and most of my food is packaged tight enough that it can handle a rainy night or two in a bear bag.
Not everything in your pack needs to be waterproof, and the things that do need waterproofing can easily be stored in plastic bags, trash bags, or dry bags inside the pack. Being a backpacker in New England, I’ve learned time and again that staying dry is only a certainty if you stay indoors. But with some cautious packing (plus one trash compactor bag and one silnylon dry bag), I can keep my down equipment and electronics dry through days of pouring rain. Hiking on the PCT, the New England Trail, and countless weekend trips, I’ve had to, and it has worked fine.
So why bother with trying to make a completely waterproof pack?