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True waterproof backpack . . . do they exist?

I've been searching now for a few days, trying to find something that may not even exist, but I figured I would post on here since you all seem very knowledgable about travel gear in general. Brief background: Hubby and I will be in Scotland May 8-18, and hiking in various locations on Skye and in the Glencoe area from the 14-17th. I would like to buy a waterproof (NOT water resistant) BACKPACK (not dry bag), that can carry our gear (camera, paper maps, cell phones, etc) and keep it dry. Although we will be traveling in what seems to be the "driest" month in Scotland, I use that term lightly. I know there is a very good chance we will be rained on, and possibly quite heavily.

I am trying to keep the total cost at $75 (about £100) or less, but want something that will last more than a year or two. Another option for us would be to use our current well-loved backpacks, used on the plane last year on a trip to England, but they are not waterproof. I have a big fear of not using enough spray-on waterproofing, to ensure that my camera at the very least would be safe in a driving rain. I also do not want waterproofing in the form of a rain cover. We have done that in the past, and have yet to find a rain cover that will stay on in even a moderate wind.

I also would like to use said backpack as one of our personal carry-on items. We are flying British Airways and they set a limit for an underseat bag (we will also be bringing two carry-ons as well) at 16x12x6. This is roughly equivalent to some of what are labeled 30L backpacks on the market. That will work fine for us, since we don't plan on stuffing it to the brim.

The only thing I have found to date that comes close is this hybrid backpack/dry bag combo on Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B075SJBP4K/ref=ask_ql_qh_dp_hza
but I don't know the size of the dry bag portion. I have put in a request for more information in that regard and am hoping to hear back soon.

Since we are in our mid-40s, we find carrying a backpack the easiest way to get around. Having said that, we would prefer a backpack that has chest and especially waist straps as well. If nothing else fits the bill, I will resign myself to bringing lots of Ziploc bags to store stuff in, which we often do anyway, but I was really hoping to find a true backpack that fits the bill, where we could toss things in and pluck them out as needed, without the added inconvenience of unzipping Ziplocs all the time.

Does this backpack actually exist? Any suggestions are welcome! TIA!

Posted by
6956 posts

Have you tried www.REI.com? REI is a great outdoors store and should have this kind of equipment. I have bought waterproof sacks from them before. Anything that's really waterproof will be pricy though.

Posted by
122 posts

Yep, looked there already. Most of the waterproof ones they offer are slightly better than a true dry pack, but build on the same philosophy. And as you pointed out, I haven't quite been able to swallow the hefty price tags. For all that, I would resign myself to Ziploc bags first! :)

Thanks for the suggestion!

Posted by
13836 posts

The diagram of the Atacama pack you linked labels one truly waterproof compartment, separate from the padded laptop compartment. In other words, the whole pack is not waterproof. The design, with zippers, makes that impossible. Which is why there are so few fully waterproof backpacks on the market. The ones that do exist are basically one-compartment dry bags (with roll top closure) and added backpack straps. There are several of that type shown in the sponsored ads on that Amazon page. I question how comfortable the straps would be for all-day load bearing.

I agree with you about the pack cover; mine has never worked in windy rainy conditions. For hiking the Milford Track in New Zealand, we were given waterproof liners for our regular backpacks. That worked fine and kept my clothes and gear totally dry, although the backpack fabric itself got soaked.

Posted by
13836 posts

After looking at the REI offerings in the waterproof backpack line, I decided to buy that Cirrus drybag as a pack liner for our next trip.

Posted by
122 posts

Lola: That's why I was still hesitant about getting the one I mentioned from Amazon. I worry that the dry compartment part wouldn't be big enough to hold how much I wanted. It's a bit better than a true dry sack, and the rest of the backpack, even though not waterproof, could carry water bottles and such, nothing that would be that affected by the rain. And the whole zipper thing is why I worry about spray on waterproofing.

I'm not a fan of dry bags, as a whole, because of the whole rolling/unrolling to gain access, which is basically what this Amazon one offers in a way, but I'm still undecided. Depends on how frequently I think we could expect showers and how often I would take the camera in and out of it's protection.

And I agree, the straps don't look the best, but we would be hiking for only a few hours (4) at a time, not all day.

All pros and cons. Thanks for your advice!

Posted by
22262 posts

You either have a dry bag or you don't. I don't know of any true backpack that is totally waterproof. It is the problem with flaps and zippers. Lots of water entry points. BUT -- they sell light weight waterproof bags that completely cover a backpack or you use a backpacking poncho that has extra space in the back to cover both you and the backpack. Either solution works well and is not heavy. That is the general method used by all of the backpackers I know.

I follow the packing technique of packing everything in a separate bag - generally zip lock bags of various sizes. That makes the whole packing and repacking processes so much easier and quicker. Whether it is in a suitcase, backpack, or day bag everything has it own plastic bag.

Posted by
5818 posts

As you are discovering, truly waterproof backpacks are drybags with shoulder straps. We went with hiking backpacks (shoulder strap suspension system with load carrying hip belt) with lightweight dry sack for our must stay dry contents. (Pack covers are worthless in high wind and driving rain situations.)

I would suggest a waterproof map case and water resistant maps. You may need to consult your map during heavy rain situations ad wouldn't want to be opening your drybag to check your map. Our map case has a neck strap for ready access to the map.

Low end (cheap) alternative to a lightweight drysack is a heavy duty garbage bag and slide ziplock baggies.

Posted by
2626 posts

A true waterproof backpack will be constructed of Gore Tex or similar with reinforced sealed seams. I doubt you will find a truly waterproof pack in your price range, the cost of materials and workmanship is just too much.

Posted by
3751 posts

Hate to sound so discouraging, but we searched for years and never found a truly waterproof backpack. Plenty of dry bags for canoeing and kayaking but not for hiking. The only solution may be double bagging with freezer zip lock type bags. For really sensitive things like phones and cameras there are truly waterproof bag type containers that actually work. Let me know if you need specific info on those items. I know this doesn't really answer your question, but perhaps it'll give you some alternatives to consider.

Posted by
122 posts

Thanks, all! It seems to be what I feared. There is no such thing as a reasonably price totally waterproof backpack. Just workarounds, like dry sacks with straps or adding a dry sack to a backpack. Sigh.

Frank: I'm leery of the whole backpacking poncho, since I'm worried that anything more than a slight breeze would cause havoc. I have a feeling I will be end up with what you said, and going with individual bags/Ziplocs.

Edgar: I hadn't even thought about a waterproof map case. Great suggestion! We found a really nice ordnance survey map for Skye, that I wouldn't want to get destroyed by water. Does the case you use allow for turning individual pages while the map is in the case? Do you have a link to it? Again, looking like Ziplocs will be the way we go.

Alan: I did find a few in the $250+ range. Sigh. Yep, on to cheaper Ziplocs. :)

TC: Thanks for your response. I have gone the Ziploc bag route many times in the past. They work just fine for the sensitive stuff, I was just hoping for a chance to upgrade for our upcoming trip. Well, more money to spend somewhere else, I guess. :)

Posted by
3751 posts

Just remembered another thing we did. A number of years ago Magellan's or Travel Smith or ?? had large heavy duty zip lock type bags that could be used a liner -- we doubled them up in case one was punctured. Some folks have done the same thing with double heavy duty leaf bags.

Posted by
122 posts

Thanks! I will look into those, in case my 2 1/2 gallon ones aren't quite big enough.

Posted by
22262 posts

Backpacking ponchos work great. I don't know what the concern is about a breeze. They pack down to about the size of an thick ipad and weigh about a pound. Very durable. We have carried and used the same ones for 20+ years. Not talking about the cheap, thin plastic poncho you get a Wal-mart. Beginning to think you have had very limited experience with backpacking.

Posted by
122 posts

Frank: do you have a way to tie your poncho down at the bottom? We've used some pretty heavy duty ones in the past ( including one memorable morning trying to pack up a tent in the pouring rain!), but the wind always seems to be able to get up under an edge of the poncho and whip it up around our faces. In the end, it was hard to tell who was wetter, us or the tent! ;) Do you happen to have a link to the one you like?

Posted by
122 posts

Our ponchos were adjustable to use without a backpack, as well, and maybe that's why we had problems. Plus, I have seen some models with a loop and button that connect between the legs, but ours didn't have that. And they seemed short, but we are a taller family - for a woman I would be considered on the tall side, at 5'10 and my now 18-year-old son was 6'3 at the time. Fortunately, he seems to have stopped shooting up! I seem to recall they ended up being rather sweaty as well. Do the ones you use have built in ventilation? I'd be curious to see how much they have improved in the last few years!

Posted by
5818 posts

...waterproof map case..... Does the case you use allow for turning individual pages while the map is in the case?

Just do a web search for "waterproof map case". My map case is similar to but not the "Equinox Hellbender Map Case".

Our first UK walk was a two week crossing of England. Contours included "waterproof map case" in its suggested list of things to bring but we are North American West Coast trekkers with dry summer weather. We used zip lock type bags for both our guide books and maps which were less than satisfactory for consultation while walking. All the Brits had real map cases. We learned from the walk across England and were equipped with lightweight drysacks inside our packs and waterproof map cases for our West Highland Way trek.

You do need to fold your OS map to show the section being walked through the clear plastic window. You would need to open the case to "turn pages". That said, a map case shows enough of an OS Explorer (4 cm = 1 km) for a half day of unless you are fell runners. I hang the map upside down so that it is properly orientated for viewing while suspended from the neck strap.

PS My observation is that ponchos only sort of work but not with high winds. If you use a poncho you need a waist belt. And of course, umbrellas are for Mary Poppins. Don't forget waterproof rain pants and gaiters.

Posted by
2526 posts

My dry bag will easily carry what you describe. I use heavy duty plastic sack to line my backpack when it's raining heavily. I don't like a fully waterproof backpack. REI is the place for your needs.

Posted by
122 posts

Edgar: Thanks for the link and the tips! Now I know what to look for and will check out a few more on Amazon. Cool contraption. I can see how it would be an improvement over a Ziploc. We should be fine using it with the maps we have. Never even considered an umbrella! I fight with those at home too much, as it is! Got our waterproof pants (never used them in the past, but so many people recommend them!) and nicely broken in waterproof hiking boots. Are debating on the gaiters. How hard would they be to put on, if a shower or storm were to quickly come up? Conversely, do they tend to get sweaty, if we just wear them the whole time, should the skies look threatening?

Bruce: Do you find it easier to take things in and out of a dry bag, than a Ziploc? I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I sincerely would like to know! Anytime I have used dry bags for snorkeling and such, it has been such a pain to open and shut them quickly.

Posted by
122 posts

TGreen: Lol! It is cheaper than a box or two of assorted size Ziplocs, that's for sure!

Posted by
13836 posts

I find it more of a pain to securely close a ziplock bag than to roll and snap a dry bag, especially with cold hands. And the closure makes a comfortable handle for carrying in hand, if you are just going a short way.

Posted by
1179 posts

I’ve never taken a waterproof pack on any of my travels. I usually use a garbage bag liner as well as a waterproof dry bag for the things that have to stay super dry. That’s always worked for me.

One comment on the Gore-Tex. That material is for clothing because we sweat. You wouldn’t want it for a pack.

My suggestion for a camera is what one of my travel partners did: He took a zip lock bag, turned it upside down, and ran the camera straps through he bottom corners of the bag. Then he slid the zip lock up and down as needed when he took pictures. I think he reinforced the corners with duct tape.
We hiked the Salkantay trail through the rain and then continued through the jungles of Tambopata and then through Mindo. It rained for 3 weeks straight and the camera stayed protected.

Posted by
5818 posts

Are debating on the gaiters.

I use ankle length gaiters over my rain pants and waterproof membrane lined boots with "hope and prayer" and found than my socks still get soaked. I'm guessing that the leakage is coming through the size zips from wind driven rain even though the zips are covered with a storm flap. I carry spare socks in my dry bag and have had to change out soaking wet socks during lunch stops. (Hope you are packing dry hut shoes for post walking wear).

Re umbrellas. Some tourist participating in this forum like umbrellas. But umbrellas are not very useful in the bush. That said, two English walkers who started from Milngavie the same day but finished a day ahead of us bagged Ben Nevis while we finished our walk to Fort William. They carried umbrellas to the top of Ben Nevis but didn't need to deploy the umbrellas.

Posted by
122 posts

Lola: Always good to get another opinion. Thanks! Not sure if this would be considered a short distance, but we are looking at an average of 3-4 hours for our hikes, so straps might be better than a handle. I will have to give all of this information some serious thought. Great to get so many points of view, though!

Cindy: Did you use the twist tie or handle tie garbage bags as liners? And everything stayed dry? It's certainly another idea to add to our list. And I love the camera in the upside down ziploc idea. If I could reinforce the corners enough that no rain would seep in, that would be perfect! I could probably carry the camera on me and not have to continuously take it out or put it away if there were intermittent rain showers. I wouldn't mind so much if the strap got a little damp. Will have to test this out on some unimportant item first, but this could do it!! Thanks so much for the tip!

Edgar: Thank you for a real world example of how the gaiters worked for you. It all seems to come down to zippers, for water entry, doesn't it? I will ponder this more, before making a decision. And we were planning on dry socks and shoes at the very least. So much planning for the worst and hoping for the best!

Posted by
2526 posts

What Lola said. My dry bag keeps my spendy gear safe from moisture and easy to use. Further, I lived for many years in a rain forest so have much experience hiking/camping in damp conditions. A waterproof backpack is unappealing. If I were just bouncing about in a skiff and just needed to carry a pack a short distance...we’ll, that’s a different story.

Posted by
122 posts

Okay, I sat down and gave it some thought as to why I seem to prefer a backpack over a dry bag so much. I like the ease of a quick zip and something is accessible to me as opposed to rolling up and down all the time. In addition, I dislike the all-in-one open interior of such a bag, since I envision rooting around inside trying to find things that might have sunk to the bottom. Backpacks in general have many separate compartments (at least on the outside) which makes for easier access, at least for me. In addition, I was hoping to have such a backpack pull double duty as a personal carry-on item as well, and a dry sack doesn't quite fit that vision. If I took a dry sack, I would probably store it, folded up, in my other carry on piece of luggage.

Having said all that, the one or two totally waterproof backpack/dry bags I saw were unappealing for the heaviness of the material used and/or a price tag I couldn't afford to pay. And I can understand how zippers can never really be sealed completely. I guess like Bruce and Lola said, a dry sack handle would be convenient for carrying, but for the length of time we plan on hiking and the freedom to have my hands completely free to take pictures or use our trekking poles, I would like double shoulder straps, something it seems many people feel that dry bags don't do particularly well.

I am warming to the idea of putting a large garbage bag inside of a backpack, but again worry that handle ties or twist ties wouldn't provide enough of a seal in keeping out water. What am I not understanding?

In the past, we made do with ziplock bags to protect the important items, and just drying out the rest of the backpack as we went. I had hoped to move on from this, but now am not so sure..

I am, however, grateful for all the responses this post has generated and all of the tips and ideas I now have!

Posted by
1179 posts

@joncatmantim1 - I just put stuff in the garbage bag, squish out the air, and loosely knot the top. It’s enough. A draw string would work too if the bag wasn’t pointing straight up. You could also just fold it over once or twice. You’re not submerging it.

Posted by
3505 posts

Alan, I can't help but wonder-what does it say about you that you even knew that backpack existed? Thanks for giving us something to laugh about-with the post next to it suggesting the garbage bag!

Posted by
2626 posts

It’s a good story. Many years ago I did some consulting work for a start up trying to build a better hospital bed for patients in the intensive care unit. These folks often developed horrible complications due to immobility and bed sores. That led us into discussions with Gore and I got to know the company pretty well. One thing led to another, and that startup became the single largest customer of Gore, using Gore Tex to make air mattresses. So, I’m pretty familiar with the various applications. $1000 backpacks are not my thing, believe me, but Gore makes some pretty nifty materials.

Posted by
305 posts

Reel2Display2 - That is a great find. If I ever need a backpack I love that one.

Posted by
122 posts

Alan - ok, that is quite the sticker shock indeed!

Cindy - I think I'll let my husband knot and unknot anything! No matter how loosely I think I do it, I always end up needing him to get it open for me. I'll plan on adding a few garbage bags to our luggage.

Reel2 - Now that's a backpack I could really enjoy! Look at all those pockets! And I like how the middle opens up. I wonder if I could contain myself and not overstuff it, since it's just a smidge bigger than the under seat bag/personal item size requirement for BA.

Posted by
13836 posts

Actually, at 21.5 " high and 13.75" wide by 8" deep, it is much larger than the 16x12x6 that British Airways allows for the personal item, which must fit completely under the seat. That extra 5.5" of height will not fit even if the pack is not full.

They do measure and tag the personal items. On our last two flights with BA, they handed out the green tags, and without one affixed to the bag you cannot take the "personal item" aboard. My shoulder bag at 14x10x4 is obviously compliant, but they did ask to measure my husband's backpack (daypack). I pointed out that it was his "main" item ( our roller bags were checked) so could be larger than 16", and they agreed and moved on.

Posted by
122 posts

Maybe this backpack isn't as squishy as what I'm used to, since the middle section is more like a piece of luggage. We have taken on backpacks larger than what BA lists, where 5 inches would compact quite well, since we don't overstuff, and we never had a problem. But I guess mine are just very flexible. And I don't think it would fit enough for us, to use as a carry on. It's still a nice pack, though.

Posted by
1216 posts

Seconding SeatoSummit. We use SeatoSummit gear for many things. We use a small version of these to put our camera in (in the top of our pack) so easy access, and protected/dry:

https://www.seatosummit.co.uk/products/storage-sacks/ultra-sil-dry-sack/

Background: we are lifelong backpackers and gear snobs. We ended up choosing Osprey Porter 46 for travel:

https://www.rei.com/product/112654/osprey-porter-46-travel-pack

It looks a lot like that Eagle Creek. I would go to REI and try different packs on to see how the load sits. I use the SeatoSummit bags as small dry bags inside my pack, or Ziplock's, and I was in a few downpours for over an hour (walking from a train station to the apartment) two summers ago (the last time the Seine flooded ... in June), and all my stuff was dry. We got rained on that whole trip - 3 weeks and I think two days were not raining (France, Netherlands, Germany)

Posted by
3505 posts

Alan thanks for posting your interesting story. What a great company to have such an important goal!

Posted by
3789 posts

If you missed, it, there is a thread on the Global Companion here:
https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/packing/backpack-temptation
depends if one wants a 'back pack' or 'luggage'. To me they perform different functions - at that size. My concern is always lockability and fussy bits I wouldn't use, but it is a nice bag for the right person.
Aside from this, and considering I am not a back packer, why are covers useless? If it is a propensity to blow off, can't you use something like these to secure it?
https://www.amazon.ca/Tebery-Adjustable-Fasteners-Suspenders-Grippers/dp/B0787Y6ZFF/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?ie=UTF8&qid=1519915691&sr=8-1-spons&keywords=bed+sheet+clips&psc=1
Or is it the streaming rain that runs off it and down the inside of the pack?
(My McGyver mind keeps thinking of optional solutions)

Posted by
5818 posts

...why are covers useless?

Pack covers work to different degrees of success in protecting against light drizzle depending on the shape of your pack. It helps secure the cover (which is open against your back) if the pack projects above the shoulder strap attachment points and below the hip belt attachment points.

And if you are walking in high wind conditions clip or tie the pack cover to your pack. During high winds my pack cover is simply a kite or flag waving from the tie point on my pack.

Posted by
377 posts

Working in the outdoor industry for over 20-years, I've seen a lot come and go.

Completely waterproof backpacks are a niche, specialty item, and are very expensive to produce, much less sell. The only consistent users of such kit are bicycle messengers, canyoneering enthusiasts and search & rescue professionals. Everyone else usually uses a cover or, dry-bag found in the kayaking/boating world. Gore-Tex is a waterproof-breathable laminate, expensive to produce, it's best used when air movement is necessary: clothing, medical, water treatment, filtration, etc...

The gold standard for waterproof packs & bags is Ortleib. Their US website is down but, you can find them on other platforms, the link is to their EU site. As you poke around, you'll see pricing is a premium. With a budget of $75, you're barely getting a functional backpack, much less one with uncompromised features. Your best best may be find the backpack you're comfortable with, then pair-it with a solid, backpack cover. Pack your internal contents in plastic bags/silicone dry bags. Things will get wet but, not disastrous. Keep in mind, dry bags come in two flavors: the heavier double-coated PU type, which are designed to be completely exposed to the elements, like river rafting, and the silicone-coated bags, much, much lighter and nowhere close to as expense as the heavier cousins. The silicon-coated dry bags like the Sea-to-Summit bags linked above, are well suited for your needs.

Posted by
122 posts

Just an update on our experience, now that we've been back a while:

Since I never really did find what I was looking for, and didn't really want to use a dry bag (I felt they they were just too clunky), we ended up just taking our smaller, old Pacsafe backpacks on our trip. Not sold anymore, but similar to the current Metrosafe LS 350 daypack and easily fit under the seat on the plane. The packs had been surprisingly water resistant for us in the past, staying dry in light sprinkles. And once I coated them with a waterproofing spray as well (Kiwi Heavy Duty Camp Dry Water Repellent, from Walmart), they held up very well.

We really only encountered very wet conditions one day while hiking, a combination of sideways blowing heavy fog and a steady drizzle. By the time we got back to our car, our waterproof raincoats and pants were dripping on the outside, but dry inside. The backpacks were pretty much the same. A bit damp, but not really wet inside. Just as an added precaution, though, I put my camera into one Ziploc, with another Ziploc holding the rest of our "stuff." And since a lot of the water beaded up and rolled off thanks to the water repellent I used, the packs were completely dry to the touch in about an hour.

Thanks to all who replied and continue to do so!