How to Waterproof a Backpack: Keeping It Nice and Dry

Whenever you plan a long hike through the woods or up on a mountain, sooner or later, you’re bound to hit some rain. You would agree with us that keeping your belongings safe and dry is never easy, and failing to do it right could lead to some really nasty results. If you are still reading this, you might benefit from learning how to waterproof a backpack the proper way. If, on the other hand you want a quicker solution you can buy one of our top waterproof backpack picks.

Water hazards will no longer be adventure jeopardizing factors if you manage to learn some of these skills and make them your own. Learning how to waterproof your backpack, as well as the equipment you carry, will allow you to keep items safe and prolong their durability.

In this article, we will show you several ways of how to waterproof almost any backpack, and by this assuring that your equipment will remain dry most of the time. In the first part, we are going to take a look at the two major ways one can waterproof their hiking equipment (external and internal) and then we will look at the best and most price-sensitive ways to do them externally. So kick back and take out your notebook as we are just getting started.

Should you waterproof The Whole Backpack or Just the Innards?

When waterproofing equipment for a longer hike, the first thing that you should decide on, is the way you are going to do this. There are two major methods of having reliable waterproofing. You can waterproof the entire backpack with one larger layer, or simply take every item from it and waterproof them one by one.

Women's waterproof backpack

Let’s take a look at what are the benefits and the downsides of both approaches and of course how to combine the two for the best results.

Waterproofing the Whole Pack

This is without a doubt the most common way of waterproofing a backpack. Take a certain waterproof material and put your backpack in it (or have it cover the entire backpack cavity), so no water or just the bare minimum can get through. Sounds easy, right? Well, it is actually, but this is not an entirely failsafe plan.

The biggest issue with this approach comes from the fact that it is not really penetration-proof. This means that even if there is a single hole on the entire waterproofing material, the entire process might be pointless and everything that should stay dry might end up full of water.

Backpack rain covers
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Obviously, this is a case-by-case scenario, as in light rain conditions this might be a fully suitable approach, but if you decide to go kayaking for example, this is by no means a good option. If by chance the backpack becomes fully submerged, everything inside it might be tainted and the entire pack itself will become far heavier and by extension dangerous, as drowning becomes a real possibility.

On the other hand, this method is the fastest, easiest and by far the cheapest one. There is no other way around this, if you are looking for a price-conscious approach this is the one to go with. It’s also important to take into consideration that in many instances this is the most sensitive approach, and ensuring an even better waterproofing could be considered a bit overkill.

The One-By-One Approach

This is technically not backpack waterproofing, but equipment waterproofing, but the results should be the same. You take every piece of equipment you have in your backpack or at least the ones that are not waterproof or prone to suck up lots of water and wrap them in some waterproof materials.

This is one of the best ways of ensuring that your brand new DSLR won’t get wet once you start fording a river. The downside is two-folded. In one case you need far more waterproofing material (simple bags in most cases) and the second is the fact that this is simply not needed most of the times, especially if the chances of your backpack being submerged are close to zero.

Waterproofing covers
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But if you do plan a longer trip and see yourself crossing several rivers and lakes this is most definitely the sensible approach to take. Also remember, that it’s not only the electronic equipment that needs waterproofing but pretty much every piece of clothing as they tend to soak up a lot of water and make the backpack far heavier than it should be in the first place.

Combining Both waterproofing methods

As in most cases, the objectively best approach is to combine the best of both worlds. This seems to be the one that most people tend to do anyway, and often even without realizing it, but simply being driven by common sense.

You should do a general waterproofing for the entire backpack and everything contained inside, and select the more sensitive items, and waterproof them one by one. Yes, it takes more time to do it this way, but believe us, that this is the closest you can get to reach a state that could be considered almost entirely failsafe.

Waterproof backpack
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The items that we highly recommend (and most definitely prioritize) to waterproof separately are the following:

  • GPS navigation systems
  • Mobile phones
  • Cameras and camcorders
  • Fire starting equipment
  • Clothes and footwear
  • Portable lamps
  • Money and non-plastic official documents
  • Anything else that is made out of paper (guides or maps)

Remember, even if some of these items are manufactured to be water-resistant, it is always better to make sure by waterproofing them. Better safe than sorry. Also, if the main waterproof layer gets punctured and some items of lesser importance get wet, you will still be able to use most everything that you also waterproofed separately. Considering the minimal extra cost it involves it really should be a no-brainer.

Reliable Waterproofing methods

So now that we have seen what are the major ways to waterproof, let’s take a look at how to actually do it. There are several different ways to reach the desired goal, and many people prefer one over the other, but we will showcase the ones that we know for a fact that they are reliable and the ones that seem to be the most popular amongst nature enthusiasts in general.

Use a Rucksack Liner

A rucksack liner is a fancy way to call a large plastic bag, that is manufactured and marketed as a waterproofing tool in the backpacking and kayaking community. They are usually fairly thick yet made from a special plastic material that makes them surprisingly light.

Rucksack liner
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Another good thing about them is the coloring. They are usually of bright color so even if during an accident, your backpack is ripped open and the content falls out, you will be able to trace it easily. This is especially true if it falls out when crossing a stream and you might have to track downstream for several miles before finding the contents.

When waterproofing with a liner, never fill the bag with the desired content while it’s outside the backpack. By doing this, the liner might get punctured when putting it inside the backpack. Always place it in the backpack first, arrange it so it will take the shape of the insides in a perfectly fit manner and only then start filling it up with different items.

As soon as you are done with this put your weight on the backpack, so most of the air flows out. Take the end of the bag, twist it, and quickly gooseneck it, before it’s filled with air again. Use a rubber band or a provided bungee (some liner manufacturers include this with the bags) to secure it, and then push it back into the backpack so the end of it will be between the backpack’s material and the liner itself.

Dry Bags: The Expensive Option

Using dry bags to secure your belongings is a sensible idea if you have the monetary possibility to do so. There are plenty of outdoor brands that manufacture them as they are needed for kayaking and canoeing. They come in various size and shapes as well, so chances are that you will find several that will fit your need and in different price ranges as well.

Dry bags
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If there is any chance that at one point on your backpack could be completely submerged for a longer period of time, buying a couple should be pretty high on the list of your priorities. The sealing mechanisms that are included are almost always more reliable than what you can achieve with a liner or any other plastic bag.

But then again these are the exact same things that might jeopardize their reliability. Some of them are just too complex for their own good and start giving up after a couple of uses. But even if they are brand new, make a quick check before starting the trip, just to be certain that they work as intended and they do not have any part that suffers from some sort of manufacturing errors.

The Universal Plastic Bag

This is pretty much the same solution as the rucksack liner, but without the added benefit of being “made for”. By simply looking around your household, you might be surprised just how many items you can find that can be used for this exact purpose.

From simple grocery bags to ones made for garbage disposal, most of them can potentially be used to waterproof your hiking equipment. Just make certain that it has at least some thickness to it.

Plastic bags

As this is a fairly economical approach and one that many people opt for, we would recommend buying some extra strong and high capacity garbage bags, made specifically for outside storage. There are several bags in the 40-50 gallon range that can be perfect for this and they can cost less than one buck a piece if you buy them in large quantities.

Ziplock Bags for Small Items

Ziplock bags are perfect for waterproofing smaller items, like money and mobile phones. They come in almost limitless sizes, so no matter what your need is, you will more than likely find them online. There are several sellers, who advertise their zip locks as exactly this, waterproofing equipment.

Before running out and buying two dozen zip locks, always make certain that the lock is actually reliable. Some cheaper models can be closed well enough, to actually store a sandwich during a car trip, but they do not necessarily keep water out and even if they do the first time around, they might break down faster than anticipated.

Ziplock bags
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Then there are the ones that come in larger sizes, but these are often made for household duty in mind, so even if they are advertised as keeping moisture out, they are by no means waterproof. When it comes to ziplock-equipped bags, always remember that smaller usually means better.

Check on the manufacturer’s page if the bag is actually advertised as watertight. But even if it is advertised as such, we would still recommend making a quick test, and maybe put some pressure on them, with a small stress test: open and close them several dozen times, just to make sure that they can stand the test of time and then fill them with water to see if they are still up to the challenge.

Spraying or Waxing

Now, this is something that not many people do because usually, they do not result in a waterproof solution, rather than moisture-proof or simply water-resistant textile. Just how much water they can withstand is highly questionable and it’s down not only to the solution itself but to the type of material your backpack is made from.

While waxing is a fairly complex method (and one that we would let a professional do) spraying is easy and can be finished in a matter of minutes. Would we recommend it? The answer is yes and no, depending on what exactly is your goal with it.

Waterproofing spray
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We would recommend it as a secondary solution and something that you can do, as yet another failsafe. DO NOT let this one be the only waterproofing as you will more than likely have a nasty surprise.

There is also the “no” part. Many people think that by applying it on a rucksack, they are pretty much done with the waterproofing part. This is a truly naïve taught and one that we hope you will not have, as you will most certainly suffer some kind of extra financial burden after your next trip.

Duct Tape Is Good for Everything

If you have some truly important piece of equipment, that you absolutely need to get from point A to point B during a trip (like radio or tracking systems) do not hold back from using high-grade duct tape even after you made them waterproof with one of the previously mentioned techniques.

Duct tape

Some people might scoff at the idea of using it, but in all honesty, speaking out of our previous experiences, this is one highly reliable solution. True, it is not the most elegant one out there but it works. For better results, use as much as you can and always take some with you (and extra bags), so you can use it for the trip back.

Next Stop: The Wilderness

And with this, we have covered pretty much all the most popular ways of waterproofing a backpack and everything inside it. It might be a bit easier than what most of us would expect and if done right some absolute perfect results can be achieved by investing very little in the process (time, effort, and even money).

Now you should be fully ready to waterproof your backpack and protect all the expensive belongings that you want to carry with you on your next trip. Just never forget that practice makes perfect and even the smallest hole, in this case, could lead to some pretty unpleasant surprises.

Hiking in rainy conditions
Image credit: Peter Stevens

But these are just our approaches to doing things and some people managed to develop entirely different ones. If you do have a different routine for waterproofing or you would simply add some tips or tricks to the ones we have listed, please share it with us as this is a key skill one needs to have while living the life of a real hiker.

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