The ultimate is such a big word, especially because with things like backpacks everyone has their own needs. But when we let go of the details and focus on what really matters in a waterproof travel backpack it’s obvious what the ultimate is. We are not talking about the size of the side pocket, zipper length, color etc. We are talking about the main things that make or break a waterproof travel backpack.
3 Essentials of the best waterproof travel backpacks
There are three main things that the ultimate waterproof travel backpack must have:
- First it must be a backpack that will protect your things no matter what mother Nature throws at you. Sun, rain, snow, hail, fog, sand, wind, lakes, rivers, seas. The insides of the backpack must stay safe and dry.
- Second, you have to be able to organize your things so they are quickly available when you need them. It must also be big enough to pack everything you need for traveling.
- And third, it must be comfortable enough to carry.
Sounds quite simple, but in real life it is not. It is actually quite hard. Here is a guide that will help you find a backpack check marks all three. At the same time you will learn everything you need to know about buying waterproof travel backpacks.
Traveling for more and more people no longer means lying on the beach or sightseeing. It means exploring the wilderness, going on adventures, doing sports… living an active life. You know the saying: “At the end of the day your hair should be messy, your feet dirty and your eyes sparkling”. For many, outdoor sports or activities are beyond a hobby. They are a a way of life. So not only during travels and vacations, for many being out in nature is a must on a weekly basis. The ultimate waterproof travel backpack is a companion that will follow you through all of this. It is an all in one backpack for active travelers going to rainy corners of the Earth, doing water related activities.
The call of the outdoor adventure
This calling, the lure of being in touch with our environment hits more and more people every year. The busy way of life, too many screens around us, always being in a hurry, traffic jams… they all contribute to the call of nature. Healing power of outdoor combined with physical activity is what puts our minds at ease. Adventure tours in the past were aimed at those few adventurers and adrenaline junkies. Today they are the mainstream of tourist offers around the world.
If you are reading this you are probably one of those people that can’t be stopped by obstacles, lousy weather or demanding terrain. You want a backpack that can cope with all of that. If by a chance you are not, then first check out a few examples where a full on waterproof travel backpack can come in handy.
When and where do you need a waterproof travel backpack?
Traveling obviously:). Depending on your travel destination and your travel style a waterproof backpack for travelling can be a real savior. If your travels include rainy locations, open trucks, motor bikes, boat rides, lots of walking outside… if there is a possibility of you getting caught in the rain, a waterproof travel backpack will keep your mind at ease so you don’t have to worry what will happen to your things if it starts to rain.
In some locations it doesn’t even have to rain. With all the humidity in the air your clean clothes will soon start to feel damp if left in a regular backpack. And secondly, it is not just the travelling itself. It is also all the activities that you do while travelling. Why carry and extra backpack just for these when your travel backpack can cover it all. One backpack for the travelling itself and all the adventures where you can get wet. Here are just some examples where it can come in handy.
About ten years ago, near the end of my New Zealand visit, I went on The Classic, 8 days and night of trekking around Milford Sound, one of the most beautiful Southern Island fiords. Besides pristine nature and breathtaking sights, one thing you should bear in mind is the unpredictable weather. Regardless of the season, at any time it could pour in heavy rain or snow. Milford Sound has up to 700 mm of rain per month, and we were caught up in this rainy bit of weather.
I had a regular high-end backpack that I thought could stay dry on the inside under the heavy rain, but it didn’t. Not that it ruined our track, but I was worried about my electronic equipment. Taking photos was one of my girlfriends most important activities, so having the right waterproof travel backpack would have saved me a lot of troubles.
Heavy rain is also unavoidable in all tropical trails, and the rain forest has that name for a reason.
Have you ever been trout fishing? Trout live in a very clean environment and rivers suitable for this species have pretty cold water. Standing in the crystal clear, fast stream of water on a warm summer day is one of the best feelings there is. Serenity is absolute, nothing but a silent buzz of water and the waiting. Standing for a couple of hours in this beautiful place gives you another perspective. You stil need to have something to eat and drink, and maybe a smartphone or camera to capture the big fishing moments. One convenient way to store your stuff is a 100% waterproof backpack.
Rafting, kayaking, canoe…
River, lakes, and sea are also perfect for kayaking. And while rafting is a sure bet for getting all wet, with a kayak you can actually travel around. Multi day trips, exploring secret bays, escaping the crowds… kayak travel is increasing in popularity. Regardless of your kayak quality or the style of your paddling, water will get into your boat eventually. Whether you’re exploring Adriatic archipelago or Thailand Islands, again a waterproof backpack can save you. And when your park your kayak on a hidden dream beach of your choice? Land exploration can begin using the same backpack.
A dream surf trip usually means: lots of water, boats, sand, tropical locations with possible tropical rain storms. It is obvious why a good waterproof travel backpack is a must for surfers. Even for everyday surf back home a backpack like that will solve your “dripping wet wetsuits” problem.
Stand up paddling, hunting, going to the beach…
These were just some of the outdoor adventures where a waterproof travel backpack can either save your ass or at least be very useful.
How to keep your clothes and gear dry
If you hang out with experienced adventurers that have +20 years in their tracking/hiking/outdoor activities, you could hear lots of tips and tricks on how to preserve your things dry. They range from using your everyday plastic shopping bags and pre-wrap everything you put in your backpack to putting things into a dry bags, and then into the backpack. But none of these are really good solutions. What if there is another way? Not just a little dry bag but a regular full blown backpack. One that stops even a single drop of water from getting in? A waterproof travel backpack that can save your DSLR camera in relentless rain in the jungle. That will survive wild river trips and keep all of your clothes dry. And that at the same time doesn’t cost a fortune?
The market for waterproof backpacks blossomed in the last few years. However not all waterproof backpacks will really keep your things dry. From those that will, not many are really suitable for traveling. They are just too simple for more versatile and demanding use. Here is what you need to look for.
Regular backpack vs. waterproof backpack
There are a lot of high-quality “regular” travel and adventure backpacks that will serve you perfectly if you are traveling across Europe by train or even in controlled outdoor activities. They could even sustain some rain and keep things dry inside. Depending on where and how you travel you might never encounter heavier rains where a full on waterproof backpack would be the only solutions. But besides keeping your stuff dry, a waterproof backpack gives you something else. A peace of mind. It is an insurance that if things go wrong and by wrong I mean wet, you won’t have to worry.
So what separates a regular and a waterproof backpack? The main differences between the two are the materials used and the way backpacks are assembled. The way regular backpacks are produced they can NEVER be 100% waterproof. We have a whole article dedicated to different levels of waterproof. If you want a really in depth explanation check it out. Here is a summary:
Waterproof backpack materials
Fabrics by their default are not waterproof. Backpack fabrics and cloth, in general, are woven together from individual fibers. In between these individual fibers there is always a little room. This is where the water gets in. Even the thinnest fiber woven very closely together can not stop the water 100%. To make the fabric 100% waterproof the only option is by laminating the fabric and completely closing all the holes. This material will not breathe, but it will perfectly do its job of protecting from the water. You can leave it floating in the sea forever and water will not get through.
There are some more expensive materials that can breathe and hold water at the same time. In real life it turns out their waterproof capabilities are limited. In heavier conditions sooner or later water gets in. If you want a real waterproof backpack then the material must be 100% waterproof and NOT breathable.
The other important thing is the production process. Regular production process involves stitching. Stitching makes holes in the fabric and this is where the water gets in. Even with 100% waterproof material, if it is stitched together the backpack will not be waterproof. You would be surprised how much water can get in through a few stitching holes when you expose the backpack to heavy rain or drop it into the sea. Combining the material and production technique, we can sort all the backpacks into several levels of waterproof.
From water resistant to really waterproof
Companies use the term waterproof very loosely these days. Here is my explanation what water resistant and waterproof means. Learn how to look past the labels that marketing departments put on the products. If you are shopping for a really waterproof backpack, you should read this section before you go out and buy it!
But let’s see what really makes a backpack waterproof? I could grade backpacks with levels from 0 to 3.
Level 0: Ordinary backpack
At the lowest waterproof level there are backpacks made of conventional materials. Your standard fashion, business, college…etc backpacks. They can withstand light drizzle if you run for cover right away. These backpacks usually don’t even mention water resistance in their description. Obviously they don’t stop the water even for a bit and they are not meant to.
Level 1: Water resistant backpack
The next level are water resistant backpacks. These level 1 backpacks are made from materials that try to stop the water, but also have some breathability. The price of the materials in this group determines how long they will keep the inside of a backpack dry. They can withstand lighter rains for a while without a problem. Prolonged exposure to rain will reveal their insufficiency in water protection. Water will also get in through stitches.
Level 2: Waterproof materials, regular production
At this level we already have some serious players. Level 2 backpacks are made of materials that are 100% waterproof. The material itself will not leak even when it is soaked in water. The problem is in the production process. The production process is the real obstacle with waterproof backpacks. Getting the right materials is easy, but making a backpack out of them is hard. Level 2 backpacks although made out of waterproof materials are stitched together. Sometimes the stitches are even additionally taped to make them more waterproof. Even with this extra protection this is not a backpack that you want to drop into the sea. Especially if they have taped seams you can use these in rain even for a longer time without a problem.
Level 3: The ultimate waterproof backpack
That leads us to the ultimate level of waterproof backpacks. These babies are 100% waterproof. They are made out of the same waterproof material as level 2 backpacks, but no stitches are used in the making process. Instead production uses a technique called Ultrasonic Welding. Special machines use a high level of ultrasonic waves that are pointed into the fabric. These waves transform into heat which bonds two waterproof layers together making the seal completely watertight.
An example of the ultimate travel backpack from this category is the DryTide backpack. Backpacks like these can survive indefinitely long walks under heavy tropical rain, the will survive lying in a water-filled kayak, floating by the fisherman in the river, falling overboard into the sea, they will even survive a short submersion.
1. No matter what anyone tells you, there are no completely 100% waterproof backpacks. The reason is not in the fabric or the production process. The problem are the openings that backpacks need so we can fill them up with our things. These openings are their weakest link and none of the closing methods are ideal. This is why we wrote under Level 3 that backpack will survive a shorter submersion. We talk more about the closing systems later on.
2. The 0 to 3 level ranking comes from my own experience combined with some online sources. It is not an official ranking system meaning the sales person in an outdoor store will have no idea what you are talking about if you mention that you want to buy a level 3 waterproof backpack:).
With materials and production process explained, here is a list of features you want in an ultimate waterproof backpack for travelling. This can be your waterproof backpack shopping guide.
What to look for in an ultimate waterproof backpack?
Obviously. If it is not made out of laminated fabric using ultrasonic welding, then its probably not really waterproof. In your waterproof travel backpack, you want heavy-duty 100% waterproof cloth that can keep water out regardless of the exposure time. It has to be constructed without stitches using high frequency welded seams protecting the inside from dust, sand and water. An added plus of this is that the inside the waterproof backpack becomes trapped once you close it. This means these kind of backpacks will float on the surface of the water. Of course, you can let the air out before closing it if you want to.
Carrying small dry bags for the essentials that can not get wet is not very practical. Wouldn’t it be better if everything you own would stay dry: your camera, wallet and keys as well as all your clothes, snacks and other things you carry with you. The size of the backpack depends on your travel needs, but basically you want a backpack with a big around 50 liter waterproof main compartment. This gives you plenty of space for a few days of travelling. A good thing about waterproof backpacks is you can easily regulate their size but more on that later when we come to closing systems.
SHOULDER STRAPS AND CARRYING COMFORT
Carrying 50l of gear is not a walk in the park. This is why regular dry bags are useless for serious travel. You need a real backpack for that. Look for a backpack that has real shoulder straps. They should be wide, adjustable and padded. Using non-water absorbing foam that will not soak in water is a plus. Also look for a backpack that has a hip belt that will help distribute some of the load on to your hips and prevent the backpack from moving around too much.
100% waterproof material is not breathable. This means your back will get even hotter and sweatier than with a regular backpack. A padded back makes quite a bit of difference. Again, look for non water absorbing foam.
Closing a waterproof travel backpack in a way that doesn’t let the water in is one of the bigger challenges with these kind of backpacks. In fact it is such a challenge that none of the backpacks can survive being submerged into the water for a really long periods of time. This is also the reason that these kind of backpacks are usually very plain without many opening and closing options. Here are all the available closing methods:
FOLD DOWN CLOSURE
This is currently the best system for closing waterproof backpacks. You fold
the top of the backpack three to five times and then buckle the ends together or to the side of the bag. This will seal the backpack and stop the water from entering. This system is best because it is simple and fail proof. It is the closest you can get to 100% waterproof.
Be aware that water will however still get in if the backpack is submerged for a longer period of time. The pressure of the water will slowly push the water through the fold down closure and water will slowly get in. I have repeated slowly two times on purpose – this does not mean the water will flush in and your stuff inside the backpack will get soaked. You will have more than enough time to react before the folded part is compromised, so there is no need to panic even if your backpack is pushed under water.
USING FOLD DOWN TO REGULATE THE SIZE: Another upside to the fold down closure is that you can use it to regulate the size of the backpack. The more you fold it, the smaller the backpack gets.
The biggest downside of waterproof zippers is that real waterproof zippers are extremely expensive. They also have to be pulled all the way or of course water will get. This makes them a little less fail proof, you have to be really careful every time you close the backpack. Because of the price these are seldom used and not really worth it. I hope they get cheaper in time.
There is also a more affordable (but still expensive) version of these zippers that are rated as rainproof. These zippers are very tight and stop the water quite successfully, but they could not be rated as completely waterproof. They can survive heavy rain but when dropped into water the water will get in. By the way – do not confuse these with regular zippers that have rain flaps over them. These are quite cheap and don’t stop the water much better that a regular zipper.
Without keeping the water out of the backpack, all the extra features are useless. But once we have solved the waterproof equation, it’s time to move on to other key features that you want in your backpack. The best waterproof travel backpacks will also have some of these:
This is the main feature in this section. External pockets are extremely useful for organizing your things but quite rare in waterproof backpacks. Only top of the line backpacks feature real outside pockets. There are two reasons for this. First is that the above mentioned waterproof production process is a lot more demanding than regular stitching, so pockets are complicated and therefor expensive to make. And second, pockets again have openings that are hard to make waterproof. And you would expect waterproof pockets on a waterproof backpack.
Cheaper models have simple mesh pockets that are of course not waterproof and don’t even need closing, what would be the point. Top of the line backpack however should have pockets with high quality zippers that will have no problems stopping rain. Anything less than that and outside pockets will only be useful for things that can get wet without a problem (like your flip flops, water bottles etc… ). An ultimate waterproof travel backpack should have a pocket or two that can survive walking in the rain so your wallet, phone, snacks etc…are always close by.
Everybody owns a laptop so an internal laptop pocket is a nice feature to have inside the main compartment. If the laptop pocket/sleeve is removable even better.
AIR RELEASE VALVE
I have already mentioned that when closing a waterproof backpack air will get trapped inside. You can get rid of most of the air by squeezing the backpack and pushing the air out before closing it. But if you really want “all” the air to go out then look for a backpack with an air release valve. An air release valve will let you push the air out of the backpack after the backpack has been closed. It will also stop the water from getting in through the valve. In my opinion this is an optional feature.
CLEAR VIEWING WINDOW
Some bags and backpacks are partly made out of transparent material, they have a window that you can use to look inside of the backpack without opening it. This way you can check where your things are before reaching into the backpack. This is also optional, especially if you have external pockets.
Why aren’t waterproof backpacks more widely used?
There are lots of misconceptions regarding waterproof backpacks for travel. Two questions stand out the most.
100% waterproof backpacks are expensive. Not true at all. You can find top of the line waterproof backpacks for under 200USD. Yes, this makes them a bit more expensive than some regular backpacks, but the added benefit of a backpack being fully waterproof is more than worth the difference. On the other hand, even regular backpacks can be up to 2 or 3 times more expensive.
Waterproof backpacks are considered fragile. Not true. Heavy duty laminated cloth and welded seams make these kind of backpacks really sturdy so they don’t puncture and tear any easier that regular backpacks. Some caution is for sure needed because if you puncture a waterproof backpack water will get in. If you tear a regular backpack…well, it wasn’t waterproof in the first place.
A few tips for using and travelling with your waterproof backpack
Don’t put sharp objects inside the backpack and also avoid putting or dragging your backpack over sharp surfaces like sharp rocks, thorns etc… Waterproof backpacks are durable but since puncturing it will ruin the whole idea of owning a waterproof backpack it pays to be a bit careful.
If your backpack gets dirty, you can easily wash it with fresh water. If you were using it in saltwater make sure you rinse the zippers to avoid the salt from jamming the zipper. Do not wash the backpack in a washing machine.
Can you take your waterproof travel backpack with you on the plane as a personal item/carry on luggage?
This of course depends on the size of the backpack, but even more on how much did you fill it. Unlike suitcases that have a hard shell and hold their shape no matter how much things you put inside them, the size of waterproof backpacks is adaptable. This means that if you fill your let’s say 50l backpack to the top it will for sure be to big and you will have to check it in. But you can fill this same backpack just halfway and you can take it on board without a problem. Roll down the top of the backpack to make it smaller and make sure you squeeze out the air before that.
In I have traveled with a waterproof backpack plenty of times going to Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Indonesia, Italy etc… and I never had any problems. The only “problem” was that carrying black waterproof backpack makes you look a bit like a navy seal I guess :).
Checking in your waterproof backpack into the hold of the airplane
Make sure you don’t leave anything valuable inside, take your camera, laptop and things like that with you. Also, as with all the backpacks – all the straps and buckles on backpacks can get caught in narrow places possibly damaging the backpack. If you want to be extra safe, put your backpack into a plastic bag.
A few packing tips and trick for easier travels:
- When packing a backpack keep in mind which things from the backpacks main compartment will you need first and then put them on top. For instance: if you are going to the airport, you will have to take out the laptop at the security check so make sure it’s ready at the top.
- Put plane tickets, passports, small snacks etc… in external pockets so they are quickly available and you don’t have to open the main compartment to get them.
- I also like to put all my clothes in an extra cotton bag before putting them into the backpack so they stay together in one piece. Otherwise after taking other items like camera, snacks…etc out of the backpack a few times your clothes will be all over the place.
- If you are going surfing keep an extra drybag or a changing mat for your wet things after the surf session so you don’t mix them with your dry clothes then put the wet things in first and dry clothes on top of them. If your your boardshots, swim suit is wet you can use external pockets for that.
- Pack light. You will have to carry everything on your shoulders so the lighter the backpack the more enjoyable the trip will be.
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