There was a time when the high-tech solution to keeping gear dry in the outdoors was stuffing things into plastic bin bags and knotting them at the neck. Yes, they were easily torn, hard to get into with cold or wet fingers, and far from eco-friendly but anything was better than a soaked sleeping bag, wet spare clothing or soggy maps.
Having something that would keep kit dry on a multiday backpacking trip, or when cycle touring, canoeing or just on a bad-weather day hike was key to being comfortable in the outdoors. And it still is. In remote areas with extreme climates, it can be a lifesaver.
Thankfully, we now have very affordable, easy-to-use and robust dry bags, which are readily available and come in a wide range of designs, weights and sizes suitable for protecting all kinds of kit that you really don’t want to get damp. Knowing how to use a dry bag properly can really improve your outdoors experience.
Modern materials and innovative features have raised the dry bag game to the point where they are some of the simplest and most useful bits of equipment used by campers, backpackers, cyclists, canoeists and kayakers, bringing value and versatility that’s worth far more than their weight and cost.
Most people with experience of the outdoors – that’s anyone who’s ever been caught out in a few hours of heavy rain with a night sleeping out to look forward to – would surely consider them essential, maybe just as important as the best waterproof jackets.
So before you take on the elements, here's how to use a dry bag...
How to use a dry bag: the basics
1. Pick a dry bag that will accommodate the items you wish to keep dry (get several, if you have a lot of kit). Remember, you won’t be able to fill it right to the very top – it’s best to leave between a third and a quarter of the bag empty so you can roll it shut properly (see below). Avoid putting anything sharp in the bag (or right next to it in your pack or boat) – because, obviously, if a dry bag gets punctured, it will cease to work. As insurance, it’s smart to put very important kit into smaller waterproof bags inside the main bag. (You can also check out our guide to staying dry while hiking.)
2. Using the strip or strips of re-enforced material found at the top of most dry bags as a guide, roll the top of the bag over once, and then ‘burp’ the bag – this means pushing the excess air out of the bag by exerting pressure with your hands or a knee. If you’re taking things in a boat or on a board (canoe/kayak/SUP), it can be a good idea to leave some air in the bag, as this will make it float if it accidentally goes overboard.
3. Once you’ve burped the bag through the single rollover, proceed to roll the top over again at least another two times (for a total of three rolls), to achieve a properly waterproof seal. Bend the top around, so that the plastic D ring (another common feature on dry bags) is on the outside, and clip the ends together.
4. If you’re in a boat, you can secure the bag by clipping a carabiner onto the D ring, or running a rope through it. (You can pass the rope through the loop formed by the clipped-shut bag, but if you open the bag at any point it will no longer be secure and can get knocked overboard, so better to use the D ring.)
Other ways you can put a dry bag to work
As a packliner
Using a large lightweight dry bag as a liner can make your favorite backpack 100% weather-proof, and is often cheaper, lighter and more versatile than a fully-featured waterproof rucksack – though if you’re planning on a spectacularly wet adventure then the latter might be your choice. (Check out our guide to the best hiking backpacks you can buy.)
To make the best use of space, choose a liner bag with a volume close to that of the bag it’s going inside, allowing for the roll-overs needed to close it securely (see above). In fair weather that should provide enough protection against wet and damp, but when I expect rain on a trip – which is always – I put my down sleeping bag and silk liner into another light dry bag, expelling all the air when closing it to keep bulk down. This not only provides another level of protection inside my pack, it also means that when I set up camp I don’t have to expose my sleeping kit to the elements until my bivvy or hammock is set up and I’ve got a dry place to lay it out.
Consider using different sized, super-light dry bags for storage inside the main liner bag. Electrics, fire-starting tools, dry food and spare clothing not only need to be kept dry but are easier to organize using dedicated bags, especially if you use a range of colors to code them so you know which bag contains what with just a glance. Develop a packing plan (our 'how to pack a backpack' guide may help), keeping kit in specific bags with the most used items at the top, as most bags are too narrow to reach stuff at the bottom without emptying them out.
Again, making camp in bad weather is easier if you can keep things in dry bags until needed, and if you’re bivvying, hammocking or small-tent camping, then the big dry bag liner can provide extra weatherproof storage space to put clothes and other kit in overnight.
A clear plastic waterproof map case is another dry bag win. For those hill walkers, kayakers, orienteerers and other outdoor types who still find printed maps the quickest and most reliable ‘big picture’ way to navigate, or who run paper in conjunction with GPSs and other electronics a map case is the difference between wind and rain destroying a map in minutes or keeping it dry, neatly folded and readable in all weathers. Get the biggest you can find and there’ll be space in there for a handy bar of chocolate too. Tailor-made clear dry bags for tablets are also available, some of which allow you to swipe screens with your fingers as you would normally.
As a float
If you need to cross a river during a hike, or if you’re into wild swimming and you’d like to swim a stretch of water and then continue on your way without going back to collect your kit (or if you’re doing a DIY or organized SwimRun) you can pop your clothes, shoes and valuables in a dry bag, seal some extra air in it, attach a leash strap or rope to the D ring, and use it as a tow float. Bright colors are good for this, as they alert boats to your presence in the water. (There are specially designed double-skin swim bags for regular wild swimmers, which incorporate a dry bag in an inflatable float attached to a waist leash.)
As mentioned above, if you’re heading out onto the water in a kayak or canoe, it’s a good idea to pack bags so they’re light enough to float in the case of a capsize; either by underfilling them so there’s plenty of air inside or putting in something light and high volume like a fleece.
As a pillow
Fill a small or medium dry bag with soft clothing, such as a fleece, and voila! You have a comfortable camping pillow that you can dribble on without a care in the world.
As a wet bag or bucket
Because they’re waterproof, dry bags can keep liquid in as well as out – so use them as a place to stash dirty and wet clothing, keeping the stinky soggy stuff away from the fresh clean stuff in your pack. You can even use thicker dry bags to wash clothing, filing them with warm soapy water and then adding the items you’d like to launder.
Dry bags are properly recyclable. They may not remain reliably waterproof forever, particularly if given a hard life, but old ones can be re-purposed as ‘kitchen’ bags to keep sooty pots and stoves away from the rest of your kit, or used as sealable rubbish sacks to carry out your own trash from a camp spot, or when you do the good thing and bag up litter you find along a trail.
You might think that dry bags don’t have a place in desert travel, or even on a beach, but you’d be wrong. A dry bag that will keep out water will do just as good a job protecting your kit from the finest of wind-blown sands in the Sahara or along the seafront.
Choosing a dry bag
Most brands produce dry bags in different sizes, shapes and colors, from a half-liter upwards, allowing you to tailor storage in your backpack to suit your needs. Bags come in tube, oblong, and even conical shapes. Flat bases make it easier to stand bags upright. A clear panel along the length of one side is a handy feature, which means you can see what’s inside.
Sturdier dry bags designed for stand-alone use, whether tied onto a kayak, carried on hikes or lashed onto a bike rack are necessarily far heavier and more robust in construction. These are the choice when expecting serious wettings, whether walking in heavy rain, out on the water in kayaks, canoes or SUPs, when canyoning or swimming. In these situations, it’s even more crucial to ensure that closures are folded over the correct number of times to keep water out.
Most heavy dry bags will have kitbag-style carry straps or a simple shoulder harness if meant for carrying, or grab-handles and tie-down tabs or ‘D’s to attach them to boats, kayaks or canoes.
Looking after dry bags
Keep in mind that lightweight dry bags are not designed for rough treatment and abuse. They need to be inside a backpack for protection when on the move, and anything hard-edged or pointed, inside or outside of them, needs to be wrapped to avoid punctures in the fabric.
Thicker dry bags are more robust, but still avoid sharp things going anywhere near them. All the damage I’ve done to heavy dry bags has come from abrasion – putting holes into the fabric from long periods rubbing against something hard in a kayak, or on a bike rack. I’ve learned to pad them on the outside at any point they might rub, and to add duct tape patches to the outside if necessary.
Dry bags can be patched and repaired with similar fabrics and a flexible, waterproof glue but there’s always a question mark hanging over the reliability of a mend.
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