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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Make Mine Dry!

Keeping the Water Where It Belongs —
Out of Your Gear

By Tamia Nelson

June 22, 2004

Let's face it. Paddling is wet work, and we like it that way. But we don't like it when our gear gets wet. It often does, though. Water's slippery stuff, with a knack for finding its way through the smallest gaps. Waves come crashing aboard, boats dip their gunwales under, and rain pours down from the heavens. These things can happen anywhere. That's why it's important to protect your gear, whether your destination is the languid lotus gardens of Golden Pond or the cataracts of Dangerous River.

Fortunately, waterproof bags, packs, boxes, and barrels can be found in just about every catalog, and you can fill your boat with them for less than the price of a meal in a fancy restaurant. Check the paddling outfitters first, by all means, but don't forget to search the dark corners of military surplus stores, as well. You never know what you'll find. Foresters and civil engineers need to keep things dry, too, so scan the catalogs of the firms that cater to their needs. Even big-box retailers have gotten into the game. It's a buyer's market. Decide on the gear you want to protect, double-check the state of your bank balance, and then follow your fancy.

Let's take a look at some of the possibilities.


Also known as "dry bags" — or sometimes, perversely, as "wet bags" — waterproof bags range in size from tiny to huge. Some are shaped like cylinders, some are conical, and some are almost flat. A few do double duty as float bags. A very few open and close with waterproof slide fasteners. Most have roll closures. Many boast grommets or tie-down loops. Material? Think plastic. Vinyl, PVC-polyester laminates, and coated nylon and polyester fabrics predominate. The more expensive bags are often made from more durable materials. They're also reinforced at wear points. That can be important. Fiberglass and Kevlar® boats sometimes have rough surfaces and sharp spicules. These can be hard on bags. On the other hand, owners of smooth-skinned thermoplastic boats may find cheaper, unreinforced bags plenty good enough.

Color? Pick your palette. Bright, primary colors or subtle pastels. Even crystal clear. Photographers will be happy. So will canny packers, who can color-code their gear bags to save time in camp and trouble on the water.

Soft Packs

Put pack straps on a waterproof bag, and what do you get? A waterproof pack, of course. Some look like duffles. Others look like backpacks. Waterproof soft packs are often made of heavier materials than bags, and they're usually more costly, too, but they certainly make portaging easier. Easier, that is — not easy. Not all waterproof soft packs are comfortable over the long haul. Try yours out at home before you head for the put-in.

Pack Liners

Want to do it on the cheap? Go ask ALICE. Misers and minimalists will find the waterproof liners for Uncle Sam's All-Purpose Lightweight Individual Carrying Equipment just what the doctor ordered. Simple. Inexpensive. Versatile. Slip a set inside a rucksack or ordinary backpack and you've got a pretty fair substitute for a waterproof pack. Just watch out for pin-holes!


Food importers used to give them away for free. Some still do, but recycled barrels need a lot of scrubbing before you'll want to use them for your gear. Many outfitters now sell them new, though, complete with fancy harnesses. No harness? Then strap the barrel to a pack frame. Works for waterproof bags, too.

Barrels give you a little something extra, into the bargain. They keep your food safe from most things that go bump in the night. Even bears often find plastic barrels too much trouble to bother with. But the smell that lingers on even thoroughly scrubbed recycled barrels may be just what bruin needs to whet his appetite and redouble his efforts. This is one place where it makes sense to buy new.


Also called dry boxes, waterproof boxes are perfect for delicate optical or electronic gear. And there's a size for everything from your spare eyeglasses to a professional photographer's full complement of camera bodies and lenses. Bombproof? Nearly. Be sure they'll fit in the space you have available in your boat, though. They're boxes, after all. They don't stuff well.

What about materials and cost? Almost all the commercial dry boxes are molded plastic, and many have foam liners. They're not cheap. Sadly, the inexpensive steel "ammo cans" beloved by so many of us old hands are now nearly impossible to find. Even when you do find one, it will cost almost as much as a new — and much lighter — plastic box. Sic transit gloria mundi. "You don't know what you've got till it's gone." And so it goes.

Map Cases

A sodden map isn't worth the pulp it's printed on. The same goes for nautical charts. Tough, clear envelopes with waterproof closures will repay their small cost many times over. Economists will be happy with reclosable freezer bags. Perfectionists will want something more, maybe even the "element-proof storage bags" that are "totally leakproof to 200 feet" and "used by Navy SEALS" that I saw recently in a surplus catalog. Whichever one you choose, make sure it's large enough to carry all the maps you'll take on a trip. (Get two, in fact: one for the map of the day and one for storage.) Attention navigators! You can write right on the transparent surface of most map cases with Staedtler Lumocolor "permanent" markers, then erase the day's notes with an alcohol pen or wipe. Handy.


OK. You've checked the offerings in the catalogs and you think you know what you want. But you're not done yet. There's more to waterproofing than buying the right bags. For one thing, you'll want to…

Waterproof Your Memories

A journal is always worth keeping, but journals are only paper. A waterproof map case makes a good place to store your journal between campsites. If you know you'll need to make notes under way, however, a waterproof notebook may be your best bet. Check the catalogs catering to surveyors and foresters.

A waterproof notebook in a waterproof map case? Does this sound like overkill to you? It's not. Call it planned redundancy. In fact, smart paddlers always…

Double Up for Safety

No waterproof bag or box is fail-safe. Seams open. Fabric tears. Gaskets crack. Fasteners fail. So double up. Store anything that shouldn't get wet — electronics, most optics, maps, essential clothing, staple foods, medical supplies — in at least two waterproof layers.

This needn't be costly. Your local HyperMart has shelves devoted to freezer and canning bags. (If price is no object, you can even find "vacuum-packing systems" in larger stores.) And be sure to save the little silica gel inserts that come with many prescription and non-prescription medications and some consumer electronics. They'll soak up the small amounts of moisture that result from condensation, a common problem in waterproof bags. But whatever you do, don't rely on trash bags to protect critical gear. Even the toughest of these bags is too thin and too easily torn. Your gear deserves better.


Now that you've collected all your gear, you'll have to…

Stow It!

It's time to make your pick of the packs. Canoeists have more latitude here than kayakers, and paddlers in sit-on-tops sit somewhere in the middle. Some canoe packs are huge. When full they can easily top 100 pounds. If that sounds like too much to carry across a long portage, you can take some of the sting out of the load by lashing the pack to a sturdy frame. Farwell and I have been hauling loads with our Camp Trail Freighter frames for more than twenty years. Under way, they're stowed on top of our bags in the belly of our boat.

Canoeists live large. Kayakers can't afford to. If a pack won't fit under your deck or through your hatch, you'll need a smaller pack. Some kayakers end up with dozens of tiny sacks. A large net bag or soft pack can help to corral them when it's time to carry your gear up the beach. If you're facing a longer portage, you may want to strap the large bag to a frame. (Lash the frame to your rear deck when you're on the water. It won't fit below decks.) A bonus: You may be able to use your frame to carry your boat, as well. Across the portage in one trip — doesn't sound too bad, does it?

Organization is important here. If your gear is divided among a dozen bags, you can waste a lot of time and energy rummaging for buried items. Clear waterproof bags make the search easier, as does color-coding. Some paddlers use a laundry marker to scribe a number or legend on each bag and pack, keying their gear list to the numbers.

How you pack is important, too. Don't overdo it. Waterproof bags should be filled but not crammed full. Expel as much air as possible, then fold the closure down neatly. Overstuffed bags are impossible to close properly. Even rigid boxes can be overloaded. Stuffing too much into a waterproof box can deform the seal and encourage leaks.

And speaking of leaks, never trust any new pack or other waterproof container until you've tested it. Then test it again before the next trip. Inspect each one closely before putting it away at the end of the season, paying special attention to seams and gaskets. Reinforce any abraded areas — use material from your patch kit — and replace damaged gaskets. If a bag fails the test and can't be repaired, recycle it as a deadman. The next time you camp on the beach, just fill it with sand or gravel and bury it. You won't find a better anchor for your tent. And even leaky bags will serve as water carriers around camp, or for dousing the fire.

Between trips, store your waterproof gear in a cool (but not cold), dry, dark place. Spread the bags and packs out flat, if possible. Folding makes creases, and creases can become cracks, particularly at low temperatures. And don't place heavy items on boxes or barrels in storage. Flanges can deform under pressure. Leave the lids loose, too. This prevents gaskets from taking a set. You want to keep the water where it belongs, don't you?

If you play on the water and camp alongside it, some things will get wet no matter what you do. But there are degrees of damp, from clammy to sodden. Paddlers can put up with clammy clothes — it comes with the territory. And we expect our tents and tarps to get wet in the process of keeping us dry. Careful seam-sealing, a good fly, and adequate ventilation all do their part to make our home on the trail a pleasant escape from bad weather and biting flies. Once we're under way, though, our best defenses against rising damp and falling water are waterproof bags, packs, boxes, and barrels. That's not all they're good for, either. Every cubic foot of dry gear adds pounds of flotation. If you like to stay on top of things, you'll like that. I know I do.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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