A Primer on Waterproof Backpacks and Keeping Your Stuff Dry

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No one wants to open their backpack to find their papers soggy and their laptop ruined. Save yourself the pain of desperately storing your electronics in rice and hovering over your books with a hairdryer by learning about waterproof backpacks and their water-resistant cousins.

The Difference Between Waterproof and Water-Resistant

You Should Know They Aren’t The Same Thing

The difference between waterproof and water resistant is more than just the wording. It could mean the difference between all your possessions staying dry and being ruined.

The difference is the level of moisture that these different packs can be exposed to before it gets inside. A waterproof backpack can be entirely submerged in water without allowing any moisture to reach the contents of the bank. A water-resistant bag has materials that should prevent moisture from getting in but is not intended to be submerged.

Figuring Out What You Actually Need

There is a lot more grey area with water resistant than with waterproof: if you submerge a backpack in water and some gets inside, it does not meet the criteria. But at what point is water resistant no longer accurate?

You should be mindful of this difference if you intend to use your backpack while rafting or swimming where you may be entirely submerged in water.

However, a waterproof backpack might not be what you need. Water resistant backpacks should be plenty to prevent you from getting incidental water into the pack from a sudden rainstorm or sea spray on a ferry.

Waterproof Backpack Considerations:

Most waterproof backpacks have functionality or aesthetic trade-offs because of the design considerations needed to make them completely waterproof. This means that they might not appeal to you for an everyday carry type of travel backpack.

Traits of Most Waterproof Backpacks:

  • Few compartments or zippers
  • Heavy, non-breathable material
  • Bulky
  • Limited stitching for straps

These waterproof bags would tend to fall in the utility category for use in kayaking, diving, or fishing trips.

Here’s an example of a waterproof bag that would protect your items in case of being submerged. It has a few more detaisl than the traditional dry bag (e.g., shoulder straps, reflective coating, and webbing for an outside/quick-access compartment.)

[amazon box=”B071VFB54G” ]

The Water-Resistant Backpack Alternative

You Should Probably Start With Water-Resistant

Water-resistant may be a feature you look for in most of your backpacks. The challenge with a water-resistant pack is that there is not a clear definition of what makes something water resistant.

You could argue that any bag is somewhat water resistant. Some have been treated with chemicals that allow them to repel the water and those chemicals tend to wear off in time. Others may have waterproof material for the bulk of the bank but not for the zipper.

Several factors will lead to the level of water resistance of a backpack:

  • Material: some materials are more water resistant than others. The type of woven fabrics that don’t allow much room for the water to get in will be more water resistant.
  • Zippers: the zippers and other enclosures could be a weak point where water can enter. Their level of resistance will shape a bags tolerance to wet environments.
  • Coating: the type of chemical layer put on the backpack can help increase its resistance to water. A lot of nylons may have a durable, water-resistant surface that helps prevent the intrusion of water. Think about what you might find on the Columbia jacket. This can wear down over time and may need to be re-applied.

Work Around The Limitations

You might need to be more mindful of your placement and handling on a water-resistant backpack. For example, I wore a bag with my raincoat during moderate rain. The water beaded on my

In the two primary families and materials, you’ll find our cotton and its variations including canvas and nylon and other synthetic fabrics. Your cotton and natural fabrics will be treated to make them more water resistant. You may find this in the canvas and things like duffel bags. These natural materials are not as water resistant as nylon and other synthetic fabrics.


Some materials are far more resistant to water these might include:

  • Nylon: Some water resistance, but tends to be thin and easily torn
  • Rip-Stop Nylon: Many backpacks will be made with ripstop nylon which is thicker, and it’s woven together to be tighter knit and less likely to be torn, abraded, or allow water to penetrate.
  • PVC: Not common in travel backpacks, but seen in cheaper bags (think totes and kids backpacks)
  • Polyester: Polyester is another option for a material is also known as pack cloth. You’ll find it with cheap school backpacks and is not as durable as ripstop nylon, but it does offer some water resistance.


Different waterproof coatings will shape the water resistance of your backpack. You may be able to reapply the coatings as you would with a water coat like you would with a raincoat.

Coatings work by sealing pores of the fabric to resist water. Keep in mind, these won’t work with gaps in the fabric, like those found in the zippers or seams. Here are a few options that are well-reviewed:

[amazon box=”B0019GOLO0,B01LWIT5Z6″ ]

You should monitor how your backpack is doing to see if the coating has worn down or if you need to replace it with a more robust waterproofing bag.


  • Bags: In a pinch, a trash bag or other large plastic bag can wrap around a backpack and offer some good protection
  • Water Proof Bag: You could envelop your entire pack in a waterproof dry bag if you needed it for a short period. A good compromise?
[amazon box=”B01NBSHBEO” ]
  • Rainfly: A more straightforward combination of the two. A rainfly is easy to carry and wrap around the backpack if you expect rain. It is also helpful to dissuade pick-pockets from reaching into your exterior compartments
[amazon box=”B01N6R4FBT” ]
  • Spray Coat: You can use water repellent on your bag to bolster its resistance. Here’s an example of one that might help.

Proofing Inside

If it isn’t feasible for you to use a waterproof backpack, you can at least take steps to protect the contents from getting wets. Here are some options:

  • Drybag Inside: Instead of wrapping your entire bag in a dry bag, you could store the particularly sensitive things in a dry bag inside your backpack
  • Ziploc Bags: another cheap method in a pinch, that should offer reasonable water protection is to store some items in Ziplocs

Cover Photo by Freddy Do on Unsplash

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