Footsteps in the Forest

Dry Bags

Everything You Need to Know About Waterproof Bags

If there’s one thing that’ll ruin an outdoor adventure, it’s water. 

Sure, water is the entire point of some outdoor adventures (looking at you, paddlers), and a pretty lake or river makes any hike or backpacking trip better. 

But while getting wet may be inherent to the activity or an entirely predictable side effect of your trip outdoors, there are always some things you’ll want to protect from the wet stuff. 

Your phone, your matches, your snacks – all things you’ll want to keep dry at all costs. And you’ll obviously want your dry change of clothes to stay, you know, dry when enjoying the great outdoors. 

You can achieve this goal in myriad ways, but none is as easy or effective as picking up a good dry bag. And honestly, every outdoor adventurer should have one (or even better, several) at the ready. 

Below, we’ll explain everything you need to know and answer all the dry bag questions people often have. 

And we’ll do so without recommending or even mentioning a single product – we’re just providing info here.  

What Are Dry Bags? 

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Dry bags are exactly what they sound like: bags that keep your stuff dry.

They’re typically used by kayakers, snorkelers and other kinds of water-sport enthusiasts, but they’re also helpful for hikers and backpackers too. 

You throw your phone, wallet, or other delicate belongings inside, seal up the bag, and let it rip.

That’s essentially it.

But it’s important to understand that not all dry bags are created equal. 

Are Dry Bags Really Waterproof?

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Yes – some dry bags are actually waterproof

You can pack thousands of dollars of electronics in them, chuck the whole thing overboard, and go on without a care in the world. 

But do that with some others and you’ll quickly find it necessary to replace your expensive gear.

This is because different dry bags are designed to provide different levels of water protection

Some dry bags are waterproof, and will keep your stuff totally dry even if submerged. They’re made from fabrics or materials that are completely impermeable to water and designed to form an air- and watertight seal. Many of these will even float, thanks to the air bubble they trap inside.

But other “dry” bags are only designed to protect your stuff from incidental contact with water. Think rain or getting splashed with water while riding in a boat. 

These types of bags would really be better described as water resistant, but there’s no overarching authority who’s holding manufacturers’ feet to the fire in this respect. 

But if you carefully review the manufacturer’s literature and info, you’ll generally find language clarifying which category the bag falls into. Just remember that manufacturers are in the business of selling dry bags, and many of them employ clever marketers who’re good at twisting words and sneaking in subtle details that readers can miss. 

Different Types of Dry Bags

Dry bags vary in a million ways, which makes some models better suited for some applications than others. 

When shopping for a dry bag, you’ll want to consider the following things:

Dry Bag Size

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Dry bags come in a range of sizes, with capacities ranging from a fraction of a liter all the way up to 100 liters or more. And that is the typical unit of measure dry bags use – liters. 

The smallest versions are great for your wallet or car FOB, and there are a litany of models designed specifically to protect your cell phone. 

The best small dry bags even allow you to continue to use your phone’s touch screen while it remains inside the pouch. This allows you to do things like consult your map during a downpour or take underwater photos while snorkeling. 

Mid-sized dry bags are great for day hikes, recreational paddling and similar adventures. These bags are usually in the 5 to 20 liter ballpark, and they will easily accommodate things like a change of clothes, your phone or GoPro, and potentially a pair of hiking boots

Once you get up to the 40-liter ballpark, you’re getting into backpack-sized bags, which may contain all of the gear you need for an overnight camping trip. But there are even bigger bags available – up to about 100-liters or so – that will easily accommodate just about anything you can carry. 

Dry Bag Materials

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The majority of modern dry bags are made from either vinyl- (PVC) or polyurethane-coated fabric (often nylon or polyester).  

PVC-coated bags are the most common, primarily because they are more affordable to manufacture. These will work fine for most people, but polyurethane-coated materials do offer greater abrasion resistance (all other things being equal). 

Polyurethane-coated dry bags are also lighter than PVC-coated bags of similar size, and they are gentler on the environment to manufacture. 

As for the material used to construct the actual bag, you’ll often see the material labeled as being (some number) with a “d” after it. 

This “d” stands for denier. 

Without getting into the weeds, the term denier refers to the thickness of the individual threads used to weave together the fabric. The higher the denier number, the more durable the fabric is

Most dry bags are made from 500d polyester, but some are made with thicker, 600d or even 1000d material. You’ll also find that some manufacturers use 500d material for the bulk of the bag, while using 1000d material at stress points (such as where buckles or straps connect to the bag).  

If you’re going for a rainy day hike or an afternoon of jet skiing, 500d is plenty durable. If you’re going cave diving, you’ll want the highest d rating you can find.  

PVC-Coated Dry BagsPolyurethane-Coated Dry Bags
They’re usually pretty affordable.They are usually more expensive than PVC bags, all other things being equal.
The manufacturing process is environmentally damaging. While not harm-free to the environment, the process of manufacturing polyurethane is environmentally friendlier than the process used to create PVC.
PVC bags are usually puncture resistant. Polyurethane bags are even more puncture- and abrasion-resistant than PVC bags.
PVC bags aren’t exactly heavy, but they weigh more than polyurethane bags. They’re lighter in weight than PVC bags.
PVC does not biodegrade and cannot be recycled.Polyurethane is both biodegradable and easy to recycle.

Waterproof Rating

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As mentioned earlier, dry bags differ in their ability to protect your stuff from water. Most bags can broadly be grouped into one of three categories:

  • Water-resistant bags: These bags are designed to protect your stuff from incidental contact with water — think splashing water or rain.
  • Waterproof/floating bags: These bags are designed to be completely waterproof, yet they’re not designed to protect your stuff from being submerged. Accordingly, these are designed to float on top of the water.
  • Waterproof/submersible bags: These bags are designed to keep your stuff dry even if completely submerged to a specific depth (and for a specific length of time in most cases).

None of these are inherently better than the others — it all comes down to your needs.

But the greater the level of water protection you need, the more you’ll pay for it. So, don’t fork out the cash for a submersible bag if you only need to protect your clothes from an unexpected rain shower.

Dry Bag Characteristics and Added Features

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While some dry bags are relatively simple products that don’t come with a lot of bells and whistles, others feature things like straps, magnetic closures, and transparent pouches.

For the most part, you can just use your intuition here. 

If you want to be able to use your phone while it’s inside the bag, opt for a model with a transparent pouch. If you want to be able to store wet clothes in a separate compartment, look for one with a mesh outer pouch.

It’s pretty straightforward stuff. 

But just to help you out in your dry bag buying journey, here are a few of the things to think about:

  • Straps: Dry bags can feature several different kinds of straps, and they often vary based on the size of the bag. Really small dry bags often come equipped with wrist straps or lanyard-style neck straps, while bigger bags often feature backpack or sling straps. There are no right or wrong answers here – pick the bag with the kind of straps you want. Ideally, you’ll pick a bag with multi-function straps, which can be arranged in more than one way. 
  • Closure Style: Most typical dry bags feature a roll-and-buckle style closure (more on this in a bit). However, small, cellphone-storing dry bags often use a fold-over-and-clamp mechanism. And at the higher price points, you can find dry bags that feature zipper-style or magnetic closures. At least one manufacturer even uses “automatic” closures. Truly waterproof zippers are great for those that can afford them, as they’re easy to operate quickly. But the typical roll-and-buckle enclosure certainly isn’t a dealbreaker – it’ll just take you a minute to access the bag’s contents. 
  • Bag Shape: A lot of dry bags are made in a tube-like shape, while others are flatter and more rectangular. Similarly, some have flat bottoms that allow them to stand up vertically while you’re packing or unpacking them. Just pick the shape that best suits your needs. Cylindrical dry bags will work for most people, but flat or rectangular bags can be easier to store in some cases. However, it is almost always helpful to have a bag that’ll stand up on its own. We wouldn’t call this a make-or-break criteria, but bags that stand on their own are much easier to use.
  • Buoyancy: Some dry bags float, while others do not. A bag that floats is certainly going to be easier to find, should it fall into the water, but there are cases in which a non-floating bag is preferable. The first case would be for hikers who simply don’t want or need to spend the extra money on a bag that floats. Secondly, snorkelers and scuba divers will find a non-floating bag is much easier to tow around underwater. 
  • Compression Straps: Some dry bags feature compression straps that shrink the overall size of the bag when tightened. These are generally all-upside, no downside, but they are usually found on bags at the higher end of the spectrum. So, if you’re trying to save a few bucks, opt for a model without compression straps. 

And speaking of the amount of money you’ll spend on a dry bag, it’s time to talk about their cost.

Dry Bag Cost

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Dry bags vary pretty significantly in terms of cost. 

You can pick up a small, relatively straight-forward dry bag made by a manufacturer you’ve never heard of for less than 10 bucks. It may even actually work once or twice. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you can spend $400 on a big dry bag that’s made by a major manufacturer and equipped with some nifty features. 

But the sweet spot for most buyers will be in the $20 to $75 ballpark

At this price range, you can usually get a small to medium sized bag that’s well-rated, built by a major manufacturer, and capable of keeping your stuff dry. 

Aesthetics

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Things like dry bag color and styling aren’t super-important for the average outdoor adventurer. For the most part, you’ll want to base your buying choice on the other features we’ve laid out. 

However, if you get to a point in which you’re looking at two more-or-less identical bags, feel free to pick the one that looks better to you. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, assuming the bag is capable and gets the job done. 

Do, however, consider which is more important to you: blending in with the environment or being able to spot your dry bag from low earth orbit

Both approaches have their merits, and we certainly understand the fact that some hikers and campers hate seeing radioactive-colored gear on the trail. 

But if you’re ever separated from your bag – perhaps your yak flips in some white water – it’ll certainly be easier to find an obnoxious-looking magenta-and-orange colored bag bobbing up and down in the water than a dark grey one. 

How Do You Seal a Dry Bag?

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Different dry bags seal in different ways, so you should always check the manufacturer’s recommendations for your specific product. 

That said, most standard-issue dry bags work in a pretty similar manner:

  1. You open the bag and fill it with your gear. 
  2. You roll the top of the bag down two to four times.
  3. You clip two (or occasionally more) buckles together to keep the top rolled down tightly. 
  4. You’re ready to rock. 

It seems a bit strange that this is enough to keep the bag’s contents safe from water, but the combination of the tight roll and the bag’s materials ensure that no water will sneak through – at least in theory.

Some models rely instead on zippers, but these are most common on high-end and very large dry bags. 

How Do You Test a Dry Bag?

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As mentioned earlier, it is always a good idea to test your dry bag before you trust it with your phone or dry clothes

Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to do so. 

Just grab a piece of paper or – even better – a handful of tissue. Throw it inside the dry bag, seal the dry bag, and then submerge the dry bag (if that’s the level of protection you require). 

Be sure to let the dry bag remain submerged for a while – at least 30 to 60 minutes. It sometimes takes a few minutes for water to seep through leaky seals or seams. 

Dry Bag Questions: FAQ

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Still have questions about dry bags? We’ve rounded up some of the most common ones from around the web and answered them below. 

What are the best dry bags for kayaking?

The best dry bag for kayaking will vary based on your individual needs, but there are a few things you’ll always want to look for, such as an IPX8 or IP68 waterproof rating. 

Additionally, you’ll obviously need to select a bag that’s large enough to accommodate all of your gear (or multiple bags that can cumulatively carry all your stuff). And we generally think it is wise to select a brightly colored bag to make it easier to find. 

Finally, if durability is a concern, opt for a polyurethane-coated bag rather than a PVC-coated bag.

If you would like specific product recommendations, check out our article about the best dry bags. 

Are dry bags 100% waterproof?

Some dry bags are 100% waterproof – at least under the conditions in which you’d typically use one (no consumer-caliber dry bag is going to withstand the pressures of great depth, for example). 

But many “dry” bags are merely water-resistant; they’ll protect your gear from splashing water, but they shouldn’t be submerged. 

To ensure you end up with a 100% waterproof bag, look for one that’s designed to be waterproof and — ideally — submersible.

What is the difference between a dry bag and a waterproof bag?

Nothing concrete. There are no official guidelines for the use of language in this regard.

How long do dry bags last?

High-quality dry bags should last several years, while budget-priced models may begin failing during your first outing. 

Factors that determine the lifespan of a given dry bag include the materials used in its construction (polyurethane-coated bags will last longer than PVC-coated bags) and how it is used. 

If you are just going snorkeling on vacation, a PVC-coated bag will likely suffice. If you plan on paddling through whitewater for the next several years, opt for  a polyurethane-coated bag. 

What are dry bags made from?

Most dry bags are made from a PVC-coated material (typically polyester or nylon), but some bags feature a polyurethane coating instead. The former is cheaper and more common, while the latter is more environmentally friendly and offers greater abrasion resistance. 

What can I use instead of a dry bag?

Because they’re relatively affordable in comparison to the cost of buying a new phone or a life flight to rescue you while suffering from wet-clothing-induced hypothermia, it just makes good sense to buy a real dry bag. 

That said, plastic sandwich bags (especially high-quality ones with sliding closures) can work. But you’ll probably want to use multiple bags for some extra protection, and you’ll need to be careful with it to prevent punctures or rips. 

It is also worth noting that there aren’t many affordable plastic bags that come in sizes larger than 1 gallon (which is just shy of 4 liters). 

Are dry bags worth it?

In most cases, yes. Almost all outdoor adventurers and nature lovers will appreciate having a dry bag at the ready. They aren’t really that expensive, either. 

But that doesn’t mean they’re really worth it for all people. If you only hike once a month and always sit out rainy weather, you don’t need one. Similarly, if you typically hike around the deserts of the U.S. southwest, you probably won’t need one either. 

Can you fully submerge a dry bag?

You can fully submerge some dry bags. Check the manufacturer’s information to be sure, though you should always test a dry bag before trusting it to work – manufacturing defects and user error are always possible. 

Should dry bags be airtight?

If you intend to submerge your dry bag or expect it to float then yes, it should be airtight. However, if you are only using a dry bag to protect your gear from incidental water contact (splashing), it needn’t be airtight. 

Do dry bags leak?

High-quality dry bags should not leak, but poor quality, budget-priced dry bags unfortunately do in many cases. 

Can you use a dry bag for wet clothes?

Absolutely. In fact, that’s what many people use them for. 

For example, if you’re heading to the beach with the fam, you can stuff all of those wet bathing suits in your dry bag before climbing back in the car. This will limit the mess and keep all your wet stuff in one place. 

You can actually use the dry bag both ways in a single outing. Load it up with your valuables while splish-splashing in the ocean and then, once you’re done swimming, swap your phone and car FOB for the wet stuff. 

Are dry bags odor proof?

Airtight dry bags are odor proof in the sense that they won’t let the stench from your sweaty hiking clothes waft out into your car on the way home. But not all “dry” bags are airtight, so this isn’t a universal characteristic you can take for granted. 

But if you mean odor proof in the sense that they won’t retain odors, the question is a little less cut-and-dry. Neither PVC nor polyurethane tend to retain odors, but it is still a good idea to clean and dry your dry bag after use. 

However, it is important to note that PVC and polyurethane both “off gas,” meaning that they’ll have an inherent odor that lasts for some time. The former is typically worse than the latter in this regard. 

What size dry bag do I need?

Unfortunately, determining the size of the dry bag you need isn’t a super-simple endeavor. 

If you just need a dry bag to keep your phone dry, you’ll be looking for a very small bag. Typically, these types of dry bags indicate the maximum phone size that will fit in terms of diagonal inches. Some manufacturers even provide a list of phone models that’ll fit within the bag. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re looking for a dry bag to contain all of your camping gear, you can just opt for a dry bag that’s at least as large as your current (non-dry) backpack. In other words, if you use a 60-liter backpack, you’ll want a dry bag that offers at least 60 liters of capacity. In practice, because dry bags must roll down and are made from stiffer material than traditional backpacks, it would likely be good to opt for a slightly larger bag (say, 65 to 70 liters) to give yourself a little wiggle room. 

At either of these extremes, selecting a dry bag size is pretty simple; it’s in the middle ranges where things are tricky. 

As a rough starting point, we’d recommend bags in the 5- to 10-liter size for casual trips to the beach, while you’d want one in the 20- to 40-liter range if you’re heading on a kayak trip and need to keep all your clothes, phone, matches, and food dry. 

Dry bags aren’t that helpful for every trip into the great outdoors, yet they are downright mandatory for others. But we bet that when you add one to your outdoor arsenal, you’ll find more and more times in which it’s helpful to have one on hand. 

What did we forget to explain about dry bags? Do you still have any lingering questions? 

Sound off in the comments! 

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