Waterproof the contents of your backpack using these expert tips

WHEN I WAS A SCOUT, in the 1950s, we backpacked to all of our campsites. We usually had to “hike” only a few hundred yards. But sometimes, it was several miles, and if we packed our rucksacks wrong, we suffered. The Boy Scout Handbook detailed how to do it right.SCMayJune13_GroundRulesWaterproof

Soft packs began sliding toward extinction when tubular aluminum frames appeared. Why? Because frames carried well, even when you packed them wrong. And if stuff didn’t fit inside, you could just tie it on top.

Well, soft packs are back—albeit ones with internal frames—and they’re reviving the art of packing. Here are some pointers that’ll help you and your Scouts pack perfectly every time.

Stuffing Stuff
Pack in horizontal, not vertical, layers. Why? Because your pack should follow the spinal curve of your back. An unyielding upright (folded tent poles, rolled sleeping pad, etc.) spoils the s-curve. Also, packing goes easier if you place loose items in stuff sacks. Sacks that reach wall-to-wall across your pack will maximize pack space and eliminate small gaps that are hard to fill.

Pack in reverse order. Generally, you should pack this way because it’s the order you’ll need things—food on the bottom, tent on top, etc. Exceptions: Place heavier items near the top (keeps weight closer to your back) when hiking groomed trails. Set heavy items near the bottom for better control when bushwhacking.

Keep It Dry
Everything should be waterproof. Unless you’re hiking where it seldom rains. You can buy pricey waterproof bags or use this simple “sandwich method.” These tips, below, come alive in the illustration above:

  1. Place the items into a nylon stuff-sack. The stuff-sack need not be waterproof.
  2. Set the stuff-sack into a plastic bag that’s about twice as long as the stuff-sack. Twist and gooseneck the bag, and then fold it in half and secure it with a rubber band or bungee.
  3. Place this unit inside a nylon stuff sack. Note that the waterproof layer (the plastic bag) is sandwiched between two abrasion-resistant nylon bags. Use this method to waterproof anything that won’t tolerate moisture. Check plastic bags for leaks each day; use duct tape to patch them.
  4. For boating, when there is a possibility of capsizing, place a large waterproof plastic bag (the thicker, the better) inside your pack. The bag should be at least 18 inches longer than the pack. Next, place another bag (this abrasion liner need not be waterproof) of equal size inside the first. Use this method to pack your things, and you’ll never have to eat damp oatmeal.

SCMayJune13_GroundRPackFollow This Order
Pack from the bottom up, as follows and shown above:

Food: Ensure it’s odor-proof and watertight. Place each complete meal for your patrol/crew in a color-coded fabric bag. Label the contents of each bag such as “green” bags for breakfast, “blue” bags for lunch, and “red” bags for supper.

  1. Sleeping bag, “sandwich packed.”
  2. Foam sleeping pad.
  3. Stuff-sack containing spare clothes, toiletries, headlamp, etc.
  4. Camp shoes and small items (in plastic bags).
  5. Tightly roll the abrasion liner, and then set your tent on top. Place the poles alongside the tent if they’ll fit.
  6. If not, set them on top of the sealed, waterproof liner, just under the pack flap. You’ll need to make a “secure pole bag.” Run the closing straps of the pack through the nylon security loops before you buckle them. This will prevent the poles from sliding out of the pack if you capsize. The compression of the pack flap will keep the two bag liners tight.
  7. Pack items such as rain gear, wind shells, and sweaters under the pack flap so that you can get to them quickly.

Note: The tent, which could be dirty or wet, is packed between the abrasion and waterproof liners so that personal stuff packed below won’t get wet or dirty. Also, line outside pack pockets with zipper-lock plastic bags.

You now have an abrasion-resistant, watertight unit.

SHARE YOUR ADVICE FOR WATERPROOFING A BACKPACK, BELOW.

9 thoughts on “Waterproof the contents of your backpack using these expert tips

  1. This seems like a good way to end up with the center of gravity exactly where you DON’T want it, and a whole bunch of aching backs. Go check the “How to Pack Your Pack” pages on the Deuter and Osprey websites, and you’ll find completely different advice. (I would assume that the manufacturers of packs can qualify as “experts.”)

  2. There’s over a pound of unnecessary bags here. A simple trash compactor bag is ~2.5 oz – stuff your sleeping bag and clothes in there and twist it off. Done. Helps get the weight of everything else up higher, too, which I’d still do if bushwhacking.

  3. The author really seems to like bags and stuff sacks. Unfortunately, his advice runs counter to what is written on the REI and 50miler.com backpacking sites (and the experience of many backpackers). Put the heaviest stuff at the top (food, bear canister, water) and close to your back. Lighter stuff (sleeping bag, clothes, pad) at the bottom. One large trash or compactor bag inside your backpack that is filled with all your stuff is waterproof enough for most hikers.

  4. Yup, this article is loaded with completely incorrect information; there is virtually nothing of value here! Weight should be on top (for external frames) or high-middle (for internals). One trash bag can waterproof everything and weighs a lot less.

    It says “Use this method to pack your things, and you’ll never have to eat damp oatmeal.” … which makes me rather sad since all the oatmeal I ever ate was downright wet!

  5. I’m a Canadian Girl Guide leader and I totally ditto the above comments. Most modern packs are reasonably waterproof to begin with and it’s only the sleeping bag and clothing that are vital to keep dry via a plastic liner bag since the food is usually packed in plastic zipper bags to begin with. During a real downpour that would soak the pack fabric/harness, add a pack cover (which for Scouts/Girl Guides can be as simple as pulling on a large garbage bag, although there are both silnylon and coated polyester commercial versions available as well). We should be encouraging our youth to learn modern “ultralight” packing methods that will save their backs in years to come.

    • Ok, so my comments actually posted ABOVE the comments I meant to ditto, rather than BELOW. So please bear that in mind as you read my previous comments :)

      I love the Cliff Jacobsen books I own, but the lightweight movement in backpacking has taken a serious hold and it behooves us to teach our youth the best of the old AND new ways of doing things :)

  6. Best thing I ever did was lose my sleeping bag stuff sack. Now I stuff my bag around my stuff in the pack. Fills in the spaces, pads the harder things, and no more worrying about where to put it in the pack.
    Waterproofing? I use an army surplus waterproof bag (rubber-lined nylon bag), but the compactor bag looks better.

  7. Thanks for the article Cliff. Its always interesting to hear everyones takes and tips. I picked up a couple of tips off this, but theres some things I know don’t work for me. To each his own.

  8. I concur. Like Cliff and his books, but this packing article is way out of touch with current backpacking practice. I would never teach my Scouts this way of doing things. We are a backpacking troop.. doing 10 days this summer for our “independent summer camp” backpacking the Olympic National Forest. Weight and balance matters.
    Just my 2 ounces.
    SMJerry

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