Thinking Inside the Bag
Waterproof Pack Liners for Frugal Paddlers
By Tamia Nelson
February 11, 2014
Not long after we first found ourselves in the same boat, Farwell and I assembled a formidable collection of heavy‑duty waterproof bags, among them being several vintage Bill's Bags, bags whose descendants can still be found on the virtual pages of the NRS online catalog. These "dry bags" were simple, sturdy, quasi‑cylindrical sacks made from a heavy, coated fabric. Some (the Bill's Bags) had roll‑top closures; others boasted slide fasteners. All of them were dry in truth as well as name, protecting their contents even when totally immersed for extended periods of time — though we soon learned that it paid to take great pains when folding and securing the Bill's Bags' roll tops.
No matter. This was a small price to pay to keep our bedding and socks dry. But good as our bags were, many years of hard use took their toll. Nothing lasts forever, after all, and when we found that we had few serviceable dry bags left, I started shopping for replacements. By this time, most of our paddling jaunts were "amphibious." We no longer joined the queues of boaters jostling for a chance to ride the releases below the dams. Instead, we sought out the quieter, less frequented corners of the Great North Woods. So our needs were more modest than they'd once been. Yes, we still needed waterproof bags. But trial by total immersion was now the rare exception, not an (almost) everyday occurrence. And light weight was of paramount importance, since our paddling trips often relied on bicycle transport, and the engines in question were hard pressed to deliver more than half a horsepower to the wheels. That obviously limited our load‑carrying ability.
Clearly, it was time to do a little …
Thinking Inside the Bag
Which required that I discard habits born of extended expeditions in a 17‑foot Old Town Tripper and its 20‑foot‑long big sister. Our pack baskets now did duty mostly as laundry hampers, while the capacious Duluth packs gathered dust on closet shelves. Even our kayak outfitting demanded rethinking, as an old photo — taken at the halfway point of a two‑week trip — illustrates:
There were more bags inside the boats, too.
The bottom line? We needed to slim down. In particular, loads like those in the photo above were too bulky to pull behind a bike. And that was how most of our paddling trips now began (and ended), in keeping with the philosophy of "miniaturized adventure" articulated by writer Richard Frisbie, whose whimsically titled It's a Wise Woodsman Who Knows What's Biting Him introduced us to the notion. At first, Frisbie's approach seemed unduly restrictive, limiting us to destinations within a hundred miles or so of our northern New York home. But subsequent experience proved that the limitations were offset by a newfound freedom. The drive — it was a ride now, of course — to and from the put‑in had become part of the holiday, rather than a costly and exhausting logistical exercise. There was a bonus, too: We found it easy to extend the miniaturization principle to embrace hillwalking, as well. In other words, it was win–win all the way.
Which is why we continue to embark on amphibious treks at every opportunity, leaving a car out of the equation entirely. We haul inflatable and folding boats in our bike trailers, instead. Sometimes we even lash the boats to pack frames and ride shanks' pony. The result? Our miniature adventures begin right on our doorstep. Driving time is zero, and we don't spend so much as a penny on gas.
Amphibious trekking isn't without its drawbacks, however. As I've already noted, weight and bulk are now our enemies, as they are for other go‑light paddlers, whether they travel to the put‑in on two wheels or four. We need to pare our gear lists to the bone. Commercial dry bags are out. And in their place, we've substituted …
Waterproof Pack Liners
The black pouch on top of the rucksack is the belt pack I use for camera gear when I'm not afloat. When I'm in my boat, the camera goes into one of our remaining dry bags, a light, waterproof envelope with a slide closure (you can see it in the kayak photo above), though if I'll be venturing into harm's way, I may burden myself with a steel ammo can‑cum‑camera box. (And pay for my excess of caution on every climb.)
To be sure, on any trip longer than a weekend we have to bring more food, taxing the capacity of my little pack to the utmost. That's about it, though. Since every extra ounce takes its toll, we don't add items willy‑nilly. But waterproofing is still necessary. My getaway pack will keep its contents dry in a hard shower, but it's no substitute for a dry bag. Which is where waterproof pack liners come into the picture.
In fact, I use them in my bicycle's panniers, as well. And they've done a good job of keeping things dry, even in day‑long downpours and on the rare occasions when we've found ourselves paddling with the gunwales awash. Of course, being belt‑and‑suspenders types, we double‑bag vulnerable gear like sleeping bags, clothing, and our medical kit. The extra protection is worth the minimal added weight. (A note in passing to any would‑be amphibians: Waterproof bicycle panniers are readily available. They're both costly and heavy, however, and if any water should find its way through the panniers' waterproof defenses, it's not likely to drain out. That means you'll be hauling a lot of extra weight. Which is why I use standard panniers.)
But I've gotten ahead of my story. How did we arrive at this solution? Well, I began by making a list of our requirements. To be of any use, our pack liners would have to be …
- Waterproof (obviously),
- Not prone to tearing or likely to develop pinhole leaks (preliminary experiments with "heavy‑duty" trash bags weren't encouraging),
- Not excessively bulky when empty (a failing of many otherwise exemplary dry bags), and …
Needless to say, the last requirement was the hardest to satisfy, but I finally found what I was looking for in a most unlikely place: the grocery shelves of my local HyperMart, where I stumbled on …
Ziploc Big Bags
These are nothing much to look at — just oversized Ziploc freezer bags, really — but they tick all the boxes. When the double‑zip closure is properly fastened, the Big Bags are waterproof, even when bobbing about in a swamped boat. The manufacturer's copy makes no claims that the bags are immersion‑proof, however. "Moisture resistant" is as far as the copywriters will go. That said, the Big Bags are made from plastic that's heavy enough to survive typical backcountry wear and tear, though it pays to keep a roll of duct tape handy to repair any punctures. And they're also light. (The 10‑gallon XL Ziploc Big Bag, large enough to line the main compartment in my getaway pack — or a good‑sized bicycle pannier — weighs less than three ounces.) Better yet, the Big Bags fold down to the size of a bandanna when empty, and a box of four costs less than lunch at the local burger‑and‑fries drive‑through.
Here's what they look like:
You may be able to see a printed rule on the right edge of the bag. Its purpose remains a mystery — to me, at any rate — but the grab handle cutout above the Ziploc closure is useful when hauling lightly loaded bags about. (I wouldn't use it if a bag was filled to the bursting point.) The Big Bag has a gusseted base, too, which you can see in this second photo:
I should add that the bag was open all the while I was setting up the shot. No leopard was harmed in the process. Anyway, the squarish base allows the Big Bag to stand tall when desired. Here it is next to my old — and somewhat threadbare — getaway pack:
Now here's a closer look at the double Ziploc seal:
And lastly, a Big Bag in situ, as it were:
A quick peek inside (Photo A below) shows that there's still room for more food or gear, while Photos B and C demonstrate the process of closing the seal — after expelling as much air as possible — and tucking the resulting "ears" down into the pack before cinching up the drawstring.
The flap of my getaway pack has a heavy rubberized underlayer, adding an extra measure of protection in a hard rain. Once the buckles have been secured, we're ready for the off:
The Big Bags have also proved useful in hot, dry weather, when the problem is dust, not water. This is especially true when cycling to a put‑in, since every passing car trails a plume of fine grit, much of which ends up in your panniers and trailer. Dust can also plague walkers on heavily used trails, of course. In fact, back in the day when armies marched from place to place, accompanied by a baggage train and horse‑drawn artillery — not to mention a legion of camp followers — the dust cloud they raised along the way was often the first sign of their approach.
It's no secret, then: I'm sold on Big Bags, at least for short trips on easy water. But before you rush out to stock up, you'll want to …
Weigh the Pros and Cons
First things first: Ziploc Big Bags are not a substitute for purpose‑made dry bags. If your trip will take you through heavy whitewater or entail long open‑water crossings, your waterproofed gear is a vital part of your boat's flotation. Accept no substitutes for real dry bags in such conditions. Nor should you rely on Big Bags for primary protection on extended expeditions.
But they're ideal for miniature adventures close to home, particularly on amphibious excursions, when you need to minimize the weight (and bulk) of your gear. Just don't forget to bring the duct tape! And they also make good liners for aging Duluth sacks, which frequently soak through if left to sit in the water which rapidly accumulates in the bilge of any canoe on a rainy day, no matter how often you bail and sponge. I wouldn't rely on Big Bags to keep the contents of a pack basket dry, however. It only takes one errant splinter to hole a plastic bag, no matter how robust.
There's a final caution to keep in mind: Always choose the right size Big Bag for the job at hand. No plastic bag can withstand hard stuffing without coming apart at the seams. If you're old enough to remember Dolly Parton's quip when her gown suffered an explosive failure,* you're not likely to ignore this caveat.
Durability? Our Big Bags have lasted a year now without suffering a puncture or blow‑out — we test their integrity at the end of every trip — but I've no illusions. They're not a lifetime investment. They simply do the job we ask them to do. And the price is right. That's good enough for me.
Are you looking for a way to waterproof your gear on not‑too‑challenging trips close to home? Need to keep the load light and the bulk down? On a tight budget? Then consider using Ziploc Big Bags as pack liners. They're waterproof, light, and cheap — perfect for miniature adventures and amphibious jaunts. How's that for thinking inside the bag?
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* It happened just before she was called onstage to receive the 1978 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Award. Never one to shun the limelight, Dolly was amused rather than embarrassed. "My daddy said that's what I get for putting 50 pounds of mud in a five‑pound bag," she explained. Daddy obviously had a way with words.
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