Looking for a waterproof backpack
December 3, 2005 12:32 AM   Subscribe

Do affordable and effective waterproof backpacks really exist?

I am a bike commuting graduate student living in the Pacific Norhtwest. It rains a lot, and I know I need a good waterproof pack to hold all my books. I seem to be able to find waterproof messenger bags (that I don't find very comfortable) and waterproof river backpacks (for rafting or kayaking), and the few book-worthy packs I find are outrageously expensive. Any suggestions? Brands you like? Brands to avoid?
posted by intoxicate to Grab Bag (16 answers total)
My beautiful R.E.Load bag is waterproof. They sell standard and customized messenger bags of various sizes, as well as a backpack.

They have shops in Philadelphia and Seattle. I highly recommend stopping by their Seattle boutique, if you have the chance. A bit more expensive than your usual EMS or what have you, but worth consideration, IMO.
posted by Rothko at 12:53 AM on December 3, 2005

Potentially dumb suggestion: Have you checked out the cooler bags in the coolers section of a store? (those bags designed to store food and drinks in ice). Most of them are satchel style, but I'm pretty sure there is a range of backpack styles too. Whether they're any good is another matter, but at least your lunch would get insulation :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 1:24 AM on December 3, 2005

I use the Ortlieb Velocity. Not cheap, but 100% waterproof and very durable.
posted by randomstriker at 2:25 AM on December 3, 2005

Truly waterproof (as in contents kept dry if submerged, or even in a heavy downpour for a decent length of time) and affordable? Well, depends on your personal definition of "affordable", but I'd say no, not really. Pick one or the other. I gave up worrying about it. For protection from wetness, as many doubled up 13 gallon trash bags as necessary inside the pack are cheap, replaceable almost anywhere, weigh next to nothing and work very well.
posted by normy at 3:42 AM on December 3, 2005

BaileyWorks. The 253 Courier is the basic model, though if you can swing it (save up, it's worth it), get a SuperPro. Both are lined with the same material used in truck tarps. Nevermind waterproof, they're practically bulletproof. I (also a bike-commuting grad student) have a small SuperPro and it's great for a laptop, four inches of papers, a sweatshirt, and other assorted crap. My girlfriend has a medium, and it's huge. I can only imagine the large and XL... I love mine. It's amazing. It's actually, for me, really comfortable, due to the design: the pad is actually part of the upper strap, which is ergonomically placed angled relative to the bag, and there's a waist strap, so the whole unit is padded and stays in place. Supercomfortable, superuseful. Get one.

If you just really don't like the messenger bag style, I have a friend that has an Ortlieb pack that he really likes. Check out Bailey, though.
posted by The Michael The at 6:23 AM on December 3, 2005

Making a genuinely water proof pack is difficult going on impossible. The stitching is the weak point. Even if you waterproof the seams, they get stretched and flexed in daily use and the water finds it way through.

What most backpackers do is to use a raincover, a waterproof covering that fits over the whole pack. Here is a cheap one for a daypack. Find a decent rain cover and you can pick any pack you like.
posted by LarryC at 7:26 AM on December 3, 2005

I suspect that paying once for an "outrageously expensive" one that is exactly what you want, and works, may be cheaper than buying one mediocre compromise, hating it, maybe getting your stuff wet, and then buying another mediocre replacement or two. I guess that largely depends on the prices of the mediocre replacements. But in general don't be penny wise: bike commuting gear should last you many years, be high quality, and be exactly the confluence of comfort and function that you are looking for; even a $300 bag is cheaper than a few months' tanks of gas (a false comparison, perhaps).

That said, I use a rack and panniers, and I think that is the ideal solution for a commute that is sometimes rainy but always sweaty. A backpack will guarantee a wet spot on your back, twice a day, every day; on longer rides on hot days this also creates a insulation that is comparatively unendurable. Panniers keep the load lower, for better balance and maneuverability. My panniers are waterproof, Ortlieb Back-Rollers and they are still going strong after two years (and surely for much longer). Their $145 price seemed outrageous to me and put me off buying them as I tried three mediocre non-waterproof alternatives that required me to wrap everything in plastic bags. But now that I've settled on them I can't imagine using anything else, especially not any backpack.

Their key problem is that they have no internal organization, just a big open bag. I haven't learned how to pack them in such a way that they don't shake everything down into a crazy jumble. A fairly serious problem, really, but one common to all standard panniers -- so possibly why you want a backpack. Ortlieb also has a line of "commuter bags" that might be worth a look.
posted by xueexueg at 8:42 AM on December 3, 2005

Second (or third, or whatever) the Ortlieb stuff. I've done motorcycle tours through constant rainstorms using their gear and never once has my stuff gotten wet. Well, the stuff I was WEARING, yes. The stuff in the bags, no.
posted by wolftrouble at 9:03 AM on December 3, 2005

I like chrome bags. Theyre a bit pricey but they have messenger bags and backpacks, have waterproof shells inside, and they're really comfortable.
posted by atom128 at 9:26 AM on December 3, 2005

what LarryC said: pack cover.
posted by dorian at 9:47 AM on December 3, 2005

you could also get a dry bag, but I have not seen many formed as actual backpacks.
posted by dorian at 10:02 AM on December 3, 2005

How long is your commute? I have a regular (heavy) canvas bag (scotchguarded at one point I think), and it will hold off the rain for at least 15 minutes.

Otherwise it's like everyone has said: a truly waterproof bag will cost you. Look for a rubberized "dry bag" style with the roll down top (like the Ortlieb's). I have a 110 liter waterproof canoe pack, and I've had it float down rapids without letting water in.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:10 PM on December 3, 2005

Also, you're on the West coast, so we're not talking real rain, but that misty stuff right?
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:11 PM on December 3, 2005

I use panniers myself -- drier in winter, dryer back in summer. But the river backpacks are cheap and very reliable -- Mountain Equipment Co-Op makes good one, as do Seal-line and Baja -- we use these in the field all the time and they are bulletproof. They make stuff sacks as well, some more floppy than others, and one of those inside your regular pack might work, or put your The MEC 30 litre backpack is about 35$ Canadian iirc. backpack into a river backpack, then clip the river pack onto your lock and just carry the regular one around. Garbage bags are a cheap alternative but kind of annoying and water tends to collect in the various creases and folds, and they rip easily.
posted by Rumple at 1:52 PM on December 3, 2005

I recently bought a waterproof German military backpack at a thrift shop for $30. Aside from being cheap and waterproof, it's designed really well to take pressure off the back and shoulders. Checking out some army surplus stores for this type of thing might be a good bet if there are any nearby.
posted by slow, man at 2:49 PM on December 3, 2005

Thank you for all of the helpful advice. I do the garbage-bag-inside-the-backpack thing as my cost effective option right now, but they rip and are a pain to try to organize stuff in. That's my main problem. I would love to get one of those roller top rafting style bags (I actually own one that I use on the river), but for school and work I am just way too disorganized to be able to dump it all in and go.

I really like the Chrome and RE load backpack-style bags. It looks like I will have to fork over some money to get what I want.

posted by intoxicate at 3:16 PM on December 3, 2005

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