On first glance most dry bags look quite similar. Don’t be fooled, there is a very good reason one bag costs twice as much as another. Dry bag quality and craftsmanship vary considerably. First and foremost, consider how your going to use this bag. Is it for a day trip on a flat-water river or are you about to embark on an epic two-week adventure down the Grand Canyon? While an inexpensive no-name dry bag will probably suffice for a quick hit on your local lake or river, I would hesitate before I relied on it to keep my clothes dry and camera protected on a long river trip with more severe soaking potential. Optimists abound in the outdoor industry. In a perfect world, it never rains while we are camping and the boat never flips over… Right?… Wrong! Be a realist. Mother nature is known for throwing curve-balls, weatherman are wrong and boatman flip boats. That’s the adventure!
I also look at the material the bag is constructed from. A lot of times the no-name brands will simply coat the inside of the bag with a waterproof film. When I examine the inside of the bag closely, I almost always find tiny spots where the waterproofing spray didn’t adhere properly to the base material. These spots look like tiny blisters, a small air pocket trapped between the base material and the coating. These air-pockets spell the end. As the material ages and dries out, the blister cracks open and the coating starts to peel. As a rookie boatman with no extra cash, I was buying the least expensive dry bags I could find. I have thoroughly trashed plenty of these cheaper bags just by using them as they were intended. They worked OK, for a while but they failed prematurely. It wasn’t long, maybe a month, before I could easily peel the waterproof coating off the base material. It flakes off like old paint. All that’s left is a bag that is as waterproof as a cotton army duffel.
An example of a quality brand is Watershed or NRS. Watershed layers their material with waterproofing agents that permeate the material and will never separate from the mother material. NRS uses PVC ( Polyvinyl Chloride… for you scientific types). Durable and easily folded, Watershed and NRS dry bags are the standard among the professional river running community.
Next, look at how the bag closes. Generally, there are two types of closures; the roll down style and the press together zip-lock style. Most dry-bags utilize the roll down style where the owner fills the bag, pushes the extra air out of the bag, then rolls the bag from the top down until pressed against the contents. Then, the edges are buckled to the buckles sewn to the side of the bag. This is a proven and effective method for securing your dry-bag and, if done properly, works very well. The other style is essentially a burly over sized rubber zip-lock style closure. The top edges of the bag are pressed together ( just as you would do with a zip-lock plastic bag) to make a water tight seal. Watershed is the undeniable master at this type of closure.
Finally, I consider how a dry bag is constructed. Look at how many different pieces of material were used to make the design and how were these pieces attach together. The fewer pieces the better. More pieces means more seams and seams are a weak point. Are the seams stitched or welded? Quality dry bags have welded seams, meaning where the fabric pieces meet at the edges they are welded together with heat not stitched or glued. Stitching falls short by allowing water to find its way through the minuscule stitches. Glues tend to fail after time. Blame excessive heat and moisture. Welded seams are the way to go.
I have pulled many different brand dry bags from the underside of a flipped raft. The moment of truth comes when folks start rummaging through their dry bag to see if it passed the ultimate test; total submersion in violent water. Watershed and NRS brand bags usually do. That’s not to say there aren’t other lesser known but quality brands on the market. The outdoor industry is growing and new dry bag companies are getting in on the action all the time. Take the time to look closely at how it’s made, how it closes and what it is made of. If you can’t tell, ask the folks working the store. They should be able to steer you in the right direction. The bottom line is… choose wisely. There is a lot to be said for keeping your stuff dry!