Whether on day trips or overnighters, how do you organise easy access to regularly used items and valuables, including stuff you want to carry when away from your packboat? I’m talking something capable of handling less than flat water, rated at least IP65 (left) to stash the wallet, phone, tablet, camera, travel docs, ammo and snacks. Stuff you want to keep dry in case of swamping or capsize, as well as being easy to get to on the water.
For walking or cycling, a daypack does the trick but it doesn’t really work in a paddle boat. The pockets and pouches in your pfd (right) have their uses, but they’re not waterproof. You want something that’s airtight when briefly submerged while providing convenience on the water and portability off it. It’s actually quite a tall order.
Things like paper maps and nav aids (GPS, compass) I keep in a separate waterproof pouch like the SealLine (left) with a double ziploc seal, even if this is yet more clutter around your legs.
Since I took that photo I’ve mounted a compass on the gunwale of my Seawave IK – very handy as it’s always there at a glance.
And I now use a IPX7-rated Garmin Montana with loads of mapping space, though I prefer to keep salty sea water off it where possible.
Waterproof waist bags
A small, roll-top waterproof waistpack actually ticks many boxes as long as you don’t mind being attached to yet more clobber. There are quite a few out there (left) between 2 and 6 litres, from OverBoard (2 sizes) to Aquapac and the bigger SealLine. The good thing is a waistpack sits up on your lap, out of the water and the paddle splash zone (PSZ), but well within reach.
The bad thing is they’re a faff to roll up and clip down quickly and reliably, and if you’re bobbing around in the water swimming after your boat you can be sure they’ll slowly leak. Read reviews and you’ll come across disgruntled accounts of ruined cameras or phones following a quick dip or even too much splashing. The problem as usual is the roll top; it needs to be tightly rolled down 2 or 3 times, then tightly clipped and even cinched down to the sides to make a good, dunk-proof seal. I believe a lot also depends on the nature of those sealing surfaces. As long as you avoid creases, smooth, shiny vinyl or PU pressing against the same will make a better seal than anything textured, like Cordura.
For years the obvious solution seemed to be small ABS or polypropylene hard cases commonly used for camera gear. I started with a 9-litre Otterbox in my Gumotex Sunny days (left). The Otter was lighter and cheaper than the well-known Peli cases, and with either you know the box will be airtight, access quick enough and boxes make a handy solid footrest in an IK as well as a seat or raised surface on a beach.
After some years I changed to a Peli 1400, a bit less volume than the Otter, but a bit wider and flatter. Adding some retaining straps my Macbook Air fits neatly inside the lid (right), and below there’s room for everything I need in a day.
The only thing that spoils the Peli and similar boxes are the clamps which are hard to open or close effortlessly. Some sort of lever-arch mechanism would be better. Because if this I use the box less often than I would during a paddle. On top of that a shoulder strap for hands-free carrying is awkward unless attachment rings are added. And at 2 kilos the 1400 is a bit hefty.
I really don’t need a Peli Cases’s crush-proof ruggedness. All I want is submersion-proof airtightness up IP65 for which a lunchbox (right) or food storage box might do as well, as long as the durability and seal could be relied on.
Around the same time I got into packrafts I discovered Watershed dry bags. Most of them use an oversized rubbery zip-loc seal which is submersion-proof and therefore miles better than roll-tops. The yellow, 30-litre Chattooga (left) is also more chuckable than a hard case, makes a good pillow, and for me has secondary uses for biking. It fits under the knees just about, but as many find, can be difficult to open and close. To operate smoothly and seal quickly the big seal needs lubing with 404 or silicon grease.
Around this time I also got into Lumix FT waterproof cameras which could slip into a pfd pocket, so on-water camera access was no longer an issue. It took a few years and a better camera for me to realise just how average these waterproof cameras are for the price you pay (the latest IPX8-rated FT7 – right – is £400). Because the tiny lens must work within the housing, they’re only OK while the light is good. Occasionally they’ll expose perfectly – just don’t bother the optical zoom beyond halfway unless it’s Elvis riding a unicorn. Once I got myself an LX100 there was no going back to FT burners. The LX is of course vulnerable to water, although desert dust has gradually damaged it much more over the years.
With an expensive camera you need reliable water protection, but as someone once said, the best camera is one you can deploy in less than 5 seconds. Box or bag, either were too slow with an LX, compared to whipping out your FT.
I bought a used Aquapac camera bag (left). They’re just your usual roll down and clip jobbies, but inside the lid is a ziploc seal (right) which makes the bag much more dunk-proof than regular roll tops. Testing in a sink, bubbles only escape very slowly, but treading water with it attached to your waist might not end so well.
Doing a sink submersion test (right) reminds you of the difference between hard cases and sealed bags. A rigid box is unaffected by the increased pressure of light submersion. If anything, the pressure forces the lid down on the seal even more.
With a bag it’s the opposite: even a few inches underwater compresses the bag, forcing the air out through any weak point, usually the closure. This is why submarines are made of steel, not PVC.
One flaw with these Aquapac camera bags are the flimsy belt loops they come with. On mine I glued over one with a big taped patch (right). But really it’s too bulky to hang off a belt; I ziptie mine into one of the net pouches of my Anfibio Buoy Boy pdf, but only fold over and clip when at sea. To properly close the seal is too much faffing and usually necessary – until it is.
It makes me realise the difference in needs between the fair-weather sea kayaking I do, and the occasional river up to grade 3. Such rapids will partially fill an open (undecked) packraft or IK; something which rarely happens at sea unless you make a mess of a surf landing or have badly misjudged the weather.
On bigger rapids the packraft or IK easily takes on a few litres of water, and there’s a chance of flipping if you get crossed up too. When that happens, at sea or on a river, you need to be sure that:
a. everything is attached to you or the boat and
b. all those things are as water tight as they need to be.
Alone, in a bit of a panic after a capsize, you don’t want to be distracted by chasing loose bits of stuff floating or blowing away, or sinking under a stream of bubbles.
On the Tarn I found the Chattooga under my knees too big in general, and too big to exit the boat easily (or in a rush). But I sure didn’t miss lugging the hefty Peli 1400 around.
I thought a lot about my needs and for the Allier came up with an interim solution: a smaller 1150-like hardcase (left) of about 2 litres volume for my essentials, including the LX. It worked OK, bar the usual easy opening issues.
I knew from the Tarn what I really wanted was a small waterproof under-knee ‘deckbag’ with a waterproof zip closure. The zip eliminates the bulk as well as dunking unreliability of roll-tops, while the bag weighs much less than a box and carries effortlessly and comfortably on a shoulder strap. I had the dimensions and design all jotted down in my head.
Waterproof TiZip bags
A lot of Googling later I realised no one makes such a thing. There are plenty of TiZip daypacks like the Lowepro Dryzone range, or larger, watersports-oriented duffles from the likes of Ortlieb or Aire (Frodo; right) or SealLine, which resemble my own YKK-zipped Watershed UDB – one of my favourite bags. But none of the above are smaller than my 30-litre Chattooga.
The closest candidates I’ve found include the IP67-rated Ortlieb Trunk Bag (right and left). At 8 litres it’s a bit on the big side (add up the claimed dims and it’s more like 11 litres). And these days it only comes with a fitting mechanism to lock it to a bike rack. very clever but this all helps raise the weight to over a kilo and price up to £98. The fabric is also not your usual pliant and mildly carcinogenic Ortlieb PVC, but resembles Heavalon (with its distinctive hexagon patterning) which Gumotex use as decking on some boats.
The Trunk-Bag could suit a lot of paddlers but as it’s made for bikes, you do wonder if it’s actually dunk-proof. Tellingly, the product description says under water resistance: ‘lower edge of product, duration: 30 mins‘. As well all know, it’s common to be paddling a packraft with a little water swilling round the floor, so unless you slaver the base of your Trunk-Bag in Aquaseal, water will slowly seep through. Not good.
Other TiZip options include fly fishing waist bags, which you imagine are ready for dunking. But they’re so large they often came with an added shoulder or neck harness to help take the weight. Plus it seems fly fishing gear may be to outdoor gear like smoked salmon is to fish fingers – prices are nuts. Patagonia make the Stormfront (left), a 10-litre waistpack with an added shoulder strap – yours for as little as £180! It’s just a dunking PVC handbag with a zip!
You’ll find any number of other fly fishing roll top bags at twice the price of hiking or SUPing examples pictured above.
Note that many find waterproof zips like the plastic TiZip or brass YKK stiff to operate, just as they are on a dry suit. Ideally you need a good T-toggle and some sort of tab to pull against. And I do wonder if incorporating TiZips to the required standards explains the high prices or gear using them. The full range of TiZips is not readily sold to consumers, only to manufacturers for products which use them.
Anyway, long story long, I decided it might be fun to make my own TiZip deck bag. Read about that here.