‘One Dry Bag to rule them all’
Roll-top dry bags (right) – even the best ones – aren’t really submersion proof, are they. That’s fine for a SinK with hatches (unless they get flooded), but no so good for an IK, packraft or any open boat on rough water or in crap weather. When I pack for either packrafting or IK I find myself putting roll bags within roll bags to make sure important things stay dry while hoping I don’t flip as I know they’ll not resist a couple of minutes submersion.
A year or two ago I came across Watershed Dry Bags from the US which seal with a big rubber Zip-Lok like seal (see image below) – ZipDry they call it. They’re expensive, but were available in the UK.
In an effort to get one dry bag to you-know-what, I’ve got myself a 30-litre Chattooga ‘day bag’ duffel (below left) and by chance, on eBay an ex-demo Watershed Ultimate Ditch Bag turned up at 20% off (still £130). So that’s actually two bags.
The Chattooga is not quite the rich yellow of the brochures, but a bit translucent which actually makes seeing inside easier when the foam and fleece liner is not used. That’s another £18, but it may absorb ‘high point’ knocks to the outer skin as well as protect what’s within, though I’ve never used it as it takes up space. The shell plastic is a hard, slippery polyurethane rather than the soft rubbery vinyl of something like a SealLine Baja bag. It’s all RF welded and very solidly built. With the bag top rolled down as it is with a roll bag (not actually necessary) I’ve found this is submersion-proof. Once in a while a spray of 303 as a moisturiser along the seal grooves helps it seal readily. The bag sits fixed to the mid-floor lashing point in my packraft between my legs for easy on-the-water access, and it fits neatly in the front of my IK and on the back of my bike. I’ve also divined that if things get desperate the Chattooga can work as a paddle float (left). My Chattooga got nicked in 2012 and I’ve since replaced it with another which seems a little thinner and shinier material, but otherwise seals the same.
I replaced the Chattooga with an Ortlieb Travel Zip.
Ultimate Ditch Bag (more here)
The since superseded Mk 1 Ultimate Ditch Bag (UDB; left) was unique to Watershed; a plain, big 96-litre duffel with basic detachable backpack straps, handy grab handles on each end and accessed by a single tough, dry suit-style waterproof zip, rather than the press-together ZipDry closure as with the rest of the ‘civilian’ Watershed range. My experience with dry suits is that amazingly, these zips actually work long after the material delaminates. Ortlieb have lately brought out similar bags in their usual soft fabric, but using what they call a TIZIP which looks like an ordinary YKK wetsuit zip to me and is only rated to the IPx7 standard (explained in the image right). I spent a couple of hours floating about in my Crewsaver drysuit the other weekend and nothing leaked; the UDB would manage the same while keeping the contents dry, and the fabric is much tougher than Ortlieb’s PVC. You could classify a UDB as ‘IPx∞’.
The UDB also has a complex, chunky inflation/purge valve for compression packing once the zip is done up or even to inflate the bag as a buoyancy aid if you’re in really dire straights and your boat loses air. This is reassuring when paddling a relatively flimsy packraft through a school of agitated swordfish or sea porcupines. If the boat goes flat you have a huge buoyancy aid to keep you out of the water and slow down hypothermia. And it can be used empty as an effective float bag inside a hardshell, folder or decked IK hull to limit the bailing required after capsizing or swamping.
Apart from my down sleeping bag which might be too much of a risk, I’m now able to simply pack and access things normally in the yellow Chattooga and the UD Bag and so can downsize my collection of dry bags which were gradually taking over the room.
The UDB has proved itself as a functional packrafting backpack for the walking stages – more below, sea kayaking in Australia and remote river packrafting out there too. The good thing is the detachable straps can be modified or replaced with something better, although the UDB lacks any rigidity to carry its weight on a hip belt and as I say below, the shoulder straps’ position is too central. Plus you don’t want to strain those ‘probably-not-for-hiking’ harness fittings and risk tearing them off the bag (although they’re sewn to a patch as left, which is glued to the body, so not much chance of that rupturing the bag – unlike a Gumotex IK bag).
2013: Watershed redesigned the UDB as a smaller, 78-litre duffel now made from their tough, glossy PU-coated fabric, but still with the dry suit zip and purge valve. Or check out their pricier military range of packs, below. IMO while not perfect, harness wise, the original UDB was a better bag. The canvas textured fabric gripped better, didn’t wet out, and the size and shape were just right to slip into a slim kayak or across a packraft’s bow.
Walking with the UDB
As a backpack the UDB has been surprisingly good at carrying a load in Scotland for up to 3 days (40 miles). Part of the reason for the tolerable comfort was that the UDB’s relatively rough fabric and frameless ‘coal sack’ form grips right across the entire back like weak velcro and so helps spread the load. The chest strap helps greatly too, though I’ve half a mind to try the chunky, wide clip-on thigh straps from my kayak as shoulder straps to get two uses from one thing. It does lack exterior pockets like a conventional rucsac, but that can be got around by having pockets in your jacket or a using a waist bag.
Having used the UDB again in Utah and overnight in Scotland, I’ve reconcluded that the shoulder straps are located too much towards the centre of the pack which means that the pack sits too high on your back (see walking pic, top right), making you unstable at times. Loosening the straps to make the pack sit lower but isn’t the same thing as it’ll just be loose. Up to a point you could pack heavy stuff low and anyway, it’s clearly not designed as a full-time pack, but I must say that’s how I’ve used it when packrafting. It’s so convenient to just use it as a waterproof/submersible holdall: chuck stuff in, zip it up and get on the water. Occasionally I run beeswax along the zipper; a bar of soap will do the same and smells nicer. I’ve since got myself a packframe (left) but decided an NRS Paragon pack harness was the best solution to portaging. I used the UDB like this in Turkey.
Recently I walked and cycled the Coast to Coast with an 80-litre Westwater pack featuring a regular ZipDry seal, thin shoulder straps with chest and an added hip strap. The load was only about 12kg but I found myself unstable in the hills as, with no proper hip belt, the weight was hanging high from the shoulders. On the Lakes stage it was very hot and the back was very sweaty, but it carried OK. Once I got on a bike and the weather broke, the pressure on my butt became exceedingly painful (no surprise there).
The pack is handy in that in dry weather you can simply roll the top over and clip it down, not using the seal (as above right) and so easy day access. While sealed up in the wet you know the insides will keep dry. Again, I can see the Westwater working well lashed to my more comfortable Lastenkraxe packframe with the packraft rolled up beneath it, or in the NRS Paragon. Only drawback is the slippery texture and shortness doesn’t sit so well on the bow of a packraft (left) compared to the UDB.
Last time I looked Watershed make a backpack called the Stennis (left) using a YKK zip. Being ‘tactical’ it costs nearly double, runs at a capacious 121 litres. In fact, as shown on the right, their packs can reach the size of letterboxes. They seem designed to contain regular packs for wet environments, rather than for all-day hauling. Shame, but as with the UDB it wouldn’t be too hard to fit some better padded straps and save the poor guy’s shoulders. Here’s a review and closer look. Warning: it’s tactical.