Better Packing, Part 1 – How to Stay Dry on the Road

Part 1 in the series entitled Better Packing, Better Traveling. Click here for part two.

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How to Stay Dry on the Road

Imagine you’ve just arrived in a new city. You’re exhaused from the journey, but also excited and raring to explore. Yet, when you get off the train, you see the rain is pouring down. Other travelers are complaining, some just lingering outside, watching the rain, dejected, waiting for it to abate.

Not you. You pull a little umbrella out of your ultralight pack and practically run out the door into the down pour, because you’re not afraid of getting wet. In fact, you’re like a duck; you welcome the rain, the freshness of the air,  the relief from the heat.

The best way to stay dry is with a combination of quick-drying materials, an umbrella, thoughtful packing, and clever use of plastic bags.

Know thy Materials and Gear.

Travelers who want to stay dry can learn from long-distance hikers. The first thing any serious hiker will tell you is ‘cotton kills.’ How does cotton kill? By holding moisture and taking ages to dry (If you’ve ever gone swimming in jeans, you know what I mean). In the winter, being outside too long in cotton clothes wet from rain or sweat can sap vital heat from the body, causing hypothermia and even death. For travelers, hypothermia is less a concern than having to carry around (or worse, wear) wet cotton clothes for days at a time.

If you know your materials and gear, you can prevent this.

Backpacks: Most backpacks are made from some kind of synthetic material, and generally the lighter the pack, the faster it will dry (less material for water to cling to). The more bells and whiles, the more places water can hide, and the longer it will take to dry.

Clothes: For quick drying, synthetics like polyester, lycra, nylon work well. Cotton isn’t totally out, but you need to look for cotton-synthetic blends or thinner weaves. Some jeans will fall into this category. If your shirts are really light, layering can provide warmth and variety.

Shoes: I swear by New Balances for everything from long-distance hiking to travel to work. They’re light, well-designed, durable, and most importantly they dry fast. Many athletic shoes fall into this category. While leather looks nice, it’s heavy, hot, and holds water (there’s a joke in there about aging prostitutes but I’m going to pass it up).

Socks: Old men wear white cotton socks.  Savvy travelers wear synthetic hiking socks. Not only do synthetics dry faster, they’re comfortable, they last longer, look better, and don’t smell as bad.

Jacket: For cold weather travel, a synthetic fleece, a windbreaker shell, and a hat are an effective combo, especially given the low weight to warmth ratio. All dry quickly, and most importantly, synthetic can keep you warm even when it’s wet.

Personally, I dislike the idea of buying special ‘travel clothes, especially for civilization travel. The value-style-comfort ratio just doesn’t do it for me.

Clever Use of Plastic bags

Plastic bags, enemy of the environment they are, are a traveler’s best friend. Cheap and abundant, heavy-duty plastic bags and ziploc bags are effectively waterproof. While you can’t jump in a river and expect your stuff to stay dry, they’ll prevent waterlogging in all but the nastiest of storms.

No backpack is waterproof. I don’t care what the marketing people say. Even with a pack cover, water will eventually seep in. However, most packs will dry fast. One big, industrial-quality plastic garbage bag can be used as a liner can keep all your gear nice and dry. If you suspect rain, just dump all your clothes, gadgets, gear, and stuff sacks into the garbage bag and drop it into your backpack.  While you’ll have to dig a little longer to find stuff, everything stays nice and dry. Hint: put your most-used items on top.

For items in your pockets and money belt (you do have a money belt, right?), just use ziploc bags.

A Small Umbrella
Like plastic bags, these are a cheap and simple solution to rain. Unlike a parka or rain-suit, an umbrella is small, light, cheap, and won’t cause you to get drenched in sweat. Keep one in an outside pocket on your backpack. Use it when it rains. When it’s wet, leave it open to dry.

The best travel umbrellas are the little ones that collapse to the size of your hand, nothing fancy, just small.  Look for an umbrella with a plastic handle (it’s lighter) and all synthetic materials. If you lose or forget your umbrella, no big deal. I can think of few places in the world you can’t buy an umbrella.

Pack light, Pack Less
Packing light and taking less is the subject of the next installment in this series, but for now, let’s consider how packing light and packing less can help you stay dry. First, more mobility makes it easier to get out of the rain. If you’re dragging a suitcase and a backpack and a shoulder bag, your load is big, bulky, and chances are you’ll get splashed. That’s what happens in movies, and that’s what happens in real life. Plus, Sherpas just aren’t as cheap as they used to be.

But seriously, with a light and small pack, you can be quick on your feet, able to quickly take cover when the thunderclouds break. You’re nimble enough to jump over puddles and your load is small enough you can huddle under the smallest eaves and awnings.

And, if your stuff gets wet, it’s that much easier to dry out because you have so much less of it.

If you have any tips to help travelers take drier trips, feel free to share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Click here for the next installment in the series Better Packing, Better Traveling: Packing Light, Packing Less

Addendum: Check out this photo on flickr for Seth’s visual packing list.

Photo credit: David Reeves

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