The Best Roll-Top Dry Bag

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After spending many intimate hours in a bathtub, going through an insane upper-body workout dragging dry bags behind a kayak, and putting a total of 25 dry bags and sacks through the ringer, we think the Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag is the most functional, durable, and versatile dry bag for the money. It’s easy to slide in and out of a pack and strong enough to drag over concrete, and it created the best waterproof roll-top seal of anything we tested.

The Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag is for the outdoors enthusiast who needs one bag to do it all. We dragged this bag behind a boat through rocks, branches, and other roughage, and it was more durable and waterproof than many that were supposed to withstand more abuse. Meanwhile, its 420-denier nylon (which is not as burly as some other materials) makes this bag a decent option for compartmentalizing gear within a backpack without adding too much weight to your load.

The Big River Dry Bag has four loops (two on each side) in addition to two D-rings by the closure buckle that let you easily lash the bag to a boat, pack, bike, or car. It weighs 2.5 to 10 ounces, depending on the size you choose. As with many roll-top dry bags, the buckled seal creates a loop that you can easily use as a handle. It comes in seven sizes ranging from 3 to 65 liters in capacity, and in five colors.

The fabric of Outdoor Research’s Durable Dry Sack is 210-denier nylon with a polyurethane coating, which means it’s half as substantial as the material of our top choice. This bag withstood all our stress tests, however, so we think it’s plenty durable for long-term use in the field. The 35 L size weighs 6.1 ounces but is not necessarily meant for ultra-lightweight hiking, as it has the added weight of a vertical daisy-chain strip to lash the bag to a boat or vehicle. It could also easily attach to any MOLLE-compatible packs. A D-ring sits by the buckle, but it feels flimsier than the two adorning our top pick, and the Durable Dry Sack comes in only three largish sizes: 20 L, 35 L, and 55 L.

We’ve seen some conflicting information on Amazon about whether this bag is compressible. It has no compression straps. But as with any roll-top dry bag or sack, we don’t think straps are necessary: You can compress a dry bag just by pushing out the air before you seal it. And if you’ll be using it on the water, it helps to leave some air inside so that the bag can float.

The Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack is our number one choice for anyone carrying their load on their back. It’s great if you need to swim with a backpack on, or if you just get caught in the rain a lot. The ultralight fabric of this model is 40-denier ripstop with a polyurethane coating (don’t go dragging this sack around on the ground), and the 20 L size weighs 2.8 ounces. It will maintain its dry interior as long as it has no holes, which seems obvious, but that means no sharp objects like keys or forks in or around the sack. (If you really need waterproofing for that stuff, a hard case is better.) These sacks are best for holding clothing and other soft goods, and they’re often useful for compartmentalizing the inside of a large backpack.

Table of contents

Why you should trust us

We asked three experts who regularly participate in water sports to guide us. Katherine Finnegan is the New England field representative for The North Face, so she knows her way around gear. The North Face does not make dry bags, so she was able to give us her unbiased opinions when it came to picking models. In addition, Finnegan has spent the past 12 years guiding six-week-long canoe-camping trips to the Hudson Bay with Camp Wabun.

Sollie Hirsch is ACA (American Canoe Association) certified in swiftwater rescue and flatwater kayak instruction, and has done more than a few hundred-mile canoe trips.

Finally, Rick Napp is the president of the UMass Ski and Board Club, but he grew up surfing in coastal New Jersey. He is a certified scuba diver and licensed boater who frequently takes his family watercraft out for some deep-sea fishing, diving, and spearfishing.

Who this is for

“Before even considering a dry bag,” Rick Napp told us, “first ask yourself how much stuff you actually need to bring with you that cannot get wet.” If you’re surfing or paddleboarding for less than a day, for example, you can leave most of your stuff in the car.

Dry bags are what you want for water sports. Water protection and durability are paramount when you’re canoe camping or kayaking. These bags are usually made of heavyweight fabric that can withstand getting thrown around in whitewater and dragged over rocks. The bag’s weight tends to be a secondary concern, because you don’t have to carry it on your back. Some are grippy on the outside, so you can grab them in the water and they won’t slip out of your hands.

Dry sacks are for compartmentalizing gear inside a dry bag or a pack. Made of lighter-weight material, they won’t weigh you down, and their soft texture means they can slide in and around your stuff more easily. Katherine Finnegan even keeps cooking ingredients like flour in smaller dry sacks inside her larger bag when she’s out on long trips.

Some unconventional uses for your bag:

  • Sit on it during rainstorms.
  • Store cooking ingredients.
  • Carry water.
  • Fill it with leaves for a pillow.
  • Put your dry bag in your gym bag for wet or stinky clothing.
  • Suspend your food out of the reach of hungry scavengers. By maintaining an airtight seal, the bag stifles the tantalizing aromas that attract bears, raccoons, and the like, and you won’t worry about the bag possibly ripping if it snags on a branch when you toss it over a tree limb.

Where we tested

Roll-top dry bags being dragged behind a kayak in the water.

Video: David Fine

To get the best results, we tested the dry bags in the bacteria-infested waters of the Charles River in Boston. You know that song “Dirty Water” by the Standells? That’s where we were; we paddled around for a while through some muck and brush and submerged each bag in the rivaahhhh. To test the stuff sacks, which aren’t built to take such heavy abuse, we submerged them in a bathtub.

How we picked and tested

A group of roll-top dry bags being dragged down concrete stairs.

Video: David Fine

YouTube is an excellent source for dry-bag reviews, and we watched them all. Once we exhausted all that YouTubers had to offer, we searched the Internet for written coverage from reliable sources, unearthing a few useful blogs but not much else. We began to find more information when we interviewed our experts. And we learned the most from testing the bags and sacks ourselves and using them in as many creative ways as we could think of.

Once we began our research, it became clear how many dry bags and dry sacks there really are: Even the street merchants on Khao San Road in Bangkok sell them (the vendors also sell cheap suits). We divided the models into the two categories—dry bags and dry sacks—and devised slightly different tests for each.

We looked for designs with D-rings and loops, useful extra features for lashing the bag to a boat or attaching river booties or a water bottle, according to both Katherine Finnegan and Sollie Hirsch. But we set aside designs with zippers due to their limited ability to compress tightly. Also, less can go wrong with a roll-top seal—if a buckle breaks or cracks, you can easily replace it, but if a zipper breaks, you’ll have a much harder time repairing it.

First, we tested the waterproofness of the material, seams, and seals. We did this by attaching the dry bags to the back of a kayak and paddling around for 30 minutes. We also put dry towels in each one and submerged them; we then checked the towels to see if any moisture had been absorbed. Many bags are not meant to be submerged, as indicated on some of the packaging, and we took that into consideration.

The second criterion we tested was durability. We dragged the bags on grass, dirt, roots, and sticks, as well as through some brush. Then to stress-test the dry bags, we dragged them on concrete and asphalt for more time than any sane person would attempt or even do accidentally. Everything but the concrete and asphalt did almost nothing to the integrity of the bags other than a few scratches and abrasions.

The weight of a dry sack plays a larger role than it does for a dry bag, since sacks are usually carried on someone’s back; therefore, the material isn’t as thick. So instead of dragging the dry sacks on concrete, we tried as hard as we could to rip and tear into them with bare hands. In this test, even the thinnest material from SealLine and Sea to Summit did not tear or even stretch.

We also wondered if a sealable plastic bag, a classic piece of go-to outdoor gear, would be just as good as a dry bag, but tearing into and destroying some heavy-duty Ziplocs and contractor bags took all of five seconds for us. Rick Napp has known many people who have tried to bring their phone with them in a plastic bag and have gone home very sad. To quote him directly: “A grain of sand can ruin your day when it comes to a Ziploc bag.”

Our pick

Our pick roll-top dry bag on top of rocks in front of the ocean.

If you are an all-around outdoors enthusiast who needs just one bag to do it all, go with the Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag. It combines the durability of a dry bag with the light weight and compressibility of a dry sack, so it’s a reliable, versatile bag for almost any activity.

The material is what makes it special: Sea to Summit laminates ripstop nylon to the exterior of a waterproof polyurethane (TPU) film. This combination creates a durable dry bag that is not as heavy as some others, yet when we dragged the Big River Dry Bag on the ground, it didn’t get any holes—unlike the SealLine Baja Dry Bag and the Sea to Summit Hydraulic Dry Bag, both of which are made of some of the heaviest stuff available.

Both of those thicker models also have thick, grippy textures for easy handling in wet conditions. However, throughout our testing we found this feature to be a double-edged sword. It may enable you to hold on to your bag in the rapids, but it grips everything else just as well, including rocks and sticks, which could possibly tear the material.

Unlike many of the other bags we tested, the Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag does not have a rubbery exterior. This design allowed for a tighter seal when we rolled down the top, and it made the job of sliding the bag in and out of a pack easier. In addition, most bags with a grippy exterior weigh a lot more and take up more space.

A close-up of the seal on our pick roll-top dry bag.

We also found that Sea to Summit bags have a much more practically designed seal than others: The rigid, double-sided rubber seal reaches all the way to the lip of the bag. Other models, like SealLine’s Baja Dry Bag, have two polymer strips near the top that you need to fold on top of each other, a design that leaves space for air gaps.

If our top choice is sold out

The runner-up roll-top dry bag on top of rocks in front of the ocean.

Coming in a close second place, the Outdoor Research Durable Dry Sack has a similar design to the Big River Dry Bag in that it too has a nylon exterior, 210 denier in this case, with a polyurethane coating. It is lightweight and durable, and it slides in and out of a pack with ease. The daisy chain on the exterior doesn’t make the Durable Dry Sack the best option for lightweight backpacking, but it does make this bag a good all-around option.

A close-up of the runner-up roll-top dry bag.

In spite of the Durable Dry Sack’s name, we included it in our dry-bag category. Some people are initially turned off by the idea of waterproof nylon—it seems too thin to actually be waterproof. But it survived all of our stress testing as well as our top choice did, and the only reason we didn’t choose it over the Big River Dry Bag was the limited size selection.

For landlubbers (hikers and backpackers)

The also great roll-top dry bag on top of rocks in front of the ocean.

The Outdoor Research Ultralight Dry Sack is equally as functional as its competitors from SealLine and Sea to Summit, but it comes in nine sizes from 1 L to 55 L, and it’s backed by Outdoor Research’s Infinite Guarantee policy. The variety of sizes and the lifetime warranty gave it the winning edge.

A close-up of the also great roll-top dry bag.

Dry sacks (unlike dry bags) are meant to go inside your pack, so in our tests the determining factors for this category were all about weight. The Ultralight Dry Sack is made from 40-denier ripstop nylon and ranges in weight from 0.8 ounce for the 1-liter version to 4.2 ounces for the 55-liter version. This bag has no extra daisy chains or lash points, just a single D-ring at the top. Some people like to err on the side of caution and go with a slightly heavier material in exchange for more durability, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not rip this bag.

The competition

Dry bags

Sea to Summit Clear Stopper Dry Bag: This bag worked perfectly. The rubbery texture is the only reason we didn’t choose it to be our top pick. Since the texture makes it hard to slide in and out of a pack, we also disqualified it from possible consideration as a dry sack.

Sea to Summit Hydraulic Dry Bag: This bag was perfectly waterproof, but it ripped on the pavement. The ripstop nylon on the Big River Dry Bag held up better.

Sea to Summit Stopper Dry Bag: This model isn’t a bad bag, but it did not seal as well as some others.

SealLine Baja Dry Bag: One of our experts, Katherine Finnegan, swears by the SealLine brand and claims that all of her colleagues at The North Face and Camp Wabun do, as well. “I have used it in the burliest of elements,” she told us. But the main issue we had with the Baja was that the seal did not fold down as well as the seal on the Hydraulic Dry Bag from Sea to Summit (the bag with the most comparable denier).

This bag served as an example to us that thickness and strength do not necessarily correlate, as it ripped during our stress test. If you do purchase a Baja Dry Bag, we recommend choosing one of the larger sizes so that you can roll down the seal multiple times.

Dry Pak Roll Top Dry Storage Bag: Although this design did not measure up to our other picks in terms of waterproofness, it is one of the cheaper models we found.

Earth Pak Dry Bag: Water got in.

The Friendly Swede Dry Bag: Similar to the Earth Pak in design and test results.

Outdoor Products Valuables Dry Bag: In our tests, water got inside. This bag is not meant for submersion, so its use is limited compared with others. The seal is made from a nylon strap that absorbs water, and the bag is made of two different materials that give it its two-toned look. This design requires the bag to have more seams, which in dry-bag terms translates to more places for water to leak in.

Dry sacks

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack and Lightweight Dry Sack: In our tests, both of these performed equally as well as any of our other picks. The material is just slightly heavier, so neither style was our first choice for hikers and backpackers. Sea to Summit’s chart comparing the materials of the company’s bag and sack options claims that the heavier the denier of the material, the more durable the sack—in our tests, however, the Big River Dry Bag disproved this claim, outperforming even the heavier-weight Hydraulic Dry Bag in our durability stress tests.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Nano Dry Sack: Nearly identical to our top pick. You’ll be happy if you buy this version, but our top choice has more size options.

SealLine Blocker Dry Sack and BlockerLite Dry Sack: We eliminated these styles from the running for exactly the same reasons as above, ranking them slightly lower due to fewer available sizes. If all you are doing is a bit of hiking or backpacking, you can stick with the Ultra-Sil Nano or the Blocker, and the BlockerLite will perform great, too.

Osprey Ultralight Dry Sack: This one is inexpensive for how functional it is. Its two-tone design creates the need for more seams. The seal is made of a nylon strap (unlike the rubbery strip on the models from SealLine and Sea to Summit) that got wet when we submerged the sack; the contents of the sack, however, remained dry.

Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil View Dry Sack: Same logic here—the view window requires more seams. Water got inside during our simple shower test.

Outdoor Products Ultimate Dry Sack: Water leaked in during our shower test.

Ziploc and contractor bags: The plastic bags we tried actually stayed dry inside during both our shower test and our bathtub submersion test. In terms of waterproofing, they performed better than the five previously mentioned sacks. However, they rip so easily. Good for a quick fix but not to be relied upon.

Care and maintenance

To avoid the buildup of mildew, air-dry the bags after use. If you have used a bag to keep muddy clothing or boots from contaminating the rest of the items in your pack or car, you may need to rinse and dry the bag. You can easily clean a bag with cool water and a non-detergent soap. When drying the bag, make sure to dry the interior first by turning it inside out, and then reverse it to dry the exterior.

(Photos by Daniela Gorny.)

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Sources

  1. Katherine Finnegan, New England field rep for The North Face and canoe camping guide for Camp Wabun, phone interview, August 2016
  2. Sollie Hirsch, ACA certified in swiftwater rescue and flatwater kayak instruction, phone interview, August 2016
  3. Rick Napp, Licensed boater and certified scuba diver, recreational surfer, wakeboarder, spear fisherman, deep-sea fisherman, phone interview, August 2016

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