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Waterproof vs. Water-resistant Backpacks

Waterproof and water resistant are not the same thing; these two materials have very different uses, especially when it comes to creating items of clothing or backpacks. Understanding the difference between each type of backpack and its benefits is essential to ensuring that you end up with the correct product for your activity or trip.

What is each type of bag suitable for?

Before we move onto the differences between each type of material, it’s important to understand the uses of each type of backpack. Water-resistant backpacks are useful for activities in which exposure is limited to low levels of moisture, including:

  • Street jogging, or sessions at the gym or pool
  • Traveling or commuting in varying degrees of rainfall or snow
  • Splashes of moisture from water-based activities and sports in which submersion isn’t likely

Conversely, those looking for a fully waterproof backpack might find more use for sturdier products, as opposed to water-resistant backpacks, in the following types of situations:

  • Overnight camping
  • Sports or activities in which complete submersion is a possibility
  • Extreme weather conditions, such as hiking on snowy peaks or in torrential rain

Prior to making a purchase or undertaking an activity, a brief but proper risk assessment can help to gauge what type of product would suit best.

The difference between waterproof and water-resistant

A backpack that carries the “waterproof” label can be entirely submersed in water, such as a river or the ocean, without allowing liquid inside. Whereas lesser protection would be sufficient for users who expect to be caught under light rainfall, waterproof protection will even keep your personal belongings dry when walking through a waterfall.

Conversely, water-resistant backpacks do not provide complete protection against heavy rainfall or bodies of water; they are more suited to protection from the weather, and situations in which the wearer might expect to take some water from splashing, but not to enter the water itself.

In fact, the term can be difficult to decipher, as “water resistance” can provide anywhere from enough protection for light drizzle, up to protection enough to shield equipment from a downpour. The term really is vague.

Advantages and disadvantages

As above, the disadvantage of water-resistant backpacks is that it can be difficult to determine which products are the most waterproof, save for reading customer reviews or recommendations from acquaintances, as the term is so broad. Thus, understanding how to identify better products yourself can be useful.

Typically, products with zippers that have been coated or covered with another material—known as “coated zippers”—are a good sign that the backpack will be more resistant than products with regular zippers. This is because a bag's zipper is one of the main entry points for moisture, so the more zippers present on a product, the more susceptible it will be to penetration by water.

Unfortunately, identifying better fabrics is more difficult, though looking for a market-leading brand can help, as can identifying any products that use “sailcloth” in the design, a fabric used in the design of some boat's sails. This is highly resistant material, owing to its constant exposure to oceans and extreme weather, so it’s often considered best in class.

The disadvantage of a waterproof backpack mostly lies in its design. The ability to entirely waterproof a backpack depends upon the use of specific fabrics and a careful manufacturing process. The whole product is required to pass a testing process that guarantees no moisture can enter the backpack. Thus, product manufacturers are required to make some tough decisions when it comes to what materials they can use.

Due to the tiny holes created from weaving any fabrics together, the typical approach is to weld together plastics using ultrasonic waves. Not only is this process expensive, leading to an overall higher price tag when purchasing such a backpack, it is also limited in what it can achieve in terms of design. Therefore, waterproof backpacks commonly have limited designs and functionality, with minimal additional pockets, and few or no zips.

What to look for

When it comes to waterproof backpacks, the most commonly seen fabrics are polyester or nylon, and cotton, which are measured using denier; this will be familiar to anybody who has purchased tights before. Though higher denier often offers better protection, there is a point at which the higher numbers can become worse in terms of water-resistant performance, as the gap between the woven fabric becomes larger.

Thus, it’s important to look for coatings. These often comprise PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane), or alternatively from the plastics mentioned above that are often used to weld together backpacks; these are TPE, or thermoplastic elastomers. By coating these materials to the reverse of fabrics, the level of resistance to moisture increases.

If you’re lucky, a brand may advertise its International Protection Marking on the label, or IP Code for short. This is a code consisting of two numbers, one between 0 and 6 for protection against physical objects, dust and dirt, and another between 0 and 9, which indicates the level of water protection offered; the higher, the better.

If you have a product that nears a 9, then confidence can be had that it’s extremely unlikely any water is getting in. The only drawback here is that the IP Code is mostly used in the design and testing phases, and seeing it on a product label is not very common at all.

Conclusion

For those looking for a backpack that can stand up to day-to-day living and a little rain, a water-resistant backpack would be ideal. That being said, as the term water-resistant can be so vague and the products so varied in their level of protection, it’s worth doing a little research before making a purchase.

Alternatively, for the person more involved in water-based activities, camping, hiking, or other activities with constant, high-volume weather or water exposure, waterproof backpacks may be best, though it’s worth bearing in mind that functionality takes precedence over aesthetics in most cases when it comes to fully waterproof products of this kind.

About the Author

My name is Stuart Taylor, I'm the founder of PROTON PACK, a place where I review camera bags, backpacks and accessories. If you have a topic that you would like me to explore, let me know and I will do my best to provide the information. I welcome your feedback and suggestions.

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