If you're taking groceries back to the boat by dinghy, you need to protect certain things (say, sugar) from getting wet. Here's how to do it!

Provisioning by Dinghy

Aboard Que Tal, we often wouldn’t tie up to a dock for 6 months or more — once going over a year.  And that meant that we did a lot of provisioning by dinghy.

At Bahia del Sol in El Salvador (pictured), we had a nice dinghy dock to work from and a usually calm estuary to dinghy across to the boat.  In other places, we just pulled the dinghy up on the beach — and sometimes had to dinghy through white caps or occasionally a bit of surf.

If you anticipate ever having to transport provisions (or fresh laundry or electronics) by dinghy, I have just two words for you:  dry bags.

Dry bags aren’t just glorified trash bags.  They are truly waterproof.  Mine are made from heavy-duty vinyl, with heat-sealed seams.  The top folds over on itself at least three times and then latches to prevent water entry.  An extra bonus of the top latch is that it forms a carrying handle and can be clipped onto an attachment point in the dinghy when rough conditions are anticipated.

We had dry bags from a number of canoe-camping trips we’d done prior to cruising.  And in one spectacular whitewater canoe capsize, we learned that the dry bags really lived up to their name.

Anything that you really want to keep dry (say toilet paper, paper towels, flour, sugar . . . ) needs to be in a dry bag.  Trash bags, used by a lot of cruisers, don’t do nearly as good a job:  they get a hole or two almost immediately and then any water in the bottom of the dinghy gets into the bag — and big splashes also seem to make their way into the trash bags.

I was surprised that more cruisers didn’t carry dry bags with them — although several did bring them back from trips to the US or Canada after they saw ours.  We actually had six large ones aboard — one for the ditch bag, one for the medical kit, and four for everyday use.  We also had three smaller ones that we used for carrying papers, small electronics and wallets.

Our “System”

Depending on the location, we’d re-pack our purchases either outside the store or at the dinghy (whichever had a trash container and a reasonably clean place to work — we preferred a concrete sidewalk to a damp and sandy beach, for example).

We’d go through all our purchases and remove whatever packaging we could (to avoid bugs as well as keep down the trash on board), then sort things into three piles:

  • Stay dry items were packed into the dry bags;
  • Keep cold items were packed into a soft-sided cooler (with ice, if necessary for the outside temperature and likely time back to the boat); and
  • Everything else was packed into as many heavy-duty reusable bags as we had, with the excess going in plastic bags that the store gave us.  Be sure to tie up the handles on these bags so that things don’t fall out in a taxi or the dinghy!

Then it would all get loaded into the dinghy (somehow we always made it fit) and we’d take it back to Que Tal.  We’d tie up, and one of us would be in the dinghy and one on deck and we’d get it all out of the dinghy, then transfer again to the cockpit, then again relay it down the companionway.  Then I’d put it all away, often while Dave would make another run ashore to get gas and diesel in jerry cans.

Recommended Dry Bags

The three big names in dry bags are SealLine, NRS and Sea to Summit.  I have several SealLine bags and one NRS; they all work well.  The NRS material is a little stiffer than the SealLine but the primary reason for choosing between one brand and another, to me, is if one has a particular size you need.  For us, the NRS bag was the only one long enough to fit our tent in (not likely to be a consideration when cruising)!

I’ve never used a Sea to Summit bag and don’t have personal experience.  They’re made of a heavy waterproof nylon (I’m talking about their true “dry bags” and not their “lightweight” bags that are marketed as “splash resistant”). Some reviewers like them better as they are easier to slide into tight places.  I wonder if they are equally waterproof . . . but I like the fact that it’s available in a 65-liter size, which might be really good for laundry (I found larger was better for putting clean laundry in without getting too many wrinkles in it).

For carrying provisions, the handiest size is 55 liters, and the smallest that’s usable is about 30 liters (unless you want one for papers, etc.).  I found the 55-liter size was just right for my laptop in its case, too.

Some bags — particularly small ones that are marketed for cameras and cell phones — have Velcro or zipper-style closures.  While these might be splash-proof, I’ve never had good luck with them being truly waterproof or lasting very long.

Outdoor Products also makes lightweight bags available at Wal-mart and other big box stores that are fairly small in size.  While some advertising copy says they are “waterproof,” the labeling on the product itself says they are “weather resistant.”  I have several of these and use them inside other bags for prescription drugs and so forth, but they should absolutely NOT be considered waterproof — even if you put one inside another.

High quality dry bags aren’t cheap, as a 55-liter bag is likely to run about $35.  But think about the cost of a single load of provisions that might get wet if a trash bag tears . . . or the laundry that you just spent $15 to have washed getting soaked with salt water. I’ve never forked out the money for a Pelican box (which cost considerably more), instead using my dry bags to protect electronics.

My dry bags are now over 15 years old.  They’ve been used a lot during that time and are still going strong (see photo).  They’ve paid for themselves many, many times over.

My choices — all links are to Amazon, although many are available at Campmor.comREI.com and other stores:

NOTE that many Sea to Summit bags are called “lightweight” and while good for many applications, aren’t truly waterproof (although the Big River Bags that I linked to say they are).  On one hand, I don’t want to discourage their use — there are lots of good applications for them — but I don’t want anyone misled.

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  • Jim Almond
    Posted at 27 June 2011 Reply

    If I didnt order a couple of these (55L) right now I would have forgot. These look like a great idea, thanks!

    • Carolyn Shearlock
      Posted at 27 June 2011 Reply

      Hope you find them as useful as we did! -C

  • Leigh Ann Bishop Long on Facebook
    Posted at 30 September 2012 Reply

    Must read! Thinking water tight totes, no?

  • The Boat Galley on Facebook
    Posted at 30 September 2012 Reply

    I prefer true dry bags. Not sure if that’s what you mean by “water tight totes”

  • Mary Dixon
    Posted at 11 June 2013 Reply

    I use a couple for laundry. Always get comments from the ladies in the laundry room.

  • Claudia Davis Reshetiloff on Facebook
    Posted at 11 June 2013 Reply

    We also have a dry bag backpack made by Overboard that we LOVE.

  • Bob Bechler on Facebook
    Posted at 11 June 2013 Reply

    We have collapsible box as wide as dinghy floor to put bags to control them and keep dryer under most conditions

  • Molly Stokes on Facebook
    Posted at 11 June 2013 Reply

    In Minnesota, where I am originally from, we call them Duluth packs, which are backpacks. Easier to get in and out of boats with the pack on your back.

  • Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious)
    Posted at 23 February 2014 Reply

    Carolyn – spot on with dry bags. I have a couple of small bags for odds and ends on watch and while walking about. My big bag is a 115l SealLine back pack that has not only survived many dinghy runs but more trips as checked baggage on deliveries than I can recall.

    On one trip I was feeling cocky and heaved the full bag out of the dinghy onto a dock without tying up properly first. *sigh* In accordance with Newton’s Third Law the dinghy moved backwards as I heaved the bag forward. The bag and I ended up in the sea. My PFD inflated and the bag inflated. The bag full of dirty laundry stayed dry, as did Janet’s laptop also inside. My cell phone in my pocket was not so fortunate.

    Now I always always tie up the dinghy before loading and unloading. Now I always always carry my phone in a waterproof bag or case.

    sail fast and eat well, dave

  • Tammy Swart
    Posted at 24 February 2014 Reply

    We have been using our dry backpack for provisioning as well. It has been one of our most valued purchases to date. It is still going strong even when we load it up. We got the 30 liter size and it’s about all we can comfortably carry for a distance. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004K6LY5U/?tag=theboagal0a-20

  • gene koblick
    Posted at 09 July 2014 Reply

    I was wondering why I cannot save copies of your information to my computer? I have no problems saving Active Captain and West Coast Trailer Sailor why do I have trouble saving The Boat Galley.

  • Evan
    Posted at 06 March 2016 Reply

    Why not take your empty Lock N Lock containers in the dry bags, and when you are getting rid of the cardboard (prior to the return trip as you said), simply pack it back into your Lock N Locks. Saves a step! And more time for cocktails!!

  • CJ Grabenstein
    Posted at 25 January 2017 Reply

    We have been so lucky with weather, it has rained only about 5 days out of the 6 months we have been gone! But I know our luck will run out, purchased dry bag with your link! I think it’ll be perfect for laundry. I’ve been meaning to get one, thanks for the reminder!

    • The Boat Galley
      Posted at 25 January 2017 Reply

      Thanks — they are also incredibly helpful with windy days like we’ve been having. Lots of spray in the dink!

  • Diana K Weigel
    Posted at 25 January 2017 Reply

    I have personally had good results from the Sea to Summit waterproof bags both camping and kayaking. So go ahead and add them to the OK list.

  • Alicia Nunnery
    Posted at 29 June 2017 Reply

    I absolutely love your blog! You guys Rock on very helpful tips.

  • Scott Sweeney
    Posted at 30 June 2017 Reply

    In addition to dry bags, I have a rubberaised backpack that I can carry at least 4 bags of ice in or my cold items from the store.

  • Travis Weaver
    Posted at 03 July 2017 Reply

    We’ve been living without a fridge for 3 years now and haven’t ever needed ice or anything, and haven’t had an outboard for our dinghy, just paddling even in 30 knots of breeze, with our fatty knees the sides come up pretty high we’ve never really had issues with water, but maybe in other parts of the world dry bags will come in handy.

  • Joanne Cannon
    Posted at 01 January 2018 Reply

    Again you covered something I didn’t know I didn’t know. Thanks for all the great tips!

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