This Lightweight Daypack Can Handle a Dunk in the Ocean

The frameless Mustang Survival Highwater 22L is the best of frameless backpacks and drybags in one slick package.

Photo: Courtesy

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Your run-of-the-mill daypack may be able to stand up to a couple of errant splashes, but what about getting dunked in the drink? For trips that see you spend an extended period of time on the water—canoeing, sea kayaking, paddleboard touring—it’s a bad idea to trust your extra layers, camera, or other sensitive possessions to a bag that’s anything but fully waterproof. Dry bags are a reliable option, but they’re not very convenient or comfortable to carry. For marine daytrips and routes that have us getting in and out of the water, the Mustang Survival Highwater 22L has become my go-to: a lightweight, fully waterproof backpack that’s durable enough to stand up to full immersion when we’re plying the waves, and carries easily when it’s time to get out and hoof it.

For how specialized it is, the Highwater’s design will feel familiar to any lightweight backpacker. At its core, it’s a frameless daypack, with two lightly-padded shoulder straps, a webbing sternum strap, a roll-top closure, and three generous external mesh pockets, including a front pocket ready to swallow a shell and side pockets that securely keeps water bottles, snacks, sunscreen, and other necessities close at hand. The differences are subtle: The roll-top, drybag-style closure is more secure than a typical ultralight pack. While the material is similar on paper to that used by other ultralight pack manufacturers—the Highwater uses 210 denier ripstop nylon, compared to the 200 denier ripstop that competitor Mountain Laurel Designs uses in many of its packs—the seam-sealing on the Highwater is more robust, not allowing any air to seep through. The coating on the pack’s exterior is thicker and slicker, shedding droplets and drying almost instantly. While those features do add weight—at 1 pound 4 ounces, it’s more than twice as heavy as the lightest nondry daypacks—the lightweight construction and lack of extraneous bells and whistles keep it lighter than most submersible packs on the market.

On a spring kayak camping trip to Colorado’s Blue Mesa Reservoir, I packed my extra layers, snacks, toiletries, and electronics in the Highwater. They stayed bone dry, even after multiple test-dunks in the lake. The Highwater comfortably handled loads of up to about 20 pounds and could probably have handled more for short hauls, though thanks to the lack of a hipbelt I wouldn’t want to tote much more than that for long distances.

Lightweight construction aside, the Highwater doesn’t need to be babied. While it might not stand up to the same abuse as a fully rubberized dry bag, it stood up to normal use without issue. On a 5-mile paddle around Sandfly Island in Florida’s Everglades National Park, it shrugged off grabby branches and a couple tosses onto oyster-shell-littered beaches without ever springing a leak.

The major downside to the Highwater’s stripped-down construction is its lack of internal organization. Besides the external mesh and a clip for your keys (much-appreciated: fumbling my car keys into the depths is one of my personal nightmares), there are no compartments or dividers in the Highwater. I usually toss in a Hillsound Packstack, which is waterproof enough on its own to handle getting drenched, for small items like chapstick, notepads, and my wallet. The plus side: Fewer compartments and zippers means fewer failure points, so I expect to be carrying the Highwater with me for years to come. $120; Buy Now

From 2023