Dry Boxes

Ever dig out your first-aid kit, a pair of pliers, or your boat's registration after months of storage, only to find it damaged by the wet, salty surroundings? How about storing sensitive electronics? Dry boxes can help. In our tests, Pelican edged out UWKinetics and Otter.


The marine environment, with its salt spray, wind, waves and rain, can be a tough place for even the most rugged equipment. More delicate devices like cameras, laptop computers, and handheld electronics are especially vulnerable on boats that are heeled over, beating through waves—or when it’s raining, or people are tromping up and down the companionway in wet gear. On some wet boats there may be no completely dry, safe haven at all, unless you bring one aboard in the form of a dry box—a waterproof or water-resistant case that shelters your equipment in a nearly impregnable cocoon of plastic.

Dry Boxes

We wanted to find out which boxes are the toughest and the driest.

What We Tested
We evaluated six higher-end dryboxes: Pelican’s 1300 and 1500, two from Underwater Kinetics (the 609 and the 518), the Otterbox 5500 and an aluminum case from Zero Halliburton. With their “waterproof,” “crushproof,” “indestructible” and “unbreakable” claims, these products begged to be tested. They’re all pretty costly, ranging from $33 to $277, so we decided to include two less expensive (under $20) plastic storage cases, which we picked up at local marine supply houses. Both are supposed to be “water-resistant.” We wanted to see if spending the extra dollars is really necessary for full protection.

These cases can get pretty big. Pelican makes a couple that resemble large suitcases. We stuck to the small and mid-sized cases. The small ones are perfect for holding personal items (your wallet, expensive sunglasses or ship’s papers) and maybe one or two pieces of handheld electronics. The mid-sized models are about the size of a briefcase, maybe a little thicker, so they’re good for a laptop or a large camera with all of its lenses and other accoutrements. The two inexpensive models are about ammo-box size.

How We Tested
We devised five tests—three to evaluate each case’s ability to keep its contents dry and two to measure impact resistance. In other words, we dunked them in water and dropped them.

We dropped them onto concrete from 5′ and 10′. Each case carried a payload based on its size for both of these tests. An attempt was made to group cases of a certain size with the same payload. Each of the three briefcase-size cases—the Pelican 1500, UWKinetics 518, and the Zero Halliburton 103C—carried an 8-lb. payload that consisted of eight 16-oz. lead weights. The MTM SDB-1T and the Plano 1612 were loaded with 5 lbs. of lead. The slightly smaller Pelican 1300 and Otter 5500 were loaded with 4 lbs. The remaining box, the UWKinetics 609, carried 3 lbs. A foam liner was used in each case to secure the lead weights for our drop tests. Every effort was made to drop each case so that it would hit the concrete on a corner, maximizing the impact load. No attempt was made to load any precious cargo and test it for damage; only the case itself was tested.

The water tests were done between the first and last drop test in the following order: spray test, surface dunk test and two-part deep dunk test. (We suspected that the last drop test might be destructive to some of the cases—and it was.) All water tests were conducted while the cases were empty.

We put the cases in the shower for three minutes to simulate moderate rainfall. The surface dunk test was accomplished by totally submerging the case for approximately one second. We wanted to simulate a weighted case falling overboard, which would become submerged for only an instant before resurfacing and floating. The deep dunk test was conducted in two parts and with a qualifier: If a case did not pass both the spray and surface dunk test, it was not subjected to the deep dunk test. The first part of the deep dunk test was to have a diver take the case to its rated depth. If it remained dry inside, the second part took the case to our maximum test depth of 23′. If a case was rated deeper than 23′, as only the Otter 5500 is, it was taken directly to 23′ and scored for both parts of the test.

Each test result was assigned points, 0-4 for the drop tests and 0 or 2 for the water tests. A water test result was awarded 2 points if no water was found inside the case. If any water was found inside or a case was not tested, it was awarded 0 points for that test.

For the drop tests, a case was awarded points based on the amount of damage sustained on each drop. If only exterior cosmetic damage was noted, a case was awarded 4 points. If in addition to exterior damage an impact mark was visible on the interior of the case, 3 points were given. Cases that opened on impact but sustained no structural damage were given 2 points. If a case sustained any structural damage due to the drop, 1 point was allocated. A case that both opened on impact and sustained structural damage was not awarded any points.

MTM Case-Gard SDB-1T
Purchased at a local marine store for $12.99, this was the least expensive case tested. The manufacturer claims it is water resistant but not waterproof. (The words “non-submersible, not waterproof” are molded into the lid.) The case passed the spray test, indicating that it is in fact water-resistant. In the surface dunk test, it only allowed a very small amount of water inside.

The latch design leaves something to be desired, in our opinion. It’s entirely plastic, so it’s impervious to corrosion, but it failed to remain latched on our drop test. We learned this upon close inspection of the latch and confirmed it after dropping it from 5′. We were forced to pin it closed. It does have a pinhole, but we had to provide the pin. (Incidentally, to get the best rating possible for each case, we pinned the latches closed for the 10′ drop test.)

Bottom Line: If this case is used without pinning the latch, the odds of it opening if dropped are high. The price is good, but we would not use it to transport anything too delicate or valuable.

Otterbox 5500
This is the largest of the nine boxes from Otter. It met all claims made by the manufacturer and scored well in our testing until it sustained structural damage in the 10′ drop test. Several hairline cracks were noted in both the exterior and interior of the case. However, in our opinion, the case was still functional and could be kept in service as long as it was not subjected to any underwater dunking. Otter is one of two manufacturers in our group that favor a harder grade of plastic for the construction of its cases. Test results indicate this type of construction is more likely to maintain watertight integrity but is less resistant to severe impact damage than cases made of a slightly softer plastic.

Dry Boxes

Bottom Line: This case performed well under all but our most severe test conditions. An Otterbox should meet the needs of most buyers looking for this size case or smaller.

Pelican 1300
This is one of the smaller sizes of the 18 produced by Pelican. This case met or exceeded all the manufacturer’s claims. It scored the best of any case until it opened on impact in the 10′ drop test. (On two additional 10′ drop tests, the case did not open and sustained only minor cosmetic exterior damage.) We used the score from the first drop, and even with that point loss this case scored as high as any tested. The Pelican cases are built out of a softer plastic and can sustain a severe impact with minimal to no damage.

Bottom Line: Pelican’s claim that it provides “the world’s toughest watertight protector case” holds true here. It is as close to indestructible as any case we tested. We highly recommend this case.

Pelican 1500
The briefcase size 1500 resides in the middle of Pelican’s 18-case lineup. The Pelican 1500 met or exceeded all manufacturer’s claims. On the drop test, it was the only case to get a perfect score from both 5′ and 10′. In the water tests, this case met the maker’s claim of waterproof integrity to one meter, but at 23′ the case flooded.

Keep in mind that it takes over 50 lbs. to sink a case of this size, so the likelihood of a deep submersion other than in sinking within a boat is slim.

Bottom Line: Same as the Pelican 1300—highly recommended.

Plano 1612
This case comes standard with a removable tray and was purchased from Boater’s World for $15.99. (It’s also available at BoatU.S.). The manufacturer claims the box is water-resistant and O-ring sealed. Since it passed the spray test and in fact does have an O-ring seal, it does meet manufacturer’s claims. It failed the surface dunk test but only allowed a very small amount of water in. This case did well in the drop tests, sustaining only exterior cosmetic damage and a few interior stress marks.

Bottom Line: When all you need is water resistance, this case will get the job done adequately, and for a good price.

UWKinetics 609
This is one of the smaller cases in the UWKinetics line and comes standard with a nylon carrying strap, rather than an integrated handle. With 20 sizes available, UWKinetics has the largest selection of any of the manufacturers in our evaluation.

Like Otter’s, the UWKinetics cases are constructed of a hard plastic. This case performed well in the drop tests, scoring 3 points out of 4 in each. It was one of four cases to achieve perfect scores in the water tests.

Dry Boxes

Unlike some of the other case makers that assert vague claims of indestructibility, UWKinetics specifically claims its cases will survive a 7′ drop on concrete. This case met that standard and beyond.

Bottom Line: This is an excellent small case, and we highly recommend it.

UWKinetics 518
This is one of the briefcase-size units in UWKinetics’ large lineup. Again, this case is constructed from a hard plastic. The 518 faired well in all testing except for the 10′ drop test. By doing so, it did meet or exceed all of the manufacturer’s waterproof claims. On impact, it became distorted enough to allow the rubber seal to be ejected from its normal position and exit the case on the side that hit the concrete first. Closer inspection revealed irreparable structural damage to about one inch of the case hinge. The company claims the case will survive a 7′ drop. Since our test protocol required drops from 5′ and 10′, we weren’t able to verify that claim directly. The case handled the 5′ drop without a problem, but 10′ was too far.

This case was still serviceable even with the damage sustained. However, with this type of damage it cannot be trusted to stay watertight.

Bottom Line: This case performed well under all but our most severe test conditions. Under normal use, this case should perform well.

Zero Halliburton 103C
The manufacturer claims this case is “nearly indestructible.” Elegant and stylish, and with a retail price over $250, we would expect nothing less. In our opinion, this aluminum-bodied case is the best-looking of the lot. The manufacturer makes no claim that it is waterproof or water resistant, even though it does have an O-ring seal similar to some of the other cases.

The 103C faired well on both the 5′ and 10′ drop tests. However, since it’s a metal case, it does dent. It was the only case to flunk the spray test, with a substantial amount of water entering the case. It flooded completely during the surface dunk test.

Bottom Line: Because of its lack of water resistance, this case has little use aboard a boat. We can’t recommend it for marine use.

In general, the cases built from hard plastic (the Otterbox and UWKinetics models) didn’t fare as well in the impact tests as the cases made from softer plastic (Pelican, Plano, and MTM Case-Gard). Our tests also indicate that hard-plastic cases give their best all-around performance when used in smaller sizes.

Since no Otterbox or UWKinetics case failed any of the water tests, hard cases show a superior ability to keep water out, even in the most severe conditions. In addition, the hard cases seem to be able to prevent any distortion caused by water pressure that might cause a case to leak when submerged.

A case that isn’t waterproof can’t be recommended for the marine environment for storage of any important or expensive items. However, a water-resistant case may be the right choice for storing items requiring a lower level of protection. Of this type, we liked the Plano 1612. The latch on the MTM Case-Gard SDB-1T worries us too much.

Of the briefcase-style cases, we like both the Pelican 1500 and the UWkinetics 518. Each performed very well in our tests and are about the same price. We give the edge to the Pelican, though, because its softer plastic can withstand the constant beating a boater is likely to give it. We’re not worried that the Pelican popped opened while submerged at 23′ because the only circumstance in which it would reach that depth is if your boat sank (as we mentioned, these cases float).

Of the smaller cases, it’s a toss-up between the Otterbox 5500 and Pelican 1300. The Otterbox sustained some structural damage, so we figure that if you drop it repeatedly in regular use, it will eventually get damaged. The Pelican also failed to put up a perfect score in our drop testing, so they remain dead even in the “tough” category. If we had to lean one way, it would be toward the Otterbox because it’s about $14 cheaper.

Contacts — MTM Molded Products Company, 3370 Obco Court, P.O. Box 13117, Dayton, OH 45413-0117; 937/890-7461; www.mtmcase-gard.com. Otter Products LLC, 316 S. Link Ln., Fort Collins, CO 80524; 970/493-8446; www.otterbox.com. Pelican Products, Inc., 23215 Early Ave., Torrence, CA 90505; 310/326-4700; www.pelican.com. Plano Molding Company, 431 East South St., Plano, IL 60545; 800/226-9868; www.planomolding.com. Underwater Kinetics, 13400 Danielson St., Poway, CA 92064; 858/513-9100; www.uwkinetics.com. Zero Halliburton, 500 West 200 North, North Salt Lake City, UT 84054-0310; 888/909-9376; www.zerohalliburton.com.


Also With This Article
Click here to view “Value Guide: Dry Boxes.”
Click here to view “Foam LinersEssential.”

Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 45 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida.


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