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Hiking in the Rain: Backpack Liners

This past weekend, I did a 4 day section hike where it rained almost continuously for 3 days straight. During that time I hiked over 13 named peaks and covered nearly 50 miles through dense fog, mist, and incredible mud. Most of my gear got wet and stayed that way, except for a few precious items that were stored in my backpack inside a pack liner. These items were a down sleeping bag, a polarguard vest, my first aid kit, and the long underwear that I sleep in.

If you’re not familiar with pack liners, they’re just plastic bags that you put inside your backpack to keep your most precious gear dry. A lot of people use garbage bags, but I like using the pack liners sold by Gossamer Gear because they’re clear and you can see what is in them. I came across several hikers this weekend who didn’t know about pack liners and they really suffered because of it.

No matter what the weather conditions are, I always pack a pack liner. I do this, in part, because I pack a platypus hoser in the main compartment of my pack that is propped up vertically. In addition to keeping out the weather when my pack get soaked by rain, or by condensation from a pack-cover, my pack liner is there to protect my most critical gear in case my water bladder were to break or leak. In fact, I go one extra and always pack my Western Mountaineering Ultralite sleeping bag in a waterproof Sea-to-Summit stuff sack (1.1 oz.) and place that inside my pack liner: I occasionally tear pack liners or poke holes in them. Arguably, your sleeping bag is one of the most critical pieces of gear you own for warming yourself if you get cold or experience hypothermia.

Some people bring multiple plastic bags on trips: one to store their dry clothes and one to store their wet ones, to keep the two apart, since it can take days to dry an article of clothing in high humidity. Personally, I never bring enough clothes to justify this and usually dry wet clothes (except boots) by hiking in them. Your body throws off a lot of heat and you can dry synthetic fabrics like this surprisingly fast. You can also wear damp socks or other clothes in your sleeping bag and dry them using your body heat at night. However, this technique tends to rapidly reduce the temperature rating of down sleeping bags in colder weather because the moisture degrades the down’s insulation properties and should be used cautiously.

Pack liners also have another less obvious use as a vapor barrier if you get really cold. You can wear them over your legs, either inside or outside of your sleeping bag and they will trap the heat that your body produces, albeit with a great deal of condensation. You can also cut arm holes in one and use it as a vapor barrier vest under a shell layer to keep your core warm in extremely cold conditions.

Do you use a pack liner when you go on backpacking trips? Has it ever saved your bacon (or lentils)? Leave a comment and tell us your story.

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  1. I also use the GG pack-liners. Love'em! I'd think long and hard before I left them at home for anything longer than a day.

  2. Nice post,

    A couple of years ago I bought a box of clear, slightly heavy duty plastic bags. They are about 2ft * 2ft. We put all our critical gear in a seperate bag (except spare clothing, just fill up a bag or two) We tie them off with a rubber band. They THEN are placed in a large heavy duty pack liner (like a garden waste bag)

    Works well for us.

    btw, our philosophy on pack covers is they are generally useless as , by osmosis, water will travel onto the pack via the waist belt and shoulder straps…..

  3. I've had the same experience with pack covers in the rain, particularly due to internal condensation, but I find that they do provide excellent external pocket snag prevention if you're hiking through dense vegetation or bushwacking. All three of my backpacking packs: the six moon designs starlite, the gossamer gear mariposa plus and a golite trek have a lot of fragile external pockets that have been damaged by snagging on brush, but an external pack cover can prevent that.

  4. Hi Earlylite,

    We got new backpacking packs just before our last hikes and one of the criteria was that the pack should have minimal external pockets etc. The one we got is made in Australia and a bit heavy BUT it performed beautifully. We blogged about it here: http://frankinoz.blogspot.com/2008/03/best-hiking
    You will note, there are minimal snag points.

  5. You may be interested in one of my articles entitled "Keeping Your Critical Gear Dry".


  6. Jim, Thanks for the link. That has to be one of the best articles I've ever read on how to keep you gear dry.

  7. Growing up I used heavy duty contractor grade trash bags. I preferred ones in light colors so I could see my gear better. This set-up saved my butt many times.

    Last summer I did some field work and found the L, XL, and (I think) XXL ziplock bags, which are around three feet tall. The bags are quite thick so they are durable, and they are clear.

    I was able to fit all of my gear into the largest bag. They basically make them in various sizes that will fit lumbar packs, and every compartment in your main pack.

  8. Hiking in the UK you'd have to be insane not to be using a pack liner of some sort.

    The real trick is finding something that's waterproof and doesn't weigh a ton.

    Strangely enough – I'm using the same Sea To Summit bag for the sleeping bag and I've just got some clear liners from BPL. Will just have to test them out before I hit Iceland.

    Jim – Your article should be required reading for everyone trying to save weight on the liner. I see it referenced all over the place!

  9. On my last trip, I had an poorly sealed connection between my platy and my hose that leaked into my bag, slowly saturating the bottom of my pack. Drove me crazy because it took me over an hour to find the cause. But once again my pack liner saved my butt. All my gear stayed nice and dry, while the outside of the backpacking liner and the inside of my pack were wet.

  10. I use a trash-compactor bag. Wicked tough. I keep the platy outside the liner in the osprey.

  11. Trash compactor bag – tho I have ordered the Gossamer Gear bags to try, as I was already ordering the Lightrek poles from them to replace my not-locking Komperdell poles.

    I also put my quilts in a seam sealed bag inside the liner, and other small critical items in sealed ziplocs.

  12. Thanks, after reading this I bought 2 packs for each of our backpacks.

  13. I’m curious why your FAK is inside the liner. It would seem that if you needed it in an emergency, that wouldn’t be very quick access and you wouldn’t be under shelter.

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