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Do You Need a Backpack Rain Cover?

Do You Need a Backpack Rain Cover

A backpack rain cover serves several purposes. It prevents rain from leaking through the fabric and making your gear wet. It also can protect your backpack from getting torn if you have to hike through dense vegetation. However, whether you need a rain cover or not, or whether it’s worth carrying one is a long-standing debate in the backpacking community.

Leaky Needle Holes

If you turn a backpack inside out you’ll see a lot of seams that have been sewn together to form the pack bag, add pockets, and zippers. Seams create a lot of needle holes that can leak water if the outside of the pack gets wet or saturated with water.  The same is true of the shoulder straps and hipbelts. All of these needle holes can leak in the rain.

Most backpack rain covers only cover the front of a backpack and not the shoulder straps and hip belt, so you can still experience leakage even if you do use a rain cover. Most people address this by packing their gear in waterproof stuff sacks or lining the inside of their pack with a heavy-weight trash compactor bag so water can’t reach it.

Protect External Gear

Rain covers can also protect gear stored on the outside of your backpack from getting wet. If you store a tent, food, a stove, or clothing in the outside pockets of your pack because you prefer to, or because you don’t have enough volume inside your backpack, a rain cover can keep them dry and protect them from damage.

Make / ModelVolumeWeight
Zpacks Pack Cover (L)Up to 70L1.7 oz
Zpacks Pack Cover (M)Up to 55L1.4 oz
REI Ducks Back Rain Cover (XL)90-100L7 oz
REI Ducks Back Rain Cover (L)70-85L6 oz
REI Ducks Back Rain Cover (M)50-65L5 oz
REI Ducks Back Rain Cover (S)35-45L4 oz
REI Ducks Back Rain Cover (XS)18-30L3 oz
Osprey UL Pack Cover (XL)75-110L3.4 oz
Osprey UL Pack Cover (Large)50-75L3 oz
Osprey UL Pack Cover (Medium)30-50L2.8 oz
Deuter Rain Cover III45-90L4.6 oz
Deuter Rain Cover II30-50L3.2 oz
Deuter Rain Cover I20-35L2.9 oz
Granite Gear Storm Cell Cover (XL)98-115L6.9 oz
Granite Gear Storm Cell Cover (L)74-90L6 oz
Granite Gear Cloud Cover (M)54-66L3.9 oz
Granite Gear Cloud Cover (S)41-54L3.4 oz
Granite Gear Cloud Cover (XS)30-41L3 oz

Waterproof Backpacks

Some manufacturers make waterproof backpacks with fabrics that don’t absorb water and have been seam-taped so their seams don’t leak. This is fairly common with Dyneema Backpacks, like those made by Zpacks or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. It’s less common on waterproof packs made with other waterproof fabrics like X-Pac, waterproof Cordura, and polyurethane-coated high-tenacity nylon although it varies on a case-by-case basis. You can also seam-seal a backpack by yourself, but it’s a much messier process than seam-sealing a tent where you have much more space to work with.

Hybrid Rain Gear

Some vendors sell dual-purpose poncho-style backpack covers that can also be used as rain gear. These cover both sides of your backpack, the front and the back, and can prevent leaks from your shoulder straps and hip belt. The Packa is one example. Mystery Ranch makes the less cumbersome Hooded Pack Fly and Lighthear Gear makes a Hoodie Pack Cover which serves a similar purpose.

High Visibility Pack Covers

Another important use for a pack cover is for increased visibility during the hunting season. If you backpack or hike in areas frequented by hunters, covering your backpack with a Blaze Orange pack cover can be a useful precaution. Mystery Ranch and Dutchware Gear are good sources for Blaze Orange pack covers.

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  1. For me, depends on the pack.
    If I take my GG Gorilla in Robic, always. Robic is like blotting paper IMO. So the Z packs DCF cover, doesn’t stop it getting wet, but it sure helps.
    If I use my Atom Packs made with VX21, then it’s not so crucial.
    That said, 1 4oz extra, why not?

  2. I use my bright orange/red cover in hunting season also! Other times – not so much. My stuff sacks are waterproof and all dry things go in a compactor bag. I also place my tent in a position in the mesh outer pocket so it acts as a cover for anything under it and keeps it relatively dry.

    Good article – thanks!

  3. At Philmont Scout Ranch, packs must be stored away from tents. That’s the one place I always bring and use a pack cover (in addition to a trash compactor bag for the reasons you stated).

    Walmart has an adequate pack cover for cheap. I also like Mountain Laurel Designs’ pack covers (they have a Citrus Orange one which is pretty close to Blaze Orange IMO).

    I haven’t been hiking in the UK or Iceland, am curious what hikers in those notoriously rainy areas have found. Philip, I know you’ve done TGO a few times – what did you see being used?

  4. I’ve evolved from pack covers to a compactor bag to a Zpacks pack liner. When I used a pack cover my bag and gear would still be wet when it rained for a while or heavily. It caused me to use lots of waterproof storage bags. A compactor bag worked pretty well but would get small holes after a while and then when I slipped in a stream crossing everything still got soaked. The Zpacks liner rolls up tightly at the top and unless the bag is submerged for a while everything stays dry. While my Granite Gear backpack grows heavier after absorbing rain, it still dries out within a day of the rain event.

  5. Interesting to see the Hooded pack fly and Hoodie pack cover. I had a similar idea and it seems it was obvious enough that someone has tried. The idea is to stop the rain or snow going down between your back and the pack so you might wear the hood even if you are wearing a rain jacket.

    The LightHeart Gear “Hoodie” seems the better take because it covers the shoulders and extends its range of use giving you some handy light rain protection if you are not quite ready to deploy your rain jacket. It’s also quite a bit lighter. I think it may needs some kind of cinch or elastication around the front of the “cape” to stop it being annoying with any kind of wind which is maybe why the Mystery Ranch Pack Fly doesn’t go there. A bit specialized and expensive to just try it and see unfortunately.

    Currently I use an inexpensive polyester pack cover which worked well enough for the small amount of weather I have so far needed to use it for. It is elasticated with a cross strap that goes under the pack straps which I think makes the cover a bit more effective. I also found it useful when storing the pack in the tent vestibule. It acts as a bathtub floor for the pack to keep it cleaner and drier if the tent site is a bit dirty, damp or gets much unexpected run off. Straps down you can still get to the pack pockets and into a pack with zippered panels. Maybe not so great for a top loader. Possibly it might discourage rodents and insects from getting into and chewing on the pack too but that is probably wishful thinking on my part.

    I also use a compactor bag for my sleeping bag and clothing inside the pack but for my Sierra trips that was more for river crossings which a pack cover doesn’t do a lot for.

  6. Please note that a pack cover will not keep your pack contents dry if you slip or stumble during a stream ford. A pack liner, tightly closed, is your best insurance there. However, since I use my pack for a pillow, I also take a ZPacks pack cover to keep the front of the pack dry–for me, it’s worth the ounce of redundancy.

  7. I bought a pack cover on sale at GoLite for my Pinnacle pack and finally got to use it on one hike where it was light rain and drizzle the entire time. I was surprised at how well it worked because I thought I’d get quite a bit of water through between my back and the pack. At night, it kept my pack dry while the pack was leaned against a tree.

    On a recent hundred mile AT section hike, I used a trash compactor bag instead of the cover. We had several days of pouring rain. My current pack, a Granite Gear Crown VC 60, didn’t seem to pick up much weight from the rain and the compactor bag kept my sleeping bag and other essentials completely dry. That was a good thing because in one of the storm systems we hiked through, the drenching rain turned to sleet, then snow which was accompanied by monster winds all night long. If our sleeping gear had gotten wet, it could have become a serious situation. Everything we’d worn the day before that we hung to dry in the shelter was frozen solid in the morning.

    For me, I’ll always put my crucial gear in waterproof containment inside my pack so a pack cover isn’t essential.

    • Lawrence Constantino

      Dido! On that same hike, was glad to have zpack pack cover, and zpack liner, and use the lightweight plastic bag my ff sleeping bag came in (with its stuff sack too) for sleeping bag and down puffy inside liner. Ha! You think I’m a bit overly concerned with keeping stuff dry? Ok, if I had to choose between one, (plastic bag and stuff sack stay regardless), the pack cover or the liner, go with the liner! But how nice to keep the outside of pack dryer especially if you need to bring it in your shelter.

    • I didn’t add in my comment that my sleeping bag was in a waterproof stuff sack inside the trash compactor liner–a person shouldn’t take chances when safety is involved, especially when using down filled bags. I also had a Schnozzel pumpbag that my wife had gotten me for anniversary. I had my down puffy and spare layers in that. Every piece of clothing that had been protected by waterproof containment was worn that night to make it through that rather brutal storm. We got to a hostel to wait out the next storm and finished our hike before the granddaddy of the previous two storms hit.

  8. I use a trash compactor bag for interior of pack and a rain poncho for exterior. The poncho keeps both me and my pack dry and can double as a tarp.

  9. I grew up hiking in the Cascades in the Pacific NW. Even on sunny days you brought rain gear. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve had wet cold gear. Now….no matter how water proof the pack is….I use garbage bag liner in the pack and Amazon Cheapo pack cover doused in water repellant. Haven’t had wet gear since. Total cost $15.

  10. I’ve done a lot of traveling overseas, and I always used to be mystified when seeing backpackers with packcovers on in train and bus stations, or even just while walking down a busy sidewalk on a sunny day or a cloudless evening. I thought it looked pretty stupid. Until I saw pickpockets coming up behind someone and accessing their bags, packs, whatever. I realized that packcovers thwart pickpockets. If they can’t see where the pockets are or have to get under the packcover before they can get to the pocket they are far less likely to try to steal from a covered pack.

  11. I’ll often pull out the pack cover for a little warmth and wind protection over my knees And feet while sitting for a lunch break or to enjoy a windy vista. Faster and easier than struggling into rain pants then taking them off again in a few minutes.

  12. I remember well the group I met backpacking on British Columbia’s renowned West Coast Trail. They came into a popular beach-side camp site down one member – he had to backtrack almost three miles to find his rain cover that had been snagged by a tree branch. A tough lesson on a very demanding trail. I’ve been happily using a compactor bag for years – the added benefit of being able to easily locate gear against the white of the compactor bag is a big bonus.

  13. Christopher Kincaid

    All the covers I’ve seen cover the front of the bag but what about the back side

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