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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