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Backpacking Pack Liners vs Pack Raincovers (Should I Use Both?)

Everybody agrees that there are two main ways to keep your backpacking gear dry on the trail. It seems like a 50/50 split between rain cover and liner. Both these options work well, but there’s no general consensus. That being said there’s a time and place for both rain covers and liners on the trail.

Pack Liners vs Pack Covers (My Thoughts)

Personally, I lean towards the pack liner crowd. For years, I used a backpack raincover, but it always felt a little awkward. I could never get comfortable while wearing a rain cover.

The water still runs down my back and the packs padded mesh back soaks up rain like a sponge. Your shoulder pads get soaked and moisture leaks through parts of the pack they don’t cover. You can solve some of these problems with a basic rainsuit or poncho.

Even packs that are labeled as waterproof(Nylon, Cordora, Dyneema, etc) leak at the seems. Plus the cost of an Ultralight pack cover is just crazy. Check out this Osprey Ultralight Raincover on Amazon! It’s super lightweight, kind of effective but the price is insane.

Rain covers definitely have some advantages which I’ll get into below, but pack liners are much more effective at keeping your gear dry. Even a cheap contractor bag will protect your gear better than a rain cover.

Can I Use Both a Pack Liner and Pack Cover?

Both pack liners and covers have their merits, but does it ever make sense to use both? Using both a liner and cover is somewhat redundant, but it’s not a bad idea.

They both perform the same basic role in two very different ways. Rain covers keep your actual packs dry, but internal gear will get slightly wet. Pack liners keep your internal gear perfectly dry, but the pack gets wet.

Obviously, using both will keep both your pack and internal contents dry. It only makes sense to use both a pack liner and rain cover; Or Does It? Most backpackers recommend only using a liner for one simple reason.

Don’t Judge a Rain Cover By The Weight on The Box

Backpackers try to shed as much weight as they possibly can. If you can only use the one I would choose a liner, but if you’re willing to add a few oz it makes sense to use both.

There’s a fine line between adding the extra weight of a pack cover and the additional weight of a soaking wet pack. I’d be willing to bet my sponge-like pack weighs more when wet than a lightweight cover.

It’s hard to keep your gear dry without adding a little extra weight. Yes you can ditch that 4oz cover in favor of a liner, but the added water weight instantly negates that initial weight reduction. Only you can decide if using both makes sense.

Pack Liner Benefits

If for some reason you can only use one I would definitely choose a pack liner over a cover. Liners are way more effective at keeping water out of your pack. Covers are gonna leak, there’s no getting around it. You might get a leak with a liner, but you can easily fix it with a little duct tape. Here’s why I choose a pack liner over a cover.

Main Reasons Why I Choose a Pack Liner

  • Keeps the inside of my pack completely dry
  • Compactor bag liners are seriously cheap and very effective
  • With a bag liner your pack can be completely submerged in water and not leak. This is great when crossing streams and dealing with heavy rain. My pack has been submerged in water for a minute or two with minimal water getting in.

If you use a waterproof stuff sack you might not need a liner, but I’ve never heard somebody complain about their gear being too dry. You can shed a little weight by only waterproofing your most important gear, but you’re talking less than 1/2 oz with a compactor bag.

The only thing that really needs to be kept dry is your sleeping clothes, bag and dry food. Everything else can pretty much get wet. Pads don’t soak up water, stove, cookwear, tarp, tent, etc really doesn’t matter.

Using a Pack Cover

Nobody, absolutely needs to use a pack cover, but boy are they nice(just like I don’t need dedicated sleeping clothes). My cover only ways 2 oz and the benefits far outweigh the slight weight increase. I can set my pack on the ground without it getting muddy, and leave my pack outside at night to prevent tent condensation. It’s just really convenient.

Check out my post on preventing tent condensation.

Main Reasons Why I Use a Pack Cover

  • Keeps my pack somewhat dry which is way more comfortable
  • Covers up my exterior pockets which store my regularly used items.
  • Protects the pack in rough terrain, mud, brush, rocks, etc.
  • Covers my pack when I need to setup camp.
  • Keeps my pack clean when I set it down and take a break.

Whether or not you should use a pack cover depends on the conditions you face. They make sense in heavy rain and muddy terrain. Obviously, going without a pack cover will leave you with a soaking wet pack. That really sucks.

Plus I’ve found that no bag liner is 100% reliable. It will keep out most water, but you’ll still get mud, grit, dirt, pine needles, and pebbles in your bag. Over time you get tiny punctures that lets in water.

If you’re expecting heavy rain a pack cover makes sense. While I would still use a basic compactor bag liner(find them on Amazon) on the inside of my pack you should try to keep your backpack dry.

It doesn’t matter what you choose, a cover won’t keep your pack completely dry. Even if you don’t use a liner, you should definitely use waterproof stuff sacks. There’s nothing worse than opening up your pack to soaking wet clothes and sleeping bags.

A waterproof compression stuff sack will both keep your most important gear dry and significantly reduce the overall space used in your pack(my favorite stuff sack on Amazon).