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Backpacking Pack Liners vs Stuff Sacks (Should I Use Both?)

Every backpacker has their own idea on how to effectively keep gear dry inside a pack. There are a number of options available on the market and they all have their own set of drawbacks.

Pack covers definitely get the worst wrap since they tend to leak and don’t keep the contents of your pack dry. However, they do keep water from soaking into your pack so that’s a plus. I tend to use a cover when I’m expecting heavy rain.

Check Out My Post on Pack Liners vs Pack Raincovers

Pack liners are also a very popular option, but you get most of those same benefits from waterproof stuff sacks. Most of your gear doesn’t actually need to stay dry so is a bag liner really all that it’s cracked up to be? Stuff sacks definitely have organizational benefits, but are they effective at actually keeping your gear dry?

After years of research and trying every possible gear combination I could think of I’d like to give some expert advice. This is how I keep my gear dry without adding unnecessary weight.

Main Advantages and Disadvantages

Although pack liners and stuff sack perform the same basic function they each have their own advantages/disadvantages. Check out the table below for a few of the pros and cons.

Pack Liner Pros and ConsStuff Sack Pros and Cons
Keeps the entire bag dryEasy to Organize
Cheap Options Available(Compactor bags, contractor bags)Most important gear is protected
Waterproof when completely submerged.Compression sacks are available
Easy to repair with duct tapeCompactor bags can tear
Lightweight(less than 1/2 oz)Completely Waterproof
More Durable
If there’s a leak you can’t control what gets wet.Somewhat expensive
Gear isn’t organizedDoesn’t protect your entire pack
Everything gets wet or nothing gets wet
Compactor bags can tear

Why Not Use A Liner, Cover and Stuff Sack?

I get it you’re trying to shed weight in your pack, but how much does each of these items actually weigh? If you don’t use a cover, your pack is going to soak up a ton of weight(there’s no avoiding it), but it doesn’t really keep out water.

Unless the weather report shows no signs of rain I will use all three. The small amount of extra weight(like 4oz) is well worth the added benefits. It’s like paying for insurance. You hope you never need it, but it’s nice to have when you do.

A pack liner(check out the one I use on amazon) or compactor bag, will completely waterproof your bag(even when completely submerged). Stuff sacks keep everything organized and act as the last line of defense. Plus you should be using a compression stuff sack for your sleeping bag anyway so how much weight will they actually add.

Always Use a Stuff Sack For Important Gear

It doesn’t matter if you use a compactor bag or expensive ultralight stuff sack; you need to protect the most important gear in your backpack. I mainly focus on protecting my sleeping gear, dry food, and those important loose items that are extremely important.

Keys, phone, wallet, pills, first-aid kit, electronics, etc and anything else that I would hate to lose or destroy. For most of the tiny items you can get away with just using a large gallon-sized Ziploc bag.

Obviously, my bear canister/bag needs to be waterproof as well since it gets hung up outside in the rain. You don’t want to eat wet/moldy food after a long day on the trail.

Waterproof Compression Sacks For Sleeping Gear

Over the years I’ve tried to simplify my backpacking setup. If the weather looks clear/sunny I leave my liner and cover at home and only use a waterproof stuff sack.

That’s where I put my sleeping bag, sleep clothing, socks, underwear, and cold-weather clothing that shouldn’t get wet. I’ve used different bag liners in the past and they’re hit or miss.

Ever sleep in wet clothes or a soaking wet bag? Unsurprisingly, it’s absolutely terrible. Although bag liners and pack covers significantly reduce moisture, some will always get in. You need to have some sort of redundancy to protect your sleeping gear.

All that stuff can fit in one large compressible stuff sack(check it out on Amazon). I find that having everything in one place makes it much easier to keep track of everything in camp.

At the end of a long day on the trail, and the sun starts to go down you don’t want to mess around. Just set up the tent, grab your dry sack and you’re good to go. Everything else can go outside to cut down condensation.

The next morning, just throw everything in your compression sack, compress it down and it’s good to go in your pack.

Different Pack Liners(You Don’t Need to Spend A Lot)

I might be in the minority among backpackers, but I’ve always used a commercial pack liner(check it out on Amazon). Most backpackers use compactor bags because they want to save a little bit of weight. You’re talking about a 1oz difference between the two.

Cheap Options

Regular garbage bags just aren’t designed for the extended abuse of a long hike. Maybe expensive bags can withstand the pokes/pulls and friction of a hike, but that’s not the best option.

The vast majority of experienced backpackers line their packs with compactor bags(these bags). You can also use heavy-duty 3mil contractor bags if you’d prefer. A compactor bag only weighs .5oz, costs less than a quarter, and should last throughout the entire camping season. Just throw it away at the end of your trip.