Pack Liners vs Garbage Bags and Compactor Bags


Even the best backpack isn’t going to stay dry long in a heavy downpour. Luckily with the use of pack covers and liners you should be able to keep most of your gear dry. Do you really need to spend money on fancy packliners or will a basic compactor bag or garbage bag work?

Backpacking Pack Liners vs Garbage Bags and Compactor Bags

Throughout my life I’ve used a wide assortment of pack liners. My wife would kill me if she ever did the math on all the gear I’ve used for 1 season and eventually discarded.

In the past 10 years I’ve used a handful of pack liners and thought it would be useful to describe what you should be looking for in a pack liner.

  • Durability(Winner Dedicated Pack Liner): On short weekend trips durability probably isn’t going to make much of a difference. Just line your pack with a cheap compactor bag or stretchy garbage bag. On longer trips you might want to spend the extra money on a durable drybag like Ospreys Ultralight Pack Liners (On Amazon) although they’re expensive.
  • Volume Winner (Undecided): You need to find a liner that’s big enough to fit your pack. Compactor bags really only come in 18 Gallon Size which is big enough for most packs, but you might need bigger.
  • Price (Winner Compactor Bags): Compactor bags are by far the cheapest option available and they really do work. A real pack liner is going to cost about $40 vs $2 for your compactor bag. There are a couple of companies that sell cheap disposable liners, but they’re no better than compactor bags.
  • Weight (Winner Compactor Bags): Weight will always be a factor when it comes to backpacking. You might be able to shave off a few oz by making the switch to a compactor bag. Ospreys Ultralight Liners weigh about 5oz while compactor bags only weigh around 3oz.
  • Easy to Close (Winner Pack Liner): Pack liners usually have roll-up tops and straps so that you can easily seal your pack off from water. Just roll them down and you’re good to go. Compactor bags on the other hand can either be rolled down(my preference) or you can use a rubber band, twist tie or clothespin to shut it. Although I haven’t had many issues water is more likely to get into the top of a poorly folded compactor bag.
  • Repairability (Winner Draw Kinda): You might occasionally get a puncture in a durable pack liner, but they’re very rare. Although it’s not pretty all it takes to fix the puncture is a little bit of duct tape. By the end of a week-long backpacking trip, your compactor bag will start to look a little bit ratty. In the short term, you can fix it with duct tape, but once you get home just replace it with a new one.

Just Go With a Compactor Bag

Unless you really have a lot of extra money to spend on gear I would probably just go with a compactor bag. Compactor bags are durable, last at least 1 week and they’re an excellent defense against rain and flooded ground. I’ve been using compactor bags to keep my gear dry for years and I have no regrets.

Before packing your backpack just line the pack with a trash compactor bag (On Amazon). I’m talking about the same old generic trash compactor bag you find at the supermarket.

Although I’ve tried using name brand pack liners compactor bags offer almost the exact same amount of protection. Name brand pack liners might last longer, but the difference isn’t worth the significant increase in price.

Roll Down The Top of Your Compactor Bag

Some people like to use twist ties, rubber bands and clothespins to secure their compactor bag, but I personally prefer rolling down the top of my bag.

I’ve never had my bag fully submerged in the water, but I have been in hard rain where my pack was soaked but the contents of my compactor bag were bone dry.

If you’re really paranoid you can always keep your electronics in a dry sack/ziplock and sleeping bag in a compression stuff sack (check them out). Compression stuff sacks will really cut down the size of your sleeping bag so it’s a good idea regardless.

Difference Between Garbage Bags and Compactor Bag Pack Liners

Compactor bags are basically just heavy duty garbage bags designed withstand the movement of a trash compactor. Compared to the inner workings of a trash compactor the stress put on a compactor bag during a hike is basically nothing.

In a bind a regular old garbage bag is better than nothing, but they don’t have the same elasticity as compactor bags. Keep an eye out for bags labeled as Flexible since they will last much longer. Contractor bags are huge, but they are much more durable than traditional garbage bags.

Don’t Buy Scented Bags

It should seem obvious, but I figured that it’s worth mentioning that you shouldn’t buy scented bags. They might make your gear smell better, but they will attract wildlife.

Watch Out For Pointy Objects

With a compactor bag you really need to watch out for pointy objects. Although I’ve never had a tear in a compactor bag since they’re pretty durable you still don’t want pointy things sticking into them. Try to protect your bag from tent stakes, utensils, etc.

Remember: Not Everything Needs to Go in The Compactor Bag

Just remember that a large percentage of your gear doesn’t need to go inside your pack liner or compactor bag. Although most people line their entire pack some backpackers just protect their most important items like clothes, sleep system, etc.

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