Keeping gear dry in a backpack is not as simple as you’d think. Water has an uncanny ability to get everywhere so you need to use extra waterproofing. In this article we compare bin bags vs pack liner for trekking, and look at other options to keep water at bay.
So why bother splashing the cash on a pack liner when you can achieve the same with a bin bag or carrier bag? You’ve hundreds of them lying around the house, they cost nothing and are fully waterproof.
Why you need extra waterproofing
Let’s be clear, rucksacks aren’t waterproof. Even with the storm cover you’ll be lucky to keep out heavy rain. Especially if after a long day on the hills, we leave them half out of our tents…
We’ve all made the mistake of thinking that moisture won’t get in. What we forget is that rain comes horizontally, rucksacks end up on sodden ground, or wet gear gets put into them.
It’s absolutely vital everything is waterproofed. There’s nothing worse than reaching inside for a fresh layer to feel the cold, wet material of a soaked fleece. Remember the spare clothing in your backpack could save your life, but it won’t if it is wet.
Ways of keeping gear dry in a backpack
I remember when packing a rucksack for three days in the field hearing someone ask, “Should I waterproof my waterproofs?” Now as ridiculous as this may sound, it highlights the two roles pack liners have:
First up they can be used to waterproof gear, secondly they are great for helping compartmentalise your stuff. Some people pick one big liner and drop everything in that – not a move I favour.
I prefer multiple bags. That way all your eggs are not in one basket, and it makes gear easier to find.
Bin bags vs pack liner for trekking
Let’s look at what’s available on the market and weigh up whether it’s really worth the extra coin. Keeping gear dry in a backpack doesn’t have to cost a fortune, but it can!
You’ve all seen the style before. Roll top, soft-touch, with a buckle and available in pretty much every size you could imagine.
The benefits of these are you can vacuum pack your gear. Squeeze all the air out before closing and you’ll start freeing up space you never knew you had.
In essence you are adding another layer of waterproofing to your rucksack. Basic ones are made from nylon and rated at around 10,000mm waterproof in water column tests. They’ll cost around £5-15 depending on the size and brand. Exped are the big name in town.
But that is still not completely waterproof (e.g. top Gore Tex is rated at 30,000mm). For that you’ll need a more heavy duty vinyl liner, or dry bag.
Inspired by the kayaking drybags, these are super-durable, ultra-tough and much heavier than the models mentioned so far. SealLine and Ortlieb are the big names in this part of the market. Others include Draper, Overboard, and a range of sailing brands.
Made from thick nylon/vinyl, these will float when packed with gear. If you are looking at crossing rivers, they will hold up against pretty much every torrent.
Watch out though, they are bulky. Yes, they vacuum everything exceptionally well, but they are more rigid and eat pack space. Prices again vary by size but you’re looking at around £15-30.
Really great for vital items and they have a survival/ flotation function which could be useful. But overkill really unless you will be fording rivers, or there is a good chance of you falling into water.
Polythene rucksack liner
I can’t tell the difference between these and refuse sacks. Admittedly I’ve never used one, so I can’t really comment much further on their quality. Although at the price of £2 each (ish), I can’t help but think you’d be better off shopping at your local hardware store or garden centre.
Bin bag / Refuse sack
Cheap, cheerful and waterproof past what you’ll ever need, is the refuse sack. For £2-3 you’ll get a roll of at least 10 heavy duty bags with decent ties.
No role in fording rivers (although I have seen it done), no roll-top clasp, no funky colours with token reflective strip and certainly no survival instructions printed on the side. No bother!
Bombproof solution to pretty much every waterproofing problem, with only two drawbacks. Firstly, they are all the same colour so you’ll have difficulty finding stuff. Secondly, you look like you didn’t buy the ‘proper’ kit.
When it comes to bin bags vs pack liner for trekking if you like to have all the gear then feel free to splash some extra cash. Personally I don’t give a stuff, and just pack using a refuse sack.
Supermarket plastic bags
The free supermarket bags (which in many countries have been replaced by stronger bags for life costing a few pence) are also an option. You probably have hundreds of them and they come in all different colours and sizes.
They are certainly better than nothing, and in many cases just as good as other options. For a few days hiking the bag for life style are more than sufficient. Although for multi day trekking holidays you may want something more robust.
Your average supermarket plastic bag is also useful to help divide up gear and adds minimal weight or volume. There is also the added advantage that you are reusing something plastic, which is a little better for the environment.
I have to admit I’m a fan. One bin bag or pack liner to keep the bigger, heavier stuff dry and a handful of supermarket plastic bags to separate gear. Perfect.
Keeping gear dry in a backpack: Conclusion
Anything in addition to the fabric of your rucksack that helps keep your gear dry is good thing. Personally I always go for something that is 100% waterproof as you never know.
When it comes to bin bags vs pack liner for trekking I fall in the refuse sack camp. Just make sure they are heavy duty, so they will last well and won’t tear, and you’ll have saved some money.
Whichever way you go, remember there’s one more function of lining your pack. The bags help carry your honking socks and stink-ridden base layers. Keeping them wrapped up and away from clean gear, and companions noses, is reason enough for using them!