Rucksack covers vs rucksack liners – which is better?

Published 26 September 2021.

The Southern Upland Way shelter at Cockburnspath, that marks the end of the trail
Does a a rucksack without a raincover need a shelter?

When I bought my first big proper rucksack in 2007 (a 50 litre job that’s looking a bit tired now but is still in use), I checked out its features with interest.  Compression straps.  Walking pole holders.  A divider so I can split the interior in two?  Reflective bits!  Pocket for hydration system.  And some weird straps on it that I’ve really no idea what they are for.

And then there was the little pocket with the rucksack raincover on it.

The raincover got used on pretty much the first day I was out walking with it.  It was a section of the Pennine Way, and inevitably it was raining.  So I put the cover on.

It only rained for a few hours and the cover did its job.  But as time went on I began to realise the cover didn’t keep my pack waterproof.  Fine in showers but heavy rain, nah.  No good.  Also it was awkward to put on if I had my walking poles attached.  At least until a small hole got ripped in the fabric by the bottom of the poles.  And after many experiments with carrier bags, and bin liners, I made a sensible investment in some rucksack liners – also often known as drybags. And they are wonderful. Even in the very worst of rain, my belongings have stayed pretty dry. Which is just what you want.

But despite the raincover never seeming to do that much, I’ve kept on using it all these years. Although I’ve often wondered whether it was worth it or not. Which was better? The raincover? Or the liners?

As it happened I recently had a chance to put this to the test. I was walking the Northumberland Coast Path with a friend who didn’t have dedicated rucksack liners. He had wrapped everything inside his pack in bags.

On the second day the heavens opened in spectacular style. We both went to put our rucksack covers on. And it was then I found that mine was absent. I’d taken it out for cleaning at some point and neglected to put it back into its dedicated storage pocket.

Unwittingly I’d managed to set up an experiment.

Three drybags of varying sizes
Three drybags of varying sizes

It wasn’t the perfect experiment, but it would be good enough. We both had Berghaus rucksacks made of similar material, although mine was older. We each had a similar amount of luggage. We also both were exposed to pretty much the same amount of rain. But one had only a rucksack liner, the other only a rucksack cover.

So which pack fared better? At the end of the day we empted everything out to see.

Both our rucksacks themselves were very wet. Mine perhaps more so as it hadn’t had the rucksack cover, but my friend’s wasn’t in a great state either. They were both soggy, although both dried reasonably.

What about the contents?

Everything in my drybags were perfectly dry. Half a day in horrendous rain and everything was grand. Less good were the few bits of dirty clothing I’d shoved at the bottom of the pack, outside the liner. They were absolutely soaked.

The content of my friend’s pack? Less good. Most of his belongings were at least damp. Nothing truly soaked – the cover had done something, but not perfect.

All in all though, it was enough to make me decide that the raincover is optional – but drybags certainly aren’t. If you’re looking at doing a long distance walk and carrying your own belongings, they’re well worth an investment.

Your Comments

Vic Flange

26 September 2021 at 10:17 am

Andrew, definitely agree that drybags are a must. I have one of those blue Sea-to-Summit liners seen in your picture – a 50 litre one, it must be about 9 years old now – plus a few other smaller drybags of varying sizes to carry other stuff (e.g. first aid items, chargers and cables). Drybags are also useful for sorting kit inside the rucksack into groups.

This year I walked Glyndwr’s Way which was rain free until the final two days. My rucksack has no cover and because I had a sleeping mat strapped to the outside, it wouldn’t really have been feasible, so I was relying solely on the bag liner.

The contents of the bag were almost dry but there was definitely a very minor leakage (my guess is about 10-20ml of water): I found a very tiny hole in the lower half of the bag, so I can only surmise that was the cause. I must emphasise that this hole was only noticeable by holding the material up to the daylight – the easiest way is stick the bag over your head (!) – from the outside it couldn’t be seen. I would advise to periodically check the bag, preferably a week or so before a major walk to give time to repair or replace.

NB In 2013, the raincover on one of my previous rucksacks was blown off whilst walking the SW Coast Path in south Devon – I didn’t notice for up to 20 minutes. I retraced my steps but with the wind and the heavy fog rolling in off the sea I never found it. :-) Thankfully, the contents was in drybags.

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