Hiking Guide to Stuff Sacks

 Lots of Different Stuff Sacks

Backpacking Packing System

Stuff sacks are a important part of any hiker’s or backpacker’s packing system. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, fabrics, and weights. Over the years, I’ve purchased, collected, and used a lot of different stuff sacks to organize and protect my gear. However, if you’re not careful, you can spend a lot of money on stuff sacks that are too big, heavier than necessary or fall short of their intended purpose. The purpose of this article is to review the best stuff sack types and sizes and for different packing needs.

Types of Stuff Sacks

Stuff sacks can have a variety of different roles in your packing system and it’s useful to identify what you are trying to accomplish before you choose one. For example,

  • Compression sacks are primarily designed to reduce the volume that a piece of gear takes in your backpack. This can be very important in shoulder seasons or in winter when a bulky cold weather sleeping bag is required.
  • Waterproof dry sacks should be used when you absolutely have to keep a piece of gear dry, but they can add significant weight to your pack if you’re not choosy.
  • Regular silnylon stuff sacks or mesh bags are good for keeping gear segregated by function so you can find it easily in your pack when it is needed.
  • Ultralight stuffs sacks made from cuben fiber are good for applications requiring exceptional strength and high volume, like a bear bag.
  • Clear plastic ziploc bags are often better than stuff sacks when you want to be able to quickly find and access an specific item.

Compression Sacks

Compression Sack

Compression Sack

Compression sacks are most often used to reduce the size of a sleeping bag so that it takes up less volume in your backpack. This is usually not necessary with a down bag rated for 20 degrees or higher which is highly compressible and can be easily stuffed into a regular stuff sack by hand. But the assistance of a compression strap system is normally required for sub-zero cold weather down and synthetic bags when pack space is at a premium because you need to carry a lot more cold weather gear.

Some compressions sacks are also waterproof, a feature that you should consider carefully given the weather conditions and terrain you expect to be traveling through. The down sleeping bag in the photo above is in a 3.5 oz Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Compression Sack that I use in winter. It is made using siliconized Cordura and is water resistant, but not completely waterproof because it doesn’t have a roll-top closure or taped seams. I’m comfortable using a non-waterproof sack because I don’t carry my water in my pack in winter and because I’m using a heavy duty winter pack with a built in liner that will keep my gear dry even if it were to rain.

Sea-to-Summit Compression Dry Sack

Sea-to-Summit Compression Dry Sack

Another alternative is to use a compression sack that is completely waterproof. This XL Sea-to-Summit Compression Dry Sack has a capacity of 30L, which is the size you would need to carry a larger winter sleeping bag, and weighs 7.4 oz. One end of this compression sack is made using eVent fabric, which is a breathable fabric that lets air out but prevents moisture from seeping in. When you compress this sack, the air inside is supposed to be forced out. However, I’ve never gotten that feature to work. If you’re mileage differs let me know.

Some manufacturers like The North Face include compression sacks with their cold weather sleeping bags. Beware that these can be very heavy if you are counting ounces. Weigh them before you use them. Chances are good, that you can find something lighter.

Waterproof Dry Sacks

For 3 season hiking, I always carry my water in a 3L platypus hydration bladder inside my pack. So, I’m a little more careful about making sure that certain items like my sleeping bag or extra clothes are stowed in waterproof stuff sacks.

After a lot of trial and error, I’ve found that the Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack works best and is also very low weight. The 8L (size medium) bag shown below is stuffed with my down sleeping bag, a Western Mountaineering Ultralite 20. If your sleeping bag has synthetic fill, you’ll probably need a higher capacity dry sack.

Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack - Waterproof Stuff Sack

Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sack – Waterproof Stuff Sack

The 8L Ultra-Sil stuff sack only weighs 1.1 oz and is lighter than most non-waterproof silnylon stuff sacks. It has a roll top closure that’s like a dry bag that you’d use for kayaking and is made with siliconized cordura, which is a very lightweight nylon variant.

Stuff Sack Seams - Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Waterproof Stuff Sack

Stuff Sack Seams – Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil Waterproof Stuff Sack

Waterproof stuff sacks, like the Ultra-Sil, are specially constructed using seam tape (shown above) that prevents water from seeping into the bag where a sewing machine has joined two pieces of fabric. You can achieve the same affect by manually seam sealing a non-taped bag with silicone sealer, but you are likely to make it a lot heavier in the process.

Outdoor Research Hydrolite Dry Sack Stuff Sacks

Outdoor Research Hydrolite Dry Sack Stuff Sacks

Outdoor Research also has a series of HydroLite Dry Sacks that are a lot more rugged than the Sea-to-Summit Ultra-Sil sacks. These waterproof stuff sacks have a roll-top closures, taped seams, and a webbing strap at the bottom of each sack to make it easier to extract your sleeping bag or other contents. They are also a good deal heavier than the Ulta-Sil, and the Hydrolite #2 (775 cubic inches) weighs 2.5 oz, over twice as much as the Ultra-Sil. If I did any pack-rafting where full immersion is more likely, I’d probably use these bags, but for 3 season hiking I think they’re too heavy.

Silnylon Stuff Sacks

Regular, non-waterproof silnylon stuff sacks are used to segregate your gear by function so you can find it easily in your pack. Silnylon, or silicon impregnated nylon, is water resistant but not waterproof. It is used widely in the manufacture of hiking and backpacking gear.

Silnylon stuff sacks come in all shapes and sizes. Some are supplied by manufacturers with your gear and other can be purchased by themselves. For example, my Montbell Thermawrap Jacket came with featherweight silnylon stuff sack that weighs 0.2 oz. I’ve kept it because it’s the same color as the jacket making it easier to find in my pack. However, I’ve completely eliminated the stuff sacks that come with larger items such as tents because they’re too heavy. Let your digital scale be your guide to determine which of these you keep or discard.

I like using Outdoor Research Ultralight Ditty Sacks because they are lightweight and come in different colors. These come in 3 packs with small, medium, and large sacks that weight 0.5, 0.6, and 0.7 oz.

Outdoor Research Ultralight Ditty Packs

Outdoor Research Ultralight Ditty Packs

I also use small mesh sacks for certain applications like keeping my cooking pot and stove stuff secure and all together or bundling together my mountaineering gloves in winter so that they can dry but are still easy to find in my pack. Mesh stuff sacks are included with certain types of accessories like cooking gear and can be re-purposed in many different ways.

Ultralight Stuff Sacks

If you are a gram weanie (obsessed by weight) and have unlimited financial resources, you can also buy ultralight stuff sacks make out of specialty fabrics. You need to get these from smaller cottage gear manufacturers, but they can be worth it for certain applications.

  1. Gossamer Gear makes Stowlight Stow Sacks out of spinnaker fabric, a waterproof material used to make sailboat racing sales, in a variety of sizes all under 0.76 oz. They’re quite affordable.
  2. Mountain Laurel Designs makes stuff sacks using Spintex EXP and Cuben Fiber that are insanely lightweight, but pricey. I use a Spintex EXP bag as a bear bag: it weighs 0.6 oz, including a special hang loop, and easily holds 4 days of food.

Plastic Bags

Last, but not least, plastic bags make good stuff sacks, particularly for gear that you want to access quickly. For example, I use ziploc plastic bags to store my first aid and my gear repair kits for just this reason.

Conclusion

Discovering the best packing system for your gear takes a lot of patience and testing, but stuff sacks are almost certain to be a key component of your system. If you’re new to this, take a moment to figure out what the packing requirements are for each piece of gear you own and use your digital scale as needed to find lighter weight alternatives in order to keep your pack weight low.

Disclosure: The author owns all of the products in this review and purchased them using their own funds.

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20 Responses to Hiking Guide to Stuff Sacks

  1. Timmy Mac February 22, 2009 at 4:38 am #

    Phil, you are psychic. I was actually going to *request* just such an article (and let my rookie flag fly).

    I assume you carry your food in the sack you plan to hang as a bear bag. And if so, what size? I'm having a hard time visualizing what size sack one would need for a few days' worth of food.

  2. Earlylite February 22, 2009 at 6:48 am #

    Tim,

    Here are some options. Both bags are from Mountain Laurel Designs:

    See http://sectionhiker.com/2008/05/18/new-spinntex-b

    I'm using the 1500 ci bag in this system. Plenty of space. You'll want to buy a mini-biner if you go this route. Probably several – they're great.

    Or you can buy MLD's Pro Bear Bag System, which weighs 2.85 oz and costs $65. My only suggestion on this system would be to replace the silnylon rock bag with a more rugged small mesh sack.

    I would give Backpackinglight's Ursalite bear bag system a pass – too small and fragile.

  3. jdw01776 February 22, 2009 at 10:28 am #

    I've found that with an ultralight load, I don't need very many stuff sacks. This year, I may try just stuffing my sleeping bag loose into my pack liner. I'm confident I can still keep it dry.

    For Cuben stuff sacks that won't blow the budget, try Joe at Zpacks.com. He also offers Silnylon sacks.

    I've bought (and use) some of the OR Helium stuff sacks, but find them overbuilt for ultralight use. After a bit of cutting and trimming, they are much better.

    I've also had very good luck with selling my unwanted stuff sacks on eBay — no need to have them sitting around unused.

  4. Valgard February 22, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

    Very informative, this has inspired me to do more research into stuff sacks and I have determined that I'll make my own with material from thru-hiker.com. Seems like the cheapest option and I can customize my own gear and make it more light weight this way. I'll have to get enough to make myself a new rain fly for my hennessy to, the one they sent with it isn't big enough to cover my head when I stretch out.

  5. jlaporte February 22, 2009 at 10:20 pm #

    Thanks for this article. Do you have any tips to estimate the volume needed ?

  6. Ramkitten February 23, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

    I'm a stuff sack addict. I'm not sure of the exact number, but I think I have something like 15 of them in my gear closet, and that's only a fraction of the total number I've had over the years. When I'm backpacking, my clothes stuff sack usually becomes my pillow. I lay a fleece or t-shirt over the top to put my head on, because the fabric isn't too comfy against the skin.

  7. Chris (i-cjw.com) February 23, 2009 at 6:10 pm #

    I recently discovered Granite Gear's Ultralight Airspace Zip sacks. While "ultralight" is a bit of an exaggeration, the block-shape and top zip make storage and retrieval a breeze. Great for food, especially.

  8. Earlylite February 23, 2009 at 6:36 pm #

    jlaporte – trial and error? It really depends on the manufacturer and how much space your gear takes up. Maybe the question you should ask is how small you can get your gear to be when space is a premium. That's why I like down and freezer bag food – very compressible and space efficient.

  9. Earlylite February 23, 2009 at 6:39 pm #

    Valgard – the HH fly is too small. I swapped that out immediately for the JRB 8×8 silnylon tarp. even if you don't buy it, the sizing may help you figure out what to sew yourself.

  10. Christina January 23, 2011 at 9:01 pm #

    My brother, dad, and me started getting into backpacking early last year and we needed a tent. We found one online under the section labeled backpacking tents. When it got here, I realized that this was surely not a backpacking tent. Its pretty big and we really need something to compress the tent and the rainfly in for a weekend hike on the AT this summer. I was wondering what type of compression sack and what size would be best for it.

  11. John December 24, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    I have been using Cordura nylon packs and cargo bags for about 30 years.

    I keep them clean and store them dry in plastic bins between expeditions.

    I felt that this gear should last forever.

    However, I have noted two deterioration issues.

    First, the bags have developed a smell (like stale vomit) that does not wash out.

    Second, and this is specific for Eagle Creek bags that have a slick internal coating, the coating is breaking down and becoming sticky.

    Has anyone had this or similar experience?

    Is there a remedy to save the gear?

    • Gary April 17, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

      The smell is from the polyurethane coating breaking down. They make a product that is not a cleaner or deodorant but it is supposed to neutralize the smell. I got some but have yet to try it. I also wonder if the polyurethane breaking down compromises the overall properties of the stuff sack. Here is the info:

      McNett MiraZyme Enzyme-Based Odor Eliminator
      http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000DYNSN/ref=oh_o00_s00_i00_details

      My son has reported the stickiness issue as well but I am not sure if that is the same problem.

      • Peter K May 28, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

        This slick black stuff is not polyurethane. It’s an alternative coating that makes eagle creek stuff junk in a few years. Urethane is tough stuff and my old gregory packs and seal-line dry bags are doing fine, thanks

    • Kara F May 5, 2012 at 12:36 am #

      Just came across this thread – I’ve had two Eagle Creek bags (one larger backpack with zip off smaller one attached and one just a shoulder bag) with both having that smell you described as well as the stickiness on the inside. I didn’t realized it until tonight with the larger pack as I was getting it out for the weekend, but the smaller one started a few years ago and I had it ready to send in or find out what to do with it, but now I can’t find it. Hopefully I just didn’t get annoyed with it and donate it…
      Would love to know if Eagle Creek is replacing or fixing the issue. I’m sure it’s probably widespread with the older bags. Both of mine are probably 10 years old…
      Thanks!
      -Kara

  12. Evie February 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    Is there a system to stuffing a down sleeping bag into a compression stuff sack? I’ve seen videos where it looks pretty abusive. Is there a method that protects the sleeping bag or jut “go for it” and stuff?

    • Earlylite February 5, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

      Try grabbing small handfuls and pushing them in. After that push down on it with your knee. That will let you get the top of the compression sack in place and you can crank down the straps.

  13. Evie February 6, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Thanks.

  14. Dave January 24, 2013 at 5:22 am #

    I have a few of the Outdoor Research AirPurge DryComp Compression Sacks, and found them to be a great way to separate and compress both clean clothes and dirty laundry. They also did double duty with the dirty laundry by preventing the smell (especially that of dirty socks) from permeating the rest of the items in my backpack.
    I also liked the Outdoor Research Ultralight ditty sacks, and found them great for storing my camera, wallet/travel documents, etc while being extremely light. Just wish they were more water proof.

    Cheers, Dave

  15. Crisi May 26, 2014 at 11:41 am #

    How do you know what size you will need for your sleeping bag?

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