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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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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