Ultralight Backpacking Stuff Sacks for Thru Hikes & Backcountry Trips
Words by Mike St. Pierre
It's what's inside that counts: Stuff Sacks, Pods, Waterproof Redundancy, and Organization.
Most backpackers and thru hikers use stuff sacks, sometimes almost by default. For tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, kitchen, bathroom–you’re organizing your home away from home, even if it’s on your shoulders.
Some manufacturers ship their products in what’s technically a stuff sack, but they’re often more of an afterthought than anything else. Most backpacking stuff sacks fall outside of the technological orbit of the products they are made to contain. Cheap-o nylon, poor construction, outdated–they aren’t as light as they could be or as water-resistant as they should be.
So, I always recommend to people who are just getting started with ultralight stuff sacks that they begin by replacing these less-than-ideal standard stuff sacks they’re already carrying. It’s a great way to drop what can sometimes amount to a pound of weight, just by switching materials from nylon to Dyneema® Composite Fabrics. If you’ve already invested in a high-tech product like an ultralight sleeping bag, quilt, or pad, why not protect it from the elements and wear-and-tear with an equally high-tech product that is lighter, waterproof, and will also last longer than any other alternative?
There are a few easy substitutions to be made right off the bat:
Most two person tents on the market will fit in an Extra large Drawstring Stuff Sack, minus poles (see notes below for our approach to our own shelters). This would be optional depending on your tent’s design and how waterproof it is.
A QUICK NOTE: ULTRALIGHT PACKS VS. ORGANIZATION
If you look at any of our ultralight backpacks, you’ll notice first and foremost that they’ve been stripped down to only the essential features. When it comes to the body of the pack, there are no internal zippers, pockets, dividers, adjusters, doohickeys, add-ons or attachments. Why? Because in modern backpack design, those are all of the things that make a pack heavy. But even more than that, you don’t need them.
Then how do you keep your pack organized? Stuff sacks. They’re the unsung heroes of ultralight backpacking, the Clark Kent to its Superman, the Carleton to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince of Bel Air. They’re a little nerdy, a little too eager to please, but when it comes down to it, they’re a critical part of what we like to refer to as the pack system.
Pair like items (clothes, food, personal stuff/toiletries), divide them accordingly into appropriate-sized stuff sacks, and suddenly you have a modular set of building blocks for the inside of your pack. Need a fresh pair of socks? Rather than digging deep and praying, you can simply remove three or four neatly organized bags, find those new foot coozies, re-load your pack, and be on your way.
The same goes for when you get to camp at the end of a long day. Instead of exploding the contents of your pack onto the forest floor, you can quickly and efficiently disassemble your pack system, and everything will already be organized and right where you need it to be. That part of the experience—what some people call “pack discipline”–is a big part of why we do what we do. We believe that well-made gear that is as simple as possible fades into the background of a wilderness experience. With minimal distractions and without the attendant frustration, you’re primed to be in the moment, enjoying it (and the people you’re with) for everything it’s all worth.
At the same time, it’s actually easy to overuse stuff sacks. I’ve done it. After all, it feels good to see all your stuff neatly lined up with its own little baggy. But is it necessary? Only to the point where it’s not.
I always consider three key things when choosing my stuff sacks for hikes: Do they help me organize my pack? Do they protect my stuff? Are they decreasing my pack weight? If a stuff sack doesn’t answer all these questions, I won’t use it.
DCF8? DCF11? DRAWSTRING? ROLL-TOP? POD?
Choosing from our available assortment of organizational tools can be tricky at first, but we always make a point of providing what we believe are the most effective options. Factor in the variables relative to your trip goals and the environment you’ll be in, and the end result will be a setup that’s custom-tailored to your needs.
DCF8 or DCF11:
You can read up on the basics of Dyneema® Composite Fabrics here on our Technology Page. The quick and dirty explanation: Dyneema Composite Fabrics are made when Dyneema Fiber is laid out in a crosshatch pattern and laminated. DCF11 has a greater density of Dyneema Fibers within a given area of the material. It is therefore heavier, but stronger and more durable.
DCF8 Drawstring Stuff Sacks are slightly lighter, slightly cheaper, slightly less durable. DCF11 Drawstring Stuff Sacks are slightly heavier, slightly more expense, but slightly more durable.
For the true purist gram-counters, choose DCF8. Put things with harder edges in DCF11 if you want your stuff sacks to last longer.
DRAWSTRING or ROLL-TOP or POD:
Drawstring Stuff Sacks are by far your lightest option. They’re also the most versatile. They can fit a variety of shape and size items, and the drawstring can be used into some pretty creative ways. Some people swear by Drawstring Stuff Sacks for hang bags (just fold a couple inches of the material at the top of the sack over once and use a clove hitch or other cinching knot to tie your bag shut) and other campsite hacks.
When you absolutely, positively have to keep something dry, go with a Roll-Top Stuff Sack. Most people (myself included) will use one for down jackets and sleeping bags when warmth is critical. They’re great for electronics and generally awesome for everything anywhere it rains a lot. Again, some people are Roll-Top Stuff Sack hang bag devotees. Choose your own side in that battle.
PODs. Maybe the smartest thing we’ve dreamt up so far, a POD is stuff sack designed to fit the contours of your pack perfectly and stack together flawlessly. Why? Because even Roll-Top Stuff Sacks, which are cylindrical, end up with some angles and corners that waste space and can bunch up over the course of a long day on the trail. Using PODs delivers even greater pack organization and discipline and a nice comfy flat spot up against the back panel of your pack. They’re great for clothes, and I like to divide my meals out into them by type on longer trips. That way, when I’m famished at camp at the end of the day, all of my dinner options are right in front of me.
OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS, TIPS + TRICKS
Sleeping Bag: I often see people just cram their bag into the middle of their packs without a stuff sack. I don’t recommend this. At all costs you want to keep your sleeping bag as dry as possible. I typically use an oversized stuff sack for my sleeping bag. That way I can easily create a moldable “layer” in the pack–i.e., I can form it around other things in my pack and fill in any holes on the sides in order to make my pack as compact as possible.
I’ll often use a Roll-Top Stuff Sack because I can compress the sleeping bag down if I need to. This is the only situation where I utilize “compression.” In most circumstances, I highly recommend that you don’t fill your backpack with five or six hard, round balls that result from using too many compression stuff sacks. Not only are standard nylon compression sacks heavier with all their straps and extra material, but you’ll end up with a lot of little spaces that you can’t fill in (i.e. wasted volume), and a less-comfortable, lumpier, and bulkier backpack.
Clothes: No-brainer. Keep your clothes as dry as you can so you stay warm. You’ll be able to stay out in the backcountry longer and be more comfortable if you pay close attention to keeping your clothes dry.
Food: Thin paper coatings for your oatmeal, coffee, or other food items could easily break when wet. Keep them separated in a Stuff Sack so that one, they have a better chance of staying dry and preserving your precious calories, and two: if they do break, they won’t be all over everything in the contents of your pack.
Personal Stuff, Toiletries: Stuff sacks are ideal to compartmentalize all your personal items, including knife, spoon, toothbrush, extra guyline, etc. Need advice on how to piece together a minimal kit of toiletries? Check out our post on how to pack your personal items here.
Toilet Paper & Lighter: I keep my toilet paper and lighter in an extra small, separate sack for added protection. Wet toilet paper. No thanks. Wet lighter. No fire. Wet toilet paper covered lighter? Don’t even get me started.
Smart Phone or Small Camera: I put my iPhone in a small Stuff Sack so if/when I’m walking through tall, wet weeds or grass, it will stay dry in my pocket. Another cool trick is that phone touchscreens still work inside DCF8 stuff sacks. And because they’re transparent, you can see the screen right through the material, even in the rain.
FINAL NOTES FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
I believe bigger is better. Use slightly larger Stuff Sacks for backpacking. They’re so light you pay almost no weight penalty, and you’ll be able to create nice, flat layers in your pack to make it as compact as possible.
Use bonded stuff sacks whenever possible. Pack stuff too tightly into a sewn Cuben Fiber stuff sack, and you will elongate the stitch holes allowing more water to get into the sack through the seams. All Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sacks are fully bonded and are not sewn.
Put the head of your tent stakes in first to avoid puncturing the bottom of your stuff sack. Titanium stakes have sharp points but turning them upside down solves that problem.
Because I use a shelter made with 100% waterproof fabric, I don’t need a sack for my shelters. Since DCF doesn’t retain water, I simply stuff it at the very bottom of my pack. Thus, my pack becomes the stuff sack for my shelter. Even if it got drenched on the night before, water from my shelter will just pool at the bottom of my pack.
Creating a “pack system,” is also a great way to work towards keeping all of the stuff in your pack dry. My system is comprised of a backpack, shelter, and stuff sacks all made with Dyneema Composite Fabrics. I understand not everyone can use this material for everything, but regardless of what you use, always consider your pack as a system, and brainstorm the best ways to keep your stuff compartmentalized and dry.
Is the weather getting a little colder than expected and you’re feeling it in your fingers and toes? Use stuff sacks as gloves or socks. It doesn’t breathe, but for a quick warm up it works great!