ULTRALIGHT BACKPACKING STUFF SACKS FOR THRU HIKES & BACKCOUNTRY TRIPS
Words by Mike St. Pierre
Stripped Down Backpacking Stuff Sacks for Waterproof Redundancy & Organization
Most backpackers and thru hikers use stuff sacks, sometimes almost by default. A lot of gear comes with them—tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and even stuff like stoves. More often than not, what comes straight from the manufacturer is more of an after thought than anything else. Most backpacking stuff sacks are out of the technological orbit of the products they are made to contain. Cheap-o nylon, poorly constructed, outdated: they aren’t as light as they could be or as water resistant as they should be.
So I always recommend that people who are just getting started with ultralight stuff sacks begin by replacing the less-than-ideal standard stuff sacks they’re already carrying. It’s a great way to drop sometimes up to a pound of weight, just by switching materials from nylon to Dyneema Composite Fabrics (DCF, formerly Cuben Fiber). 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:
- Three-season down: Extra large drawstring or Medium roll-top
- Three-season synthetic or Four-season down: Jumbo drawstring, Large roll-top)
- Ultralight sleeping pad like Thermarest NeoAir: Medium drawstring
- 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 of all bells and whistles. When it comes to the body of the pack, there are no internal zippers, pockets, dividers, adjusters, doo-hickeys, add-ons or attachments. Why? Because in modern backpack design, those are all of the things that make a pack heavy. And 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 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 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 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 its 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? Not likely.
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 lightening my load? If a stuff sack doesn’t answer all these questions, I won’t use it.
|Drawstring Stuff Sacks (DCF8 + DCF11)|
|Nano||4″ x 6″||iPhone 7
DIY ultralight first aid kit
Toiletries (TP & lighter)
Alcohol stove & windscreen
|Small||8″ x 9″||iPhone 7+
Point & shoot camera
Ultralight down jacket
|Medium||9″ x 12″||Hat & gloves
Small stove & cookset
Ultralight sleeping pad
|Large||10″ x 14″||Clothes
Down belay jacket
|Extra Large||12″ x 17″||Three-season down sleeping bag
|Jumbo||14″ x 19″||Three-season synthetic sleeping bag
Four-season down sleeping bag
DCF8? DCF11? Draw string, Roll-top + POD?!
Deciphering the options available can be tricky at first, but we always make a point of providing the most options possible when it comes to our products. As with our range of pack sizes and various shelter options, choosing the stuff sack that’s right for you is primarily a matter of personal choice.
Along the way, you can factor in a few variables, and the end result will be gear that’s custom-tailored to your trip and the environment in which it will take place.
DCF8 vs DCF11:
- You can read up on the basics of Dyneema Composite Fabrics (formerly known as Cuben Fiber, more on that here) on our Dyneema Technologies page. The quick, dirty explanation: Dyneema Composite Fabrics are made when Dyneema Fiber is laid out in a cross-hatch pattern and laminated. DCF11 has a greater density of Dyneema Fibers within a give area of the material. It is therefore heavier, but stronger and more durable.
- DCF8 Draw String Stuff Sacks = slightly lighter, slightly cheaper, slightly less durable. DCF11 Draw String Stuff Sacks = 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.
Draw string vs. Roll-top vs. POD:
- Draw string 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 draw string 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. 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.
As well, 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 you do not 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, 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 comfortably 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, creating a mess in your food bag and wasting precious calories.
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.
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.
- 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 Cuben Fiber fabric, I don’t need a sack for my shelters. Since Cuben Fiber 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.
- Create a “packing system,” is also a great way to work towards keeping all of the stuff in your pack dry. My system is comprised of a shelter, backpack and stuff sacks all made of Cuben Fiber. I understand not everyone can use Cuben Fiber 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.