Ultralight Backpacking Stuff Sacks for Thru Hikes & Backcountry Trips

Grand Canyon

By Mike St. Pierre

Stripped Down Backpacking Stuff Sacks for Redundancy & Organization

Most backpackers and thru hikers use stuff sacks. And more often than not, they aren’t as light as they could be or as water resistant as they should be. I always consider three key things when choosing my stuff sacks for thru 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.

It’s easy to overuse stuff sacks. I’ve done it. All thru hikers have, especially when they’re just starting out. After all, most outdoor gear you purchase comes with a nice stuff sack. And it feels good to see all your stuff neatly lined up with its own little baggy. But is it necessary? Not likely.

Stuff SacksCompartmentalizing your backcountry items is important, but you don’t need stuff sacks for everything. Plus, you can cut down the weight of your pack significantly if you don’t use all those factory-issued sacks. Here’s what I carry for stuff sacks on extended backpacking trips.

  • Sleeping bag (extra large or jumbo drawstring, depending on the season, or medium roll-top)
  • Clothes (extra large or jumbo drawstring)
  • Food (large, more durable CF11 drawstring)
  • Personal stuff/Toiletries (small or medium drawstring)
  • Toilet paper and lighter (nano or small drawstring)
  • Tent stakes (small, more durable CF11 drawstring)
  • Small camera and/or smart phone (nano drawstring)

Of course this list will vary depending on the type of adventure you are going on, what you can afford and your personal preferences. For example, you might want to use a waterproof stuff sack for your tent if it’s not highly water resistant. But I consider the above-mentioned list ideal—it’s my base kit and what I use on almost every trip I do.

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 compactible “layer” in the pack. I.e. I can mold 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 they 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. A durable, highly water resistant stuff sack also doubles as a bear bag. If you’re using a draw-string stuff sack, 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 making it basically water tight.

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 phones still work inside Cuben Fiber stuff sacks, and because they are transparent, you can log on or send a text message without taking it out of the sack.

Other tips and tricks:

  • I believe bigger is better. Use slightly larger stuff sacks for backpacking (as long as they are still very light) because then you’ll be able to create nice, flat layers in your pack to make it as compact as possible. We’ll talk more about pack layering in a future blog post.
  • 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. (Note: this initiated a good discussion about a possible new product. Stay tuned for a stake stuff sacks with a reinforced bottom!)
  • 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,” whereby you utilize your stuff sacks as an integral way of organizing all your items and keeping them dry. My system is comprised of a shelter, backpack and stuff sacks all made of Cuben Fiber. Cuben Fiber allows me to compartmentalize my stuff and protect it from any water that might get into the system. 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. We’ll also talk more about this in a future blog post.
  • Is the weather getting a little colder than expected and you’re feeling it in your toes? Use stuff sacks as a vapor barrier sock. Works great.

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