Best Compression Bags

Updated December 2020
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Updated December 2020
Written by Melinda Snowden Authors 's image

Buying guide for best compression bags

Forget TV gurus. If you really want to learn about traveling light, talk to backpackers. They need to fit everything they need for a weekend — or longer — on their backs. Spartan packing may be a way of life for them, but some items are nonnegotiable. Bulky necessities like a sleeping bag and spare clothing can easily overtake your gear, unless you have a compression bag.

A compression bag can be a lifesaver for hikers, hunters, and other intrepid types who need to make the most of their space. Compression bags press the air out of low-density fabric items to reduce the amount of room they occupy in a larger carrier, such as a backpack. Most cinch down with an interior drawstring. Tightening the strong exterior straps works together with the compression bag’s hood to force the remaining air out. Some compression bags can cut the space these fluffy items occupy by as much as two-thirds.  

Seasoned outdoors aficionados know that different adventures require specialized equipment. Likewise, different compression bags are better suited for certain sports, contents, and climates. Keep reading to learn more and check out our recommendations for the best compression bags on the market.

Compression bags are sometimes referred to as “stuff sacks.” Some stuff sacks compress your items; others don’t, so check descriptions carefully.

Key considerations

Before adding a compression bag to your virtual cart, consider whether it’s the best option to meet your needs.

Some resourceful travelers buy compression bags hoping to fit more in a suitcase or carry-on bag. Unfortunately, these cylindrical bags are a poor match for rectangular luggage. They’re only good for soft-sided items, and they can leave your clothes extremely wrinkled. Plus, they offer no means of organization. We recommend tourists consider packing cubes as an alternative for more traditional travel, but if you’re hitting the trail, keep reading.

Storage

First, you need to determine how you want to carry your compression bag. Many are designed to be stored inside your main backpack, while others strap to the outside. Your hiking backpack may work better with one style or another. If you choose a bag that straps on, look for ones with multiple reinforced anchor points for strength and weight distribution.

Size

When you’re living out of a backpack, size matters. If you buy something too small, you might not be able to fit all your essentials. But an oversize pack means extra weight and might tempt you to pack more than you can comfortably carry.

Backpack: Compression bags can hold as little as 6 liters of uncompressed material and as much as 45 liters, depending on which you choose. Keep in mind that these sacks are only intended to hold crushable items like sleeping bags, pillows, and clothing. Additionally, the compression bag needs to fit inside your backpack or strap to it. Hiking backpacks intended for a weekend trip range from 30 to 60 liters in capacity, while longer trips may require packs with an 80-liter capacity. A compression bag larger than 20 liters will take up a significant amount of space in all but the largest backpacks.

Sleeping bag: Your sleeping bag plays a big role in determining which compression bag you need. Generally, down sleeping bags compress much smaller than those filled with synthetic materials.  Mummy bags squish better than traditional rectangular bags.

If your sleeping bag is insulated with down, a 10-liter compression bag should hold most models rated for 40°F and some rated for 20°F. Compression bags with a 20-liter capacity hold most down bags rated for 0°F to 20°F.

Synthetic-filled sleeping bags take a little more room. Those rated for 20°F to 40°F probably need a sack that holds 20 liters. Bags that are safe down to 0°F degrees require a compression bag ranging from 25 to 35 liters in capacity.

Bags rated for temperatures much below 0°F may not fit in a compression bag. If you’re still not sure which size to buy, look up your specific sleeping bag’s stats. If you don’t have a mummy bag, or you have a sleeping bag filled with synthetic material, it’s best to opt for a larger compression bag.

Clothing and other items: Once you get your sleeping bag settled, it’s time to think about clothes. Necessities vary greatly depending upon climate and your preference. By way of comparison, the average airline carry-on suitcase holds 40 to 45 liters of clothing. Once again, keep in mind that the compression bag will take up only a portion of your backpack.

Material

Sometimes natural is better, but when it comes to compression bags, the best are made from synthetic materials like nylon or polyester.

Nylon: Nylon compression bags are lighter in weight than polyester bags and offer more water resistance. Nylon can be prone to punctures and subsequent tearing, but it can be reinforced with threads sewn throughout the material at angles and intervals to stop tears from spreading. Nylon is usually stronger than polyester, but it may fade or pill more quickly. Nylon is a better choice for compression bags you’ll store inside your backpack.

Polyester: Bags made with polyester are not as stretchy or strong as nylon. They are, however, more puncture resistant and stand up better to abrasion. This makes them a good candidate for compression bags that attach to the outside of your camping pack.

Features

Well-thought-out details can make the difference between a decent compression bag and a great one. Keep function in mind when deciding which features you need.

Water resistance

Depending on the climate and destination, water resistance may be nonnegotiable. A wet sleeping bag usually means a poor night’s sleep, so look for compression bags that protect their contents from moisture. Many are lined with PVC, polyethylene, or other material that prevents rain from seeping in. Those that are truly waterproof may have a roll top rather than or in addition to a zipper.

Bags that are fully waterproof (submersible) are hard to make and therefore expensive. Consider whether you really need a bag that can be submerged or one that will withstand a downpour. Even compression bags that will be stored inside a backpack should offer a second line of defense against moisture in case your outer pack tears or rain seeps in through a zipper. 

Exterior pockets

Organization isn’t a strong point of many compression bags, but some manufacturers have added small exterior pockets for items that could be easily lost inside a bag. This feature is especially helpful in compression packs that attach outside your backpack. When looking at pockets, consider which items you might store there. Incidentally, keys may not be the best choice due to their sharp edges. If you do put keys in a compression bag pocket, make sure you do so after compressing the bag to reduce the chance of tears.

Quick-release straps

Once you get your goods packed down, it can be challenging to get them back out. Most compression bags have multiple straps that take time to adjust. If time is of the essence, look for bags with one or more quick-release straps. These straps usually feature a clip where the rest have a buckle. The clip opens for easy access to the items in the compression bag.

Compression bag prices

The cost of compression bags varies by size, as well as material quality and other features. When comparing prices by volume here, we’re discussing a bag’s uncompressed size rather than its final closed capacity.

Small: You can find 6-liter compression bags sold by off-brand manufacturers for around $10. These bags get the job done with some gentle handling, but the production and materials are lesser quality than pricier bags of the same size. Similarly, sized bags from name-brand outdoor equipment manufacturers may cost more than $30. At this price, they’ll be made from higher-quality materials and likely make good on their water-resistance claims.

Medium: Off-brand budget compression bags with a capacity of 10 to 15 liters range from $10 to $15, while name-brand bags that are truly waterproof can run as high as $35. Again, materials and construction make the major difference.

Large: Off-brand compression bags that hold 20 liters of goods start at a price point of about $15. If you want a name brand, fully waterproof bag of this size, prepare to pay $35 or more.

Extra-large: Off-brand bags with a capacity of 30 liters start at prices approaching $20. Top-of-the-line bags of the same size can cost more than $50.

Tips

  • Check the zippers. Coated zippers are a good sign that the manufacturer has put some thought into water resistance. Raindrops often pass through the gaps in standard zipper channels. Designs with an exterior zipper lining go the extra mile.
  • Look for bags with reinforced seams, straps, and stress points. This will reduce the risk of rips and tears.
  • Be careful with the straps. If you want to make your bag last, don’t rely just on the straps to compress it. Instead, use your body weight to help force air out of the bag to reduce the amount of stress the straps endure.
If you’re taking a multiday trip, consider a water-resistant compression bag. One unexpected shower could ruin multiple nights of sleep.

FAQ

Q. How do I pack a compression bag?
A.
Sleeping bags are by far the most common — and challenging — items to pack inside your compression sack. To prevent damage to either bag, get as much air as possible out of the sleeping bag before inserting it. Fold and then roll it as small as you can, then start stuffing it inside the compression bag while keeping the sleeping bag pressed against your body as tightly as possible. Cinch and tie the compression bag securely, then place the hood over the top. Before adjusting any exterior straps, use your body weight to compress the bag as much as you can. This will help prevent damage to the straps.
 

Q. What shouldn’t go in a compression bag?
A.
Sharp objects can compromise your compression bag, so either leave them out or wrap them in clothing. Tent poles or stakes could also poke a hole in the bag, so find another spot. Many backpacks have straps on the bottom for holding these and other items. The tent itself, as well as the rain fly, are open to debate. Some say they’ve had no problems; others warn that compressing a tent too tightly can damage it or compromise any waterproof coatings. Check your tent’s instructions or contact the manufacturer.
 

Q. Can I wash my compression bag?
A.
Yes, but it’s best to wash it by hand to avoid compromising the straps and seams. If exterior dirt is the problem, brush it off and gently scrub it with a combination of warm water and non-detergent soap. Soaps with detergents can damage coatings or other water-resistant treatments. Bags that have absorbed scents from soiled clothing or food can be washed (by hand) using an enzymatic cleaner. Air-drying is safest for compression bag materials, seams, and liners, but make sure your bag is fully dry before storing it to prevent mildew.

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