A hammock top quilt is a perfect choice when you’re looking for a lighter, more versatile sleeping bag option.
Also known as a top quilt, this type of sleep system lays on top of your hammock and provides insulation and comfort while you sleep; so what is a hammock top quilt?
A top quilt is similar to a sleeping bag but with the material under you and the zipper removed, this allows them to provide the same warmth but drastically reduces the weight and space required. This allows you to carry it for months and enables a smaller backpack for a similar amount of warmth.
In this article, we’ll discuss what to look for when choosing this quality piece of gear and how to use it properly in order to get the most out of your thru-hiking trip and overall experience!
So, What is a Top Quilt Anyway?
For most hikers and backpackers a sleeping bag is the familiar warmth option for nights, a quilt is very similar to this but all the wasted weight in fabric, insulation, and zipper are removed to provide maximal performance with minimal weight and size.
What many don’t realize is that any part of your sleeping bag that is under you is not providing you any real warmth, you are carrying it for the sake of the warmth provided by the layers on top of you and around you.
The top quilt fixes this poor design decision by removing the full-length zipper, many times choosing to have no zipper or a 1/4 length zipper or similar for a zippered foot box.
Next, the fabric and wasted insulation are removed from under you as the sleeping pad is what actually provides that insulative R-Value from ground heat loss on cold nights.
This ends up dropping a large amount of weight, typically around a pound and more, and allowing the quilt to pack down and compress much smaller into your backpack or compression sack.
Are Top Quilts For Hammocks Only?
Originally the top quilt was designed for hammocks as they had two distinct needs, the hammock underquilt for extra insulation under the hammock and then the matching top quilt for holding in body heat.
But as people experienced the weight and space benefits and the deficits of sleeping bags, they have grown to ground sleepers also!
There are typically some differences you will see with ground-based backpacking quilts, though, as they will typically be built wider, which allows them to make a better seal with the ground, whereas a hammock has a pretty narrow area to cover.
In fact, I started as a ground dweller with a Lanshan 2 tent and at the time used a synthetic insulation top quilt by OneTigris which I loved and have now upgraded to an OV Stormloft 15 degrees quilt with a sewn foot box, so if interested check out my gear kit here!
Top Quilts Vs Sleeping Bags
Now for those interested more in how the two line up with each other, I wanted to take some time to review some of the pros and cons of each so you can make a more informed decision on what is best for your needs!
Top Quilt Benefits
There are clear benefits to choosing a top quilt over a sleeping bag and they are mostly around weight, space, and compressibility.
Quilts are lighter than similarly temperature-rated sleeping bags as they don’t have the full-length zipper, bottom fabric, and hood that a bag has.
This is key for thru-hikers when you carry this weight on your back for months, every pound matters.
A quilt is far more compact than any similar sleeping bag when you remove multiple layers of cloth, insulation, and a full-length zipper the quilt can be squished into a much smaller form factor for easy storage in a backpack.
Due to the more open nature and the way the active insulation is placed, you have more adjustability with a quilt to keep you comfortable.
You can open it up on warmer weather nights, use it as a blanket, or pull it tighter around you when colder temperatures hit!
You pay less for a quilt with a temperature rating matching a similar sleeping bag, this is due to the fact that you are only paying for what is actually needed in terms of materials and construction.
Top Quilt Drawbacks
While there are excellent reasons to choose a quilt there are some issues you should know about beforehand as they can be prepared for and mitigated through other gear options or proper strapping.
Learning to control your movements can take a little bit for some people, if you don’t get a wide enough quilt and you massively flip around at night you may cause little gaps between the floor and your quilt which will let drafts in and warm air out.
This is more of a defect in not knowing how you sleep and getting a wide enough quilt to support your level of movement, this is greatly reduced in a hammock though versus the ground as you are kept in a more straight-line versus full ground freedom.
Many come from mummy bags with a little hood that can help cover your head and keep heat from escaping out the top, with a quilt, this is not an option, and you will want to use a beanie or balaclava to keep your head warm.
This can actually become more of an issue in humid environments as the sweat from your head can make your sleeping bag or quilt wet and significantly reduce its insulation capabilities, so any head insulation should preferably be synthetic, like the OV Balaclava.
Sleeping Bag Benefits
Now there are also benefits to a sleeping bag over a quilt which you should consider before purchasing!
Due to being zipped up fully around your body, a sleeping bag will have significantly fewer drafts as there are no open areas for air to move around.
This is a key benefit if you get cold easily or are camping in an area with breezes where maximizing your warmth is key to a better night’s sleep.
Ease of Use/Simplicity
Nearly everyone has used sleeping bags, whether for sleepovers or in local camping so most are very familiar with how they work.
You zip it up and lay down!
There is a simplicity to using a sleeping bag that can’t be understated, especially when you are already tired from a day of hiking and just want to get to bed.
Hood is Attached
Most sleeping bags rated for colder temperatures will come with a hood already attached that can be cinched down to keep your head warm and further reduce drafts.
This is a great benefit as it means one less piece of gear to carry with you and worry about losing, it also means one less thing to forget when packing up in the morning.
Sleeping Bag Drawbacks
Sleeping bags are far from perfect though and this is what has led to the development of quilts in the first place!
Sleeping bags are typically much heavier and bulkier than quilts due to the extra layers, zippers, and material.
This can be a big drawback if you want to save on weight or space, as every ounce counts when backpacking.
Sleeping bags can be constrictive and confining, you are limited in how you can move and what you can do inside one.
This can make them uncomfortable for some people as they toss and turn throughout the night trying to find a comfortable position, I know as this is how I always felt.
Most will not fit into a backpack with ease which leads to specific gear like compression sacks being used and even then they can be a tight fit or sometimes need to be in designated external storage spots.
This, in turn, means needing a bigger backpack which frequently means a heavier backpack, since all gear stacks this compound and just slowly increases the weight you need to carry which can lead to an early exit from the trail.
In nearly all circumstances a sleeping bag at the same temperature as a backpacking quilt will be more expensive and this is due primarily to the added zippers, material, and other factors that go into making a sleeping bag.
This can be a big drawback if you are managing a tighter budget or just don’t want to spend the extra money on what is essentially the same product.
Why Do Most Thru-Hikers Use a Top Quilt?
For the great majority of thru-hikers, the benefits far outweigh the small number of negatives. The focus on being weight conscious with a lot of focus being on warmth to weight ratio means that the quilt wins hands down in nearly any occasion related to thru-hiking.
In addition due to thru-hiking generally running from spring to fall you start in colder weather and then move into warm nights and generally warm weather and this is where a quilt can shine.
A quit can easily be used as a blanket, especially if you have a convertible footbox in warmer weather, and then change back and forth as the days and nights go.
Lastly, they just fit in a backpack and compress down significantly more, making them highly efficient with a smaller and lighter-weight backpack, leading to fewer liters of internal space and less weight on your back.
This is the key for most thru-hikers as they want to save every ounce and make their backpack as light as possible so that they can move quickly and not get tired as easily throughout the day.
Choosing the Right Top Quilt
I have a little below but if you really want to look at my top options and criteria I have a massive post here that can help you choose the perfect match. That being said let’s dig into what you should be looking for when choosing a top quilt.
What Temperature Rating Should I Get For a Top Quilt?
This depends on a few factors as most quilt manufacturers will provide you a temperature rating but you want to know whether they provide the comfort temperature or the limit temperature.
This is a huge difference between laying normally with comfort, hence the name, or in a tight ball surviving the night, or limit.
I would say for most three-season hiking you can easily be good for most in a 20-degree comfort-rated quilt, if you can only find limit-rated quilts you would want to look at buying a 10-degree rating.
What Insulation Should I Choose?
While the main answer will be down, starting with duck but preferably goose, due in large part to being the lightest weight, most compression, and just all-around versatility.
While there are other options available and what you choose is really up to you just make sure the down is DWR, or Durable Water Repellent, treated.
The other main choice would be synthetic and frequently this is APEX material which is better in many ways if you are in a moisture-heavy area as it is water-resistant, things like high humidity and or constant rainfall as synthetic insulate even if damp or wet.
Synthetic tends to have a much shorter lifespan though as the fibers break down more when compressed over time whereas a well-treated down gear item can last 10+ years and still perform.
Frequently Asked Questions on Hammock Top Quilts
There are some general questions many have when they are looking at getting their first hammock top quilt so I wanted to address them here.
Do I Need a Top Quilt?
The simple answer is no, you could easily use a sleeping bag but what you will find is that it is much harder to get the proper ventilation and warmth as you would with a quilt.
Do I need a draft collar on my quilt?
The draft collar can help keep warm air from around your neck, while not needed it is nice to have as you can always just use a scarf, bandana, or even your buff if you really want to save weight.
What is the difference between 850 and 950 down?
The core difference is in the amount of down required to fill the quilt and what that means is that 950 will have less down overall which makes it a little lighter but not by much, often around an ounce or two.
The cost is a very big difference where you will pay top dollar to get those few ounces in weight drop.
Can you use a regular sleeping bag in a hammock?
Yes, and many choose to as they already have a sleeping bag and do not want to purchase another piece of gear but what you will find is that it is much harder to use a standard sleeping bag since you need to worry about the zipper tearing the hammock possibly and that it can be challenging to get into and out of easily.
Final Thoughts on Hammock Top Quilts
A hammock top quilt is a great alternative to using a sleeping bag in a hammock. They are much easier to ventilate and keep you warm and often weigh less than standard sleeping bags.
If you are looking for an easy way to reduce the weight of your backpack without sacrificing warmth, a hammock top quilt is a good way to go.
Thanks for reading! I hope this article was helpful in answering some of your questions about hammock top quilts. If you have any further questions, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will do my best to answer them. Happy hiking!
If you are looking for my choices for gear that can suit any thru-hike please feel free to check out my exhaustive gear page here, you can find everything you need from big three to headlamps and headphones.