For many like myself, a sleeping bag was the main gear for outdoor trips to keep you warm, for many with the typical rolled-up blue ground pad. But, as with most gear, time and technology advance and now we also have sleeping quilts as an option, one that has begun to dominate in thru-hiking gear over the last decade.
The main difference is that a quilt removes the zipper and fabric that would be under you typically, this leads to a massive loss in weight and a huge benefit to compressibility which is vital for the long-distance thru-hikes.
Today I want to dig into backpacking quilts and why they are starting to take over as the main sleep gear over the more traditional sleeping bags. I will make sure we cover the benefits, drawbacks, and much more to help you make the change starting with your next purchase!
The Benefits of Quilts for Thru-Hiking
For much of the thru-hiking world, this will come down to a few things: expense, overall simplicity, compactness, and the big key of weight. Any long-distance hiking weight on your back is a willpower killer, you feel those pounds over time throughout your body.
Quilts have been gaining traction as people question the past and realize that the benefits to the sleeping bag were from the air, the sleeping bag always allows heat loss through the ground as the down compresses under your weight and has no insulative value.
This combo makes them easier to use, lighter to use, and perform the same or better than a sleeping bag in nearly any circumstance.
How Quilts Differ from Sleeping Bags
Your key differences will be that the quilt is open on one side, unlike a sleeping bag that will fully enclose you in a shell in a backpacking quilt the fabric on the bottom has been cut out along with the zipper which allows a lot of weight to be removed.
How Quilts Work
They are very simplistic overall offering you 2 different foot box style options, an open foot box that makes the quilt more like a blanket in which case it just lays over the top of you, like in warmer times of the year.
The other layout is with a foot box, the foot box can be drawstring, zippered, or sewn in, and is where your feet go to keep maximum warmth and keep them together.
From there the rest of the quilt lays around you and should go to the floor, or if you are cowboy camping, your groundsheet or footprint and stay there regardless of whether you roll to your side or lay on your stomach or back.
A backpacking quilt requires the use of a proper sleeping pad and its insulation (R-value) to protect against loss of body heat to the ground, though this is the same for a sleeping bag.
The quilt ensures heat is retained and not lost to the air and the sleeping pad helps retain heat from the ground keeping you at the temperature you are rated to when both are properly rated to the outdoor environment.
Understanding Quilt Temperature Ratings
A quilts warmth rating is vital to your overall good, restful night’s sleep. First, you need to know if the quilt’s temperature rating is based on the “limit” or “comfort” rating.
A “comfort” rating means that the quilt will reach the listed temperature with you being able to be laid out straight and relaxed whereas a “limit” temperature is more you will be ok as long as you are in a more fetal position with your legs pulled up.
Many times a sleeping quilt will be tested to “limit” so when you read the package it says 20 degree quilt, but it will really be comfort level at 30 degrees which is a big change if you need real, restful sleep.
Note: Temp ratings are just as bad on sleeping bags and not unique to a quilt.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Quilts
I can start by saying I love my quilt and will not ever move back to a sleeping bag personally, this doesn’t mean there aren’t drawbacks to a quilt for your sleep system, I want to explain the benefits and issues that can come when choosing to use a quilt vs sleeping bag for a long hike.
Benefits to Backpacking Quilts
There are some very solid reasons to choose a camping quilt for a thru-hike which I think distill down to the five core items I have listed below:
There is nearly nothing as simple as a quilt, there is no zippers to get stuck or to damage it, you lay down and it lays around you like a blanket, if you want to get up and move around during the night, no problem just shift and move as needed.
A huge win for any quilt is that they cut a large portion of the fabric, insulation, and zipper weight out which means all extra weight is removed.
This makes a quilt for backpacking easily less heavy than any equivalently rated sleeping bag offering a huge value in warmth to weight ratio.
One thing all thru-hikers need is compressibility and packability, they need gear that can perform but that can also easily fit into a backpack without being overly bulky and a quilt will do this extremely well as they are very light and compress down to a small size.
As long as you look to cottage companies like UGQ, Enlightened Equipment, and others you can get a wide variety of customization with their custom quilts.
Not only in color but in the down fill, overstuff, how to make your foot box, draft collar, attachment systems, and so much more.
Having an open foot box can help in the warmer nights you typically have in the middle of a thru-hike as you can open the quilt into a blanket and adjust as needed for warmth through the night when faced with warm weather.
This truly allows you to craft the perfect quilt for you and your hike, the big box stores just sell mass-produced items that may work generally but may not work for you.
Lower Prices Similar Temps
Due to all the weight benefits you also tend to have the cost-benefit that aligns as the same temperature rating requires fewer materials and less time from the quilt maker.
This means a quilt that costs $250 could be the same as a $350+ sleeping bag from one of the “big brands”.
Now, this doesn’t mean all quilts are cheaper, but they tend to be in the same ballpark or lower when comparing similar temperatures.
Drawbacks to Backpacking Quilts
There are some issues with a quilt, most of which can be managed, that may turn people from deciding to choose a backpacking quilt:
For most three-season camping this won’t be a large issue but for those who like to have their headcover from a mummy design sleeping bag, this can be a turn off.
If you are a fan of having a hood, then I would suggest looking to keep the weight down with a quilt but then adding a beanie, balaclava, or even just an extra buff to help keep your head warm instead,
Since a quilt is open by nature if you throw it around in your sleep then you can expose yourself to drafts from the outside which can cause a quick loss of the heat you have trapped.
This can be resolved by understanding how the pad attachment systems work and adjusting them to hold the quilt in place regardless of toss and turning.
Definitely, a difficult thing to get used to at first as these straps require good placement on a sleeping pad to hold a quilt in place if you are worried about drafts or you know it will be a very cold night to hold in every ounce of the heat you generate.
A simple way to make this easier that I have seen is to use a permanent marker to mark the perfect place on your insulated sleeping pad so you can put the pad straps back in the same place each time.
There is definitely more to set up than most sleeping bag toss and sleep systems, especially when facing cold weather quilts but once you get the hang of it they are pretty easy to manage.
The Pros and Cons of Traditional Sleeping Bags
Choosing to use a sleeping bag has been the go-to for most backpackers for a long time and for good reason, they are tried and true.
Benefits of Sleeping Bags
The benefits of using a sleeping bag are:
Fully Sealed Sleep Environment
A sleeping bag is totally encompassing meaning there is no chance of drafts along with a hood for full head coverage offers extra warmth for cold sleepers or in cold weather.
This temperature regulation can be great for those who are worriers or who know they will face very cold nights where every ounce of heat matters, like when you go cold weather camping or hiking.
Sleeping bags have always been pretty simple to deal with, you unroll them, crawl in, and zip up. There is no extra setup like quilts with a learning curve to follow.
To be brutally truthful you can’t find anything less expensive and more budget-friendly than a sleeping bag, you can find 30-degree options in Walmart for $20-40 which is really incredible.
Drawbacks to Sleeping Bags
There are issues though with sleeping bags, mostly stemming from their weight and how that weight is achieved:
Sleeping bags tend to be very heavy due to the materials used to make them as well as the amount of material needed. They have fabric and insulation encircling you along with a zipper which can really add up.
The other major drawback to a sleeping bag is how restrictive they are, you have material all around you and often times it can be difficult to move or adjust your position at night.
This can also lend itself to feeling claustrophobic for some people.
This is where the issues hit a peak for thru-hikers, in the old days you had 80-liter packs to carry massive gear, this then led to boots to help hold the weight and so on.
A sleeping back is just far less compact and it will take up much more space in your backpack which can then cause you more issues.
Trap More Moisture
With a hood comes the covering and venting of your hot breath into the sleeping bag which actually leads to condensation issues within the down inside the bag and to you and your clothing being damp possibly in the morning.
Zippers get caught, they can cause tears, they are just another thing that can and will break on you.
Quilts vs. Bags: A Head-to-Head Comparison
Now that we have spoken about both let’s compare them head to head and see which comes out the winner in regards to a thru-hiker’s needs for gear.
Weight – Quilt
This goes to the quilt as it just has less weight in every place that matters to the air insulation.
Warmth – Tie
Equal in all terms of three-season hiking, but when moving into winter there are significant benefits to the sub-zero temperatures a sleeping bag can provide.
Temperature Management – Quilt
A quilt allows you to easily allow in a draft or use it as a blanket as needed while on a thru-hike as the temperatures are constantly shifting from cold to hot to warm nights.
Set Up and Tear Down – Tie
Both are pretty fast to get set up and to pack back up in the morning.
Comfort – Quilt
The quilt wins here as it is less confining and offers more movement during the night which can lead to better sleep on your backpacking trip.
Price – Quilt
The quilt winds hands down as you can match them up against each other at the same temperature ratings and the quilt will nearly always be less expensive, from static value quilts like the Katabatic Gear Flex or even if you do some customizing from cottage companies.
Tips for Backpacking Quilt Users
For those looking to get their first quilt here are two keys to ensure you have a good experience, things that many overlooks and they find out on the trail which is the WORST place to do so.
Sleeping Pad Choice Is Key
This is critical, you need an insulated sleeping pad that will protect you from the ground as well as hold heat in. A top quilt works by trapping heat in with your body and a good sleeping pad will help with that.
You need a pad with an ASTM-rated R-value as many cheaper quilts will not have a certified rating but more a “belief” rating of how it will perform, quality sleeping pads like the XLITE from Therm-A-Rest will have these readings and are trustable to their stated rating. Read more on ASTM and R-value sleeping pad insulation here.
For most thru-hikers you will want to get a pad with at least a 3.5-4.0+ R-value with the higher being more and more beneficial should you be a cold sleeper.
Understanding Temperature Ratings
Quilts and sleeping bags both show a temperature rating they will keep you alive too, but some companies will show you the comfort temperature where your body can lay fully stretched out and stay warm.
The more common temperature will be the limit temperature which is survivable but you will be cold laying out fully stretched, instead, you need to sleep in a more fetal position to maintain as much heat as possible.
Understanding which of these two is the quoted may require some digging into the manufacturer’s details.
Final Thoughts on Quilts Vs. Sleeping Bags
Switching from backpacking sleeping bags to quilts is definitely something many should look into as they provide a much simpler way to carry the warmth you need and enjoy a quality night of sleep.
For most of us, thru-hikers choosing the lighter sleep systems makes the most sense as the focus is on three-season adventuring where the ability to get negative temperature gear is less needed as you don’t face those same cold conditions as a mountaineer would.
Just remember that heat retention is the sole goal of the entire sleep system, regardless of quilt or bag you need to focus on the entire system together or face chilly nights regardless of which gear you choose to purchase.