The Top Sleeping Bags, Quilts, and Pads on the Appalachian Trail: 2021 Thru-Hiker Survey
Each year here at The Trek, we ask long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT) about the sleeping systems they used on their 2021 Thru hike. This post will cover the sleeping systems used, how these systems have changed over time, temperature and fill, and the most popular sleeping bags, quilts, and pads from this year’s survey.
The Hiker Sample
Three hundred and ten hikers participated in the survey, all of whom section- or thru-hiked the AT in 2021. Almost three-quarters were thru-hikers, and the rest were section hikers. For more details on the hiker demographics, check out our post with general information from the survey.
Sleeping Bags and Backpacking Quilts
This year we saw a substantial swing in hikers’ preferences for sleeping systems. Quilts became this class’s favorite, with only 44% using a sleeping bag (down from 67% in the 2019 survey). The majority of hikers in hammocks used both an under and overquilt. One couple used a two-person quilt, while one hiker used a woobie in the warmer months.
While past surveys have shown that hammock hikers prefer a quilt, tent users are now also indicating a stronger preference for a quilt. Seventy percent of those in hammocks used a quilt, while 50% of those in tents did.
Quilt usage for those using tents was the most significant change from previous surveys. It is important to note that our survey took a pandemic-induced hiatus last year, but quilt usage has doubled from what we saw in 2019 (25% to 50%).
The vast majority of hikers (92%) were satisfied with their quilt/sleeping bag. Just over 60% of those in a quilt were “very satisfied,” compared to just 46% for those in sleeping bags. Those who used a sleeping pad also reported a 91% approval rating for their sleeping pads.
Here are some of the comments from those who were unhappy with their sleeping setup:
- ‘I wish I had a taller size and a lower temperature rating. Despite a 20 degree rating on the Enlightened
- ‘ Equipment Revelation I was only comfortable using this >40 degrees with a liner.’
- ‘My quilt was very drafty. Not good for cowboy camping in the cold.’
- ‘Nemo Forte sucks. 35 degree rated, might as well be 53 degrees.’
- ‘Was a bit cold to start out with but was ok with a liner’
- ‘Slept on the ground for the last month as my pad kept popping’
- ‘Inflatable valves started leaking’ (Five respondents across different models)
- ‘I bought a cheap inflatable pad and it was a terrible choice. BUT it did work well with a foam pad.’
Switching and Replacements
One-third of hikers switched out their sleeping bag or quilt during their hike. Just over 90% of these did so intentionally, swapping to a higher temperature bag for lower seasons. 6% of those who swapped out their sleeping system did so because of the bag or quilt being too heavy.
Next, we asked hikers about the type of insulation/fill in the primary bag or quilt they used on their AT hike in 2021. While natural down, synthetic, and both were all fairly popular choices, natural down was the most common, used by 60% of hikers. Regarding the “mixed” category, a few hikers used bags that were synthetic on one side but natural down on the other. Similarly, some used a synthetic underquilt with a down overquilt or vice versa. The concept for this combination is to have the water-resistant feature of synthetic fill on the bottom side (which would become damp more easily on the ground), but the warmth and lighter weight of natural down on the top.
We asked hikers the temperature rating of the bag (or quilt) they started with and swapped to. The most common answer for hikers was to start with 20-29 degree bag with 44% choosing this rating. Those who swapped tended to go for a warmer bag.
Because the optimal temperature ratings change by season, it is worth remembering that a third of hikers switched their quilts/bags during the hike. Hikers also saw different conditions, as made apparent in the question asked on what the coldest temperature that long-distance hikers (2000+ miles) endured. This ranged from 10 degrees to 65.
About 83% used an inflatable sleeping pad, about 11% used a foam pad, and 5% used a pad that had both foam and inflation. Three people did not use a pad at all.
Most Popular Brands and Models
We asked hikers to list the best bag or quilt they used on the Appalachian Trail in 2021. In order of brand popularity, their favorite brands and models were:
As you can see, Enlightened Equipment dominated the responses. A staggering 44% of all respondents used an Enlightened Equipment quilt on the AT last year.
Participants’ favorite sleeping pads were as follows:
Favorite Quilt Models
Hammock Gear Burrow (17)
UGQ Bandit (10)
Favorite Sleeping Bag Models
REI Magma (19)
REI Joule (6)
Favorite Sleeping Pad Models
Nemo Switchback (14)
This year saw a big shift to more hikers embracing a quilt, with 63% using a quilt of some form. The majority of hikers were happy with their sleeping system. Dissatisfaction was mainly due to popping pads or running cold. Natural down remains the most popular option on trail, with an average temperature rating of 23 degrees Fahrenheit. Enlightened Equipment has become by far the most popular brand on trail for sleeping bags/quilts, while Therm-a-Rest continues to lead for sleeping pads.
Many thanks to the hikers who participated in the survey! Congratulations to you all! Check out our previous posts for general hiker information, tents, and footwear used. Upcoming posts from this year’s survey will cover backpacks, stoves/food/water, and favorite places on trail. To stay updated on the subsequent hiker survey posts, subscribe to The Trek newsletter.
Data were collected from participants recruited via our social media platforms, Backpacker Radio, and TheTrek.co. Participants submitted surveys anonymously between October and November of 2021. There was some data cleanup done during the analysis of the data where obvious spelling mistakes were made or brands/models were obviously the same. We also changed any start dates that referenced 2022 to 2021 and couldn’t find any obvious duplicates in the data. That said, please keep in mind you can’t always believe the answers to what you ask strangers on the internet.
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