Gear Wars: Quilts Vs. Sleeping Bags
Do you pass out after a long day of hiking in a zipped-up sleeping bag or an open-sided quilt? Do you want the comfort of an enclosed bag or the freedom to sprawl? Quilts have become an increasingly popular option for backpackers, as they’re often lighter and allow for more flexible sleeping positions. But can a quilt really compete against the draft protection and comfort of a good ol’ sleeping bag? Two of our writers battle it out in our latest Gear Wars.
Samantha Olthof: Quilts
I hiked about 1,000 miles of the PCT in 2017. I took an Enlightened Equipment Revelation (20F) quilt and used it with several different inflatable pads (I had popping problems). I finally settled on the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Petite inflatable pad. Other than a few pre-PCT shakedown hikes, that was my first serious outing using a quilt instead of a sleeping bag. I loved it. On warm nights, I could open it up and lay it flat like a blanket. On cold nights, I would burrow down into it or wrap it around my mat to seal out cold air. My only regret was that, as a cold sleeper, I wish I had gotten a quilt rated for colder temperatures. In the Sierra and Oregon, I brought a silk liner and slept with more clothes on for warmth.
I recently got a Sea to Summit Flame UL Women’s 15-Degree sleeping bag for hiking in the shoulder seasons up in Canada. Although it is impressively lightweight for a full mummy bag, it just doesn’t compare to the ultralight options available with quilts. As a restless sleeper, I feel trapped in the mummy bag, and it’s less customizable to different situations.
Warmth-to-weight is one feature in which quilts vastly outrank sleeping bags. When inside a sleeping bag, your body weight compresses the down underneath you; that compression reduces the loft so that it does not provide the same warmth as the uncompressed down above. That additional material underneath you is just extra weight in your pack. The important factor is the R-value of your sleeping mat, especially if you set up your quilt to encapsulate your mat or you can use mat straps to secure your quilt in place (personally, I don’t tend to do either).
Let’s extrapolate on extra weight a little bit. What features on a sleeping bag weigh the most and can be considered redundant? The zipper sealing the bag is unnecessary weight. Some sleeping bags offer interior pockets. Many ultralighters consider the hood that many sleeping bags offer to be redundant as well. How many of you pack a hat in your gear? Or a Buff? A hooded puffy or fleece or merino layer? Any combination of those things—and everyone has at least one—help to keep your head and neck warm while sleeping, and you can use them while you are hiking too. Because these redundant features have been removed from quilts, they offer the same warmth at a much-reduced weight.
All the material that would go into the underside of the sleeping bag, the hood, and all the redundant features listed below are not present in quilts. They are unequivocally smaller than sleeping bags and as such, will pack up smaller than comparable sleeping bags. Personally, I keep my quilt and sleeping mat inside a dry sack that doubles as my mat pump.
As a restless sleeper, using my quilt for the first time was a revelation (pun very much intended). Instead of waking up feeling trapped multiple times throughout the night, I was free to turn around however I liked. Sleeping on my stomach, side, and back are all equally comfortable. When it’s warm, I like to lay my quilt flat like a blanket. When it’s cold, I burrito myself in it the same way that I do with my bedding at home (or I install it around the mat as linked above).
That being said, there is some adjustment to sleeping with a quilt in order to fine-tune it as a part of a comprehensive sleep system. Different mat attachment techniques can help to prevent drafts from getting in while you sleep. You will likely need to wear more clothes when sleeping in a quilt than in a bag. These small sacrifices in comfort are well worth the weight reduction and customizability of the quilt system.
Like a lot of gear oriented toward the ultralight community, versatility is an essential quality of quilts. Quilts are often custom-made, meaning that you can add or remove features based on your specific needs. This includes custom sizes, overstuffing, fabric types, footbox types, quality of down, etc.
They are not the be-all and end-all of your sleep system, nor should they be. Instead, they are an integral component of a modular sleep system. In keeping with ultralight philosophies, quilts can be adapted to a wide range of conditions, making them suitable for trips like thru-hikes that span vastly different ecoregions or as a go-to piece in your backpacking gear collection.
Enlightened Equipment Revelation (20°F or 10°F) Quilt
Nunatak Arc UL 20°F Quilt
Kabatic Flex 15°F Quilt
Alexandria Cremer: Sleepings Bags
I thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017. I started the trail with a 40-degree sleeping bag that I quickly learned was too cold for the chilly desert nights, so I switched to an Enlightened Equipment Revelation Quilt. For the following months on the trail, I had cold nights with the quilt, as it let in a draft and was impossible to fit around my sleeping pad. I had no coverage for my face, and I missed the feeling of being snuggled up in an all-encompassing sleeping bag.
Since then, I have switched to the NEMO Riff 15-degree bag, and haven’t looked back. Sleeping bags often offer more features than a quilt, such as areas for gear storage (important when backpacking in cold climates), a hood, a zipper, etc. These features do come with added weight, but I think it’s worth the ounces.
In my experience a quilt lets in a draft during the night that often kept me colder than I would be in an all-encompassing sleeping bag. Because of the draft from the quilt, I ended up buying a sleeping bag liner to increase the temperature as I slept at night. When you’re adding the pound of a sleeping bag liner, plus the weight of the quilt, you’re pretty close to being at the weight of a normal sleeping bag. Why not just buy the sleeping bag, nix the liner, and be good to go?
I usually don’t use a stuff sack for my sleeping bag, and just stuff it at the bottom of my pack with my tent and other clothes. I’ve found that a sleeping bag takes up just a bit more room than my quilt did. But my sleeping bag also comes with a compression sack that shrinks the bag down to 9.5 inches, so if using a stuff sack for your bag is your gig, that’s still pretty dang small.
I believe a sleeping bag outshines a quilt in comfort. I am much warmer in my sleeping bag than I was in my quilt, and the hood feature lets my head and face stay warmer throughout the night. If it’s a hot summer night, I have the option to unzip my sleeping bag and throw a leg out to keep a little cooler. The space of model with extra knee and elbow room offers more room to spread out and not feel cramped.
When backpacking in cold climates, you should keep some gear inside your sleeping bag, including filters, battery packs, and electronics. With a sleeping bag that has extra storage for your gear, you don’t have to worry about an awkward stuff sack inside your quilt floating around all night.
A fully enclosed sleeping bag can be taken to frigid climates or in warm conditions and you can be comfortable in both. It will keep you warm and cocooned in during cold nights, and if you’re too hot you can simply unzip the bag to your preference. Having the ability to pick your preference is a huge benefit in cold temperatures where you might otherwise be cold in a quilt.
Because quilts are often trying to cut every ounce to attract the UL community, a sleeping bag often offers features a quilt wouldn’t, such as a waterproof footbox, deep hoods, and gear storage.
Enlightened Equipment Convert Sleeping Bag
Western Mountaineering Versalite Sleeping Bag: 10-Degree Down
NEMO Riff 15-degree Women’s Sleeping Bag
Zpacks Classic Sleeping Bag
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