Sleep System Upgrades: Quilt or Mummy Bag

I have come to the point where I needed(wanted) to upgrade my sleep system. My old  broken zipper “30 degree” synthetic bag has treated me right for many years, but it’s time for an upgrade.  I have already made an upgrade of my sleeping pad from an old school first generation Thermarest pad.

I found a Thermarest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad for $100, and jumped at the chance to try it out. It weighs in at 12 oz and compacts to a size of a Nalgene bottle. It’s also 2.5″ thick and as a skinny side sleeper, that is pretty important to me. The R-Value is 3.2 putting it comfortably above average. Although it can be noisy initially, I think after you are laying down the noise subsides for the most part. It’s no worse than someone that should be banished from a shelter for obnoxious snoring problems, or a Sun Chips bag.  I will say it’s really narrow, so you may want to size up if you’re a larger than average build.  The Z Lite (only $30 on Amazon Prime) is my second option and if I were to switch this would be the pad I would get.  I simply don’t like to have anything bulky strapped to the outside of my pack, such as a foam pad.

One thing frequently discussed is what temperature rating to get for a sleeping bag or quilt. For the sake of argument the standard seems to be a 20 degree rating as a solid choice for the AT. As a notably warm sleeper (more like nuclear reactor sleeper) I intend to use that as my baseline. You may need to adjust for your own personal preferences, and trip needs.

Insulation: Down vs. synthetic

down v

Photo credit Backpacking Reports

It honestly came down to very few variables for me on this choice. Do I want to save money, or weight and bulk?  Hands down, weight and bulk won for me. The less weight I carry the more miles I can put on, making my hike more enjoyable.  As a bonus it will also put less stress on my body. One important factor that comes into play with down is keeping it dry. Sea to Summit makes great Sil Nylon Dry Stuff Sacks. I currently own 3 and they have already saved my ass once on an early April hike as described in “Waterproofing works both ways.”

Another variable I keyed in on was bulk. Down will compress to a smaller size than synthetic insulation of a comparable temperature rating. Less compressed volume means it is going to take up less room in my pack, win. Quality down is the clear choice for me, based on my top 2 levels of importance; weight and bulk. According to Mariposa in her article about sleeping bags and pads, 85% of long distance hikers use down.

Quilt vs Mummy bag:

Photo Katabatic Gear

The more research I have done the more I kept leaning towards a quilt as opposed to a mummy bag. Let me go through my mind set to help you understand why I’ve abandoned sleeping bags all together.  That way you can judge for yourself if they are right for you too.

This was the most difficult part of my decision when upgrading my sleep system. In the end it came down to one deciding question for me. Can I maintain the same level of warmth, comfort and safety and still reduce my pack weight? The argument for quilts over sleeping bags involves the lack of insulating value while the bag is compressed below the sleeper. The compressed insulation doesn’t provide warmth. This makes the R-value of your sleeping pad even more important.  So if the compressed bag insulation isn’t insulating, what is it doing?  It’s simply adding weight and excess volume in your pack, no thanks. The concern being that without a hood heat is now lost through the exposed face and head. I’m already carrying a down jacket and a beanie that makes it a non-issue in my eyes. Even if I carry an additional down jacket with a hood only for sleeping, I’m still below that weight savings.  A quality 20 degree down quilt will weigh somewhere between 16 and 22 ounces.  In contrast, a 20 degree down sleeping bag weighs from 25 oz to well over 2 lbs.

I did a quick Gear search on Appalachian Trials and found only four other people using quilts. Two of them are interviews for “Inside the Pro’s Packs”, Swami and Bobcat both use quilts.  I’ll call that a great sign that I am headed in the right direction. Appalachian Trials blogger Chris LeBlanc aka ChickenFat is also using one for his PCT hike in 2015.

Choosing the right quilt:

There are a few big names in down quilts.  Enlightened Equipment, Katabatic Gear and ZPacks seem to be the most common quilts for ground sleepers.  Hammock campers have several other options they seem to gravitate towards Underground Quilts, Jacks r Better and Hammock Gear.  I have chosen to place more value weight and bulk than I do price.  Now let’s discuss price…  It’s hard to argue that down quilts/bags are not on the pricey side compared to synthetic counterparts.  But quality down anything is pricey.  For a quality down quilt you can spend anywhere from $250 to over $500.  Down sleeping bags in the same 20 degree range around going to cost between $200 and $350.  So price wise it’s really the same ball park.

My DIY down quilt

The other route in regards to quilts(or any gear) is to take the bull by the horns and Do-it-yourself!  There is a TON of info out there for DIY gear.  Hammock sleepers have simply mastered DIY.  This is something many folks, including myself have taken on.  I say I took it on but, but really I just planned it all out, bought the supplies, while my girlfriend did all the actual work.  She was the seamstress and expert down stuffer.  I mostly messed around with time lapse photography and watched over her shoulder.  This is a 24 oz down quilt we made that’s supposed to be good down to 20 degrees according to the online calculator I used.  The materials cost me $180 and the labor was paid in beer and dinner.  I used it in March and early April here in PA, and I had a few cold sleepless nights.  Even in the warmest clothing I carried I was still pretty chilly.  It’s super awesome, and I’m really proud of our accomplishment.  But its no 20 degree quilt.

Why quilts aren’t more common on the trail?

I honestly don’t know why quilts are not more common.  Maybe as hikers and backpackers we are still using old logic that we have used since our first backyard camp outs and sleep overs.  Old habits die hard!  Maybe this is an old habit that we need to revisit.  Mummy bags have clearly put rectangular bags on the back burner in the world of hiking.  I believe that with the quilt innovation, the mummy bag may be slowly losing the luster it once had.

Are mummy bags simply the best option?  Or are we seeing a changing of the tide in regards to a good nights sleep out there in paradise?  What are your thoughts?  Leave your comments below!


Photo credit OutdoorGearLab

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Comments 7

  • Gabriela : Jul 23rd

    Great article. I had never looked into the quilt option, but as I try to lighten my load, I think I love it. Thanks!

    • Dylan Niknot : Jul 23rd

      There’s so many great options out there, it’s getting hard to choose which one is the best for you. Good luck!

  • KT : Jul 23rd

    I LOVE my zero degree enlightened equipment quilt, and it’s lighter than the 30 degree marmot mummy bag I used to use, more comfortable too. I went with zero degree because I tend to prefer to be on the cozy side and what’s a few ounces between friends… I have comfortably slept with it down to 20 degrees (wearing a jacket and beanie) and up to 40 degrees. And I think it could have better range than that, I just haven’t had the opportunity to try it out yet!

    I do wonder if having some kind of liner might increase it’s ability to keep me warm though, there is just something about being completely wrapped burrito style that makes me feel like I’m warmer…

  • Scrappy Malloy : Jul 24th

    Really awesome that you made your own gear!

    I have a Western Mountaineering Terralite that’s more comfortable than my bed and incredibly well-made. It is your traditional mummy bag with a hood. So far I’ve used it on a few trips in California: Sequoia NP, Pt. Reyes, and Yosemite.

    It was the talk of the town and I got it right before my gf got here zero degree quilt from Enlightened Equipment. It’s really soft and beautful.

    After seeing her quilt that she customized online, I really wish I would’ve held off on the WM bag.

    The WM bag is rated to 25, weighs 30-32 oz. and cost around $500 new. Worth every penny, however a 0 – 30 degree quilt from an awesome US manufacturer can be less than $350 and weighs ~ 10oz less.

    If I could go back in time, I would probably have ordered a sweet-ass digital camo/orange Enlightened Equimpent quilt for a little less $$. They have a really awesome return policy too. My gf had a great experience with them.

    ZPacks would be another option I would highly consider.

    I would urge people to look at quilts who are serious about shaving weight before purchasing a bag.

    • KT : Sep 4th

      kisses and hugs, sorry I upstaged ya!

  • Dan : Jul 28th

    I have a ZPacks 20 degree quilt. Zpacks is a little different in that you can get a zipper added, as well as the quilt straps sewn on. The option is at the very bottom of their website where you are selecting what quilt you want. That way, you can have the best of both worlds. You can use it as a quilt, wrapping the straps around your sleeping pad, or you can zip yourself up to the neck.
    I also bought a MLD APEX synthetic balaclava to wear when it is super cold, as quilts don’t have hoods. I use a fleece hat if it’s not super cold but still chilly.
    Highly highly recommended.

  • Chris : Jan 20th

    Headed NBO by this April. I have a WM Versalite 10° bag weighing 1lb 14oz. I’ve had this bag for several years now,but think its going to be too heavy for the AT.I am seriously looking at Zpacks 20° quilt bag ,WM Highlite & Summerlite bags.


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