Why Choose a Quilt over a Sleeping Bag?

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Bunking down in a cave just north of Young’s Canyon, UT | Katabatic Sawatch combined with an MLD Superlight Bivy | Southwestern Horseshoe | March, 2012.

From the 1980’s through to 2003, I exclusively used sleeping bags.

From 2003 to 2011, I tried a couple of different types of quilts, but being a side sleeper who occasionally tosses and turns, I was never entirely satisfied with the attachment systems. As a result, I invariably found myself returning to the simplicity and reliability of a mummy sleeping bag.

Finally in 2011/12, after trying quilts from a relatively new Colorado-based company by the name of Katabatic Gear, I made the full-time switch from bags to quilts. More than 900 nights in the wilderness later, I suspect there is no going back.

Below are listed seven reasons why I prefer quilts over bags:

1.  Lighter

Quilts are generally between 20 and 30% lighter than their sleeping bag equivalents. Why? Quilts don’t have hoods, and provide insulation on top of the sleeper where it matters, but not underneath where the user’s weight will negate the benefits of loft.

2.  Less Volume

A quilt takes up less space. This can equate to less compression (see Tip below), which in turn means that when I remove the quilt at day’s end it doesn’t take as long to re-loft. No small matter if it is freezing cold, I’m exhausted and the only things I really require are warmth and seven to eight hours sleep. As a bonus, it is worth noting that by minimizing compression over an extended period, you are potentially improving the longevity of your quilt/bag.

*Tip: When loading my backpack, I use my quilt as a “filler” for the outer section of the pack’s interior, as opposed to putting it in a stuff sack at the bottom (see How to load a backpack).

Erin “Wired” Saver with her ZPacks 10 Degree quilt/bag hybrid (i.e. zipper, but no hood) | Camel’s Hump, Appalachian Trail, 2014 (photo courtesy of walkingwithwired.com)

3.  Just as Warm (well……almost)

This wasn’t necessarily true in days past. However, in recent years lightweight gear companies have upped the ante in regards to design and workmanship. Top quality quilts now come with neck collars, width options and improved attachment systems. In regards to the latter, I look for a versatile set up that addresses three main factors:

1. Minimizes/eliminates bracing drafts (i.e. The long-time bane of side sleeping quilt users around the backpacking universe).

2. Keeps dead air space to a minimum.

3. Allows for freedom of movement.

“That all sounds great, but how do I keep my noggin warm without a hood?” Wear a beanie; chances are you are carrying one anyway.

“That still doesn’t sound warm enough…….anything else?” Layer up. Utilize the hoods you likely have on your jackets (i.e. windshirt, insulating layer and/or rain) and even throw on a bandana if you’re really desperate.

Getting ready for a chilly night (-15°C / 5°F) with the Katabatic Sawatch | Volcan Tunupa (5432m / 17,822 ft) | Altiplano, Bolivia, 2017.

4.  No Zipper Issues  

Nothing to snag or break. Tip: For sleeping bag users that get their zippers stuck, try pulling the fabric sideways, while moving the zipper back and forth. Be patient, as it can sometimes take quite a few minutes to free the shell material. Resist the urge to give it a good old country yank; think tortoise rather than hare.

5.  Less Restrictive

Quilts provide greater freedom of movement; particularly if you are a side sleeper.

Can’t an open sleeping bag do the same thing?” Yes, however your sleeping bag won’t have an attachment system underneath to keep out the drafts if you happen to turn over.

Triple triple crowner Lint Bunting airing out his beloved Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt, after a big night on the dehydrated beans (photo courtesy of linthikes.com)

6.  Less Moisture

With your head outside rather than inside, there is less chance your bag will be compromised by moisture buildup from respiration.

Say again?”

If you are using a sleeping bag and have a tendency to toss and turn in your sleep, you may flip over during the evening and end up face down in the hood*; this is not an issue if you are using a quilt.

*Fun Fact: This is how my old friend and author of the book Mastering the Art of the Thru Hike, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, got her trail name nine years ago on the AT! Click here to read the full story.

7.  Cheaper

No zip and less materials generally equates to a more affordable night’s sleep. That said, it should be noted that the savings on top-of-the-line quilts such as those from Katabatic Gear, will often be minimal in comparison to quality sleeping bags (e.g. Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering) of an equivalent warmth rating. However, if you are willing to shell out big bickies for a primo quilt, chances are you are doing so because you are serious about lightening your pack load, and head out into the woods on a fairly frequent basis (or maybe you’re just rich). Therefore, a few extra dollars spent on an item that will provide you with years of good service is money well invested.

(Note: Synthetic bags are cheaper than their down equivalents. They also perform better when wet. However, down models have a superior warmth to weight ratio, as well as being lighter, more compressible and more durable).

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MLD Spirit Quilt – Synthetic Insulation (photo from Mountain Laurel Designs)

Summary

Quilts aren’t everyone’s cup of backcountry tea. If you do a lot of camping in the middle of winter in well below freezing temps, then chances are a mummy bag might be a better option. Same goes if you are one of those people for whom pack weight is not of great importance, and you just want the simplest option available, without having to worry about attachment systems and wearing enough layers to keep your head warm.

However………..

There is no way around it, quilts are lighter, more versatile, take up less space and usually cost less than sleeping bags. If you decide to give quilts a try, make sure you pick one that isn’t too narrow, has a warm neck collar and a good attachment system. When doing your research, focus on long-term reviews from people who have used the items in which you are interested for extended periods (i.e. months or years, not days or weeks……..don’t get me started on “out of the box” reviews). Take particular note of the reviewers size and where they fall on the sleeping warmth spectrum (i.e. hot, cold or average sleeper), as chances are this will give you a better idea of how suitable the quilt in question will be, in regards to meeting your own sleeping needs.

Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa and the Katabatic Alsek | Continental Divide Trail, 2016 (photo courtesy of AG).

Quilt Recommendations (alphabetical order):

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Comments

Why Choose a Quilt over a Sleeping Bag? — 12 Comments

  1. Very helpful Cam, I’ve been meaning to give one a try, and you’ve answered the main questions I had about quilts. Luckily I live in the southwest US, but would enjoy vetures into the Sierras & mtns of Utah.
    Thanks, Scott 2

    • Hey Scott,

      Thanks for the kind words. As I mentioned in the article, they are not for everyone, but it’s worth giving them a try at least once. Best of luck!

      Cheers,

      Cam

  2. I just purchased an EE Revelation 0° quilt this fall. I live in northern NM and have had it out in the Santa Fe National Forest backcountry and the Sabinoso Wilderness just in the last month with temps between 10°to 15°F at night. I’ve used the fasteners and not used them. I’ve slept in just underwear and t-shirt and with layers. So many factors, including eating before you bed down, affect my warmth. I honestly could not be more pleased with my quilt. It packs down nicely as a filler in my backpack, also.

  3. Hey Cam,
    I’m in the process of becoming a quilt convert with my palisade/bristlecone combo but I’ve been struggling with the apparently fine art of making my pack a comfortable foot rest in terms of both insulation and comfort. Any pearls of wisdom you could offer? As always, thanks a lot!
    Best,
    Adam

    • Hey Adam,

      No real pearls of wisdom on this one. I try to distribute the items evenly, and make sure there is nothing with hard edges (e.g. cooking pot) directly under where I lay my feet (i.e. middle of the pack). More often than not on multi-day trips, my Loksak food bag (20×12) will be the biggest item in the pack, so I usually rest my feet on top of this. It´s dimensions are good in regards to providing a widish and flattish platform; particularly when you have more than two days food in it. 

      Hope this helps.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  4. Hey Cam,

    Thanks for the info. I’ve always used my down mummy bag unzipped on top of me mainly because of my size and sleeping style. I tend to move from side to side. What are the attachments you are referring to? Is it where the quilt attaches to the sleeping pad? Thanks in advance for your reply.

    • Hey Brian,

      Check out this link from the Katabatic Gear product manual: http://katabaticgear.com/product-manual.pdf
      Personally, I tend to use the webbing straps, rather than the clip attachment system. I find the former to be unobtrusive and easily adjustable. No small thing when I’m half asleep, it’s 2am, the temps have dropped, and the last thing I really want to be doing is fidgeting with cords/straps/clips.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  5. Great post, Cam. Lots of great thoughts. I’m a warm side sleeper who tosses sometimes, and I sleep much better in a quilt since switching about a year ago than I ever did in any mummy. I attach the quilt to the pad if it’s cold, but above about 40 degrees have never found it necessary.

    I always sleep in a nylon bivy/sleeping bag cover because if it’s warm out, it protects me from bugs, and if it’s cold, it adds a little warmth to the quilt and keeps drafts out.

    I mostly use a 30-degree quilt that I’m pretty confident could go down to 20 in the bivy if the footbox was sewn shut (or if I bothered to plug up the hole at the bottom, but having the snapped/drawcorded footbox is worth it for the flexibility).

    Also, Hammock Gear makes some great stuff, too. They lack draft collars, but they do an “econ” line that, especially for someone just looking to try out a quilt, is pretty amazing price-wise for a pretty minor weight penalty (a 50 degree, sub 14-oz, responsibly-sourced down quilt for $100, or a 10 degree one at about 28 oz for about $200).

    • Hey Jay,

      Thanks for kind words and detailed message. Hammock Gear definitely represent a good option for folks that are on a tight budget, and/or wanting to try out a quilt for the first time.

      Cheers,

      Cam

  6. Hi Cam,
    Thanks for the above advice. That’s helpful. Wondering if you had thoughts on goose vs duck down. Katabatic is offering the 850 fp in duck at a big discount for the holidays and said duck down was only recently made available in the higher quality f.p. numbers. They said some people notice a natural odor you get with down products more with duck but otherwise it’s the same functionality. At only an ounce penalty in thinking about it for a sawatch. Any thoughts? And again, thanks a million. I’m feeling great with my new set up. You’ve helped me be more free and that’s huge!
    Cheers,
    Adam

    • Hey Adam,

      Thanks for the message. I’m sorry, but I don’t know much about the differences between goose and duck down. From what you say, if the smell isn’t an issue for you, it sounds like a pretty good deal!

      Cheers,

      Cam

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