“I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
The sleeping bag is perhaps the most cherished item in a thru-hiker’s kit. After a long day on trail, is there anything better than crawling into a warm fluffy bag, and drifting off to the land of Nod to the tune of Mother Nature’s melodious soundtrack?
Intangibles aside, when it comes to thru-hiking its important to have a sleeping bag that meets both your individual needs, as well as the dictates of the environment/s into which you are venturing. The challenge is finding a model that is versatile enough to keep you comfortable in a wide variety of conditions, because that’s exactly what you are likely to encounter over the course multi-month thru-hike.
The following article is a compilation of trail-tested lightweight sleeping bags and quilts, recommended by some of the most accomplished thru-hikers in the US (with a token Australian thrown into the mix).
Following the recommendations, there is an FAQ in which I address the principal queries hikers have in regards to purchasing a sleeping bag or quilt (e.g. Down or Synthetic?; Do I need a Liner?; What’s the deal with temperature ratings? Should I go with a bag or quilt?).
The Usual Suspects
As with the Thru-Hikers Gear List and Backpacks for Thru-Hiking articles, in putting together this post I wanted to create a resource that was relevant to a wide range of hikers. With that goal in mind, the recommendations below are derived from a diverse group of very experienced ramblers, ranging in age between mid-twenties to late seventies. Though the chronological spectrum may be sizeable, all of them backpack in an ultralight to lightweight fashion, have multiple long distance hikes under their belts, and possess a fierce love for the outdoors.
The usual suspects for this article include: Billy Goat, Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, Nancy “Why Not” Huber, Paul “Mags” Magnanti, Christy “Rockin” Rosander, Justin “Trauma” Lichter, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, Kristin “Lost” Gates, Lint Bunting, John “John Z” Zahorian, Amanda “Not a Chance” Timeoni, Renee “SheRa” Kirkpatrick, Erin “Wired” Saver and Heather “Anish” Anderson.
Splashing Out Vs Freezing your #!*# Off
Quality, lightweight sleeping bags aren’t found at the bottom of the REI Bargain Bin. A well made goose down model with high end fill power (i.e. 800 +) will usually set you back somewhere in the neighbourhood of $350 to $550. Synthetic models and quilts with equivalent materials generally cost less.
That said, if you are going to splash out on one item in your backpacking kit, sleeping bags/quilts are a very good choice. It’s hard to put a price on a good night’s sleep. And trust me, when you’re hiking through the Smoky Mountains in March or California’s High Sierra in June, and temps have dropped down to the mid-teens, I guarantee that you will be very glad you spent the extra $100 to $200 on a quality bag. The alternative is freezing your you-know-what’s off, while simultaneously admonishing yourself in no uncertain terms for being such a tightwad…………yes, I am speaking from personal experience on this one (New Zealand, 1994)!
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the bags (quilts to follow) that are used by some of the world’s most experienced thru hikers.
(Note: Items are listed in alphabetical order. Temperature ratings are from the manufacturers websites, and weights given are for regular sized models unless otherwise stated):
Feathered Friends Hummingbird UL 20 – 1 lb 9 oz / 900+ Fill / 20°F
The Hummingbird is the lightest model in the Feathered Friend’s sleeping bag catalogue. Mummy shaped, 900+ down, two way zipper with locking sliders, semi-water resistant Pertex shell, and like all FF products, superior workmanship. Due to the the bag’s relatively slim cut (58″ / 52 “/ 38”), if you’re a tosser and turner or someone that likes to spread out when they sleep, you may want to consider going with the wider Swallow UL 20 (60″ / 56″ / 38″) or Swift UL 20 (64″ / 58″ / 40″).
Triple Crowner and veteran outdoorsy type, Paul “Mags” Magnanti has owned his Hummingbird for two decades and had the following to say about this trail-tested classic :
“A high-quality bag or quilt is an investment that will serve a backpacker well for many years and nights out in the backcountry The more you use it, the overall cost of the bag becomes more than justified. The Feathered Friends Hummingbird I purchased back in 1997 was, and still is, such a bag.”
Another long-time fan of the Hummingbird is Kristin “Lost” Gates, who has used the Nano version of the FF bag (i.e. same as the UL, but with a different fabric technology) on multiple thru-hikes, including her traverse of Alaska’s Brooks Range in 2013.
Note: For folks interested in Feathered Friends Bags, note that the “Nano” (short for Nanosphere) models are cheaper than the Pertex versions by almost 20%. The catch is that they are a little heavier and not quite as water resistant.
Marmot Helium – 2 lb 1 oz / 15°F / 800-Fill
This bag has been around since cocky was an egg. I used an early version of it periodically between 2003 and 2009. It’s not the lightest or most compressible bag in this compilation, but to my way of thinking it has always represented good value, run’s close to its temperature rating (maybe a few degrees on the hight side), and thanks to a generous girth and taper, seems to be one of those bags that fits most hikers. If the Helium’s 15°F rating seems a little too toasty for your thru-hiking needs, Marmot also do a couple of well regarded and competitively priced 30°F bags; the 800-Fill Hydrogen and the 850-Fill Phase
Erin “Wired” Saver used the Helium on her PCT hike of 2011. Although she has subsequently made the switch to quilts, Wired describes the bag as “heavenly” and that she still enjoys “the luxury of it on trips where pack weigh isn’t a primary concern.”
(Note: Getting down to brass tacks, the Helium, Hydrogen and Phase are good bags, but they are a step down in quality from the other models on this list from Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends and Montbell. That said, they will definitely do the job, and if you are on a budget, it’s worth noting that you can often pick them up at REI or other online retailers at a significantly discounted price (e.g. Low $300’s), which to my way of thinking makes them excellent value).
Montbell Down Hugger 900 #2 – 1 lb 8 oz / 25°F / 900 Fill
Now for something a little different. Montbell bags are known for their Super Spiral Stretch Technology. In laymans terms, a patented stitching system which allows the bag to stretch/move/give with the natural movements of the user. This has been a real boon for hikers who toss and turn or simply like to spread out when they sleep. It is common to hear long-time users rate the Down Huggers as the most comfortable bags they have slept in.
Two such hikers are the very accomplished Justin “Trauma” Lichter and Heather “Anish” Anderson. The latter uses her ZPacks 35° bag during the height of summer, but prefers the Montbell Down Huggers “during edge or shoulder season hikes. (During this period) I use either a 0 or a 20 degree depending on conditions, and find them to be properly rated for a very cold sleeper like me.”
As for Trauma, he has used Montbell bags all around the world for close to a decade, including on his 2014 Winter PCT Traverse with Shawn “Pepper” Forry. He had the following to say about the Down Hugger series:
“I find them warm beyond their rating. I do sleep warm and I also roll around a lot in my sleep. I got used to the Super Stretch bags and didn’t realize how much I actually used the stretch system until one night I slept in a regular sleeping bag and felt confined.”
Western Mountaineering Ultralite – 1 lb 13 oz / 20°F / 850+ Fill
Over the past few decades, Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends have represented the gold standard in regards to high quality down sleeping bags produced in the United States. I used their Summerlite model between 2007 and 2011, and it was one of the finest bags I have owned; lightweight, didn’t clump, and true to it’s 32°F rating.
Hundreds of people have used WM bags on their thru-hikes, and they consistently receive glowing reviews. Two such accomplished hikers are Renee “SheRa” Kirkpatrick and Liz “Snorkel” Thomas. The latter used the WM Ultralite on all of her Triple Crown hikes (so far!). Take it away Snorks:
“The ultralite is a classic. It’s versatile, well-made, and WM has some awesome customer service. It’s a painful price to cough up, but it’s one of the best gear investments I’ve made as it grew with me as my skills got better and my trails got harder. It’s one of the only gear decisions I made early on that I never regretted later on. Aside from my spork and wind shirt, it’s the only item that I used on all the Triple Crown Trails (and unlike that poor spork and wind shirt, it continues to live on).”
In regards to which WM bag is most suitable for thru-hiking, I think for most folks the Ultralite hits the temperature sweet spot. Warm sleepers may want to look at the Megalite (30°F) or Summerlite. For cold frogs, you guys are probably better off opting for one of Western Mountaineering’s 10 or 15°F bags, such as the Versalite or Badger.
Enlightened Equipment Enigma – 20°F / 18.9 oz / 850 Fill
In recent years, Enlightened Equipment have earned a reputation for making some of the best value for money quilts on the market. For thru-hiking purposes, most folks seem to be fine with either the Revelation (zippered footbox) or Enigma (sewn footbox) 20°F models. However, if you’re a cold sleeper you are better off opting for one of the 10°F versions. For thru-hikers that would prefer synthetic rather than down fill, EE also produces some well regarded made to order quilts that sport CLIMASHIELD™ APEX insulation (i.e. Revelation Apex 30°F & 20°F).
In regards to Enlightened Equipments temperature ratings, according to most of the reports I’ve heard over the years, they tend to be a tad optimistic. By a tad I mean anywhere between five and ten degrees fahrenheit for an “average” sleeper. (Stop the Presses – As of November, 2017, EE announced that they are “adding 5% more down to all of their top quilts and bags.” Obviously it’s too early to know whether this will address the discrepancy mentioned above, however, I’d imagine it would have to make at least some difference).
A long-time fan of Enlightened Equipment quilts is serial thru-hiker Lint Bunting, who may well have put more miles on their products than anyone else in the hiking world. The floor is yours, Mr.Bunting:
“I’ve been using Enlightened Equipment quilts for many years now. The vertical baffles keep more down on top of your body instead of letting it fall off to the sides like a regularly baffled quilt. At least in my experience. They’re constructed of lightweight materials, have a bunch of customizable options, and are really affordable. I have four EE quilts now, including a two person model for when I camp with my partner. Nothing is quite as snuggly as sharing body heat and the occasional flatulence with the ones you love.”
Jacks R Better Sierra Sniveller – 24 oz / 25°-30°F / 800 Fill
The Sierra Sniveller is a well made multi-purpose quilt that can also be used as a poncho/serape (see photo below). It features hydrophobic down and comes in regular and long sizes. According to Paul “Mags” Magnanti, who has used the Sniveller since 2012, it runs true to it’s temperature rating and at less than $300 represents good value (Note: Mags is a warm sleeper). When it comes to backpacking gear, Mr.Magnanti is about as meat and potatoes as they come, and sums up the Sierra Sniveller as follows:
“If you want the absolute lightest quilt, there are others brands. Many of fine quality. But if you want a good, solid and well-made quilt with a few ounces weight penalty that won’t break the bank, the Jacks ‘R’ Better Sierra Sniveller is working very well for me.”
Cold sleepers may want to look at the High Sierra Sniveller model, which weighs in at 29 oz, but is good down to 5-10°F. This model still comes in at less than $300, which strikes me as being excellent value for something so warm.
Katabatic Alsek – 21 oz / 22°F / 900 Fill
Over the past decade, Katabatic quilts have become the yardstick by which other light and ultralightweight quilts are measured. The reason? A combination of high-end materials, differential cut, overstuffed neck collar, roomy foot box, conservative temperature ratings, draft-busting attachment system, and a meticulous attention to detail. It is no coincidence that in recent years some of the most accomplished ramblers in the US hiking world, such as Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, Liz “Snorkel” Thomas, John “John Z” Zahorian, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, Shawn “Pepper” Forry, Amanda “Not a Chance” Timeoni and Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy, have all made the switch to Katabatic quilts.
Over the past five years, John Z has hiked more than 12,000 miles on long distance trails around the US. He had the following to say in regards to the quilts he has tried during that period:
“I have used EE, Zpacks, and Katabatic quilts. The Zpacks is real constricting when zipped up and the footbox was flat and especially cold. The rating is pretty optimistic when you look at the loft height and in practice. The reason it seems so light in comparison is because of the inaccurate temp rating and slender size. The EE I used was in their early days with open baffles and that system just didn’t work with all of the down falling from the top to the sides within a few hours (Ed’s Note: Since redesigned). Katabatic just sort of does everything right. Footbox is shaped well and the down is where it should and the fit feels perfect to me.”
Which Katabatic quilt should I go for in regards to my upcoming thru-hike?
I have listed the Alsek above, because I feel like it hits the sweet spot for most long distance hikers. That said, I could just have easily gone with the Palisade 30°F, which I myself took on the PCT and CDT in 2012 (Note: I’m an “average” sleeper). By general consensus, Katabatic temperature ratings are recognized as being conservative, so in reality, the Alsek is more like a 15 -17°F quilt, and the Palisade should keep most folks warm down to low to mid-twenties. Cold sleepers may want to upsize to the Sawatch 15°F.
One final note in regards to Katabatic. In recent years, they have introduced a line of blanket style quilts, known as the “Flex” series. These models have a zippered rather sewn footbox, and run about 20% cheaper than the Elite series. Amanda “Not a Chance” Timeoni’s, a serial thru hiker that has hiked some 14,000 miles on long distance trails since 2009, has used the Flex 22°F model extensively in recent years. Take it away, Chance:
“I love my Katabatic! It has proven its worth on warmer desert hikes in Arizona and Death Valley, and in colder mountainous terrain like on the Great Divide Trail or the San Juans in Colorado. If it’s a warm night I can use it as a blanket, if it’s a cold night I can wrap myself in it like a burrito. I haven’t had a sleepless night since I got it because I can regulate my temperature more with a quilt.”
MLD Spirit Quilt 28°F– 21 oz / 28°F / ClimaShield Apex Synthetic Insulation
In the FAQ section below I examine the for’s and against’s of synthetic Vs down bags. For thru-hikers that prefer the former, there are some solid, well made lightweight options on the market, including the Enlightened Equipment Revelation Apex 20°F (see above) and the MLD Spirit 28°F. Both of these bags use ClimaShield Apex insulation.
In regards to the MLD model, uber-hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas has taken on it various long distance trails over the past five years, and had the following to say about the Spirit 28°F:
“I’d say its a great balance of quality, weight, and price. I got it at a time when I couldn’t afford to buy the same quality ultralight bag in down, but having one synthetic bag has become a handy tool in my gear quiver. A soaking wet Allgood, POD, and I opened it into a blanket and huddled under it during a snow storm on the Sierra High Route when their down bags would’ve wetted out or at least taken a while to dry.”
Zpacks 20 degree – 19.2 oz / 20°F / 900 Fill
Zpacks sleeping bags are not exactly sleeping bags. They’re not exactly quilts either. What they are is a hoodless hybrid with a zipper.
In regards to performance, they seem to evoke the full gamut of opinions in the long distance hiking community. Some hikers love them, others not so much. Personally I’ve never used one, but over the years I’ve noticed that impressions seem more or less divided along the following lines: a lot of females, smaller sized guys, and people that don’t move around much in their sleep give them a thumbs up, whereas other folks often find them a bit too restrictive; particularly in the footbox area (see John Zahorian’s comment above). The moral of the sleeping bag story seems to be that if you decide to go with a ZPacks bag, you may want to consider sizing out (width), sizing up (warmth) or both.
Accomplished ramblers that have rocked the Zpacks bags on multiple thru-hikes include Billy Goat, Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy, Heather “Anish” Anderson, Nancy “Why Not” Huber, Christy “Rockin” Rosander and Erin “Wired” Saver. Sexagenerian Triple Crowner, “Why Not” (a cold sleeper), had the following to say about Zpacks:
“I have ZPacks 30 degree and a less than 10 degree bags. I am 5’6” and I have the medium length. Both were made in 2012 when ZPacks first started making sleeping bags; I had taller baffles and 4 extra ounces of down added. I rarely use the zipper but it’s nice to have for those few times I when need to trap every molecule of warm air I can. I’ve slept in both bags many, many nights and they are both almost like new. I’m not even thinking about buying another one or anything else.”
Joshua “Bobcat” Stacy (a warm sleeper) used the Zpacks 30 Degree bag extensively between 2013 and 2016, in environments ranging from California’s Lost Coast, to the Rockies to Iceland’s interior. Take it away, Bobcat:
“This bag is the perfect hybrid for me. My long model is only 17 oz and I would recommend going with a longer than normal model since the bags tend run a little short. I have over 4,000 miles on this bag and it is my go-to for most three season hikes.”
Note: As of 2017, there are now only three options in regards to ZPacks down bags – 35°, 20° and 5°. In regards to the validity of these temperature ratings, the consensus seems to be that they are a little exaggerated for an “average” sleeper. For the purposes of thru-hiking, their 20 degree bag – probably more like 25 to 30 in real terms – is a good bet for most folks. For cold frogs, you are better off up-sizing to the 5°F model, which tips the scales at 23.8 oz and in real terms is more like a 13 – 15°F bag.
FAQ – What to Look for?
Below are some of the principal questions that aspiring thru-hikers have in regards to purchasing a sleeping bag or quilt:
Down or Synthetic?
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.
“So when should a thru hiker consider picking a synthetic model over a down bag?”
People who choose synthetic models usually do so for ethical, budgetary or environmental reasons. In regards to the latter, if your thru hike is mostly during the summer months, and a there is a real possibility of a good deal of rain (e.g. Appalachian Trail, Te Araroa, Pacific Northwest Trail), then synthetic insulation is not a bad way to go.
Personally speaking, I like synthetic models for warm and humid environments or even to double up with a down bag in extreme cold, however for everything else I think down is a better option.
“But aren’t down bags useless when wet?”
I’ve always felt this backpacking “truism” to be overly dramatic. The fact is, it takes quite a lot to completely soak the insulation of a sleeping bag. We’re talking getting slam-dunked during a river crossing. The occasional bit of transferred moisture from the inner wall of your tent or tarp doesn’t do too much harm, and will generally dry out pretty quickly if you lay your bag out in the sun during a midday break.
The key is simply to take some basic precautions in order to keep your bag dry. Line the inside of your backpack with a garbage/trash compactor bag. If you know you have some pretty serious river fords coming up, put your down items (along with electronics) in a separate dry bag inside your liner. Prevention is better than cure.
What about temperature ratings?
Most hikers attempting the Triple Crown Trails in the US, will be fine with a sleeping bag or quilt accurately rated between 15 and 25°F. That being said, warm sleepers can probably get usually get away with a 30°F model, whereas cold frogs might need to go down to a 10°F bag in order to be comfortable. The trick? Know where you stand (or lie) in the “sleeping warmth” spectrum before making your purchase. Note: As a general rule of thumb, women normally sleep 5 to 10 degrees colder than men.
“How will I know the accuracy of X company’s stated temperature ratings before I purchase?”
All I can tell you is to do your research. This article is a good place to start, but there are other websites such as the Ultralight sub-reddit and Backpacking Light, from which you should also be able to derive a pretty good idea of the veracity (or lack thereof) of the main companies temperature ratings.
Should I bring a sleeping bag liner?
No. Utilize your beanie and layers when needed. You’re carrying them anyway, you may as well put them to use at night, as well as during the day.
What’s the story with ‘Fill Power’?
One factor that provides a clue as to a sleeping bag or quilt’s quality is its fill power. Basically, a high fill power (e.g. 800+) equates to better quality down, which means superior insulation and warmth to weight ratio. In real terms, upgrading from a down bag with 600 fill-power to one with 800 fill-power, both of which have the same temperature rating, can mean a weight saving of up to 300 grams (10.6 ounces). The catch? Bags with higher fill powers are more expensive.
What Lies Below
It’s worth remembering, that irrespective of how warm and toasty your sleeping bag/quilt may be, if you don’t have sufficient insulation from the ground you are going to be cold and uncomfortable. For a regular season thru-hike of one of the US triple crown trails, a sleeping mat with an R-Value of 2 to 3 should suffice for most hikers. For late shoulder season or winter excursions, you will probably want something with an R-Value over 5 (e.g. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm). See the Sleeping Mat section of the website for more details on choosing a pad that’s right for you.
Bag or Quilt?
Quilts are lighter, more versatile, take up less space and usually cost less than sleeping bags. However, they aren’t necessarily for everyone. 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. For more information about quilts, see Why Choose a Quilt over a Sleeping Bag?
Whether you choose a bag or quilt for your thru-hike, the most important thing is that you find a model that is right for you. Something that suits your height, width, sleeping style, budget, and where you fall on the “sleeping warmth” spectrum.
Although price is definitely a consideration for most of us, as I mentioned above, don’t be afraid to loosen the old purse strings a little when it comes to buying a good sleeping bag or quilt. Chances are a high quality quality down model is going to provide you with many years of service out in the field (i.e. literally hundreds of nights), so in the long run it will more than justify the initial outlay.
In closing, I’d like to thank all the hikers who were kind enough to contribute to this article. I realize that these days the internet is full of blogs and videos extolling the virtues of all sorts of gear – “these are the top backpacks of 2017!”, “these are the best sleeping bags for the Appalachian Trail!” It’s hard for folks that are relatively new to the sport of long distance hiking, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the BBC from the BuzzFeed. And that in a nutshell is the primary reason I am putting these gear posts together. To create a credible resource for aspiring thru-hikers, based on the opinions of a diverse range of experienced ramblers, all of whom have literally walked-the-walk (and used the gear) for thousands and thousands of miles.
Disclosure: This post contains some affiliate links, which means ‘The Hiking Life’ receives a small commission if you purchase an item after clicking on one of the links. This comes at no additional cost to the reader, and helps to support the website in its continuing goal to create quality content for backpackers and hikers.