My first, rugged sleeping bag was the bulky, cotton bag issued by the Army. Like most military gear, it was nearly indestructible, until it got wet. I’ve since owned several bags, and especially like my current synthetic 20-degree bag. (Even the Army finally upgraded to a synthetic system.) But my bag is nearly 15 years old now, and has lost a significant amount of its loft.
So, as I consider a replacement, it got me wondering about new options on the market, and the benefits of sleeping bags versus quilts. Before we go further, let’s define what exactly a backpacking “quilt” is, in case this is something you’ve never heard of.
Quilts are ostensibly insulated blankets that wrap around you, as opposed to a fully enclosed sleeping bag. Some quilts have an enclosed foot box to keep the toes warm, and it can be integrated with your sleeping pad so the two work in-tandem. The result is a lighter system, that takes up less room in your pack.
By the way, the Army has their version of a quilt, too. It’s called a poncho liner – a synthetic, lightly insulated blanket that every service member owns at some point. It’s basically a soldier’s blankie in the field (there’s no shame in it!). I got mine in 1994 and it’s been all over the world. Now we use it as a family picnic blanket.
Our top 8 reasons quilts are better than sleeping bags:
1. Less Weight
Go light. Weight is everything to backpackers, and we’re constantly trying to save a few ounces here and there. Quilts can reduce your sleep system weight by as much as 20%. That’s a big reduction, especially for those longer treks.
2. Less Space
Next to weight, storage is the next critical aspect for backpackers. What is the smallest pack I need to carry my kit? Since a quilt has less material than a traditional sleeping bag, it will compress into a smaller bundle for stowing. In some cases, less than the height of a water bottle. This means you might get additional gear into your sleeping bag compartment along with the quilt – maybe even that sleeping pad.
3. Thermal Regulation
Given the quilt is not fully enclosing your body, you have more options to regulate temperature and comfort. Your head is already out of the bag, so you can choose whether to wear a hat, or stay cooler without it.
You can wrap the quilt around your sleeping pad for a little extra warmth, or leave it loose over your body and shift it according to your needs. I also like that you can drape it over you easily while you are just sitting and chilling.
4. They’re Modular
If you find that one quilt is not enough, or if you simply want to share with a friend, some quilts allow you to snap/connect them together to make one large blanket. You can benefit from the shared warmth, or just stay cozy with that special someone. Either way, this is a handy feature that can give you and your mates additional thermal comfort options on the trail.
5. Less Restrictive
Some hikers prefer the cozy feel of their fully-wrapped sleeping bags, while some of us want a little more freedom of movement while we sleep. The quilt can offer the latter, allowing you to adjust the blanket to meet your body shape and preferred sleeping position. So, if you’ve struggled to find a sleeping bag that fit just right, the quilt might just do the trick.
Also, some warmer-rated quilts offer the flexibility to cinch the end to create a “foot pouch”, or leave it loose on your feet which some may find more comfortable. And, if you’re like me, I don’t always like the sleeping bag cinched around my head. The quilt, which is open at the top, can free your head to sleep the way you feel most comfortable.
6. More Layering Options
Quilts make it easy to assemble a number of layers together to suit your needs and comfort level. You can use a sleeping bag liner, then drape the quilt over the top and adjust as needed. In cooler weather, you can place a quilt over your sleeping bag for extra warmth.
I use the Sea to Summit Reactor Liner, it feels like a silk sheet against your skin, in lieu of the nylon bag or quilt.
7. Sleeping Pad Integration
There’s nothing worse than sliding off the sleeping pad during the night. You wake up and half your body is lying on the cold, hard ground. While baffled sleeping pads do reduce the chance you’ll slide, quilts can allow you to wrap the sleeping pad right into the system. This gives you a thermal enclosure and keeps your sleeping pad beneath you where it belongs.
Tip: Check the R-value of your sleeping pad as this is now an integral part of your sleeping system.
8. Hybrid Options Available
Still can’t decide between a bag and a quilt? Not to worry- quilts offer a range of hybrid options to get the best of both worlds while maintaining the flexibility of each. See below!
A Backpacking Quilt’s Temperature & Comfort Ratings
Most manufacturers utilize either the international EN (European Norm) 13537 or the ISO (International Standards Organization) 23537 standard for testing and rating their sleep systems. Each standard test produces two key numbers which manufacturers and resellers use to label the comfort range of their products: A Tested Comfort Rating (T-Comfort) and a Tested Lower Limit Rating (T-Limit).
According to ISO, Comfort rating is the “lower limit of the comfort range, down to which a sleeping bag user with a relaxed posture, such as lying on their back, is globally in thermal equilibrium and just not feeling cold.” While the Lower Limit rating is simply the “lower limit at which a sleeping bag user with a curled up body posture is globally in thermal equilibrium and just not feeling cold.”
What does this mean to me?
To put it simply, some of us sleep warm while others, like me, sleep cold, and finding your own thermal comfort is a very personal process. To make things easier, retailers often use the T-Comfort rating for women and the T-Limit rating for men.
Note: These ratings are only for adults, not for children or babies.
Our recommended backpacking quilts:
There’s a lot to pick from, so here are 6 great options to get you started with a quilt based sleep system.
Ghost Pepper Top Quilt 20-deg
This is a relatively new, small company based in the US with all products hand made using down produced to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS). They have a range of quilt options, all of which are super light and offered at great price points. Best of all, these quilts are produced to order and you have lots of choice on sizing and fabric patterns to meet your personal preferences.
The bag has snap closures for as much, or little, envelopment you prefer, and a cinch at the bottom to keep out drafts and keep your feet warm if you choose. (Note: Check the leads time as these are made to order.)
More info: locolibregear.com
Therm-a-Rest Corus Quilt 32
This quilt features a wrap-around toe box and weighs in at a mere 1 lb. 4 oz. It does not come with straps, but has a friendly price point at around $220-$240. Also, it conforms to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), with down treated for water resistance.
More info: rei.com
Big Agnes Kings Canyon UL Quilt
Another super-light option, this quilt uses PrimaLoft for insulation, a great alternative to down. It has snaps to fully enclose the quilt into a bag, or wrap it around your sleeping pad. Or, and this is really clever: it comes with 10 snap patches so you can attach the quilt to your own sleeping pad. Kudos, BA! For more details on PrimaLoft, check out this article on Ethical Clothing Brands.
More info: bigagnes.com
Feathered Friends Flicker Series (Hybrid Option)
Another great company started by an innovative couple looking for their own gear, Feathered Friends offers a range of quilts, bags, and jackets, all made in Seattle, Washington since 1972. I like the Flicker Series, a hybrid quilt/bag option with a full-length zipper which allows the quilt to be opened fully, or zipped up as much as you need.
Their products conform to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS), and while they’re at a higher price point than some, you are definitely getting a high-quality product.
More info: featheredfriends.com
Sea to Summit Ember Down Quilt
The Sea to Summit Ember Down Quilt has 20, 30, and 40-degree options, and the 40-deg, size large quilt weighs in at just 1 lb. 3 oz. It’s produced to the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) and is treated to dry-out more quickly. A little pricier than some, it does come with straps to attach it to your sleeping bag, which not all do.
More info: seatosummitusa.com
Sea to Summit Traveller Sleeping Bag (Lightest option)
Technically a sleeping bag, this super-light bag will unfold into a quilt, or cinch up into a bag. It weighs just 13.5 ounces and while it’s only rated to 50-deg, it could be a good option for warmer weather trips. It also compresses into a super-small bundle for stowing.
More info: ems.com
- Check to see if the quilt comes with straps to secure it to your sleeping pad
- For colder weather trips, get a sleeping pad that is specifically rated for the colder temps
- Remember that hat for cooler nights!
At the end of the day, we all must find the sleep system that works best for us and meets our comfort needs on the trail. And as I look to hike the Long Trail in Vermont this summer, quilts are a new evolution in trail sleep systems and definitely worth considering.
It’s like a sleeping bag that works smarter, not harder, to reduce weight while still maintaining your comfort. So, whether you’re headed out for the weekend, or thru-hiking the PCT, AT, or LT, your quilt might just be your new best friend.
Happy (comfortable) trails!
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Bryce is a freelance writer and preservation consultant who lives in Southern Maine with his wife and their two awesome kids. Previously from Upstate NY, he climbed the 46 High Peaks in the Adirondacks before discovering the mountains of New England. When he’s not exploring the outdoors, Bryce can be found writing, teaching, photographing old buildings, or getting crushed by his daughters in Monopoly.