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 1980s 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 1000 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, The Long 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/buff; 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 (plus Katabatic Bristlecone Bivy) | 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 material generally equate 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 in 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 reviewer’s 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.

Quilt Recommendations (alphabetical order):

Sleeping Bags Recommendations (alphabetical order)

Budget Options

DisclosureThis 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. 

31 Replies to “Why Choose a Quilt over a Sleeping Bag?”

  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

    1. 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

    1. 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.

    1. 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

      1. Hi Cam,
        When you use the webbing straps, do they go under your pad? I am struggling to use my palisade. I was freezing in april on the AT last year. I move around a lot when I sleep, and was thinking about throwing in the towel and going back to a sleeping bag. I always seem to get freezing drafts.
        thanks
        Kieran

        1. Hey Kieran,

          No, I sleep directly on top of the straps. I occasionally turn over in my sleep, but I’ve never found the drafts to be much of an issue with Katabatic quilts. That said, if it’s chilly I tend to cinch them up pretty tightly. Let me ask you, do you feel like your Palisade is long and/or wide enough for your needs? What sort of temps did you encounter on the AT last April? I know the Smokies can still be pretty cold at that time of year.

          Cheers,

          Cam

          1. Hi Cam,
            (Sorry for the late reply, I somehow stuffed it up earlier.)
            I don’t feel that the palisade is too long for me. I am only 176cm five nine. But when I move about, cold air does seem to seep in. I wonder if a wide version would make much difference? I am only 68kg so I’m not carrying much weight! Maybe I am just a cold sleeper? maybe the 15 degree would be better for me? but at this weight, I wonder if it might be better getting a good 20 degree bag like the WM ultralight.

            I don’t know what the temperatures were when I started, but there were a couple of days when shards of ice were falling out of the trees in the morning! And it did actually snow on one night (the 15th of April.)

            I ended up getting a down liner at Neels Gap, eve then I was still chilly for the first two – three weeks. And my down liner weighed in a 500g and my palisade at 550g, so for over a kilogram and and still be cold, I am wondering if I should just get a good sleeping bag for the first couple of months on the PCT next year. And then maybe swap it out for the palisade. I have to say I didn’t have a puffy, just an icebreaker long sleeve thermal top, fleece, and raincoat. Any advice would be appreciated. But I’m really enjoying reading your blogs. (Bit of a late comer but thanks to John Z I found your site. Its kind of funny because it seems like you introduced him to your world.

            1. Hi Kieran,

              Yes, it sounds like you are a cold sleeper. Given your dimensions, I don’t think a wide quilt will probably make that much difference. That being the case, for the shoulder season months of a thru-hike on one of the TC trails, you are probably better off opting for an accurately rated 15 to 20°F bag (e.g. WM, Feathered Friends or Montbell). Ditch the down liner.

              In regards to your insulation layer for your PCT next year, if you have found the fleece isn’t keeping you warm enough, opt for a lightweight down jacket (e.g. Montbell Superior, MH Ghost Whisperer).

              As for John, I met him on the PCT in 2012 and we hiked together for a day or so. Very nice guy. I haven’t seen him since, but we occasionally correspond via email.

              Best of luck.

              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).

    1. 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

    1. 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

  7. Does anything about your advice change for hammock dwellers? I’m a new convert and love my hang; wondering whether moving to quilt next should be in the cards for me in 2020 (fair weather back sleeping AT section hiker here).

  8. Good article, though I’m loathe to give up my cozy bags quite yet. Just one correction; one of the photos lists Camel’s Hump as being on the Appalachian Trail. It’s actually part of the Long Trail running through the length of Vermont.

  9. Cam,

    I’m ready to buy my first quilt and torn between Katabatic’s Alsek and Palisade. I’m 6’0” 170, (medium sleeper – not hot or cold) and plan to go with a regular, long. If you were going to select 1 bag that can be used on the PCT, CDT and AT, which would you select?

    Thanks much

    Steve

    1. Hey Steve,
      I’m a similar height and weight to yourself and went with the Palisade combined with an UL Bivy on the PCT and CDT in 2012. That said, if I had to pick one bag for all three trails for an average sleeper (who wasn’t using a bivy) it would be the Alsek.
      Cheers,
      Cam

    1. Hey Steve,

      No worries. To be more specific, I’m a little heavier (180 lb) and taller 6’1, but yes, all my quilts are regular width and 6’6″ in length.

      Cheers,

      Cam

    1. I think it’s worth it if you do the majority of your hiking in cold and wet environments. Otherwise, I’m not sure it makes much of a difference.

  10. Thanks Cam,

    Very helpful, useful info, even years later! I appreciate your real world perspective. I’m hoping to get some realistic practical guidance sizing a quilt as I transition for lighter weight, more range and versatility. I have been hiking in the Whites the last 10+ years, starting with long weekends and moving up to week+longer hikes. I started out cheap with a 4lb Slumberjack 20F, moving to the lighter 2.25lb Marmot Nanowave 35F after realizing how much versatility there was in layers, good padding and cinching up a mummy bag. Got to the point where my son and I were able to achieve the coveted Boy Scout Black Bead sleeping out under the stars at Carter Notch on a frozen lake at -5F in our Slumberjack 20F’s. Both of us stayed warm and toasty all night! I’ve also been able to sleep warm + comfortable at 15F in the Mahoosuc Notch shelter in the Nanowave 35F.

    I’m now looking to get my base weight to 15lb or less so I can hike the AT and be reasonably positioned for the CDT and PCT. Having less weight for winter hikes will be nice too! I am confident most 20 or 30F quilts will work for me on the AT. I’m trying to decide tho how to best position myself for the CDT, PCT and winter hikes in the Whites. To date I have gone cheap on bag+pad. Now I’m ready to invest long term, long hike. Given what I’ve read here and elsewhere, I am a goldilocks sleeper – not too cold, not too hot, knowing how to layer,pad+cinch for comfort.

    My question is: can I attain similar results with a quilt if I go longer+wider to match the length+shoulder of my Nano 35? curling+cinching up so that I can get to -5F or even 0F with a 20F quilt? I’m considering an EE Revelation 20 Long+Wide, figuring I’ll likely be better off using 2-3 oz to increase the quilt size in order to mummify rather than going the hoodlum way. Given my experience and what I’ve read here+elsewhere, I’m focusing on reducing draft rather than just increasing insulation.

    I am also upgrading my old reliable 1.5lb ThermaRest Short Self-Inflate Backpacker pad which is 1.5″ and 3+R. It’s served me well+warm all the way down to -20 to -30F nights on the Presidentials using the backpack as a pad under my calves+feet as I’ve always done. I’m considering upgrading it with TR NeoAir XLite Short with R4.4 at 8oz. Do you think my calves+feet will be cooler or the same with the quilt over my pack? I’m assuming I’ll want draft tubes for the zip no?

    Ideally, I’d like to trade up my 3 season 3.75lb Nano bag+pad setup to a 2lb 3-4ish season quilt+pad setup that I will likely not need to change for the PCT or CDT. I realize I will have to for -10F and cooler nights in the Whites! Any guidance is much appreciated.

    Anthony D aka yNot

  11. hey, very informative, like the style. I do like and use my quilt but only during the summer, 3 other seasons fully enclosed bag. I’m not sure if I’m the only one but with straps tightened or not, clicked on the back or stretched over the pad I always, I mean always would get some draft and this is a deal breaker for me, little bit more weight, more constrictive, more expensive, it doesn’t matter when it’s cold, it’s cozier 🙂

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