Backpackers, especially ultralight hikers, have begun choosing quilts over sleeping bags due to their lower weight, easy setup and smaller pack size. We take a closer look at these two options and compare them side by side to help you choose the best option.
Choosing your sleeping gear for your next backpacking trip can be difficult. There's a ton of choices and there are new technologies coming out every year. The latest innovation in sleep gear is the quilt.
The easiest way to describe how a backpacking quilt works is that it's a sleeping bag that has the back of it cut out. Instead of having a sleeping bag wrapped all the way around your body, a quilt only covers the top of your body and your sides, while leaving your back exposed to your sleeping pad.
At first this may sound like a deal breaker. How can a quilt possibly keep you warm if it's only covering half of your body? The explanation is simple: down gets compressed easily and when you are in a sleeping bag, the insulation between your body and the sleeping pad is so compressed that it offers almost no insulation. Quilts remove this unused insulation to make their overall size and weight smaller than a sleeping bag with the same loft and temperature ratings.
Example of a Quilt
Example of a Sleeping Bag
It's All About the R-Values
If you're going to use a quilt, then you will be relying entirely on your sleeping pad to provide the insulation and warmth between your body and the ground. This means your sleeping pad needs to have a high R-value; personally I wouldn't use a sleeping pad with an R-value below a 4.0. Any lower than that and you could run into some cold nights if the temperature gets down in the 30's.
It's Also About the Loft
The best way to compare sleeping bags and quilts is by comparing the loft rating for the down, also known as the fill factor. This is a measure of how tightly packed the down is. Sleeping bags and quilts with a higher loft rating mean that the down is more densely packed so you can get a better temperature rating with less weight.
For example, a quilt rated for 20 degrees F with a 650 fill rating will require more down than a quilt rated for 20 degrees with a 900 fill rating. The 900 fill rating will be much more dense and tightly packed which means the quilt can pack down to a smaller size and take up less room in your backpack.
Advantages of Quilts
There are two main advantages that quilts have over sleeping bags.
1. Quilts weigh less and pack down smaller. Due to the quilt having no back piece, there's simply less weight. This also lets the quilt pack down to a smaller size which will save some room in your backpack.
2. Quilts are easier to get in and out of. If you get up frequently during the night to answer nature's call, a quilt can be really nice since you won't be messing with a zipper. Quilts usually attach to your sleeping pad with a strap and you just slide your body in and out. No zippers, no fuss.
One other advantage many people mention, but I personally don't care for, is that a quilt lets you move around more. Since there's more space inside of a quilt, you can move around a little bit more while you sleep. Personally I prefer the snug feeling of a sleeping bag wrapped all around me but if you like to move at night a quilt could be a good alternative.
Advantages of Sleeping Bags
There are two important areas where sleeping bags can be better than quilts.
1. Price. Sleeping bags are generally less expensive than quilts because they're more popular and can take advantage of the economies of scale as a mass produced item. Quilts are specialty items that are usually only used by ultralight backpackers. Since quilts are made in lower quantities, sometimes even hand made by U.S. craftsman, they simply cost more than an equivalent rated sleeping bag. If you're looking to save money on your gear, a sleeping bag is probably going to be a better option than a quilt.
2. Sleeping bags completely enclose your body and will insulate you 100% from wind and drafts in your tent. Quilts can be strapped on to your sleeping pad, but even when strapped in you can still get drafts of wind blowing in between the quilt and the pad which can be really annoying during the night. When it's 30 degrees outside, the last thing you want is for cold wind to be blowing underneath your back all night. A sleeping bag will keep you insulated from this without any extra effort which is not always guaranteed with a quilt.
Recommended Quilt and Sleeping Bag
We've got lots of quilt and sleeping bag reviews elsewhere on the site, so we'll just leave you with our number one pick for a quilt and a sleeping bag.
Our Favorite Quilt
Our top choice for a quilt is anything by Enlightened Equipment. These quilts aren't cheap; you're going to be looking at about $300 for a 30 degree quilt with a 900 fill down. But these quilts are top of the line and will last forever.
They offer temperature ratings between 0 degrees all the way up to 50 degrees F.
They also offer lengths from 5'6" to 7'0". You can also customize the width from 50" up to 64".
With the slew of options and high quality craftsmanship, these quilts are easily our #1 choice.
Our Favorite Sleeping Bag
If you're looking for a sleeping bag, the Kelty Cosmic 20 is our top choice.
We reviewed this bag more in depth in another article, but the short story is it's a real down bag at less than half the price of the Enlightened quilt.
The Kelty Cosmic 20 has real down and packs down to an incredibly small size. At that price point, you won't find a real down sleeping bag that's higher quality anywhere.
Personally I prefer sleeping bags over quilts and for half the price, it's hard not to recommend the Kelty over a quilt.
Quilt vs Sleeping Bag Wrap Up
If you had to sum up the debate between quilts and sleeping bags in one sentence it would be:
Quilts can save a couple ounces of weight but will likely cost double what a comparable sleeping bag would cost.
If you're looking for an ultralight gear setup, then quilts are the way to go. We'd recommend testing one out before you drop $300 on it to make sure you like it but if you're cutting every ounce, quilts are a good option.
For the majority of people, a sleeping bag will be the best option due to the small difference in weight and the large cost savings. For these two reasons, we recommend the Kelty Cosmic 20 as the best trade off between cost and weight.