by Beth Macinko
Over the last decade, sleeping quilts have become increasingly available as an alternative to sleeping bags. With a traditional sleeping bag, the down beneath you is compressed, making the insulation underneath ineffective— taking up space and adding unnecessary weight to your pack. A quilt, on the other hand, lies on top of you and wraps around your body, using an attachment system to fit it tightly around you. Without the bottom insulation, quilts can be lighter and pack smaller than sleeping bags of the same size and temperature rating.
Most quilts are made by smaller gear companies, so while there are the standard sleeping bag choices of temperature ranges and down or synthetic filling, there are even more customization options like foot boxes or flat quilts, extended length and width options, different fill types, custom colors and overfilling.
Here are 6 things to consider to see if you’re ready to make the switch to a quilt.
Footbox or open quilt?
Maybe the biggest question when looking at a quilt is if you want it to fully open into a flat quilt or have a sewn-shut footbox. The permanent footbox is warmer but not as versatile. An open footbox allows you to easily use the quilt like a blanket, letting you wrap it around your shoulders on cold mornings or even toss it over you when crashing with friends.
Attachment system and pad type
Most quilts come with a set of straps that wrap around your sleeping pad and then clip in to your quilt. You can slide the clips farther under you on cold nights to create a seal. On warm nights, move them to the edge of pads or leave them unclipped. If you get up frequently in the night, a quilt may be frustrating because you have to unclip at least one side to get out. Look at manufacturer websites for explanations and videos of how their attachment systems work; one may be more intuitive to you. Whatever system you have, make sure to set up your pad and quilt and test out how you’ll use it for cold and warm nights.
Quilts are compatible with most pads but they work better with inflated styles than closed-cell foam pads. Since you’ll be lying directly on your sleeping pad, you might want a pad with a high R-value. (A high R-value corresponds to better insulation from the cold of the ground.)
If you tend to have hot or cold spots when you sleep, look at the baffle patterns of different quilts. Some have vertical baffles that allow you to shake more of the down to a certain area, like your feet or core. Other companies sew their baffles horizontally across the body; on a hotter night you can push the down off to your sides.
If you sleep on your side or roll around frequently, you might want to buy a wide quilt for extra room to move. Look at manufacturer measurements and see if your shoulder width fits.
It might take a bit of experimenting to perfect your sleep system. If you can’t get a good night’s sleep without a warm head, consider a down or synthetic hood to wear on colder nights. Synthetic or down booties are also available from gear makers to increase the temperature range of your quilt. A sleeping bag liner is another useful add-on. It adds a layer between you and your pad, keeps your quilt clean and can add a couple of degrees of warmth.
Test it out
Before you head out for your first night, you’ll want to be sure to test out your quilt. The attachment systems can be tricky to figure out—and having that dialed in is particularly important if it’s a cold night.
Katabatic Gear makes the Flex, which comes in four temperature ranges, from 15 degrees to 40 degrees. (The Flex 22 is shown.) It is offered in a variety of lengths, with wider options for the longer lengths. The footbox completely unzips, making a completely flat blanket. We found the Flex 22 to work well in a range of temperatures. It was warm enough for 30-degree nights and easily dumped heat on warm nights. Like all quilts, adding more layers and a hat can extend its temperature range lower. We appreciated the 900 fill power, water-resistant down. It packs small and can withstand a bit of moisture. $260-$345; katabaticgear.com.
The Revelation quilt by Enlightened Equipment is a favorite in the WTA office. Several of our staff members use it for their backpacking trips. The Revelation opens up flat into a blanket, but the bottom can also be cinched closed. It doesn’t have a zipper. We found that it has an excellent warmthto-weight ratio. It packs down tiny. The Revelation can be made to a wide range of specifications: three weights of down, four widths, five lengths and six temperature ratings. All of our quilt users agree that if you’re on the fence on what size to get, opt for larger rather than smaller. Weight ranges from 8.8 to 35.6 ounces. $250$400; enlightenedequipment.com.
Zpacks is well respected for making lightweight gear for backpacking and other outdoor adventures. Their Solo Quilt comes in three lengths and three widths. They also offer three temperature ranges, from 5 degrees to 35 degrees. The quilts range from 12.5 ounces to 26.9 ounces, depending upon size and temperature rating. They also offer this quilt with a 3/4-length zipper, which cold sleepers might prefer. Check their bargain bin online; they occasionally offer lightly used or slightly imperfect bags for sale. $279-$419; zpacks.com.
Beth Macinko is an avid backpacker and has spent five years doing professional trail work, including as a crew lead for WTA’s backcountry trips. She made the transition to a quilt after years of using a standard bag. Now, more than 50 nights later, she’s never going back.