Backpacking Quilt versus Sleeping Bag

Whether you’re new to backpacking or have been doing it for some time, you’ve likely heard of backpacking quilts.  

When they first crossed my radar, they were touted as a great way to drop some weight from your pack while still keeping you warm. As more people tried them, the message changed to “you’ll be more comfortable and sleep better while saving weight.” It seems like the perfect win when it comes to gear.  

But is it true?   

Is a backpacking quilt really one of the elusive, perfect pieces of gear?  Could it be one of the few products that offer greater comfort in the backcountry while saving weight?  

Let’s dive in and find out.  

How Does A Quilt Work? – Video

Check out our video on how a quilt can be used for a tent camper, including how it attaches to your sleeping pad and the different ways it can be used.

Download the transcript.

What is a Backpacking Quilt? 

Backpacking quilts used by tent campers are modified hammock top quilts. If you’ve got hammock camping friends, you know that they have a bottom quilt that wraps around the bottom of the hammock on the outside, and a top quilt that surrounds them inside the hammock. The two quilts together form a snuggly cocoon.  

Several cottage industry companies have taken the top quilt, made it wider to wrap around the sides of a sleeping pad, and then added straps to keep them secured around the pad.  

Most are filled with down encased in a soft silnylon outer shell. Quilts sport a footbed that can be zipped, snapped, or sewn shut. It all depends on the company you purchase from and your own preferences.  

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Is a Backpacking Quilt as Warm as a Sleeping Bag? 

The theory is that, as you lay on top of a sleeping bag you’re compressing the down below you, thereby losing any protective warmth from the bag. The only thing protecting you from the cold ground is your sleeping pad.  

If that’s the case, why not remove the zipper along with the extra fabric and fill to save a little weight and have something just as warm as your sleeping bag.  

Is the theory sound? I honestly can’t tell you.   

I’ve searched high and low for a head-to-head study comparing a backpacking quilt vs sleeping bag and haven’t seen any scientifically done studies. I also couldn’t locate any experiments demonstrating how much heat was lost through the bottom of a sleeping bag.

What I have seen are opinions and people sharing their own experiences.  

But I’m a scientist, and I really like data.  

Another thing to note – most sleeping bag manufacturers send their bags for independent testing using either the EN or ISO standards to determine their temperature ratings. You can read more about how sleeping bags are rated here. However, quilts are considered “specialty items” and are not run through the same testing. This means you’re at the mercy of the company making the quilt for how they’re determining the temperature rating.  

Keep in mind that a top quilt is part of a larger system for hammock campers. Just because tent campers have decided to purchase them, doesn’t mean they have to be rated for us.  

What are the Benefits of a Quilt versus a Sleeping Bag? 

Besides saving a bit of weight and room in your pack, a quilt may help you sleep better.  

As a slide sleeper, and one that moves around a lot, I can tell you firsthand that sleeping bags do not move with you as you continue to flop from side to side. What often happens is part of the bag turns as you do, but the rest either remains static or moves in the opposite direction. You wind up a tangled mess in the morning, not entirely sure where the zipper is located.  

With the quilt, because it’s strapped around your pad, it stays in place as you move.  

Another advantage of a quilt is the ability to better control temperature through all the options they offer. If you have a footbed that can be opened, you can use the quilt as a square shape, gently laying on you if the temperatures are warmer.  

Without the mummy hood, you can also get better air circulation and control your body temperature more easily by using a hat.   

Is it warm out? Leave the quilt open and just tossed over you for light protection. 

Getting a bit cooler? Close the footbed and tuck it around you.  

Really cold? Close the footbed and strap the quilt around your sleeping pad.  

Still feeling a bit warm or a bit cold? Add or remove a wool hat.  

What to Look for in a Quilt 

Make Sure the Size is Right 

Size matters with a quilt.  Don’t try to skimp on the width for weight. You need enough width that a few inches of the quilt wrap under both sides of your sleeping pad with room for you to move.  

Most companies have sizing charts to help you choose the right width. They’ve handled the returns so trust them when they tell you how to determine the right width. If you’re not sure, contact the manufacturer. They all have incredible customer service teams that can help. 

Also, make sure you’re getting the right length. Like a sleeping bag, quilts come in short, regular, and long.  

What Type of Down? 

You’ll see goose down is the preferred fill material, however, some companies offer economy versions in duck down. It will be thicker and weigh an ounce or two more, but you can save $100. 

The other advantage to duck down is that it doesn’t smell like goose down when it gets a little wet.  

While fairly similar, goose down offers more loft which means less down will give you more warmth. You likely won’t notice a huge difference until you get down to a 10- or zero-degree quilt. If you’re going that low, I’d recommend goose down.  

Don’t Overlook the Straps 

A factor often overlooked is the strap system. But it’s important.  

I have both an Enlightened Equipment quilt and a Hammock Gear Quilt. While they’re both well made, the Enlightened Equipment strap system has a male to female connectors while Hammock Gear has a z-clip.  

The z-clip drives me nuts. The cord continually makes its way out of the clip, and the clip tends to rip through the tab it attaches to on the quilt.  

I’ll probably convert the Hammock Gear to male to female connectors soon. And by me, I mean my mom who sews.  

Do You Want the Footbed Open or Sewn? 

You’ll need to think about whether the footbed should be sewn shut or have a zipper giving you the option to open it. Sewing it shut saves weight over adding a zipper, but you lose a little flexibility in how you can use the quilt.  

If you’re buying a 30-degree quilt, I’d have a zipper. With a 10 degree quilt, just sew it up. It’s unlikely you’ll ever use a 10-degree quilt opened.  

Snaps have a nasty habit of coming undone and most companies have moved away from them.  

Customize Your Quilt 

Almost all quilt manufacturers allow you to choose the color for the outer and inner shell fabric. This comes in handy if you’re purchasing more than one quilt. While they usually include a tag with the temperature rating, having quilts that are different colors is a great way to avoid accidentally packing the wrong one.  

You also have the option to choose the width, length, and how you want the footbed. There is also generally an option to add more fill if you tend to sleep cold.  

A Note About Your Sleeping Pad 

If you go with a backpacking quilt, the only thing between you and the ground is your sleeping pad. Do not skimp here! 

When backpacking in colder weather where you need a 20-degree quilt, you’ll want a sleeping pad with a high R-value. I use a Klymit V Insulated pad with an R-value of 4.4 and it works great.  

I have a lighter sleeping pad with an R-value of 3 and I would never take that out below 35 degrees.  

Everyone is different and your choices may be different than mine, but it’s a factor you need to think about before you head out.  

Quality and Manufacturers 

As more and more cottage brands begin making quilts, the options can be overwhelming.  

If you buy from a reputable brand, you really can’t go wrong.  

Make sure you look online at reviews and see if people are reporting being too cold. For example, are people saying this 20-degree quilt really operates as a 30-degree quilt? If so, you could go with a different brand, buy the quilt and have them include additional fill, or purchase a 10-degree quilt.   

Also, consider the fabric used for the outer shell. Most are silnylon, but what weight? The thinner fabrics will weigh less and feel silkier, and will likely compress more, but they’ll also be more fragile. That’s fine, it’s just a trade-off.  

Keep in mind that if you’re ordering a quilt for a specific trip, timing may play a role in where you purchase. While most companies have some inventory ready to ship, if you need a long or short, or want extra fill, then you’ll have to go with custom and that can take 4-5 weeks.   

You may need to purchase from the company that has what you want and can ship in time.  

Backpacking Quilts Versus Sleeping Bags – the Final Verdict 

I’m a fan of the backpacking quilt.  

I struggled with a sleeping bag for almost a year. While I enjoyed my trips, I was never comfortable at night and didn’t sleep well. I was always too hot, and it felt like the sleeping bag was a slip and slide with all my sweat.  

Since switching to quilts, I sleep a lot better.  

While you could credit the switch to down, I believe it’s more about the structure of the quilt.  

My quilts vent it more readily and in a more controlled manner than a sleeping bag, and by simply wearing a hat or removing it, I can control my heat with far greater control.  

As far as warmth, I’ve used my 20-degree quilt down to 15 degrees and was cozy.  

I can’t tell you if the quilts are as warm as the sleeping bag, because I was always too hot in the sleeping bag and sweating.  But I can tell you I’m cozy warm with the quilt, and I’m definitely more comfortable.  

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