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The Tentative Quilter

Ultralight Camping on the Maine Appalachian Trail
Ultralight Camping on the Maine Appalachian Trail

Have you ever used a quilt instead of a sleeping bag on a backpacking trip?

I confess, I haven’t. But I took my first tentative  step in that direction on my last backpacking trip. Instead of a quilt, I used the 50 degree rectangular sleeping I carry in summer, a 13.5 ounce Montbell UL Thermal Sheet, and unzipped it so I could drape it over myself like a quilt. Like a backpacking quilt, I kept the bottom part of the bag zipped together to form a foot box for my feet. I used my sleeping bag like this, together with a 14 ounce Therm-a-rest NeoAir sleeping pad and a 6.8 ounce Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy Sack that has a head net over the face. The entire system worked very well and I expect to use it again on future summertime trips.

Before this trip, I really questioned whether bringing the bivy sack was necessary and had some concern that I’d be too hot using it at night. In the end I reckoned that I could lie on top of the sleeping bag and use the top of the bivy bag like a thin sheet. Being too hot didn’t turn out to be a problem however and I realize now that the bivy sack is really the glue that makes this entire sleep system work. In addition to providing bug and rainsplatter protection (I was sleeping under a tarp), the bivy keeps all of the components together, including me, no matter how I thrash around at night.

For the most part, I slept warm and comfortably on my trip, although I woke up a little cold during the wee hours of the morning on two days. This was easily rectified by wrapping the light synthetic jacket I use as a camp jacket and pillow around my neck and chest to create a virtual draft collar, like you find on a cold weather bag. This is  a trick I learned for winter camping and helps prevents your body heat from escaping through the top of your sleeping bag.

Even though this quilt-like system worked well, I still not tempted to switch to a backpacking quilt. The rectangular sleeping bag I already own is perfectly adequate draped over me and I can still use it like a sleeping bag if I choose. That seems like a more flexible alternative than switching to a quilt all the time. It’s also a lot less expensive, if you compare the price and the weight of a 40 or 50 degree rectangular sleeping bag to a backpacking quilt.  Food for thought if you want to save some money.

What’s your experience been with backpacking quilts? Are they worth a separate purchase?


  1. Thanks for the report. I have used "quilts" in about the same manner, but without a bivy. I am still looking for a good, UL bivy, that is also bug proof. without being a major leaking problem. For most, this means an extra pound of weight(~14oz.) offsetting the weight of my bug tent(16oz.) Anyway, fall camping means dropping the bug tent, anyway.

    Overall, I believe the quilts are an effective means of sleeping. With the variable conditions of fall, I don't expect them to perform a heck of a lot better or worse than a bag. And not using a bivy, they will likely not perform as well. Draughts are a problem, because I toss and turn regularly due to an old back injury.

    Keep up the good work and let us know how this goes for the winter!

  2. Hopefully, this weekend I'll be testing out a quilt that I got for three-season use to replace my GoLite 20. I much prefer quilts for summer use because I use the draped sleeping bag more often than the closed sleeping bag when it's hot, but for colder temps… well, the GoLite served me pretty well down to freezing and below a few years ago, if a bit uncomfortably. My new quilt is much puffier and wider.

    I guess if I had my dream sleeping bag I would pass up on quilts, but a bag that's comfortable to 30, has plenty of room to stretch out and add layers, and weighs less than 20 oz doesn't seem to pop up very often (and certainly not within my budget).

  3. Marco – I think I'm going to stick with my -25 degree sleeping bag for winter, if only because it feels so good!

  4. I've got a 20F mummy bag that I've been using for years. I unzip it and use it as a quilt when the temps. are warm, and zip it up as a bag when temps. are cold. This has proved to work for me..

  5. I used a mountain laurel designs quilt this summer in Philmont (lows in the high 30's low 40's) and was quite toasty with it (their 35 degree one, the lighter 45 degree one would probably have been ok). It was extraordinarily dry and for reasons of "bear safety" I had to use a tent (Luna solo), so I skipped using a bivy sack.

    What you have underneath is really important – I was OK with a lightweight thermorest, but would need more if it was much colder. In testing the quilt before the trip, I found that it was much more sensitive to wind chill than my sleeping bag.

    The other thing that was a bit counter intuitive was that if I pulled it very tight (i.e. trying to make it like a sleeping bag), I was cold. The lightweight insulation would batten down, so It was better to hang loose and have loft. If you get one, it is important to get one that is big enough.

  6. Interesting observation Rob. Thanks!

  7. Guthook – I never thought about quilts in terms of budgeting. Very good idea. I'll keep that in mind.

  8. I started using a quilt this season. I have a GoLite 3 Season quilt and I love it! Not only is it much lighter than any bag I own, it keeps me just as warm.

  9. Phil, the quilt I have isn't any cheaper than a similarly rated sleeping bag, so the economic reasons aren't necessarily universal to everyone. I just happened to find a good deal on it, and now that's what I have. I'll see how it goes this weekend… the Whites are supposed to get below freezing friday and saturday nights I think.

  10. Guthook, I had heard the temps were going to be 30F in Lake Placid on Fiday night. That usually means ~10 degrees cooler in the High Peaks area due to the elevation. The Whites should be about the same. We were planning a 17 mile hike through the high peaks if possible. All the storm damage could easily turn this into two long days or more.

  11. I cut up an old kelty cosmic 50 mummy bag i never used into a quilt. Cut out the head and the zippers on both sides. Sewed it all back up and tried it out as a warm weather systemfor 3 days on the AT in GSMNP. I didnt care for it much. I guess im too much of a restless sleeper and have since gone back to the big agnes bag like my winter bag and picked up a Cross Mountain 45. Perfect for me.

    BUT, lessons learned is that a quilt is not for me and the bag originally cost me $30. So not an expensive mistake like we all sometimes make.

  12. I started using quilts in the same way but not intentionally … a borrowed sleeping bag was to snug for me so I had little choice but drape it over me unzipped. It worked fine and I haven't looked back!

    I have two MYOG synthetic quilts … one that keeps me warm enough in the mid 20's F and one that's good to about 40 F. Those temp ratings are when wearing hiking clothing (little or no additional insulation). I made the lighter one wide enough to use as an "top quilt" over the warmer one. Together they are good to 0 F. Adequate pad insulation is very important.

    I use a bivy below about 20F or when in snow, otherwise just a ground cloth.

    For cold weather camping camping I'll have insulated clothing to wear once camp is setup and chores finished and I wear that to bed if I think the night will test the limits of the quilt(s). That extra clothing helps a lot in windy conditions, I'll still lose heat when tossing and turning but the clothing buffers the perceived temperature swings.

  13. I have two JRB quilts for my hammock – a top quilt and under quilt. So no weight savings for me but I am toasty down to 20 deg F with no additional layers. Quilts are just ideal for a hammock where you don't have to worry about them being toss off at night.

    I also have a Big Agnes bag and pad and still really like their concept – unfortunately I bought one of their semi-mummy synthetic models [Encampment] and the amount of internal dead air space means it was comfortable for me down to about freezing rather than their stated temp rating of 15 deg F.

    I still think/hope a BA down mummy bag with the associated BA insulted aircore pad is a wiiner in terms of reducing weight while retaining the construction feature that make a bag better than a quilt.

  14. I can really see how a quilt would be better than a sleeping bag in a hammock. I always used a sleeping bag inside the hammock and it was a complete pain in the ass, especially when I had to pee at night. I loved my JRB underquilt though. That really rocked.

    My only beef with BA bags is that they seem to use low fill power down a lot. Otherwise the overbag concept is pretty sound.

  15. I've also only used sleeping bags unzipped as quilts. My boyfriend did the Wonderland Trail about 15 years ago, and his equipment is still in decent condition. We used the 15F down bag this summer as a quilt, with a light fleece blanket underneath. Worked fairly well above 40F (the bag really needs to be laundered I suspect).

  16. Good round up. I am a believer in just the regular sleeping bag and to make sure I am only in my undies in the bag so that it can really do what it is meant t, Keep me Warm! Too many clothes wreks the ability of the sleeping bag. As for Quilts, if it aint broke don't fix it.

  17. One of my Gal pals used a Quilt on a weekend hike last year and suffered for it..First of all it got Foggy and the Quilt soaked up the moisture from the Fog like a sponge. Then the temperature dropped and the Quilt would not or could not keep her warm and then the Mosquito's attacked..So I would suggest the use of a Quilt only inside a tent away from the outside world…

  18. So feel I can say this with some authority, having use a sleeping bag as a quilt and then made my own quilt draping a sleeping bag is not the same as axquilt. 1. Sleeping bags do not have the same insulation over and under you (typically) plus the baffles frequently are not designed to be use this way 2. The opened sleeping bag shape isn't quite right as compared to a quilt. which means it doesn't drape naturally and you will have more drafts, cold zippers in the face etc. I can go on in this vein but I won't. Suffice to say comparing a rigged sleeping bag AND typically a cheap one to a quilt (like so many do) is not a fair comparison.

    Having custom made our 2 person quilt I was able to tailor the design for our use and I can say I will not be going back! @2lbs for two people and warm to 30 degrees (As low as we have tried it) it really can't be beat!!! Plus it's comfy! Extra wide means no drafts even when we are both on our backs. DMR impregnated silnylon means it's as waterproof as any other good sleep system. And 900 fill power means it's toasty and light. Then add in that I can actually touch my husband is a bonus.

    The expense was our big con, but we are happy we invested! It's more comfy for us and that means 2-3lbs of reduced weight we can replace with things like a frozen steak :) if we want to of course :)

  19. Wow, I was sitting here reading all these posts about people bringing a quilt and finding it lighter and I was over here thinking "Seriously? My grandma's handmade quilts weigh almost as much as my bed, how the heck is that helping???" I really do have a lot to learn. Thanks for the post.

  20. Susan – these are not like your grandmother's quilts – :-)

    Wystiria – very good point about the baffles. Big thanks for adding that to the discussion.

  21. The thing I still don't get about using a quilt is that I like feeling tucked in at night. A sleeping bag is automatically tucked in beneath me. A quilt floating free has more loft, but it also seems it would have more entrances for air. A Montbell thermal sheet costs the same as a JRB Shenandoah and, like Phil, I want to extend my WM summer bag. Maybe it has to do with different people's claustrophobia quotient?

  22. Just spent the night in the Whites with 34 degree low. The quilt worked a lot better than my older one. The wide cut of the quilt was key, but so was wearing my puffies (montbell down pants and alpine light jacket). It would have been better with a hooded jacket, and with a newer sleeping pad. My old, old ridgerest is probably battered and beaten enough that the insulating qualities are not so good anymore– I could feel the cold from beneath. All in all, though, I'm happy with the quilt. Sleeping in a down suit is something I started doing last fall, and I can't recommend it enough! You get out of your sleeping bag (or quilt) in the morning, and it's like you're still in another sleeping bag. Good stuff.

  23. For winter backpacks with my JRB BMB hammock, I use two sleeping bags nested together along with an UQ. I think the draft collar and insulated hood are invaluable for conserving heat.

    I know many hammockers use quilts in the winter as well but I think sleeping bag construction features really shine as you approach deep cold conditions.

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