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When you hear the word camping, what comes to mind?
A staked-out tent with a fire ring outside that is surrounded by chairs? Cozying up inside your sleeping bag after a night of roasting marshmallows around the fire? Or maybe waking up in the morning feeling like your sleeping bag is stuck to your skin because of the hot, humid overnight weather.
We all have our favorite camping memories, and most involve curling up in a sleeping bag at the end of the day.
For an increasingly larger number of people, it is a quilt that they are nestling up in for the night. Most popular among backpackers, quilts are becoming more popular each year.
And we are not talking about the kind of quilt that is hanging up on your grandmother’s wall. Backpacking quilts present a lightweight, versatile replacement to the traditional mummy bag. But is it truly better than the old tried and true?
Sleeping Bags and Backpacking Quilts: What’s the Difference?
When most people think about camping or backpacking, a sleeping bag is one of the first pieces of gear that comes to mind. The traditional bag needs no introduction.
As more and more gear becomes available, the options for sleeping bags continue to grow. The mummy bag first appeared about 100 years ago, and it continues to be the go-to sleeping bag design for most backpackers. Its tapered design (narrow in the foot box, wider in the shoulder area, and “hood” to keep your head warm) allows for maximum warmth while cutting down any excess weight and material.
A lot of sleeping bags have full-length zippers, allowing for flexibility in how much airflow you get. This is a huge plus on warmer nights because you leave more of the bag unzipped to prevent becoming too warm in the bag. Full-length zippers also allow you to fully unzip the bag and use it more like a blanket. This is great for day use or when sitting around a fire before heading into your tent for the night.
The current market offers a huge range of fill materials and fabric materials. So whether you are looking to save as much weight as possible or gearing up for a winter camping trip, you will be able to find a sleeping bag that fits your exact needs.
When I first heard about backpacking quilts, the first thing that came to my mind was a decorative quilt that goes on a bed. Alas, nobody is suggesting hauling one of those around through the wilderness. Even if you would have the best-looking sleep system.
One of the biggest differences between quilts and sleeping bags is that a backpacking quilt is not fully enclosed. The back of one of these quilts is open. This means that you will be sleeping directly on your sleeping pad. (imagine removing the underside of a sleeping bag) This gives two major advantages: weight savings and versatility.
With less material, quilts offer a lightweight option to a traditional sleeping bag. Also, you can use a quilt as a blanket without having to worry if your sleeping bag has a full-length zipper. For these reasons, quilts have become the go-to option for ultralight and lightweight backpackers.
Like sleeping bags, quilts come in a wide range of models. For example, some quilts have sewn-closed footboxes. While others have drawstring closures that allow you to control the amount of airflow to your feet and legs. Enlightened Equipment is one of the most popular makers of backpacking quilts and two of their models easily illustrate this difference. The Revelation has a drawcord closure and zipper in the foot box, while the Enigma is fully sewn closed.
One other big difference between quilts and sleeping bags (particularly mummy bags) is that quilts lack a “hood”. You have to make sure you have a warm beanie if you are anticipating cold weather while using a quilt.
How do sleeping bags and quilts compare?
ADVANTAGE: Sleeping bags
Assuming that the fill is identical, the sleeping bag will offer a little bit more warmth. This is because sleeping bags are fully enclosed. The fill on the underside of the sleeping bag will get compressed down, making it less effective and insulating heat. However, some insulation is better than none.
Additionally, a mummy bag has a hood that wraps around and helps keep in heat around the head. This is huge in cold weather conditions because usually when my head and face get cold, the rest of my body is soon to follow suit.
Lastly, the fully enclosed foot box of a sleeping bag provides draft protection on those breezy nights. Quilts that have a drawcord closure on the foot box always seem to let at least a tiny amount of cold air in, no matter how tightly you cinch down the cord.
If you are using a sleeping bag without a hood, the difference between a sleeping bag and a quilt becomes less. But the sleeping bag still gets the nod assuming all else is equal. Does it get better than curling up in a warm, cozy sleeping bag on a cool fall evening?
A quilt has less total fill, material, and fewer (or no) zippers. It is not hard to see why quilts easily win the weight category. Think about turning your car into a race car. You would remove all of the non-essential parts and pieces in an effort to make it lighter.
Keeping with the car analogy. Backpacking quilts are designed with efficiency in mind. They thrive in lightweight backpacking kits, serving their specific purpose and nothing more. Some sleeping bags are designed this way, but most are made with comfort and features in mind. The extra row of seats in your SUV makes for a more comfortable trip when hauling around a large group. But when not, they are just extra weight.
Ease of use
ADVANTAGE: Sleeping bag
The sleeping bag was the clear winner here because there really is no way to improperly use one. You unroll it, unzip it, slide inside, and then zip it back up. Plus, it takes mere seconds to take it out of your pack and have it ready to hop into for the night.
A backpacking quilt is not much more difficult to use or longer to set up. That said, most campers are not used to using a quilt, so it will take a little bit longer the first few times. The only differences between setting up a quilt versus a sleeping bag can be the foot box, the zipper, and the sleeping mat attachment straps.
You may have to cinch tight a drawcord at the bottom of the quilt, close a short zipper on the bottom half of the quilt, and loop a few straps around your sleeping pad to ensure you do not slide off during the night. There is some variance between quilt models, so you may have to do all or none of these extra steps.
A quilt offers a more versatile usage than a sleeping bag. Whether you need to encourage airflow on a warm night or bundle up on a cold evening, you can do it easily with a quilt.
Most sleeping bags have a full-length zipper, which works great on nights when you need to curl up to stay warm. However, warm weather presents a different challenge. You need to stay cool enough to be able to sleep without waking up drenched in sweat. Since many sleeping bags do not fully unzip (to serve like a blanket), it is difficult to stay cool enough.
The advantage a quilt has is that it lacks an underside and can (usually) be used like a simple blanket. Models that do not have a sewn closed foot box work wonders. You can leave that area open while draping the main part of the quilt over your torso. This promotes maximum airflow to allow the breezes to pass through your quilt to keep your body cool throughout the night. (allowing you to sleep peacefully)
The range of prices for sleeping bags is much wider than that of a quilt. For example, you can find sleeping bags for as cheap as around $30 and as expensive as $1000+! You can also purchase these at a range of stores; from Walmart to online outdoor gear specialty stores.
Quilts have grown in popularity in recent years, particularly among those interested in going lighter weight. But they are not nearly as widespread as sleeping bags. Because of this, the range of price starts higher; you cannot walk into your nearest Walmart or Target and walk away with a backpacking quilt.
When you compare similar products, you find that both are in the same price range. For example, comparing the Therm-a-Rest Parsec 20 Sleeping Bag ($469) and the Therm-a-Rest Vesper Down Quilt 20 ($459) shows that price is a toss-up between quilts and sleeping bags.
Both products are made by Therm-a-Rest, are rated to 20 degrees, have near identical dimensions, and are considered ultralight products. All that said, there is a $10 price difference between the two. Showing you that neither a backpacking quilt nor a sleeping bag is necessarily the “economical” choice.
The biggest advantages of a backpacking quilt are that they are lightweight, provide better temperature regulation, and they can double as a blanket during the day or around the campfire before heading to bed.
Using a backpacking quilt is not much different than a traditional sleeping bag. Depending on the model, you may need to cinch the foot box closed, zip up part of the quilt, and attach straps around your sleeping mat.
The biggest difference between the two is that a sleeping bag is fully enclosed, while a quilt is open on the underside. Sleeping bags offer the cozy experience that most associate with camping, while a quilt offers a lightweight, more versatile option.
Quilts have become the preferred choice of lightweight backpackers and thru-hikers because of their low weight, versatile use, and competitive pricing. Additionally, quilts pack down as small (if not smaller) than a comparable sleeping bag.
Many new backpackers gravitate toward sleeping bags because they can be found at many non-outdoor specialty stores, have “budget” options, and have been synonymous with camping for decades.
Regardless of which you decide is best for you, take it and get out there to explore!