One alternative to the traditional mummy bags for backpacking and wilderness travel is the quilt. Similar to quilts and comforters used in the frontcountry, they are either rectangular or mummy in shape. Their insulation is varying thicknesses of down or synthetic batting. Since quilts don’t have hoods, a warm head covering (hat, balaclava or hooded parka) is a necessity in most climates. Sleeping pads can go inside or outside the quilt. Some rectangular quilts are designed to attach to an appropriately sized sleeping pad.

Mummy-style quilts designed for colder weather are wide at the top and tapered down to an enclosed “foot box” at the bottom. Mummy-style quilts are often “variable girth” with adjustable straps to vary the width in the shoulder and hip areas plus a draw cord for the neck. High quality mummy-style quilts are often constructed in an arc cross-section with the top shell larger in circumference than the bottom.

This article is divided into five parts: Arguments for Quilts, Arguments Against Quilts, Solving the Problem of Drafts, Author’s Experience with Quilts, Final Thoughts.

Some Arguments for Quilts

There are several arguments in favor of quilts in the wilderness:

  • flexibility in different temperatures: because of their open construction, any number of clothing layers can be worn beneath the quilt to achieve the desired comfort range
  • potential for reduced weight with less insulating surface (i.e., backless and hoodless) compared to a standard bag
  • will probably last longer under heavy use because there is little crushing of the insulation under the body (of special concern with synthetic bags)
  • their simplicity, especially for the do-it-yourselfer (DIY); there are no zippers to snag or fail
  • freedom of movement when shifting from side to side (just like the quilt at home), especially when compared with a mummy style bag
  • when supplemented with an insulated parka (common because quilts are usually without hoods), the parka hood will move under the quilt with the sleeper
  • can be used around camp as a extra long parka with the foot box positioned over the head and the adjusting straps used to close up the body of the quilt.

Some Arguments Against Quilts

One argument against quilts is that they have no hood for colder temperatures. Most quilt users solve this problem by wearing extra warm head gear or a parka to bed.

The main argument against quilts is their draftiness in colder and windier conditions, especially for side sleepers and those who move around a lot. A related issue is not being able to sit up without a draft. The next section deals with the draft issue in some depth.

Solving the Problem of Drafts

Since the draftiness of quilts is often a big issue, let’s examine potential solutions:

  • obtain a larger width quilt (usually 50” or more across the shoulders for one person)
  • obtain a variable-girth quilt that can be cinched most of the way closed with adjusting straps
  • obtain an air mattress which has raised side tubes and place the adjusting straps around it (i.e., air mattress rigged inside the quilt)
  • add 7-10 inch wings around the edges of the quilt or a thin layer of fabric across the bottom for draft control (the latter technically makes the quilt into a “top bag”)
  • sleep in a fully enclosed summer-weight bag and supplement it with a quilt (i.e., combination bag and quilt)
  • use the quilt in a fully enclosed tent with a floor
  • combine the quilt with a bivy sack
  • combine with an inner liner (e.g., a vapor barrier)
  • increase the amount of clothing worn under the quilt
  • learn to hold the quilt in place (i.e., centered) when turning over by grabbing the edge
  • learn to be a back sleeper if not already.

As you can see, dedicated quilt sleepers have gone to considerable lengths to make their sleeping systems work. A common and relatively effective combination of draft control tactics: wear an insulated parka to bed using a variable girth quilt with adjusting straps threaded underneath a sleeping pad—all enclosed inside a spacious bivy sack. 

An obvious alternative to a pure sleeping quilt is a sleeping bag with a full or three-quarter-length zipper to allow it to be used either as a quilt or as a traditional bag. However, this option negates the potential weight advantage and the simplicity of the quilt.


Sleeping Quilts For Backpacking?

Author’s Experiences with Sleeping Quilts

I now own two quilts: a 18 ounce, 3.0 inch loft down quilt (900 fill weight with a 30 degree rating) and a 12 ounce, 0.75 inch loft synthetic quilt insulated with Polarguard (with a 50 degree rating). Each quilt has adjusting straps underneath, but no hood. I bought the quilts in order to experiment with different light and ultralight weight sleeping systems.

My quilt-based sleeping gear is truly an integrated system of component parts. Supplementing my 3.0-inch loft down quilt is the following: ultralight summer weight sleeping bag, an insulating air mattress with a high R-value (4.0+); insulating clothing. This system will allow me to stay warm into at least the low twenties. Sleeping in a standard, fully-enclosed tent and adding a warmer sleeping bag or adding a down parka and down pants will take me down into the single digits. This quilt-sleeping bag combination provides great flexibility over a wide temperature range.

Draftiness, when sleeping out in the open or under a tarp, can be a serious problem with sleeping quilts. When the temperatures are on the cold side, I solve the draft problem by:

  1. obtaining an air mattress which has raised side tubes and placing the adjusting straps around it (i.e., air mattress rigged inside the quilt) 
  2. wearing under the quilt an insulated parka with a hood
  3. sleeping under a floorless tent (rather than a tarp) that can be lowered to ground level in stormy conditions
  4. sleeping in a fully enclosed summer weight sleeping bag and supplement it with one of my quilts (i.e., combination bag and quilt).

One interesting problem I have encountered using my 900-fill down quilt in conjunction with the breathable bivy sack is that it tends to compress the down when I am wearing all of my clothes to bed for warmth. It also tends to collect condensation on top of the quilt. My solution: generally leave the bivy at home and bring higher-loft insulated clothing to supplement my 900-fill quilt in colder temperatures.

Final Thoughts on Quilts

Backcountry sleeping quilts are definitely for those with patience and a willingness to experiment. They certainly take some getting used to. I experimented with many combinations before I found one that works.

 If I valued simplicity more than reducing my pack weight and if I didn’t like experimenting with gear options so much, I would have spent my backpacking bucks instead on a high end, lightweight down bag with a 3/4 length (weighing only a few ounces more than my down quilt with a similar temperature rating) and called it good.