We’re all familiar with sleeping bags but some hikers are increasingly shifting to using quilts to shave on weight and space. So what are they, how do they work and should you make the switch? There are pros and cons for each and while some still prefer a traditional mummy bag, for others the quilt is a revelation in comfort and performance.
What exactly is a quilt?
If you’re thinking of that nice big doona you have on the bed at home, well it’s not quite that. Imagine a sleeping bag that lays over your body and tucks in around your sides but has no back to it and no hood. Hiking quilts generally only have very short zippers in the foot box with a drawstring that can be cinched up in cold conditions. You can use it open and flat, like a regular quilt, or ‘tuck yourself in’ around the sides using a few straps and clips that attach it to your sleeping mat, preventing the majority (but not all) draughts from sneaking in.
What’s the theory?
Quilts are all about trimming the fat and only retaining those features that provide real warmth for weight. Any insulative materials underneath your body are going to be compressed and therefore won’t provide any of that lofting warmth we’re looking for. Quilts only offer insulation where it can work - on top of you and around you. More weight is saved by scrapping the hood and long zippers. Also, less material is used in the construction of a quilt so they pack up smaller.
It’s why we use a sleeping bag or a quilt, but comparing the warmth factor of each is not entirely straight forward. It can be argued that with the potential for draughts, a quilt is not going to be as warm as a sleeping bag but with the weight you save on zips, hoods and extraneous material, you can afford to beef up your quilt with extra down fill which can make it feel pretty cosy.
Putting weight aside and looking purely at design however, a sleeping bag is ultimately the warmer option because it’s completely enclosed and retains all your heat with no draughts leaking out your hard-won hot air. The fact that you can draw a hood snugly around your head offers the final thermal boost.
With a quilt, your defences against the chill extend to cinching up the drawstring around your feet, ensuring the side clips that connect it to your sleeping mat are done up, and pulling a beanie over your head. This will be perfectly adequate on most occasions but if you’re heading out in sub-zero temperatures, a sleeping bag might be your preferred choice.
Since a quilt offers no material beneath you, having a sleeping mat with a good R-value (ie. warmth factor) to insulate you against the ground is super important and will greatly contribute to your overall comfort.
In the area of temperature regulation, quilts are easy winners. They offer the flexibility of using them open like a blanket on warmer nights or tightening up all the drawstrings and clips to snug you up on cooler ones. Quilts let you easily hang a leg out if you need to cool down a little, while the typical ¾ length zip of a sleeping bag makes it harder to easily adjust throughout the night. Some sleeping bags do have full length zips that allow you to open them up flat like a quilt but that luxury comes at the expense of weight.
One of the most appealing benefits of a quilt is that you can basically sleep like you do in your bed at home: on your side, on your tummy, hang a leg out… whatever you want. There’s none of the restriction that comes with the mummy shape of a sleeping bag and no more getting twisted up in knots when you roll over; a quilt stays put while you turn. And if you have a broad frame, you’ll appreciate the extra room to move that a quilt affords.
If, on the other hand, you’re someone who likes to stay snug as a bug in a rug, then a sleeping bag will ensure there’s no risk of any cold puffs of air entering your cosy sanctuary no matter how much you wriggle.
Making your bed
After a big day in the outdoors, all you need do to get ready for bed with a sleeping bag is unfurl it and crawl inside. A quilt requires just a little more prep. Typically you’ll need to pull a couple of elasticated straps over your sleeping mat (making sure they’re positioned at the right spots) and then attach them to your quilt via a few clips. It only takes an extra minute but if you’ve had a big day it’s going to require that you find just little bit more effort before you can drift off to the land of snooze.
There are many quilt manufacturers that make to order which means you can get super fussy and design the perfect solution to meet your personal needs. Pick what down fill power you want (goose or duck?), what denier fabric is used (ie how durable and water resistant it’ll end up being), what width you need (slim, regular or wide), length (from extra short to extra long) and even colour. Enlightened Equipment offer nearly 20 tasty colours for both inside and outside fabric, so you can really express yourself.
So, which should you go for?
It’s a matter of personal choice. Quilts offer the greatest flexibility and have many benefits but if you spend a lot of time in alpine or snowy conditions, a sleeping bag is going to offer you maximum warmth. As with many pieces of hiking kit, there is often no one perfect item for all occasions. If you’re lucky you might be able to indulge in having both.