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Sleeping Tight on the Trail: Backpacking Quilts

tourist tent camping in mountains at sunset
Photo by andreusK

While the term backpacking for some conjures up images of an exhausted tourist lugging a fifty-pound pack around Europe, a dedicated group of outdoor aficionados see things differently—they pride themselves on cultivating a philosophy around doing more with less. Weighing their packs down to the gram and replacing gear with knowledge allows ultralight backpackers to hike longer and go farther, traversing everything from local parks on weekend jaunts to entire continents on multi-month endeavors like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails.

Sleeping bags—especially figure-hugging mummy bags—have long been a staple piece of gear for hardcore backpackers and family camping trips alike. But their supremacy in the world of outdoor sleeping arrangements has been called into question in recent years by a number of innovative alternative sleep systems. The most formidable of these competitors? The backpacking quilt.

A hand emerges from under the warm comfort of an orange downfill
Photo by Michael Connor Photo

Virtually every sleeping bag used by ultralight backpackers is filled with down, which is prized for its lightweight insulating abilities. But down is only as good as its loft—its height when uncompressed—and when compacted, down is virtually useless for heat retention. In down sleeping bags, this means that the down being slept on is essentially useless, and that the bulk of the insulation beneath the backpackers is provided by the sleeping pad rather than the sleeping bag itself. Quilt designs seek to remove the middleman—while most have a toe box to help keep the quilt in place, the remainder of the covering is left unsewn, resting only on top of and around the backpackers rather than beneath them. This reduction in surface area lightens the ounce-counting backpacker’s load, increases the range of comfortable temperatures for use, and is closer to the blanket-and-mattress setup most of us sleep with at home. The result is a less restrictive, more breathable sleep system that is especially popular with side-sleepers.

UGQ Down Quilt in Joshua Tree National Park
Photo by Scottiebumich

While quilts may offer flexibility and comfort, they do come with potential drawbacks. The possibility for gapping between the flank and underside of the user means that quilts may be drafty and less suited for cold weather than traditional bags, and learning to control the side seal takes experience. (Many experienced users find a quilt’s comfortable range to be five to ten degrees warmer than a sleeping bag with similar loft.) While quilts are typically less expensive than mummy bags, they can be difficult to find in mass market retail. Still, for those looking to trade tradition for comfort, quilts offer an up-and-coming option for getting a good night’s sleep on the trail.
—Emma Westhoff