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Backpacking Quilt vs Sleeping Bag: Which Is Best?

The backpacking quilt versus sleeping bag debate is an old one that will never be satisfactorily answered as a lot depends on the perspective the viewer is looking from. However, knowing which one is best for your next trip will ensure you get the best sleep possible.

A backpacking quilt is the best option over a sleeping bag when you’re on a tight budget and you want to carry minimal weight. On a very cold night, the sleeping bag is the obvious winner by virtue of protecting the sleeper’s body from head to toe from the cold, as they form an unbeatable heat seal.

A number of quilts have buckles, straps, and zips that aim to replicate this heat seal, but the fact that sleeping bags are still around is testimony to their efficiency. Keep reading as we take a closer look at the pros and cons of each one to discover which is best for you.

What Is A Backpacking Quilt?

A backpacking quilt is made out of 2 pieces of thick cloth sewn together with a layer of down sandwiched in between them. In size, it is similar to a blanket except that it is much lighter and warmer. There are several sizes, the most commonly used being 50″ x 65″, or for a twin bed, 72″ x 90″.

Custom quilt sizes tailored to customer specifications are available on an order that can take between 4 to 8 weeks to deliver, depending on the retailer. These are used by people who need a longer or broader quilt, or even if the quilt is to be kept below a certain weight. The materials used as well as color customization are also common requirements.

Expensive quilts use goose down while the cheap ones use synthetic down for warmth. Synthetic down doesn’t last as long as real down and isn’t as warm. In recent times, goose down has given way to duck down that is relatively cheaper. If synthetic down gets wet it dries faster while keeping its insulating properties. Because water damages ducks and goose down, it is treated with a water-repellent.

The Secret Of Warmth: Fill Power

Fill power is a term used to denote the quality of down used in a jacket or quilt. The higher the fill power, the higher its insulation qualities. Higher fill power means that the down is of higher quality and will retain its firmness for longer. Fill power ranges from 300 to 950.

According to the universal fill power rating system for goose and duck down, all warm clothes and quilts have their fill power rating printed on a label. Fill power is important for a backpacking quilt because it indicates how warm it can keep the sleeper on a cold night.

Quilts that use down of higher fill power can be compressed very easily as well as being lighter in weight, therefore fill power can be used to estimate weight as well. The highest quality down comes from Hungarian white geese and is extremely expensive. Down that comes from immature geese and ducks is considered inferior because the down clusters are smaller.

Down Cluster Size And Why It Matters

Down cluster size is the key factor that impacts its insulation power. Most quilt manufacturers use down from a variety of sources that are cheaper as well as have smaller down clusters in order to cater to the broader market where demand is based not only on weight but on price as well. The solution is to look for adequate fill power before purchasing.

Larger down clusters have more air pockets thereby trapping more heat inside them as well as weighing less. This down typically comes from more mature birds and lasts much longer. Gram for gram, high fill power down is much more efficient, needing less down to do the job when compared to low fill power down.

In winter, your backpacking quilt is probably one of the most important items in your backpack as it is the only protection from the cold night. In addition to the backpacking quilt, a sleeping pad is also required to insulate the sleeper’s body from the ground. In terms of weight, an average backpacking quilt weighs in at about 20 ounces.

The backpacking quilt scores in temperature regulation because it provides some ventilation as well. On a cool night, it can be draped across your body to provide minimal warmth. Because it is not enclosed, drafts can come in from the sides. The lack of a hood isn’t going to affect the average user as long as it is normally used in temperate weather.

What Is A Backpacking Sleeping Bag?

A backpacking sleeping bag is usually smaller and lighter than a camping sleeping bag. You also need a sleeping pad to place under the sleeping bag to provide some cushioning and insulation from the ground. Sleeping bags usually use 2 different types of insulation: natural and synthetic down.

The highest quality of natural down is obtained from Hungarian white geese but is also very expensive. Natural down from geese and ducks is used in cheaper sleeping bags, but synthetic down is even cheaper albeit relatively heavier. A number of manufacturers make their own proprietary synthetic fiber down that is used in jackets and sleeping bags.

Natural Down vs Synthetic Down

Natural down is very light, compresses easily, and lasts longer than synthetic down, but it is much more expensive. Synthetic down weighs more, does not compress to the same extent, and does not last long, but it can be made cheaply from polyester fiber. Natural down is damaged by prolonged exposure to water but synthetic down dries quickly and is able to retain its insulation power even when wet.

Even though a sleeping bag does offer some protection from the ground, it is always preferable to place a sleeping pad under it. There is no sure way to prevent condensation from taking place inside the sleeping bag, although a thin, light polyester sheet kept on top does help.

Backpacking Quilt vs Sleeping Bag: Using Sleeping Pads

Irrespective of whether the hiker decides to use a backpacking quilt or a backpacking sleeping bag, it is of vital importance to place a sleeping pad under it to protect the hiker’s body from the cold ground as well as from sharp twigs and rocks. It also protects the sleeping bag from direct contact with the ground.

Sleeping pads come in various sizes, with a standard length of 72 inches to 78 inches. The width starts from 20 inches to 30 inches along with baffles on either side for those who want them.Shorter pads of 3/4 length or 48 inches long are also available. A useful feature some of them have is the use of multiple layers inside so that if one layer deflates, the other layers still provide support.

Manufacturers of sleeping pads provide an R-value that indicates its resistance to heat flowing through it. The higher the sleeping pad’s R-value, the higher its resistance. R-values range from a low 2 to 6 and above. The highest number has the highest insulation. Since the scale is linear, a pad with an R-value of 4 has double the insulation of a pad with an R-value of 2.

Air Pads And Self-Inflating Pads

There are 2 types of sleeping pad: the air pad and the self-inflating pad. Air pads are very comfortable with the advantage of being light and small in size, but they are expensive. It needs to be inflated before use. Adjusting the amount of inflation can make it softer or harder as required.

Self-inflating air pads use open-cell foam insulation with air to inflate them. Opening its valves automatically allows air to come in while increasing in firmness, as in the case of the air pad. Its downside is that it is much heavier and larger, although it is cheaper.

Some sleeping pads have integrated hand pumps to inflate them, while others can be inflated with a separate bag pump, or they can be manually inflated. Repair kits are also sold in case of a puncture.

Match The Sleeping Pad With The Sleeping Bag

The sleeping pad and sleeping bag work together to protect the sleeper from the cold. Sleeping bags have temperature ratings that are based on using an accompanying sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.5 or above, as well as, wearing long underwear with socks.Based on these numbers, a sleeping bag rating can be suggested for use with a given sleeping pad.

Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings

It’s important to understand how sleeping bag temperature ratings work as there is also a substantial difference in weight for sleeping bags more suited for summer hiking. The temperature rating is at best an approximation of possible temperature conditions that a particular model of sleeping bag can be used in.

There are differences in body types, clothing worn, and weather conditions to consider when choosing a sleeping bag, all of which can change your body temperature despite being inside a sleeping bag.

Typically, the sleeping bag will have a temperature printed on the tag to indicate the lowest temperature that the sleeper can use the sleeping bag in and still feel comfortable. For example, a 10°F sleeping bag will keep the sleeper comfortable down to the temperature of 10°F.

A point worthy of note here is that the temperature ratings on sleeping bags may not work as well for women as for men because women may feel cold in the same bag that a man is comfortable in. Apart from this difference sleeping bags are normally unisex.

5 Types Of Backpacking Sleeping Bags

1. Rectangular Sleeping Bag

The traditional classic rectangular sleeping bag has a zip down one side of it, without a hood. This has a lot more space than the tapered ones allowing for tossing and turning inside it. The extra space comes at the cost of some heat loss and the lack of a hood means that this type of sleeping bag is more suited to moderately cold temperatures.

The advantages of this sleeping bag are that it has some foot space, as well as that it can be opened out to be used as a quilt. These bags are not designed to be used in extreme cold and aren’t very expensive either.

2. Mummy Sleeping Bag

These sleeping bags are designed for colder conditions with the sleeping bag shaped to fit the sleeper’s body. The sleeping bag is tapered at the feet while being broader at the hips and shoulders along with a hood to cover the head with a drawcord. The disadvantages of this type of sleeping bag that will not appeal to many are that there is very little foot room, and no space to turn around.

The advantages are that it has a hood, and is much warmer compared to the rectangular sleeping bag. Since these sleeping bags are intended for colder weather, they’re normally made with higher quality down, which costs more.

3. Barrel-Shaped Sleeping Bag

The barrel-shaped sleeping bag is an in-between version of the rectangular sleeping bag and the mummy sleeping bag. It offers some of the benefits of both. Some of them come with a hood, more foot space, and better warmth retention compared to a rectangular sleeping bag. This type of sleeping bag is best suited for moderately cold weather.

4. Double Sleeping Bag

The double sleeping bag comfortably fits 2 adults inside. This type of sleeping bag is ideal for couples that like to snuggle, but it suffers from heat loss due to the wider bag size. Some of these sleeping bags can be unzipped completely to form two separate sleeping bags.

5. Elephant’s Foot Sleeping Bag

This sleeping bag is a bit unusual in that it covers only the lower half of the sleeper’s body. It does not have a hood either and depends on the sleeper wearing an appropriate jacket to keep warm. It is similar to the mummy sleeping bag with the least weight of all the sleeping bags we have looked at so far.

Some of these bags have shoulder straps and fasteners that clip together. Its unique advantage is its extremely small size when packed.

Pros And Cons Of Backpacking Quilts

Backpacking quilts offer the hiker the advantages of weight and size, but there are trade-offs involved that may be dealbreakers for some. The key factors are its cost, weight, comfort, temperature rating, size, fill power, and durability. Let’s look at these in detail, since one or more of these factors can be the key to deciding its use.

Pros

Compared to a similar sleeping bag, a backpacking quilt could be about $50 cheaper. Budget backpacking quilts start from about $30 and can go all the way up to $300 depending on physical dimensions as well as the quality of down used. The weight advantage is usually a few ounces for the lighter quilts, up to about a pound for the heavier ones.

For the hiker who likes to toss and turn in the night, the quilt offers complete freedom, especially around the feet. On a warm night, the quilt can be partially draped across the hiker’s body so that it doesn’t get too hot under it. The quilt’s packed up size can be as little as 10 inches by 8 inches, depending on the amount of insulation used.

Cons

With a backpacking quilt, you need to carry a high R-value sleeping pad as well because there is nothing separating the hiker’s body from the ground. This adds to the overall weight and has to be added to the cost of the quilt as part of the sleeping kit. In case a hood is needed, this is an additional expense as well as extra bulk.

On a cold night, it is very difficult to prevent a draft from entering the quilt as it is not enclosed on any side. The lack of a hood to prevent cold can be a major drawback of a backpacking quilt. For moderate temperature rated quilts, the weight advantage is going to be negligible.

Pros And Cons Of Backpacking Sleeping Bags

Pros

The biggest strength that sleeping bags have is their heat sealing capacity, because the sleeper is completely wrapped inside it. Even though they are a few ounces heavier compared to quilts they have an attached hood as well as providing some padding under the sleeper’s body. A sleeping pad still needs to be used but it doesn’t need to be as thick.

Sleeping bags are usually more expensive than backpacking quilts by about $30 to $50, and a hood may need to be purchased separately. A sleeping bag can be unzipped completely to be used as a quilton a warmer night. Modern sleeping bags weigh just a few ounces more than a quilt to nullify the weight disadvantage, although the extra bulk cannot be ignored.

Cons

Sleeping bags do not have the same freedom of movement so some users may find them cramped. Even though a sleeping bag provides some padding under the hiker’s body, a sleeping pad still has to be purchased. However, it need not be very thick. The packed-up size of the sleeping bag has to be taken into account along with the size of the sleeping pad.

A sleeping bag does not compress easily and can take time to warm up after getting inside it. Condensation can take place unless another sheet is taken along to be placed on top. Sleeping bags do not last long as they are stored in a highly compressed state that squeezes the down insulation.

What To Look For In A Backpacking Quilt

A backpacking quilt is best used in moderate temperatures, so the quilt needs to be selected based on the temperatures you are likely to use it in. The most important factors are its weight and size, and all manufacturers print this information on a tag as well as on its packing. Quality quilts have a water-repellent treatment applied to the outer fabric to offer greater protection from water.

The typical weight can range from 12 ounces to 2 lb 6 ounces. The fill power you need depends on the temperature you are likely to use it in, along with its packed size and temperature rating. Prices can range from $30 to $300, with the quality of down used dictating most of the cost. Some manufacturers use duck down as a cheaper alternative and synthetic down in the cheapest quilts.

The type of down used, as well as quilt size, weight, and other relevant information, is provided by every manufacturer. The warmest quilts use the best quality of down, so it is worth checking what quality of down has been used before making a purchase. Low quality down does not last as long as the more expensive down, so it pays in the long run to buy quality.

Down Quality Is Everything: You Get What You Pay For

The durability of the quilt is determined by the quality of the down used. Generally, quilts that are rated above 40°F are cheaper with a fill power of 500 or less. Quilts that are rated for lower temperatures have a higher fill power of 700 or more. If you need a fill power of 850 or above, be prepared to pay upwards of $300 for a good quilt.

If fill power is not advertised, the chances are that very low-quality synthetic down has been used. Some quilts have straps and buckles that can be attached to loops on the sleeping pad to eliminate drafts coming in from the sides. They can be very useful on an unexpectedly cold night so make sure that the quilt straps and sleeping pad loops match each other if they need to be interlocked.

What To Look For In A Backpacking Sleeping Bag

The key factors involved in choosing a suitable backpacking sleeping bag are its weight as well as its size. Typical weight ranges from 2 to 4 lbs, with an average of 3 lbs covering most of the sleeping bags available. The compressed size of the sleeping bag is equally important as it will be a part of your backpack.

The temperature rating of the sleeping bag is next so make sure that it is lower than the hiking temperatures you are going to encounter. If you are a person who feels cold a lot, choose a temperature rating at least 10 to 20 degrees lower than the temperature you plan on using it in. Purchase a more insulated hood separately.

How To Choose A Sleeping Bag Temperature Rating

On the other hand, if you do not feel cold easily then choose a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 10 to 20 degrees above the normal rating. Being too hot can often be as bad as feeling very cold. The cost is going to depend on the quality of down used in it so there will be wide variations in price from different manufacturers.

You should choose your sleeping bag with your sleeping pad so that both of them work together. The sleeping bag’s weight varies with the amount of insulation used, but more weight does not mean that it is warmer as it depends on its fill power. To simplify this, higher fill power translates into more warmth as weight increases.

Because warmth depends on fill power, the highest fill power bags are the best. Sleeping bags are normally available in 3 sizes. The adult sleeping bag comes in regular and long sizes. Women’s sleeping bags are shaped more to fit women by providing more space at the hips and having extra insulation near the feet.

Children’s sleeping bags are smaller versions of the larger ones and can be useful to save on carrying weight. The hood is an additional feature of the sleeping bag that can be very useful on a cold night. You should confirm that a sleeping bag comes with it as not all sleeping bags provide one. A hood can also be purchased separately if you already have a sleeping bag without a hood.

Additional Features Of Sleeping Bags

Anti-snag zippers are features on sleeping bags that are becoming more popular due to their usefulness. It happens very often that a zip gets snagged on cloth or hair while zipping or unzipping it. Some anti-snag zippers use a cover over it while others have a guard over the entire length of the zip.

Sleeping bags have a few features that some users may find very useful such as stash pockets and a pillow pocket. When there is a pillow pocket, there is no need to carry a pillow, thereby saving you some weight. Clothes can be stuffed inside the pillow pocket so that it can be used as a pillow.

A stash pocket with a flap to seal it is located near the top of the sleeping bag. It is used to keep keys, matchboxes, or any other small object that needs to be easily accessible. Some sleeping bags have reduced the insulation on the underside as a sleeping pad is going to be used under it, and use a sleeve to fit over the sleeping pad or straps to connect to the sleeping pad loops.

Sleeping Bag Accessories

Storing a sleeping bag tightly compressed over time is going to damage the insulating down.To get around this, some sleeping bags come with a cotton storage sack. Another useful accessory is the sleeping bag liner. It adds another layer inside the bag while keeping it clean as well as saving on wear and tear.

The bag liner can be washed after use and it keeps you separated from the sleeping bag. This can be very useful if the sleeping bag was infested with insects or stored in places of doubtful cleanliness, such as hostels. Sleeping bag liners are available in different materials and prices to suit every budget.

Types Of Sleeping Bag Liners

Silk is the most preferred sleeping bag liner material as well as the most expensive. It is relatively lightweight, weighing 3 to 5 ounces. The next best is cotton at the lowest price. It is durable, absorbent, and strong, but it weighs more than silk. Insulated bag liners can add considerably to the warmth and are usually reasonably priced.

Fleece and microfleece bag liners are available that can add to the warmth of the sleeping bag by a good amount. Their disadvantage is their bulk and heavy weight. Under humid conditions, synthetic bag liners are the best as they are breathable and moisture-wicking.

A stuff sack helps in compressing the bag so that minimal space is needed in your backpack during the hike. This accessory is normally sold separately.

Backpacking Quilt vs Sleeping Bag – Which One Should You Choose?

There is no straightforward answer to this unless you know what temperatures you’ll be sleeping in. For an extremely cold night, the sleeping bag is the hands-down winner.The sleeping bag with its attached hood that covers your head, as well as the foot box to keep your feet warm, cannot be beaten.

In light cold to moderately cold temperatures, the backpacking quilt is the superior choice for many reasons. The reduced weight, as well as the reduced overall bulk, are two big reasons to use the backpacking quilt. The quilt is less bulky to carry, cheaper, and allows freedom of movement under it.

The Temperature Dictates The Choice

On a warm night some temperature control can be achieved by partially draping the quilt over your body, and condensation isn’t a problem on a cold night. For both of these options, you need a sleeping pad, but the quilt needs a higher R-value pad. As far as price is concerned, the difference can range from $20 to $50, which may or may not be a deal-breaker.

From a durability point of view, the quilt has a definite edge as it is not as tightly compressed as the sleeping bag. The quality of down used in either bag or quilt is the main factor determining its longevity. The quilt scored higher in terms of ease of use, but your final choice needs to be based on your individual requirements.

Final Thoughts

You need to make a choice between a backpacking sleeping bag or a backpacking sleeping quilt based on the temperatures in which you will be using it. Any decision you make between the two also has to also take into consideration the key factors of price, weight, and size.