Sleeping Bag or Quilt | Average Hiker
Is a Sleeping Bag or Quilt a Better Option?
Is a Sleeping Bag or Quilt a better option? That is a good question, and there used to only be one real option – sleeping bags. Those that used quilts were outliers, and I did not often see those rogue sleepers on the trails. Fifteen years ago though, I became one of those rogues, and purchased a Nunatak quilt. I used the quilt on both my AT NOBO hike, and an 800 mile SOBO section hike of the AT. This was another step in reducing my gear weight.
Quilts entered the scene about 5-10 years ago as “ultralight hiking” became all the rage. Suddenly, “ultralight backpacking” was the buzz word for all gear. Thus, the drive to reduce gear weight resulted in lightweight backpacking quilts becoming much more popular. Along with this popularity came more choices.
Types of Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Sleeping bags and quilts offer a lot of variety. There are small manufacturers, large manufacturers, cottage manufactures, etc. You can choose more durable, water resistant, stretchy, etc. The choices can be a little overwhelming. A good place to start in determining what type of bag you are going to need, is to first decide on whether you need Synthetic or Down.
Synthetic Sleeping Bags or Quilts?
Synthetic Hollofil fibers changed the game for synthetic sleeping bags in the 1970's. These hollow fibers drastically increased the warmth and decreased the weight of synthetic bags. Today, companies have trademarked their own versions of these synthetic fibers with names like Stratofiber, Excelloft, and HL-ElixiR, just to name a few. In addition to all of the trademarked names, more recently “recycled” materials have begun to be used by large mainstream companies. Probably the biggest differentiator for synthetics is their price point. They are typically less expensive than Down.
Down Sleeping Bags or Quilts?
Down insulation varies in quality and type. There is Duck Down (less expensive), Goose Down, and recently Hydrophobic Down. Duck Down is more course than Goose Down. Goose Down from mature birds is the most fine, and thus the most expensive. High quality Down is also now treated, making it highly moisture resistant. Hydrophobic is now the Down of choice when looking at Premium Down sleeping bags. One of the disadvantages of Down is it's loss of insulating properties when wet. It appears this may soon be a thing of the past.
Sleeping Bag and Quilt Companies
I often group sleeping bag and quilt companies into Premium/Cottage, Mainstream, and Discount companies. Many of the premium companies like Western Mountaineering and Feathered Friends sell only down sleeping bags. Synthetic bags are more commonly found in Mainstream and Discount companies since demand is not as great.
Premium/Cottage Sleeping Bags and Quilts
There are several companies that specialize in Down sleeping bags, and some that even specialize in only Quilts. Recently, those companies that specialize in Down Sleeping Bags have also begun to produce backpacking quilts. Companies that specialize in Down Quilts have also begun to produce their version of sleeping bags, which is sometimes just a sleeping bag with no hood.
Three Premium Sleeping Bag companies I've used are Feathered Friends, Montbell and Western Mountaineering. The products produced by these companies are not inexpensive, but the quality is very good, and sets them apart in my opinion. I've used their bags for 10 years. As long as I've kept them clean and repaired, they continue to perform as well as when I purchased them.
With the ultralight movement, and increase in backpacking quilt popularity, smaller cottage manufacturers have also increased. Companies like Enlightened Equipment, Nunatak, Z-Packs, Katabatic, and Mountain Laurel Designs all make high quality backpacking quilts. Most of these products also come with a high price tag.
Mainstream Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Some would argue that Western Mountaineering and Montbell are now more mainstream because of their growth, but I include them in the Premium group because of their ultralight focus, price and quality. They are definitely premium.
There are solid companies making quality products in the Mainstream group. Companies like Big Agnes, Marmot, North Face, etc. These backpacking sleeping bags and quilts are typically less expensive, and don't use some of the premium materials used by the premium manufactures. They still make good products, and keep costs low, resulting in less expensive bags and quilts.
Discount Sleeping Bags and Quilts
Companies like Kelty, Sierra Designs, and Moutainsmith, fall into my Discount category. They offer solid sleeping bags, and in some instances quilts, that are good for camping. These sleeping bags are often heavy and better suited for base and car camping. For those just starting out, or backpacking short distances, these sleeping bags might be a good choice.
How Do I Choose a Sleeping Bag or Quilt
Choosing any backpacking gear is really a personal choice since every person's needs are different. Choosing between a backpacking quilt and a backpacking sleeping bag is no different. You should choose what meets your needs and your criteria. Below I've outlined some of my criteria when deciding on a Sleeping Bag or Quilt.
Do I Sleep Cold or Warm?
When selecting a sleeping bag or a quilt, you will get a lot of suggestions on the temperature rating of the bag. It often varies from 10 to 20 degrees less than the coldest temperatures you expect. I am a burrower. You MIGHT see the tip of my head if it is cold out, and even then it will probably be covered by a hat! If I expect temperatures to be 40 degrees or lower, I will usually have a sleeping bag or quilt that is 10 degrees. If I expect temperatures below 25 degrees, I will probably have a zero degree sleeping bag.
Is My Environment Dry or Wet?
I've never backpacked in an environment so wet that I felt it required a synthetic sleeping bag. I have backpacked with a lower rated bag in environments with high levels of humidity, like the Appalachian Trail or the Florida Trail. Down loses it's insulating properties when it gets damp. High humidity, and the resulting condensation, can definitely cause issues with a Down sleeping bag, especially if it is cold.
New Hydrophobic Down greatly reduces issues with moisture. I also always keep my Sleeping Bag or Quilt in a compactor bag, in the bottom of my backpack. Over the past 35 years of backpacking, I've never had an issue with moisture.
Quality is very important to me. Many of my hikes have lasted months, and thousands of miles. There are situations that become life or death, due to temperatures and climate. Having gear that I can rely on is critical. Durability is also important, and inevitably has resulted in me paying less over the long life of my gear.
Price is still a deciding factor in my selections, but more so for less expensive and less critical gear. My sleeping bag and quilt are essential items. I will often pay what I need to get the gear I need, and then keep it for a long period of time. As my financial friends say, “I sweat my assets.”
What Sleeping Bag or Quilt Did I Choose?
Over the years, I've tried most every sleeping bag I've listed in this article, and some I've not listed. Ultimately, I have settled on sleeping bags made by Feathered Friends. I like the Montbell sleeping bags and Western Mountaineering sleeping bags, but I currently use Feathered Friends. I've consistently gotten top quality products from this small manufacturer based out of Seattle.
My current backpacking quilt of choice is a 20 degree quilt made by Nunatak. I will say this about quilts. If temperatures are below freezing, I use sleeping bags. No matter how good the quilt, I always get cold due to drafts. It's interesting to watch quilts evolve though. I now see them with sewn in foot boxes, elaborate strapping systems, and elastic edges so they hug the sleeping pads. In other words, they seem to be looking more and more like sleeping bags. I am also a burrower. It is harder to burrow in a quilt.
One last note for me on sleeping bags and quilts. I am a side sleeper, and a tosser. I don't like to be constrained. One nice feature of the Montbell bags is their roominess and stretch material. My current zero degree bag is a Montbell. I've had it for several years. I enjoy quilts a lot in milder climates.
Finally, the two paragraphs prior to this one highlight why gear is a personal choice. We are all very different in our needs. Ultimately, choose what works for you.