When you’re sleeping out under the stars, staying warm and dry is critical for a good night’s rest. Although traditional wisdom tells us that a proper sleeping bag is the best option for staying warm at night while camping, modern outdoor enthusiasts have a plethora of different sleeping systems to choose from, such as a quilt. While quilts may be gaining popularity, you may not know how to differentiate sleeping bags vs quilts. Luckily we’re here to help.
Essentially, the main difference between a sleeping bag and quilt is that a quilt is like the ultralight sibling of the sleeping bag. Designed to be lightweight, highly compressible, and incredibly simple, quilts are great for the ultralight hikers among us who need the lightest and most compact pieces of gear. Sleeping bags, on the other hand, come in a variety of different sizes, weights, and styles, so they’re often more versatile for a wider variety of adventures.
If you’re looking to buy a quilt to upgrade that old sleeping bag, then you might be a bit confused as to what a quilt really is. Luckily, you can look no further as we’ve got the ultimate guide to the difference between sleeping bags and quilts. Coming up, we’ll define precisely what a quilt is and highlight the key differences between quilts and sleeping bags. We’ll also talk about the differences in price, quality, and warmth between sleeping bags and quilts.
What is a Quilt
Basically, a quilt is like a hybrid between a sleeping bag and a blanket. Quilts are made from the same puffy down or synthetic insulation that a sleeping bag would be made from, but often have the shape of a blanket, comforter, or duvet. This means that you can simply drape the quilt over you at night instead of scooching into a mummy-shaped sleeping bag at night.
Many people might wonder why someone would want the outdoor equivalent of a glorified down comforter while backpacking when they could use a sleeping bag that bundles them up and traps the warmth inside. This might, indeed, seem like an odd line of reasoning, but consider this ultralight backpacker mantra: the bottom of your sleeping bag is unnecessary.
Now, at this point, you might be questioning everything you know about sleeping bags, which is certainly fair, given the nature of that bold statement. But, the fact of the matter is that your sleeping bag only keeps you warm because of the heat-trapping properties of the insulation stuffed inside of it. This insulation only works when it has loft (i.e. space to trap air), which is something the bottom of the sleeping bag certainly doesn’t have as you lie on top of it, compressing it for hours on end.
Enter: the quilt. The backpacking quilt takes this mantra to heart and does away completely with the bottom of the sleeping bag.
Are Quilts Better Than Sleeping Bags
As with any good question, the answer to this one is, well, it depends. Quilts are better than sleeping bags in some ways but don’t quite live up to expectations in others.
For example, a quilt is a really great option for someone who adventures in cool to warm environments where it doesn’t get too terribly cold at night. This isn’t because quilts don’t keep you warm, but rather, by eliminating the “mummy” shape of a sleeping bag in favor of weight savings, a quilt loses some of its overall heat retention properties as heat will escape from the sides of your body and around your head if you’re not fully covered by your quilt.
On the other hand, if you don’t like the feeling of being swaddled, which is pretty standard in a sleeping bag, a quilt might be a nice change of pace as it feels more like sleeping with your blanket at home than inside a constricting insulated sack. Thus, what quilts lose in overall heat-retention efficiency, they make up for in extra comfort.
What really makes quilts attractive to backpackers, however, is their light weight and minimal bulk. Since quilts don’t usually have a zipper, bottom foot compartment, underside, or a hood, they tend to weigh significantly less than sleeping bags and pack down into a fairly small size. This is a great selling point for a lot of us, as no one likes to unnecessarily carry around weight.
That being said, since a quilt doesn’t have an underside, you do have to plan ahead and bring a warmer sleeping pad than you might need when you use a proper sleeping bag. This is because there’s less material between you and the ground, so there’s less insulation keeping you warm. Often, the added weight of a warmer sleeping pad is minimal, making the total sleeping pad/quilt combo still weigh less than a traditional sleeping bag.
Key Differences Between Quilts and Sleeping Bags
The main difference between a quilt and a sleeping bag is that a quilt doesn’t have an underside to it. Usually, backpacking quilts are shaped much like a normal blanket would be, but are made from high quality down or synthetic insulation, instead of fleece and cotton.
This is substantially different from how a backpacking sleeping bag would be shaped as these are usually designed to wrap around someone in a mummy shape and trap all of the warm air inside.
By being shaped more like a blanket and less like an oversized burrito tortilla with a hood, a quilt saves weight but can still keep you warm at night. Plus, quilts usually don’t have full-length zippers, which also saves weight and makes it less likely that anything will malfunction or break while you’re out and about.
Are Quilts Cheaper Than Sleeping Bags
Although you might think that a quilt, which is made with fewer materials than a sleeping bag, would actually be the cheaper option, that, unfortunately, isn’t really the case.
Even though they’re made from fewer materials and are structurally much simpler than sleeping bags, backpacking quilts tend to be the more expensive choice simply because there are only high-end quilts on the market.
While you can buy a cheap, low-quality sleeping bag pretty much anywhere, it’s fairly difficult to find a quilt anywhere but online. Plus, only a few manufacturers actually produce quilts, as they’re currently more of a niche product for ultralight backpackers.
Many of these manufacturers are “cottage” gear companies, which means they’re really small and produce much of their gear by hand. Moreover, the vast majority of quilts are made with super high-quality down (think 900 fill or higher) and ultra light shell fabric, which adds to the cost.
All of these factors conspire against the quilt and have resulted in their current fairly high price tag. Although you can, on occasion, find quilts that are on sale, generally speaking, you’ll pay at least $200, if not more for your quilt, while you can find some decent sleeping bags for under that price point.
Will a Quilt Keep You as Warm as a Sleeping Bag
A quilt can, indeed, keep you as warm as a sleeping bag will if used properly. If you plan to backpack with a quilt, you’ll want to first make sure you have a warm sleeping pad. Just like sleeping bags, sleeping pads are given a warmth rating, but instead of a degree amount, sleeping pads are given an “r-value”. Basically, the higher the R-value, the more insulated and warmer the sleeping pad will be.
After you get yourself a warm sleeping pad, you’ll also want to make sure you bring a hat – or even just a jacket with a warm hood. Since a quilt doesn’t come with a hood, you’ll need to keep your head covered or you’ll get cold at night!
Finally, if your quilt has a short zipper or other devices to fasten it together around your feet, it’s worth tightening the fasteners or zipping it up around your feet to help trap in heat in this sensitive area.
Usually, if you start to get cold, the blood vessels in your body will constrict and pull blood away from your extremities (like your feet) and toward your core. While this is great from a survival perspective, it also frequently results in cold feet and discomfort at night when your toes are exposed to the cold for too long.
Ultimately, a quilt that’s rated to a specific temperature range can keep you as warm as an equivalently rated sleeping bag, but it takes more time and practice to get used to sleeping comfortably in a quilt. Our advice? If you get a quilt, take the time to learn how to sleep in it properly and maximize the amount of warmth it can provide. This is best done in the summer or early fall/late spring when the temperatures are mild and not in the dead of winter.
Quilts and sleeping bags are both great options for staying warm while camping. Although sleeping bags are more mainstream than quilts, the humble quilt is quickly taking the backpacking world by storm as it provides an alternative ultralight alternative to a heavy, bulky sleeping bag.
Quilts are great for some people and not-so-great for others. Before you rush out to buy a fancy new quilt or sleeping bag, it’s important to take the time to determine what’s right for your needs. Testing out your new quilt or sleeping bag in moderate conditions is also a great way to see how your gear holds up before you end up in a more extreme environment. Happy trails!