For thru-hikers, bikepackers, or anyone looking to travel light and fast, an ultralight sleeping bag or quilt is a no-brainer purchase that can shave noticeable weight and bulk from an overnight kit. But the choice between the two styles can be tricky, as both have unique sets of advantages and disadvantages. Below, we outline ultralight sleeping bags and quilts and detail their main distinctions, including warmth, weight, temperature regulation, set-up, and more. For a list of our top picks and more buying advice, see our article on the best ultralight sleeping bags and quilts.
Ultralight Sleep Systems
Most outdoorspeople are familiar with traditional mummy bags, but ultralight sleeping bags need a bit more explanation. These lightweight pieces take on the design of a mummy bag (narrow at the feet, wider at the shoulders, a hood around the head) and streamline it even more with thinner shell materials, higher-fill-power down, half-length (or shorter) zippers, and smaller dimensions. Some ultralight bags even drop the hood and zipper altogether for a tube-style design that offers exceptional warmth for weight (but at the expense of temperature regulation).
The design of a sleeping bag differs from that of a quilt in one significant way: whereas quilts have an open design that drapes over the sleeper’s top and sides, sleeping bags wrap fully around you, including—in most cases—a hood around the head. The idea here is that you get a draft-free, fully enclosed sleep environment that keeps warm air in and cold air out, allowing the sleeping bag to provide maximum insulation. However, this warmth does come with a fair share of tradeoffs, which we’ll detail below.
Down quilts are more of a niche piece for ultralight backpackers and those sleeping in hammocks, but they deserve a close look from anyone hoping to streamline their overnight kit. The design of a quilt builds off the idea that the feathers on the underside of your bag don’t offer much in the way of insulation—they’re mostly compressed by the weight of your body. Thus, a quilt removes the hood and back (but not the foot box) from a traditional mummy bag, offering insulation only on the front and sides of your body. Quilts known as “top quilts” simply drape over the body, whereas the majority of designs come with sleeping pad attachments to create a closed system with your pad.Many—although not all—quilts have rear closures that allow you to secure them around you like a sleeping bag (especially useful if you’re not pairing your quilt with a pad). In the name of weight savings, these closures are generally limited to 1 to 3 buckles or clips across the back opening. Further, some quilts have foot boxes that close shut with a zipper or snaps and a bottom drawstring (this gives you the versatility of using the quilt as a blanket). These closures ensure that the quilt stays around you while you sleep, but ultimately do little in terms of draft protection. In the end, quilts often are lighter than sleeping bags, but draftier too.
Sleeping Bag/Quilt Hybrids
It’s worth mentioning that there is a tiny subgroup of sleeping bag/quilt hybrids that retains many characteristics of both. For example, the Feathered Friends Flicker UL essentially is a hoodless sleeping bag with a full-length zipper, and the dimensions are such that you are able to completely enclose yourself. Yet on warmer nights, it unzips all the way down through the foot box and has a cinch closure there, so it functions like a quilt or terms of being able to open up like a blanket. Another hybrid option is the Katabatic Gear Flex, which is described as a “quilt-style sleeping bag” that lacks the full zipper of the Flicker (it has two string attachments in the torso) and is designed to attach to a sleeping pad. But when fully sealed up, the Flex is pretty darn cozy and roomy and replicates the feel of a hoodless bag. Both are super versatile ultralight sleep systems that cross over from cold to warm better than most.
All else being equal, sleeping bags are the clear winner when it comes to warmth. During a cold night, it’s hard to beat the heat retention of a tightly cinched bag and hood. Conversely, even when snugly secured to a sleeping pad, quilts cannot guarantee a draft-free sleep, nor do they extend over the head for a full cocoon.
However, it’s not as cut-and-dry as we’d like. In fact, in comparing a bag and quilt with the same temperature rating (the 30-degree REI Co-op Magma and Magma Trail, for example), it’s common to see more down fill in the quilt (in this case, 2 ounces more), which equates to more warmth (specifically on the top and sides of the body). Further, many sleeping bags will sacrifice features (read: warmth) in the name of weight savings. A sleeping bag without a hood or draft collar (like the Feathered Friends Tanager) removes much of the heat-trapping of a mummy bag, bringing it closer in line with the protection of a quilt. And to challenge the comparison even more, quilts do not undergo the same EN/ISO standardized temperature testing that many sleeping bags do (for more on this, see our article on sleeping bag temperature ratings). All told, you can expect a fully featured sleeping bag with similar loft to be warmer than a quilt—but it’s important to dig deeper for true comparisons.
Last but not least, make sure to consider the R-value (warmth rating) of your sleeping pad, and particularly when using a quilt. Different sleeping pads provide differing levels of insulation from the cold ground beneath you, and if you're using a quilt, there is no down at all on the bottom, so it’s just the pad.
Ultralight enthusiasts always are looking for ways to shave weight and bulk from their packs, and the back of a sleeping bag is an obvious target. With less material and neither a hood nor zipper, quilts cut all superfluous features from a bag in the hopes of dropping a few ounces as well. And in general, they are the lighter and more packable pieces of gear (although as we mentioned above, it can be challenging to make true apples-to-apples comparisons). For example, consider the Western Mountaineering UltraLite sleeping bag and Zpacks Solo Quilt, both of which are rated to 20 degrees. The two have relatively similar amounts of down (16 ounces of 850-fill and 13.7 ounces of 950-fill respectively), but the UltraLite weighs 29 ounces vs. the Solo’s 19.1 ounces. But the difference isn’t always so stark—the 30-degree REI Magma quilt weighs only 0.8 ounces less than the 30-degree sleeping bag.
3. Warmth-to-Weight: Tie
We put it all together here with the warmth-to-weight ratio, which is the best way to measure the efficiency of a sleeping bag or quilt. As we’ve mentioned above, this can be a tough comparison to make, as measuring warmth is not an exact science. To get the most accurate comparison, we’ll look at the Zpacks Solo Quilt and Full Zip Sleeping Bag, both of which are rated to 20 degrees. Both contain 13.7 ounces of down, but the quilt has an all-in weight of 19.1 ounces, whereas the sleeping bag comes in at 21.4 ounces. In this case, though, remember that the quilt is not quite as warm—it has the same dimensions and fill weight but no zipper. On the other hand, the REI Magma bag and Magma Trail quilt mentioned above have identical temperature ratings and almost identical weights (the bag is 0.8 ounces heavier).
In the end, you’ll want to check the individual specs of each bag or quilt to determine if it has a competitive warmth-to-weight ratio. Some bags will be more competitive than quilts, and vice versa. But if you remember anything from this article, have it be this: weight is not the only determining factor that will help you choose between a sleeping bag and quilt—nor should it necessarily be the first. Below are other important distinctions which are worth considering.
In terms of temperature regulation, both sleeping bags and quilts have their strengths and weaknesses. On a cold night, we love the ability to zip our sleeping bag past our neck, cinch the baffled collar close, and snug the hood around our face. And on a warm night, a bag with a full zip can turn into a pseudo-quilt by undoing the zipper all the way and draping it over our body. However, not all sleeping bags are created equal—especially ultralight bags—and with a zipperless or partial-zip model, you’re at risk for overheating on a warm night. In fact, we’ve spent many a night in the 1/2-zip Therm-a-Rest Hyperion alternating between too warm (inside the bag) and too cold (bag draped overtop). To sum it up, full-zip bags offer class-leading temperature regulation (on both cold and warm nights) for a considerable weight penalty, whereas partial-zip or zipperless bags offer lower weights for a considerable temperature-regulation penalty.
On the other hand, a quilt can be a fantastic, lightweight choice for temperature regulation on all but the coldest nights. In balmy weather, simply drape the quilt on top of your body, which offers ventilation on par with a cozy down blanket. And when the mercury drops, a quilt with sleeping pad attachments will allow you to cinch your bag close to your body (a là a sleeping bag). Keep in mind that you don’t get this level of temperature regulation with an uber-lightweight “top quilt” (no pad attachment or rear closure). And as we’ve mentioned above, when you really want to batten down the hatches, a quilt can’t truly compete with the draft protection of a sleeping bag.
When it comes to setting up your sleep system, sleeping bags have the clear advantage. In fact, there’s virtually no set-up required—simply unstuff your bag, lay it on your sleeping pad, and hop in. Dialing in your quilt, on the other hand, takes a bit more time, specifically if you’ll be attaching it to your sleeping pad or securing it shut via the rear closures. Further, you can adjust the fit on these attachments to achieve the desired amount of comfort, temperature regulation, or draft protection. As is common with ultralight gear, it pays to “geek out” on your gear, customizing it for your specific use.
6. Purchasing Process: Tie
It might seem strange to mention the buying process here, but we felt it was prudent given the differences between acquiring a sleeping bag or quilt. Many quilts are made by cottage brands, meaning that they’re custom-built to order and only available online. And the “custom-built” here is significant: brands like Loco Libre, Katabatic, Hammock Gear, Enlightened Equipment, and Zpacks allow you to choose between up to 16 sizes (including varying lengths and widths) and add or subtract features such as pad attachments, foot-box zippers, extra down fill, more durable face fabric, and more. This ability to customize is a huge advantage, especially for those with particularly small or large frames or ounce-counters looking to get exactly what they need (and nothing more).
However, given their made-to-order nature, cottage-brand quilts will take longer to arrive at your doorstep, with at times a month or more of wait time. Further, you won’t see them on the shelves of your local outdoor shop, meaning there’s no opportunity to “try on” before you buy. Conversely, most sleeping bags are made by mainstream brands, meaning they’re easy to find and acquire immediately. All that said, quilts are becoming more commonplace, with companies like REI, Western Mountaineering, and Therm-a-Rest trying their hand at the ultralight game. You won’t get the same customization that cottage brands offer, but you do get the convenience of buying quickly and from a major retailer.
7. Price: Quilts
Given that they’re made with less materials (including fabric, hoods, and zippers), you’d expect quilts to be slightly cheaper than sleeping bags—and in general, they are. In fact, the average sleeping bag on our list of top picks is $366, whereas the average quilt is $318. Keep in mind that there are some outliers (the Marmot Micron sleeping bag, for example, is $159, and the Katabatic Palisade quilt is a whopping $410). But despite the lower cost of quilts, remember that buying from a large-scale retailer like REI (read: sleeping bags) often means you have access to a better (or at least more convenient) return policy and warranty.
Should You Buy a Quilt?
Still wondering if a quilt is right for you? Simply put, for the right sleeper and the right time and place, they can provide a combination of weight savings and temperature regulation that is superior to ultralight sleeping bags. Below is our final criteria for you to help you decide on the right setup for your needs—if you answer yes to any or all of our questions, a quilt might be right for you. And once you’ve decided, be sure to visit our article on the best ultralight sleeping bags and quilts for our top recommendations.
- Are you open-minded?
- Do you prioritize lightweight gear above all else?
- Do you generally sleep in mild (above-freezing) temperatures?
- Are you willing to take the time to tweak your sleep set-up each night?
- Do you tend to run warm in your sleep?
- Do you ever wish for the option of a blanket instead of an enclosed sleeping bag?
- Do you have a broad frame that feels too confined in a trim, ultralight sleeping bag? Or do you like to spread out when you sleep?
- Are you looking for the most bang for your buck?