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, setup, and more. For a list of our top picks and buying advice to help you choose the right design for you, see our article on the best ultralight sleeping bags and quilts. And if you're willing to shoulder a little more weight, we've also put together a list of the best backpacking sleeping bags, all of which check in under 3 pounds.

Editor's note: We updated this article on June 4, 2024, to expand a few sections, update our top picks, and ensure all information—including specs like weight, fill weight, and price—is current at the time of publishing.

Table of Contents

Ultralight Sleep Systems

Sleeping Bags

Most outdoor-goers are familiar with traditional mummy sleeping 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, and 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). And it’s important to note here that sleeping bags are such effective insulators in large part due to their draft-free design that fully encloses the body (including the head), keeping warm air in and cold air out.

Feathered Friends Tanager 20 CFL (sleeping bag)
A sleeping bag eliminates drafts by fully enclosing the body | Credit: Zach Snavely

Backpacking Quilts

Backpacking 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 footbox) from a traditional mummy bag, providing 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 pad attachments to create a closed system with your sleeping pad.

REI Magma sleeping bag and Magma Trail quilt
The REI Magma Trail quilt (top) and Magma sleeping bag | Credit: Switchback Travel

Many—although not all—quilts have rear closures that allow you to secure them around you like a sleeping bag, which is especially useful if you’re not pairing your quilt with a pad. In the name of weight savings, these closures are generally limited to one to three buckles or clips across the back opening. Further, some quilts have footboxes 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. As a result, 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're able to completely enclose yourself. On warmer nights, it unzips all the way down through the footbox and has a cinch closure at the bottom, so it functions like a quilt in terms of being able to open up like a blanket. Another hybrid option is the Therm-a-Rest Ohm, which has a similar design in a slightly lighter package. Both are super versatile ultralight sleep systems that cross over from cold to warm better than most and can even be used as a blanket for two in a pinch.

Performance Considerations

1. Warmth: Sleeping Bags

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. 

Sleeping bags vs. quilts (mummy hood closeup)
Most sleeping bags have a hood that wraps around the head | Credit: Brian McCurdy

However, it's not entirely straightforward. In fact, in comparing a bag and quilt with the same temperature rating (the 20-degree Therm-a-Rest Hyperion and Enlightened Equipment Enigma Quilt, for example), it's common to see more down fill in the quilt (in this case, 3 oz. more), which equates to more warmth, specifically on the top and sides of the body. Further, many ultralight sleeping bags sacrifice features like a hood or draft collar in the name of weight savings. This stripped-down design (like the Feathered Friends Flicker mentioned above) removes much of the heat-trapping ability of a mummy bag, bringing it closer in line with the protection of a quilt. To challenge the comparison even more, quilts don't have the same EN/ISO standardized temperature testing that many sleeping bags do (see more in our article on Sleeping Bag Temperature Ratings Explained). In sum, 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 an accurate comparison.

Last but not least, your sleeping pad is a very important component of your sleep system whether you’re in a sleeping bag or a quilt. Most sleeping pads are given a warmth rating listed in R-value (ranging from about 1 to 8), which is a good place to start when determining how well it will insulate you from the ground. In general, most 3-season backpackers can stick with an R-value between 3 and 5, while winter campers will want to bump up to an insulated model with R-value of 5 or more. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite NXT hits a nice balance of weight and insulation, with an ultralight build (13 oz.) and 3-season-ready R-value of 4.5. For more on sleeping pad warmth, see our article on Sleeping Pad R-Value Explained

Sleeping bags vs. quilts (rolling up sleeping pad)
Your sleeping pad is tasked with insulating you from the ground | Credit: Jason Hummel

2. Weight and Packability: Quilts

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. In general, they are lighter and more packable, though, as we mentioned, it can be challenging to make direct 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 oz. of 850-fill and 13.7 oz. of 900-fill, respectively), but the UltraLite weighs 1 pound 13 ounces versus the Solo’s 1 pound 2.7 ounces. But the difference isn’t always so stark—the 30-degree REI Co-op Magma Quilt, for instance, weighs only 4.1 ounces less than the comparable Magma 30 sleeping bag (comparing the medium sizes).

Backpacking quilt packed size packability (Enlightened Equipment Enigma)
The Enlightened Equipment Enigma quilt packs down impressively small for stuffing in a pack | Credit: Jason Hummel

3. Warmth-to-Weight: Tie

The warmth-to-weight ratio 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, as measuring warmth is not an exact science. To get the most accurate comparison, let's look at Zpacks' 20F Solo Quilt and the 20-degree version of their Zip Around Sleeping Bag. Both contain roughly the same amount of down (the latter contains 0.8 oz. more comparing the medium/standard sizes) and have identical dimensions, but the quilt weighs 1 pound 2.7 ounces, while the sleeping bag comes in at 1 pound 5.6 ounces. Looking at the numbers alone, the quilt is the winner in terms of warmth for the weight (it has nearly the same amount of down for around 3 oz. less), but remember that the zipperless design can be drafty. If drafts weren’t an issue (and for some they might not be), the quilt would get the clear edge, but the formula isn't entirely black and white.

In the end, we recommend checking the individual specs of each bag or quilt to determine if it has a competitive warmth-to-weight ratio. Some bags will be more efficient than quilts and vice versa. But if you remember anything from this article, let 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 worth considering.

Sleeping bags vs. quilts (enjoying morning coffee in sleeping bag)
Weight is just one of many specs to consider when comparing sleeping bags and quilts | Credit: Jason Hummel

4. Temperature Regulation: Depends on the Model

In terms of temperature regulation, both sleeping bags and quilts have their strengths and weaknesses. On a cold night, we love zipping our sleeping bag past our neck, cinching the baffled collar close, and snugging the hood around our face. And on a warm night, a full-zip bag can turn into a pseudo-quilt by undoing the zipper and draping it over our body. However, not all sleeping bags are created equal, 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 20 alternating between too warm (inside the bag) and too cold (bag draped overtop). To sum it up, full-zip bags have great temperature regulation for a considerable weight penalty, whereas partial-zip or zipperless bags weigh less but don't regulate temperature as well. 

Conversely, a quilt can be a fantastic, lightweight choice for temperature regulation on all but the coldest nights. In balmy weather, drape the quilt on top of your body, providing ventilation on par with a down blanket. And when the mercury drops, a quilt with sleeping pad attachments allows you to cinch your bag close to your body similar to a sleeping bag. Keep in mind that you don’t get this level of temperature regulation with an uber-lightweight “top quilt” that doesn't have pad attachments or a foot closure. And as we’ve mentioned above, when you really want to batten down the hatches, a quilt can’t compete with the draft protection of a sleeping bag.

Sleeping quilt adjustment
The Katabatic Gear Flex has an open footbox that closes with a drawcord | Credit: Switchback Travel

5. Ease of Setup: Sleeping Bags

When it comes to setting up your sleep system, sleeping bags have the clear advantage. In fact, there’s virtually no setup 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 customize comfort, temperature regulation, and/or draft protection. As is common with ultralight gear, it pays to “geek out” on your gear, fine-tuning it for your specific use. 

Sleeping bags vs. quilts (throwing REI Magma into tent)
A sleeping bag is very easy to set up | Credit: Jason Hummel

6. Purchasing Process: Tie

While more mainstream brands are now offering quilts, the majority are still made by cottage brands, with many custom-built to order and only available online. And "custom built" has a lot of significance here: 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, footbox zippers, extra down fill, more durable shell fabrics, 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, most cottage-brand quilts take longer to arrive, with often 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 before you buy. On top of that, most quilts don’t come with an ISO-assigned temperature rating, which makes comparisons a bit trickier. Since most sleeping bags are made by mainstream brands, they’re easy to find and acquire immediately. However, as we mentioned above, quilts are becoming more readily available, with companies like REI Co-op, 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.

Sitting on backpacking quilt and sleeping pad in tent (Katabatic Gear Flex)
Most backpacking quilts are made to order and highly customizable | Credit: Jason Hummel

7. Price: Quilts

Given that they’re made with fewer 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 ultralight picks is around $440, whereas the average quilt is around $410. Keep in mind that there are some outliers: The Marmot Micron sleeping bag, for example, is $179, and the Katabatic Gear Palisade quilt starts at $339. But despite the generally lower cost of quilts, remember that buying readily available options from a large-scale retailer like REI often means you have access to a better—or at least more convenient—return policy and warranty. 

Sleeping bags vs. quilts (pulling sleeping bag out of stuff sack)
Expect to pay around $300 or more for a quality UL sleeping bag or quilt | Credit: Jason Hummel

Should You Buy a Quilt?

Still wondering if a quilt is right for you? For the right sleeper and the right time and place, quilts can provide a superior combination of weight savings and temperature regulation compared to ultralight sleeping bags. And for what it’s worth, we used to be skeptics, but many of us now opt for quilts in most cases. Below are our final criteria 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.

  • Are you open-minded?
  • Do you prioritize lightweight gear above all else?
  • Have you already explored other ways to pare down your kit (e.g., with a lighter tent or backpack)?
  • Do you generally sleep in mild (above-freezing) temperatures?
  • Are you willing to take a few minutes to tweak your sleep setup 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?

Our Ultralight Sleeping Bag and Quilt Picks

Whether you think a sleeping bag or a quilt is the best bet for your needs, below are our top selections of each. We've further broken them down by category, from cost-conscious designs to warm-weather options for summer-only backpackers. For a wider look at the market and detailed buying advice to help you choose the right option for you, see our article on the best ultralight sleeping bags and quilts.

Sleeping Bags

Best Overall Ultralight Sleeping Bag: Feathered Friends Hummingbird UL 30
Best Budget Ultralight Sleeping Bag: REI Co-op Magma 30
Best Hoodless Ultralight Sleeping Bag: Feathered Friends Tanager 20 CFL
Best UL Sleeping Bag for Warm Weather: Sea to Summit Spark 45

Backpacking Quilts

Best Overall Backpacking Quilt: Enlightened Equipment Enigma
Best Budget Backpacking Quilt: Hammock Gear Economy Burrow
Best Hybrid Sleeping Bag/Quilt: Feathered Friends Flicker UL
Best Backpacking Quilt for Warm Weather: Western Mountaineering NanoLite
Back to Our Sleeping Bags vs. Quilts Breakdown  See our Backpacking Gear Reviews

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