To quilt or not to quilt? Camping quilts have experienced a surge in popularity over the last decade, making them a serious rival for the traditional camping sleeping bag, and there are now far more quilt options available on the market than ever before.
But what’s behind this sudden boom in demand for camping quilts? Well, primarily it comes down to portability. Although it varies, depending on which models you compare, generally speaking, quilts are way lighter and more compact than sleeping bags, making them a popular choice among backpackers.
However, many people remain firmly in the sleeping bag camp, and wouldn’t dream of ditching their bag for a quilt. And why is this? Nine times out of ten the answer will be warm. If you’re going to be camping in extremely cold environments, then no quilt can beat a good bag. Of course, if you really don’t like camping, then maybe you need to read these tips instead.
But what if you aren’t carrying your load on your back or camping in super cold climates? Then the decision becomes quite tricky, and extra considerations aside from portability and warmth come into play. Here, we’ve weighed up the performance of quilts versus sleeping bags in various categories. We’ve summarized our findings too so that you can decide once and for all whether a quilt or a sleeping bag (or some kind of hybrid) is the right companion for your camping adventures.
Okay, so now for the nitty-gritty details. Let’s take a look at some important considerations and see whether quilts outperform sleeping bags or vice versa.
If you think of a sleeping bag as a rectangular box that you sleep inside, you can picture the surrounding ‘walls’ keeping you nice and warm. A quilt, however, is just a single wall that lays on top of you to keep you warm, and the loss of these extra walls means that quilts are much lighter than bags. Plus, quilts don’t typically have hoods, which helps to get rid of a few more pounds.
In reality, a quilt is likely to be larger than the top ‘wall’ of the sleeping bag, yet despite this, quilts remain considerably lighter overall. Don’t get us wrong, there are some fantastic lightweight sleeping bags available, such as the WINNER OUTFITTERS sleeping bag if you’re on a budget or the Marmot Trestles sleeping bag if you have a bit more cash to splash but, on the whole, if you’ll be carrying your pack around on your back then it makes sense to get rid of those extra walls and shed as much weight as possible.
Winner: sleeping bag
If you go back to picturing a sleeping bag as a rectangular box, with insulator padding on all sides, and think of a quilt, with just one layer of insulation, the answer to which is warmer may seem pretty obvious – it has to be the sleeping bag.
Traditionally, this was indeed the case, and sleeping bags were far warmer than quilts could ever hope to be. However, one thing to bear in mind is that the ability of sleeping bags to keep you warm is related to their loft (for a reminder on how synthetic and down fabrics keep you warm, click here), therefore losing the underside of a sleeping bag, which is squashed and therefore has reduced loft, doesn’t result in as much heat loss as you might think.
Furthermore, recent adaptations to quilts and to their attachment systems have improved their insulation no end. For instance, you can now find camping quilts with closed foot section and top collars that can keep you warm in subzero temperatures, like the Western Mountaineering Astralite Quilt. However, these tend to be very expensive, and we think a lot of them fall into the hybrid category rather than quilt category (more on this later) so it might not be very fair to include them in a general comparison.
Overall, although the warmth of quilts has undoubtedly improved, they are rarely entirely draft-free, even with the best attachment systems, they lack hoods, allowing precious body warmth to escape from the head, and they only have one ‘wall’ of insulation. Conversely, sleeping bags keep cocoon you on all sides, drafts are way less likely (especially now that draft collars and tubes are common features), and mummy-style bags have hoods to keep your noggin toasty.
So, generally speaking, sleeping bags can keep you warmer than quilts. And if you’re planning on camping up a mountainside in winter, that probably means you’ll want to go for a sleeping bag. But if you’ll be camping in various seasons and don’t want to purchase multiple bits of sleeping gear, then it’s important that you can regulate your temperature. We can all agree that freezing cold nights aren’t very pleasant, but neither are sweaty mornings when you want that extra bit of sleep but find yourself overheating and waking up early.
Quilts offer great ventilation and it’s super simple too – just slide half the quilt aside and hey presto, your temperature will cool in minutes. As we mentioned earlier, some quilts have draft collars to keep in warmth, and these can easily be loosened to let some cool air in.
However, most sleeping bags are designed to allow for temperature control too. Sleeping bags have many features that allow heat to escape when needed. Like some quilts, draft collars can be loosened, hoods can be removed, zippers can be undone (often at the top and/or bottom), and some sleeping bags can be unzipped entirely leaving you with a ventilated quilt rather than a sleeping bag!
Depending on the features of the model you’re looking at, both quilts and sleeping bags can allow for excellent temperature control so in this case, we think they’re pretty even in terms of performance.
When we looked at weight, we saw that sleeping bags are heavier, quite simply, because there’s more material, which is also why they tend to be warmer. This additional material, however, not only makes sleeping bags heavier than quilts, but it makes them bulkier too.
Obviously, how well a sleeping bag or quilt compresses will depend on what it’s filled with, with down fillings compressing more than synthetic ones. However, seeing as both quilts and sleeping bags can be filled with down or synthetic material, this is irrelevant for our comparison.
So, if you’re after something you can pack away into a small a bundle as possible, then a (down) quilt is probably the way to go.
Winner: sleeping bag
Setting up your camp and packing it wavy again are probably the two worst parts of any camping trip. You might have to lug loads of stuff from the car to your camp, or you might have been walking all day and be exhausted, or it might start to rain just when you’re putting your tent up… in any case, you probably can’t wait to get the set-up over and done with. So the last thing you want is to faff around with your sleeping gear.
Quilts can slide around in the night, which is fine when it’s warm but can be a real pain on cooler nights. To stop unwanted drafts disturbing your precious sleep, they come with attachment kits but, unfortunately, these can be a bit fiddly to set up.
In contrast, all you have to do is unravel your sleeping bag and pop it on your mat and you’re done… Some sleeping bags do have slots for mats in the back but, even in these cases, it’s a simple matter of sliding the mat into the slot. So, unsurprisingly, we prefer sleeping bags to quilts in terms of ease of set-up.
Finally, one of the most important considerations of all – how comfy is your sleeping set-up? It’s important not to underestimate this factor, as getting a good night’s sleep can make all the difference between a trip of a lifetime and that trip you couldn’t really be bothered with.
For anyone that likes a good wiggle in their sleep, quilts offer far greater freedom of movement than sleeping bags, particularly if you’re a side-sleeper. Sleeping bags, however, provide a much snugger fit, thanks to their enveloping style.
Another thing we like about quilts is the lack of a zipper – after all, it’s horrible to wake up to a cold zipper pressing into your side, although these days many sleeping bags use zipper guards to overcome this. Also, quilts lack hoods, which means your less likely to breathe in an enclosed space, which can creature moist condensation, although you can also get sleeping bags without hoods or with detachable ones. One thing to bear in mind is that you might have to wear some extra layers if you’re camping in the cold with a quilt and, for some people, this is a real pain. As sleeping bags are warmer, and often come with hoods, you’re less likely to need to sleep in extra layers or a hat.
Overall, in terms of comfort, the choice of a quilt or a sleeping bag will mainly come down to whether you prefer a tight fit or the space to roll around – so there’s no clear winner here.
Winner: quilt (usually)
And of course, one of biggest factors behind any purchase is always the cost. Quilts are made of less material overall than sleeping bags and they also lack a zipper, so this makes them cheaper than sleeping bags generally.
However, there’s a huge range in the price of both quilts and sleeping bags. For instance, the Western Mountaineering Astralite Quilt we mentioned earlier is super expensive for a quilt, while the WINNER OUTFITTERS sleeping bag is a real bargain.
The type of filling will also play a big role in the cost, and if you want a decent warmth-to-weight ratio then you’re going to have to shell out for it. Generally, though, a quilt constructed of the same material as a sleeping bag won’t cost you as much.
Okay, so we’ve seen that quilts outshine sleeping bags in some but not all categories. Here’s a little reminder of the pros and cons of quilts:
And what about the pros and cons of sleeping bags? Here they are:
There are clearly pros and cons of both quilts and sleeping bags. But what if you like some aspects of quilts and others of bags? Well, you’re in luck. There are lots of products on the market these days that have incorporated some of the best bits of both. For example, some quilts now have cinchable cords around the neck to keep you snug, a feature typically found in mummy sleeping bags.
Similarly, the Brown Camping McKinley sleeping bag keeps you warm right down to -30°F, yet has been designed to maximize wiggle room, one of the main bonuses of camping quilts. Also, the Western Mountaineering HighLite sleeping bag will keep you nice and toasty yet it’s super lightweight for anyone that likes bags but is keen to shed extra weight.
There are some great camping quilts and sleeping bags out there. The choice of which one you go for will most likely come down to types of trips you’ll be going on, as well as your sleeping preferences.
If you’ll be backpacking in summer and don’t want to carry much weight, then it makes total sense to go for a quilt that will keep you warm and won’t weigh you down. However, the same trip in winter might require a lightweight sleeping bag for extra warmth – although you’ll have to shell out for a decent warmth-to-weight ratio. Similarly, if you like the feeling of being snug and secure while you sleep, you might want to opt for a mummy sleeping bag, but if you’re likely to toss and turn then you might well prefer a quilt.
We recommend that you investigate both quilts and bags when you’re shopping around. The most important thing is to prioritize the considerations we’ve outlined above according to your needs, and then try and find the best-matched product – whether that product happens to be a quilt or a bag remains to be seen!
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!