Quilts vs Sleeping Bags: My Experiences

Emily Woodhouse Gear, Practical Advice

On my Summer Mountain Leader assessment I casually mentioned not liking hoods on sleeping bags. Probably after having had another fight with the hood at night, because my head wasn’t in it. “Side sleeper?” asked my assessor. “You need to try a quilt. Absolute game changer.” And it has taken me 6 years to actually give it a proper go. Which feels silly really, given I’ve always been a side sleeper and first spent a night on the moor in a tent when I was about 11. So, if you too are on the fence about whether to try a sleeping quilt, let me lay out the differences and give you my thoughts.

Sleeping Bags

You can just see the hood of my blue Mountain Equipment sleeping bag. Honest.

Sleeping bags are a classic but of camping kit. You probably know what they are if you’re here, but let’s get down the main points for comparison purposes:

  1. They come in down or synthetic fibres
  2. Widely sold and made by many different brands
  3. Have a hood (almost always)
  4. Have a foot box (sewn in enclosed foot end)
  5. Come in season ratings 2+
Mountain Equipment 600 weight down sleeping bag (Helium)

The single thing that all sleeping bags seem to have in common is that they are a tube. You cannot stick your legs out once you’ve zipped yourself you. Well, okay unless you play some weird game with undoing the bottom end of the zip but who actually does that? You can buy sleeping bags pretty much anywhere you can buy camping equipment and you will have a huge amount of choice. Both in terms of season ratings (how warm) but also how heavy, how long, how wide, hood or no hood, zip left or right… even colour! And of course price. Since you can pick up a sleeping bag from a supermarket or from an online ultralight specialist store, there is bound to be a combination of features and budget that you are happy with.

Quilts

Can you see the quilt sprawled inside my tent in the High Sierra?

Sleeping quilts for camping are a lesser known beast. They are certainly becoming more popular and a few more brands are making them, but they are nowhere near as widely spread as sleeping bags. Here are their equivalent points:

  1. They come in down or synthetic fibres
  2. Less widely sold but still choice between higher end brands
  3. No hood
  4. Sometimes a foot box but never a back
  5. Come in season ratings 2+
Thermarest 900 fill quilt (Vesper)

There is definitely a broad range of ideas about what a camping quilt actually is. I’m fairly sure you can get something more like a blanket for sleepovers or inside a camper van that’ll be called a camping quilt. Similarly, Alpkit and others make down quilts that aren’t really a sleeping bag alternative – more like a cover for hammock nights or an extremely toasty alternative to a sleeping bag liner (done it, no regrets).

But broadly, quilts seem to be made by the higher end camping kit manufacturers who are assuming you want a quilt because you want to be super ultralight, not because you just like to sleep on your side. I’ve got a Thermarest Vesper ^ after much recommendation by friends who are far more into ultralight stuff than I am. (Honestly, I think it was the image associated with being ultralight that put me off for so long!)

My Quilt Experience and Thoughts

So, I got this Thermarest Vesper quilt because I really did need to reduce the weight of my rucksack for a long distance trek. Okay, well not so much weight but bag capacity. I was trying to walk 200 miles with only a 50L rucksack, so something had to give.

A size comparison. Grey is the sleeping quilt. Left are 500ml stove pot and a Thermarest Neo Air.

Quick Fire thoughts:

For side sleepers, it really is great. I slept with a hat on and was plenty warm enough, even in the snow. For weirdos like me who sometimes want to sleep in the recovery position it was great too, as long as your sleeping mat is wide enough. I found there was a subtle art to tucking yourself in all the way around and not getting a draught of cold air if I moved.

You can’t snuggle in it like a sleeping bag, but you can popper it closed around your neck, which I wasn’t expecting. Doing that and tightening up the elastic there made it feel nearly as cosy as a sleeping bag. That comes with the added bonus that it’s far easier to breath – for anyone who’s woken up in sleeping bag cave disorientation, you can’t get lost like that!

On the other hand that does mean that when it’s really very cold you have to have your face out. I’ve only had that problem once, so not sure what the best solution is, but perhaps a thick buff up and hat down would fix it.

The cold does vent when you roll over. Perhaps this is a bit different if you’re a slightly bigger person. I didn’t fill the space under my quilt so I always noticed the warm air escaping and being replaced by cold. Really I ought to not fidget as much. Even with the two or three straps underneath my inflatable mat, I never found a way to completely stop this.

So which should I choose? Quilt or Sleeping Bag?

In proper winter camping, or times when you want to get into a cocoon and hide from the world, a sleeping bag is still the winner for me. For more freedom or to genuinely reduce weight/load in your bag when weather is nicer then a sleeping quilt is the best.

Personally, I’m sticking to my sleeping bag throughout winter – including those dismally wet and cold Dartmoor nights, not just snow. Then swapping out to a quilt for everything else: from about April in the UK through summer and on any long trips where I care more about bag capacity. If you’re going for quilt in winter, which sleeping mat you choose will make or break your expedition. Make sure you have something very warm so that you won’t miss the side of sleeping bag underneath you.

P.S. Quilts also make an amazing addition to your hand luggage for continental flights. Tiny and you will have the best sleep out of everyone on the plane! I bet they’re fantastic on ferries too.


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