BACKPACKING QUILTS, CONCEPT & REALITY
Why backpacking quilts are my sleeping sleeping system of choice
By Raymond Estrella
November 9, 2012
I am asked about backpacking quilts quite often. I once wrote an article on the subject for a subscription based publication and decided to write another, more detailed one that I could share for free.
A little about me.
First of all let me share my sleeping style as it colors my perceptions of all sleeping bags and quilts.
I am a toss-and-turn side-sleeper. I usually sleep on my side with one leg bent, knee sticking out a bit. (Sometimes both legs are bent equally.) I switch sides about every 30 minutes or so unless I am in a heavy deep sleep. It is almost impossible for me to sleep on my back as I find it very uncomfortable. If I do fall asleep on my back I snore, which wakes me up anyway.
The majority of sleeping bags aimed at backpackers (as opposed to campers that don't worry about gear weight as much, if at all) are mummy-style. The mummy-bag is the most efficient sleeping bag design as it hugs the body, cutting down on air space that you need to heat. The hood closes around the face keeping heat from escaping the bag. It works best for back-sleepers.
Back in the old days sleeping bags were made with an even fill-rate, top-to-bottom. So a side-sleeper or tummy-sleeper could turn the entire bag with their body to keep the hood in the right place.
Then we started the move to lighter weight. One of the first ways high-end down bags started cutting weight was to get rid of a lot of the down that was on the bottom (pad side) of the bag. This is because that insulation is compressed to the point that it really does not contribute much r-value (resistance value, a measurement of the insulating properties of materials). Some of my bags in the early/mid 2000's had 70/30 ratios of fill from top to bottom. Now turning the bag with you results in a cold backside as there is half the loft (thickness) of down insulation between you and the cold air. Because of this I used to take a 0 F (-18 C) rated Mountainsmith Cypher for fall trips in the Sierra Nevada where I expected 15 to 25 F (-9 to -4 C) temps.
Then came the popularity of bags like those from Big Agnes, that forgo all backside insulation, opting to get it all from the pad as another way to save weight. This works great for back-sleepers too. But not so well for a side-sleeper. As we turn over our face is now in the side of the hood. Joy. Plus as the lighter models are configured for back-sleepers turning onto your side will result in your shoulders and hips pushing against the top of the bag creating cold spots as now even the top is being compressed, thinning the loft. I loved Big Agnes's earlier bags but ended up going away from the brand as I wanted my weight and volume lower and I found their best bags for that just did not work for me.
A Quilt? I have one on my bed that Grandma made.
Since the early 2000's I had been reading of the mostly home-made quilts used by the UL crowd. The concept was a cross between a traditional lie-on-the-bed quilt and a sleeping bag. In fact many home-made versions were sleeping bags with the hoods cut off and the zippers removed, taking some of the body too in a V-pattern towards the top. The idea was to cut the weight of the unneeded or unwanted portion of the sleeping bag leaving just a footbox. The sides would be either draped over the user or tucked in at the sides to make it warmer. All bottom insulation would come from the sleeping pad.
Besides the instructions for the DIY (do it yourself) crowd there were also kits available, but I am no seamstress so I never gave them a try. In 2003 I had purchased Mukluks for winter backpacking from Nunatak Gear and saw Tom's line of Arc quilts. While they intrigued me I just could not justify the price for something I might not even like so they just stayed in the back of my mind. Then GoLite came out with the Ultra 20 backpacking quilt, which I found on sale, so I gave it a try. While the Ultra 20 did not perform up to its rating for me the comfort of it blew me away. Eureka! (I do have to say that the latest quilts from GoLite are much better than the 1st generation. I bought both my children UltraLite 3's as they like quilts too. There is 25% more loft in theirs and they seem to be spot on with the rating now.)
I bought my first custom quilt soon after, a pretty much stock Nunatak Arc Alpinist with an Epic footbox to prevent a wet foot. That worked so well, with such low weight and low volume for the amount of warmth and comfort that I made the decision to go all out, selling every sleeping bag I owned (I lived in two states and had bags at both) with a rating warmer than 0 F (and one of them too) to finance the purchase of two more quilts, the Arc Specialist and the Arc Expedition, with a bit more customization. Once they arrived I have not used a sleeping bag again outside of deep winter or testing commitments. You could say that I am hooked.
I have now spent many nights below freezing with my quilts. (Down to -5 F as of now, maybe lower this winter.) Once I get below freezing I do like to use straps to keep the quilt wrapped around my body and keep any openings from bleeding off my precious heat. A high R-value pad is imperative, and I find a wider one helps a lot to keep the quilt in place with my bent-leg style. I also use a down balaclava with my cold weather quilts to keep my head as warm as the rest of me.
There are two ways to use a backpacking quilt and they differ by where you want your sleeping pad to be. Some people like placing the foot of their sleeping pad inside the quilt's footbox. Straps or cords are sent with most quilts to go around the upper portion of the pad to help keep the quilt in place. This application keeps the quilt locked in place, much the same as a sleeping bag that uses a pad sleeve (Big Agnes) or pad locks. Some makers take the concept a step further offering snaps or hook-and-loop attachments for the sides of the pads.
Personally I am the other style of user. I put the quilt on top of my pad and if it is cold enough that I want the quilt pulled tight I strap it around me. This is the warmest way to use a quilt as there is less wasted space for my body to heat.
Retail vs. Custom
We are fortunate to live in a time of enlightened backpacking and the market shows it. GoLite and Therm-a-Rest quilts may be found in many stores, brick and mortar and on-line, and companies like Jacks 'R' Better have a large selection of stock quilts.
Even more custom makers are around now that push the limits with smart designs, exotic materials and super-high quality down. Which to choose?
The "retail" quilts like GoLite, and Therm-a-Rest (who between them now offer 9 models in many sizes) can offer a good value as they are mass produced in large batches. Plus you have them right away for immediate use in most cases. The problem is you are pretty much stuck with what they are. Because a big company has to be concerned with returns they tend to stick with more robust materials which translate as weight to us. Companies like Jacks 'R' Better sit between the retail shops and the custom makers, with limited options, but a whopping 21 models and sizes all ready to ship. A similar company is Katabatic Gear which makes five models and has them in stock. This year new offerings from NEMO and Brooks Range are venturing into the realm of the custom guys, with state of the art materials and high-end down.
Custom shops allow you to tinker with everything if you want (and if the maker agrees). I sleep cold so I had the top third of my Nunatak quilts over-stuffed. In Minnesota I deal with a lot of wind blowing snow and rain so had my 5 F (-15 C) quilt made with a full waterproof shell. It is quite nice to be able to get just what you want with your sleep gear, trust me. Of course it comes at a price, both figuratively and literally. The custom quilts cost more because they are handmade here in the US, not in Asia by sewers making a fraction of our wages. They also cost more because of expensive materials like high-tech low-denier nylons, Cuben Fiber, and 900 (or higher!) fill power down. Plus there is a cost in time as to get a custom quilt built from scratch you will often be put in a queue to wait your turn. The fastest I ever received a quilt was two months and the norm has been more like four months.
Which type of quilt is best suited for you is a personal choice - for me, I mainly lean toward the custom side of things. At the time of this writing I have had three quilts made for me by Nunatak Gear and two by The Stateless Society (now out of the quilt business). I have owned (and the kids still have) the GoLite quilts mentioned, and I am in the process of using and gathering data on my newest quilt, a NEMO Siren. The choices are plentiful and the prices can run from quite reasonable to very high depending on what route you want to take and what customization you opt for.
If you would like to read full reviews of the quilts I have owned go to BackpackGearTest.org and look under Sleep Gear. I add new reviews as I try new quilts, plus there are reviews from other folks there too.
Hopefully this helped explain the concept. And like my quilts, it's a wrap…
Read more gear reviews by Ray Estrella