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Why Use Backpacking Quilts:
Great Question!

By Diane Spicer

Should you add a backpacking quilt to your hiking gear list? Find out the facts about who should (and shouldn't) carry a quilt into the backcountry. #backpackingquilt #backpacking #hiking #sleepsystem

Why use backpacking quilts?

Of all of the questions you might be asking yourself when planning your next backpacking trip, this one may or may not be on your radar.

If you're reading this, I'm guessing it is.

If you're on the fence, read about the best backpacking sleeping bags here first.

And how to put together your best backpacking sleep system.

  • Then come back for all the specific facts you need about backpacking quilts.

Still with me?


Let's find an answer for you by answering an even more basic question first.

What are backpacking quilts?

A backpacking quilt is one component in a backpacker's sleep system, carrying the heavy responsibility for delivering warmth and comfort throughout the night.

The first thing you need to know is that quilts appeal to minimalist backpackers who call themselves ultralight hikers.

  • A backpacking quilt is essentially one half of a sleeping bag.
  • No mummy style hood, no zippers, no complete bottom layer.

So it's no surprise that a quilt may be lighter and less costly than a backpacking sleeping bag.

There are topquilts and underquilts, and you can tell by the name that a ground sleeper and a hammock sleeper will need different choices.

But do you sacrifice warmth and comfort when using a quilt?

Ah, you're a smart one!

That's exactly the right question, especially for women hikers who are cold sleepers.

Why use backpacking quilts?
To generate warmth!

If you love, love, love to crawl into your sleeping bag at the end of a long day on the trail, breathe a big sigh of contentment, and drift off to sleep listening to the drone of mosquitoes or the howling coyotes, you might think it's insane to use a backpacking quilt.

  • How can you stay warm if there's no heat trapping layer of synthetic or down fill underneath you?
  • Why would you give up a soft snuggly hood to cinch around your head and keep all of that precious body heat right where it belongs?

A backpacking quilt aficionado (UL hiker) would answer this way:

Your body weight is compressing the fill inside your sleeping bag, effectively reducing its ability to insulate you and trap your body heat.

  • Why carry it?
  • Why pay for it?

Instead, approach the "why use backpacking quilts" warmth question with a customizable strategy.

How to customize
your backpacking quilt strategy

Try any or all of these trail tips:

  • Drape your quilt over a high quality sleeping pad with the ability to insulate you from the cold ground.
  • Don clean, loose layers of warm but lightweight clean clothing before pulling the quilt over you.
  • Cover your head, either a beanie style hat or a full balaclava or down hood, depending on your preferences and the ambient temperature.
  • Purchase down sleeves if you know that you are a restless sleeper who tosses off covers.
  • If you are inside of a double walled tent (tent walls + rain fly), no worries about breezes lifting an edge of the quilt to create a draft.
  • Tarp dwellers, all bets are off regarding breezes, so take precautions with clothing and head covering.
  • If you are in minimal or no shelter, be sure you choose a quilt which can drape around you and be tucked in around your body.
  • Use a quilt with straps to secure your sleeping pad in place beneath you (a good idea for restless sleepers).
  • Pay close attention to the temperature rating of any quilt you are considering. Don't overbuy insulation but don't skimp on fill material, either.

Quilt warmth features to look for

If you're still questioning the wisdom of a backpacking quilt's ability to trap and distribute your body heat, rest assured that you can find one with some additional warm trapping features.

These good backpacking quilt designs may include:

  • a non-rectangular shape, providing a tapered foot box
  • straps or lacing tabs to hold the quilt to a sleeping pad
  • draw cords at various places, allowing you to cinch down the quilt in response to drafts
  • flaps on the sides that don't have insulation, but do allow you to create a sealed sleeping cocoon
  • snaps or buttons at the head end for creating a seal around your neck and head

When you're concerned about getting a good night's sleep without having to face cold drafts, make a note to look for these features.

Why use backpacking quilts?

To get up to speed on the components of a high quality backpacking quilt, read this.

Quilt users love the fact that you can move around a lot beneath a quilt and stay warm but not strangled.

If you sleep on you back, a topquilt makes sense.

  • If mummy style sleeping bags feel too restrictive, you're a good candidate for a backpacking quilt.

And falling asleep fully dressed makes those middle of the night excursions to the bushes a lot easier.

Ditto for fumbling around for your watch to check the time, or for your water bottle - just stick out your hand from beneath the quilt.

You can already visualize the magic of being warm and dressed in the morning! No freezing body parts for you, thank you very much.

If you're serious about switching from a sleeping bag to a backpacking quilt, do a dry run in your backyard or local park to be sure you've mastered the learning curve.

  • A simple rolling over maneuver might create cold air gaps, waking you up from a deep sleep.

Good news about backpacking quilts

Now that you know how and why to stay warm and comfortable in a quilt, let's flesh out the "why use backpacking quilts" question a bit more.

If you carry a quilt on your hiking trip, you enjoy these benefits:

  • If you have made a careful selection, you have paid less and carry less weight with the quilt, compared to a sleeping bag.
  • There are no zippers to jam, make noise, or leave impressions on your face (side sleepers, you know what I'm talking about).
  • A quilt may stand up well to frequent, long term use because it avoids the "loss of loft" issue common in sleeping bags (especially synthetic fill).

Do it yourself-er hikers

If you love to sew, have a machine capable of handling bulky or slippery materials, and enjoy saving money, making a backpacking quilt is right up your alley.

Then when other hikers ask you the why use backpacking quilts question, you can take them on a tour of how to put one together!

Bad news about backpacking quilts

There are some sobering drawbacks to quilts which are only fair to address here.

Sleeping in long sleeves and long pants may not spell comfort for you. There is something luxurious and relaxing about crawling into a sleeping bag wearing only minimal clothing.

For us women hikers, sleeping without a sweaty sports bra or stinky socks digging into us is heavenly.

  • And removing them each evening is a good idea for maximizing your circulation as you repair and heal from the day's hard work.

Carrying an extra set of clean, odor free (in bear country) long sleeves and long pants plus hiking socks for sleeping adds weight and bulk to your gear list.

Also, a quilt does nothing to provide head covering, unless it's long enough (and thus heavier) to allow you to curl up beneath it.

So consider these things

  • Will you really be saving weight and money if you also need a down filled hood, or an array of hats and extra clothing to capture and protect your body heat? (In fairness, these can be used during daylight hours as well as around camp, so score a few points for versatility.)
  • Do you have a good sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground? If it's three quarter length, your feet may be in trouble.
  • Side sleepers: Is the quilt and pad combination wide enough to keep you fully insulated? 
  • IDo any body parts stick out? If you think you can curl up warmly beneath the quilt, be sure to try this at home on top of your sleeping pad.

Backpacking quilt recommendations

Every backpacker has a unique set of circumstances.

So what works for one person may be experienced as a totally under-performing quilt for another hiker, sometimes on the same hiking trip!

My advice to answer the why use backpacking quilts question for yourself:

  • Figure out the minimum expected temperatures you're heading into, and the amount of moisture to expect during your trip (seasonal averages are available here).
  • How much weight and pack space do you want to allocate to your sleeping system?
  • What's your hiking gear budget right now?

Then, and only then, start to look at backpacking quilts.

My recommendations for ready made, made to order, and do it yourself quilt kits, along with more selection tips, can be found here.

  • I reviewed a good example of a synthetic down quilt here

Why use backpacking quilts?
Why not!

The only way to get the perfect night's sleep on the trail is to experiment with your options.

Now you can answer the question "Why use backpacking quilts?"

  • We all want the same thing: a great night's sleep after a great day of hiking.
  • Having options maximizes our ability to attain it.

Here's to finding your perfect sleeping system, which may or may not include a quilt :)

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Why Use Backpacking Quilts