Gear Review: Meet the Quilt, a Lighweight Sleeping Bag Alternative

Photograph by Steve Graeppel

My first sleeping bag was liberated from my dad’s musty military kit. With incisor-sized zipper teeth and a jumar for a slider, the M-1949 was more of a feather bed than a mummy bag. Weighing in just under eight pounds, it had the deadweight of a futon mattress and siphoned moisture like ShamWow®. Fortunately I had an external-frame pack to strap its bloated mass to.

Weight begets weight, and a sleeping bag (next to the tent and pack) is one of the top three perps to consider when lining up guilty pounds. While there have a been significant advancements in insulation (…down curated from the abandoned nests of free-range Elder ducks by gluten-free Gaelic hermits…), like any decision made when going light, you cut that which doesn’t contribute. And this is where the quilt rises above the fill.

Katabatic Gear Palisade quilt; Photograph by Steve Graeppel

The quilt is a simple concept; it’s a fitted duvet that wraps around your body, leaving the superfluous on the workroom floor…including the zipper, hood, and most noticeably, the underside insulation. At first blush, this backside exposure appears to channel all the accouterments of a hospital gown, but the design has a lot going for it.

Insulation alone does little to keep you warm—it lofts, trapping heat radiated by your body. Compress it—by, say, sleeping on it—and insulation loses its heat-trapping qualities, leaving you to haul the deadweight. But a foam or air pad resists compression and is a great insulator. And since a backpacker always brings a pad, the quilt leverages the thermal efficiencies of both the underlying pad and top loft, and scraps overlapping structures.

Katabatic Gear Palisade quilt; Photograph by Steve Graeppel

At the risk of hanging it all out, intelligently designed quilts eliminate the dead-air space between you and the quilt, putting your BTUs to work for you. Manufacturers tackle this in a few ways.

First and foremost, a quilt needs to integrate with a pad to reduce escaping heat. Most quilts on the market—like those from GoLite and Therm-a-rest—have two to three straps that wrap the quilt around the pad. For those who toss in their sleep, this gives you some wiggle room. Other quilts, like Katabatic Gear, use a cord-lock solution where the quilt straps on top of the pad, tucking the sidewalls between you and the pad.

A quality quilt will have a differential cut between the shell and inner liner. It’s a bit like a tailored suit versus an off-the-rack fit; a differential cut will contour to the body’s shape, reducing baggy ‘draft channels’ between you and the pad. A draft collar, elastic trim and lightweight snaps can reduce heat from top-spilling around the neck. And baffled design, as opposed to sewn-through construction, will reduce cold spots with a continuous layer of insulation. Lastly, most quilts have a “foot box”, enclosing the feet and lower legs, allowing the wheels to comfortably recover after a long day on the trail.

At first blush, the quilt might appear to be a niche tool with limited range. But it’s exactly its simplicity that contributes to its wide versatility. In summer, I’ll make do with just my clothes worn and a 30F quilt; if I get too hot, it’s easy to vent. In the shoulder seasons, I’ll cinch the quilt down to the pad and extend its comfort range with a hat or balaclava—roughly 6 percent of our body heat is lost through the head! Come winter, I’ll always bring an extra full-length pad and integrate my parka, insulated pants and booties into my sleep system. So with one 18-ounce, 30F quilt, I’m covered between 15-50F.

That military bag? It’s relegated to my father’s bunker. But I now watch my own kids playing with my ‘vintage’ mummy bags, circa 1992—two-way zippers, hoods, draft tubes and all. Meanwhile, the quilt has stepped up to meet 90% of my outdoor demands where it’s likely to stay…that is until the Gaelic hermits manage to harvest Helium infused down….


  1. D.Bells
    July 17, 2012, 11:56 am

    All this information is not new. Long before Steve Graeppel Ray Jardine used this method. And likely someone before him. It’s well documented in books by Ray. If you’d like information look Ray up. The information is invaluable.

  2. Olivia
    Dallas, TX
    July 19, 2012, 1:47 pm

    Thank you for this post! As someone preparing for my first-ever hike, information like this is invaluable. Yes, I am sure Ray Jardine has written some excellent books on the topic. But for what it’s worth, I say this post is still gold.

  3. eman83
    July 27, 2012, 1:12 am

    Thank you for this information . It is excellent concept by this topic. As long usual Steve Graeppel Ray Jardine used this method.

  4. Desyka
    May 21, 2013, 11:05 am

    Lol, Jeez, nobody said it was brand new information D.Bells.

    Gotta love the people who see good information and reply in a condescending tone for some reason that makes no sense at all to sane people.

    Anyways – I was glad to see this – I’ve been thinking about getting rid of my modular sleeping bag set and getting just a quilt, since for the most part, I plan to keep away from cold climates anyways.


  5. Cece Rubin
    United States
    February 25, 2015, 10:42 am

    A little bit of devil’s advocate here…

    I bought a Big Agnes 15 degree “Roxy Ann” bag with that in mind. The Thermarest inserts a sleeve and the down filled part is only on top. Well…I was cold from the bottom up.

    I have a Marmot mummy bag and the down underneath compressed or not kept me much warmer. Thank God that I took that on a “rain hike” to Mt Wilson and was able to warm up after the chill I got on the hike.

    I think the bottom line is or the real question is….”what works for you?”

    I’m a cold sleeper and for those times the Marmot bag is nice. For warm nights in the Sierras, in the summer…..the big Agnes works great.

    Solution….have both and know if you’re a “cold or hot” sleeper.

    Still love the posted info…thanks for posting