April 19, 2023 9 min read

Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Quilts

(also loved for bikepacking, packrafting, car camping, couch surfing . . . .)

By Trey French

There are gear trends, and then there are gear developments that push what’s possible in comfort and efficiency in the backcountry. With beginnings in the backpacking world from DIY makers in the early 90’s, quilts have become progressively more popular as designs have improved, and they’ve taken on a time-tested reputation, seeing use from fair-weather overnight trips, to multi-month on and off trail pursuits in harsh conditions. Today, with the increasing popularity of the outdoors as a place for growth, relaxation, and exploration among other uses, people are looking for ways to stay comfortable out there while nature does the rest.

There are three major components that make up the backcountry system—your shelter, backpack, and sleep set up. The quilt is the centerpiece when thinking about a lightweight, compact sleep system, and also the source of a few questions and skepticism. With a little bit of know-how, the quilt’s sure to replace the traditional sleeping bag in your kit, or be your first experience with camp insulation. Quilts are not only lighter than traditional sleeping bags, they are far more versatile. Typically, the attachment systems allow for a wide variety of warmth or ventilation options. On top of that, most active sleepers find a quilt more comfortable, since they can toss and turn without getting tangled up.

How Does a Backpacking Quilt Work?

sleeping bagLike a sleeping bag, a quilt relies on the heat-insulating function of lofty down (or synthetic insulation), to regulate the body heat that we produce naturally. This lofty layer of insulation keeps your body heat from escaping to the atmosphere outside. Unlike sleeping bags, the otherwise compressed insulation on the bottom is removed, reducing weight and preserving only the down that’s actually helping you stay warm. This is a simple concept, but some nuanced design features are required to keep the warmth in, and the drafts out.

How to Use a Backpacking Quilt

A quilt is best paired with the brain, as knowledge doesn’t register on the scale, and it carries its weight well when supplied with the right tools, like a quilt. 🤓 From getting acquainted with a pad attachment system, knowing where and how to orient your camp, to eating enough before bed, sleeping warm in the backcountry can take a little bit of practice regardless of what sleep system you choose. A well-designed quilt will facilitate this nighttime comfort, and keep the pack weight down for when it’s time to do the carrying. After all, second to a safe, comfortable, restorative sleep, pack weight is the priority for many of us.

When it comes to the hard and fast rules of using a quilt, you might ensure that the quilt meets your neckline, and nothing beyond. Pulling it over your face can result in water vapor from your breath seeping into the quilt overnight, which can saturate the quilt over time, and cause some loss of loft. You’ll also want to practice with how you like to use pad attachments, which types, and how snug.

Finally, if you’ve ever considered transitioning to a single wall tarp, you might consider taking it and pairing a quilt with a non-waterproof, breathable bivy. It’s like cheese and crackers, peanut butter and jelly. Pizza and pineapple, right?

How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for your Quilt

Choosing a sleeping pad appropriate for the conditions is going to compliment the quilt’s insulation style more than anything—like a yellow-bellied marmot in some wildflowers. While an expedition-rated sleeping pad might say it’ll keep you toasty down to -20°F, that doesn’t mean that it will boost the rating of your quilt. Each piece serves a different purpose, and the most important consideration is to pick a sleeping pad that will at least meet the insulating capacity of your quilt. R-value is a pretty big thing in the sleeping pad world, and is a good place to start.

As far as the actual style or construction of a sleeping pad, more and more campers are using inflatable pads to increase comfort and warmth out there, and our pad attachment system works the best with these inflatable pads. While some CCF pads are compatible, the really thin ones may not be the best fit when paired with our pad attachment systems, at least our yellow corded system, which snaps into the pad attachment clips sewn onto our quilts. In case you're really saving grams, and you want to use a thin CCF mat, we send a pair of black webbing straps to be used independent of a sleeping pad with every quilt order. Rather than going around the sleeping pad, those webbing straps will go beneath your body only, and allow for adjustment to make the quilt more narrow, or wider, as needed.

Are Quilts Better Than Sleeping Bags?

We certainly think so! Unless maybe you’re out climbing the 7 Summits. Compared with sleeping bags, quilts are lighter, more compressible, omit a hood to get lost in, and are made to balance warmth and general sleep comfort by allowing more freedom of movement. Quilts can also allow for a more diverse range of seasonal use. For instance, if you want to keep things simple and own a single sleeping-insulation piece, you might pick up a 22°F quilt with the intent to use it for your entire backpacking season (i.e. three-season use). Sometimes colder sleepers might do this with our 15°, and warmer sleepers, our 30°. The other approach is to own several quilts for specific conditions, further reducing pack weight, or increasing warmth, when desired.

Our Elite style quilts allow you to adjust the girth of the quilt from nice-and-snug, to a looser fit to encourage more air circulation when nights are warmer. For even more versatility at a slight weight and volume increase, you can go with a more flexible style, our Flex line. The Flex style unzips and opens like a blanket, making it potentially more comfortable in really warm temps, or serving as a nice insulation piece for those who like to car camp, do the van life thing, or have a pick-up truck with a camp-ready weekend bed build.

Backpacking Quilt Disadvantages

Quilts being drafty is a pretty common reservation folks have when considering a quilt for the first time, and this can happen if not used as directed, or if the quilt’s not designed well. This is a matter that we’ve taken seriously in our design process, and continue to do so as we move forward. If you’re new to quilts, there may be a learning curve to familiarize yourself with setting it up and making adjustments. Once you’ve got your systems dialed, you’ll be using/adjusting the pad attachment system in your sleep.

One other criticism, with lightweight, or “ultralight” gear in general, is that it’s delicate. Watch out for quilts that are manufactured without reinforcements at key stress points, or with uber-delicate fabrics that are subject to tearing or other damage. Sometimes important durability factors are left out in order to save weight. And yes, lightweight gear does deserve some respect, but choosing to add heavier fabric and reinforcements in key areas goes a long way to arriving at a dependable, warm, safe piece of equipment that'll be in your kit for years and years.

Ultralight Quilt Temperature Ratings

It’s common for us to hear from our customers that our temperature ratings are conservative. This might be because our stated ratings refer to a comfort rating rather than a lower limit, as the whole lower limit thing introduces a little guesswork into the equation, and we’re not huge fans of guessing on anything backcountry. This comfort rating assumes an average sleeper, neither warm nor cold, and that the person is wearing a set of base layers (including socks).

Intentional design and features like loft, differential cut, fit, and attachment system play a big role in the warmth of a quilt (so check those out!), but remember to sleep smart, and pick a campsite that encourages warmth, and a bag of food that will fill your stomach to your heart’s delight.

sleeping bags

Again, some folks like the light and fast option of a 30°, or to grab one for their summer excursions. Sometimes folks are just warm sleepers. The 22° rating is probably our most popular pick. It will cover the low end of temps that most of us are going to encounter, and it tends to work for most average sleepers for three season conditions. The 15° models are for shoulder season and light winter use, or for those that just can’t seem to ever get warm outside.

Choosing a Fill Type: Weight, Cost, and Expected Conditions

When it comes to fill type for your ultralight quilt, the two options are usually down and a variety of synthetic fills. Here, we’ll focus on the most common pick, and the one that we specialize in, goose and duck down.

Firstly, please check that the manufacturer uses only RDS (Responsible Down Standard) certified down. This certification ensures that the down is ethically sourced.

The first thing most of us encounter when deciding on a down insulation is the matter of fill power, or how much loft per ounce of down you get from a batch of down plumes. To determine the fill power of the down, the down’s put in a tube and filled with air. The higher the fill power, the more rise the plumes will display. Since down aids in nighttime warmth on the trail by lofting and trapping air, the more down/loft we have, the better our quilt will be at keeping us comfortably warm. Really, it’s our bodies creating warmth, and quilts slow down the heat transfer from our skin to the atmosphere.

By this logic, if you take some 900fp down and 850fp down, fill two identical quilts with the same amount of down in each, then the 900fp is going to loft higher, resulting in a better insulating quilt. By simply adding a little bit more of the 850fp down to that other quilt, you can reach warmth equivalent to the 900fp. It’s not that one type of down keeps you warmer, just that you’ll need to use more lower fill power down to equate the warmth of the higher fill power down.

So why not just always use the higher fill power down and have a lighter bag? Well, as you may have guessed, the 850fp down, in our case 850fp duck down as opposed to our 900fp goose down, is less expensive to source, because there’s more of it, it’s easier to obtain, and these savings are passed on to the consumer. Like many decisions in life, it comes down to priorities. Is the priority to have the absolutely lightest choice, or is a little bit of extra weight okay to save some money for other lightweight gear? One additional consideration for some with an especially sensitive sense of smell might be to weigh goose vs duck, as the duck can sometimes have a more potent scent. From what our trusted supplier at Allied Feather tells us, it has to do not with the cleanliness of down, but the diets of the different birds.

We actually offer three types of down fill:

900fp ExpeDRY Goose Down

900fp Untreated Goose Down

850fp ExpeDRY Duck Down

Those who might find the biggest benefit from the ExpeDRY options are those living in coastal locations, or here in the US, the eastern woodlands along the Appalachian Trail, and the Pacific Northwest. ExpeDRY down can also shine in extended cold weather trips in the teens at night. In those temperatures, you’re more likely to see your sweat vapor hit the dew point somewhere on the inside of your quilt’s down layer. This can cause it to condense (turn back to a liquid form) in the down, and reduce its loft over time if adequate opportunity to dry it in the sun is not presented. ExpeDRY can help the down maintain its loft in those conditions. Our ExpeDRY options are the most common choice by our customers.

The 900fp untreated, or just simply 900fp goose down, is the down in it’s more natural form. Just as insulating, traditional, and proven. It may not have a water resistant treatment to give it extra advantage in wet conditions, but we trust it, and want to make it available for those who prefer this option.

Finally, there is higher fill power down available on the market: 950fp-1000fp! We’ve learned that quilts and sleeping bags filled with those higher fp downs may not be able to withstand the rigors of a long outing while retaining proper loft and warmth. This is because those larger, more delicate plumes are more easily weighed down by moisture and dirt, which can commonly build up over time in the backcountry. Add daily compression when that delicate down is damp, and the loss of loft could be sped up. It’s one of those details where it is important to find a good balance between weight savings and function.

Before Setting Up Camp

Investing in a quilt appropriate for your idea of outdoor fun can involve a lot of decisions, not to mention building out an entire kit. It turns out that a lot of stuff can fit into a small backpack! We’ve found that asking questions goes a long way to finding the right match for you. If you find any of your questions unanswered, or just want to confirm a few things, email us at info@katabaticgear.com, or give us a call at 719-207-4552. Sleep well, be well.