The Case for Quilts

by Andy Dappen

There are a few things that I do really well –I can eat and breathe with the best. But when life gets complicated, say when it’s time to get some sleep, I’m conspicuously incompetent. I squirm when confined, yet feel vulnerable when uncovered. My legs fidget if I’m a few degrees too warm, yet my toes turn to ice if they’re a few degrees too cold. And no side of my body is comfortable for long – I’m happiest on my stomach but spend much of the night on a rotisserie revolving from stomach to side to back to stomach. With all these quirks, sleeping outdoors in a backpacking mummy bag (a sleeping bag best suited to quiet back sleepers) doesn’t really qualify as sleeping. A night outside in such a cocoon is a purgatory of rest rather than the heaven of sleep.

Left: Vesper 32F by Therm-A-Rest.  Right: Nitro 20F by Sierra Design.

In truth, my sleep issues are not unusual. According to the American Sleep Association, 20 percent of Americans suffer from a sleep disorder (e.g., restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy). Meanwhile, WebMD reports 63 percent of us are side sleepers, 16 percent are stomach sleepers, and only 14 percent are back sleepers. All of which means the standard mummy bag serves a distressingly small sliver of those of us who sleep in the wilds.

Whether you’re a sleeper, like me, who wrestles with many comfort issues or are one of the majority who is not a back sleeper, I have two recommendations that will make a monumental difference in giving you a good night’s sleep outdoors.

First: Invest in a full-length, high-quality backpacking air mattress that prevents ankles, knees, hips and shoulders from grounding out. The best backpacking air mattresses are completely different animals than department store air mattresses — they provide the comfort of air mattresses but use either interior insulation or a honeycomb of interior baffles to stabilize the air inside the tubes. By so doing, these mattresses use the trapped air as an insulator preventing heat loss to the ground. And if you’re losing less heat to the ground, you don’t need as heavy a sleeping bag over top to stay warm.

For three-season use a good backpacking mattress should weigh under a pound and have an R-value of at least 3. For winter use or for sleeping on snow, look for a mattress with an R-value greater than 5 and weighing about a pound. The state of the art in backpacking mattresses that are comfortable, lightweight, and warm are made by Therm-A-Rest with their line of NeoAir sleeping pads and by Exped with their line of Synmats and Downmats. In the Therm-A-Rest line, check out the Xlite (12 ounces, 4.2 R-value, $185) and the XTherm (15 ounces. 6.9 R-value, $215). In the Exped line, look at the Downmat HL Winter M (17 ounces, 7.1 R-value, $230) and the Synmat HL Winter M (15.3 ounces, 5.2 R-value, $179).

The topping over this foundation is where restless sleepers, stomach sleepers, side sleepers, and rolling sleepers should seriously consider ditching the standard mummy bag familiar to most of us. Instead, they should consider a backpacker’s quilt. With a quilt there is no sleeping bag under the body (except in the foot box), so as you roll from side to side, you move underneath a cover that’s similar to the blanket on a bed. Gone are the issues of getting knotted inside your bag or of waking in a suffocation panic because your face is trapped inside the twisted mess of your cocoon. Gone are the days of sleeping outdoors in a position that’s different than your natural position at home. Gone are the nights of being more awake than asleep in the outdoors.

Good backpacking quilts are designed with the assumption that elbows may be splayed out next to the sleeper’s head (stomach sleeping) or that hips may be at right angles to the mattress (side sleeping). Such products give you more space where you need it yet eliminate material, insulation, and weight where you don’t need it (e.g., between the body and sleeping pad where it gets squashed). The redistribution of materials in quilts makes them more comfortable; it also makes them slightly lighter than mummy bags of comparable warmth.

Attaching the Vesper 32F Long quilt to a NeoAir XTherm sleeping pad. Loops attached to both the quilt and sleeping pad (see below) facilitate this coupling and keep heat-losing gaps from opening between the quilt and pad.

I’ve been using a backpacking quilt for over five years now and it’s my go-to choice whenever the expected nighttime temperatures are above its comfort rating (30-degrees F). The main down side of the quilt falls under what might be called ‘fiddle factor’. First, to get the maximum heat retention from my quilt, I needed to fiddle with the quilt at home to establish six places where its edges clip to the perimeter of my sleeping pad. These clip points eliminate gaps that might open up between the sleeping pad and the quilt as I thrash around. Because of these connection points, there’s also two or three minutes of fiddling in the field when I prepare my bed at night and in the morning when I unclip the quilt from the pad and pack everything away for the coming day of backpacking/climbing/skiing). For me those extra minutes of fiddling translate into hours of better sleep.

Over the past six months I’ve tested two new quilts with higher-quality down and design features than the original quilt that converted me to this mode of sleeping. While there seem to be quite a number of good quilts produced by small, specialty companies, I was attracted to these particular quilts because they are manufactured by mainstream outdoor companies and are, therefore, more generally available to the readers of this article. The tested quilts were:

Each of the tested quilts comes from a line of quilts and can be purchased with more or less insulation to cover warmer or colder temperature ranges. Within the Therm-A-Rest line, the Vesper 45F ($280), the Vesper 32F ($320), or the Vesper 20F ($370) are the available choices. And within the Sierra Designs line, buyers can choose between the Nitro 35F ($250) or the Nitro 20F ($280). Also, note that the temperature ratings of quilts, like the temperature ratings of sleeping bags, is subjective and that few users will actually be comfortable at the stated minimum temperatures unless they sleep with some clothing on (e.g., socks, long underwear top and bottoms, hat, and maybe even a coat) – a recommended practice among the ultralight crowd trying to minimize the weight of their sleeping bag.  Finally both these products use treated, hydrophobic down, which compared to untreated down, is much slower to wet-out and lose its insulating properties.

Both of the tested quilts proved to be impressive performers and delivered a high degree of warmth and comfort in a package that packed down into stuff sacks about the size and weight of a bag of bagels. The Therm-A-Rest Vesper 32 F, with its 900-fill down, and 10D nylon rip-stop lining fabric felt particularly feathery for the warmth it provided. The girths around the shoulders, hips, and knees hit sweet spots of not confining restless sleepers while not creating wasted space the body must heat. The quilt uses two elastic straps (easily removed if desired) that run under a sleeping pad, anchor the quilt in place, and reduce the formation of heat-losing gaps between the quilt and the pad. For most users this reduces the fiddle factor described above – in about a minute you can slide the sleeping pad into position and have your bed ready to go. In my own case as a thrasher, my homemade system of gluing loops to my sleeping pad and coupling these with a half-dozen clips sewn to the perimeter of the quilt does a better job of anchoring the quilt and eliminating heat-leaking gaps as I roll around. Consequently, even with this quilt I was left with same amount of fiddling getting it ready for use as well as using it in the field. (Note: see picture below for details on my method of securing quilts to pads.)

For my own sleeping comfort, I often unconsciously cover my head with the quilt as temperatures drop at night. This keeps me warm without waking up to readjust my bedding. With the Vesper it was immediately apparent that, for my 6-foot frame, the ‘regular’ size was too short to accommodate the way I sleep. Even though the manufactured claimed ‘Regular’ was the correct size for me, I upsized to the ‘Long,” which was perfect for me but may seem short for someone taller than 6’2”. Interestingly with the Sierra Design Nitro, the regular size was perfect for the way I sleep. That, however, might seem overly long and roomy for someone who is 5’6”. Moral: how you sleep may not match the manufacturer’s thoughts about sizing, so try before you buy.

Regarding the Sierra Designs Nitro 20 F, the length, width, size and design of the foot box were within an inch or two of the Vesper Long dimensions, meaning that it, too, hit the sweet spot for not being overly confining while eliminating unnecessary volume. The 800-fill-DriDown is still of extremely high quality but is slightly less lofty than the Vesper and requires slightly more down for comparable warmth. Likewise, the shell and lining material of the Nitro is 15D rip-stop nylon, making it slightly heavier (but also more robust) than the Vesper.

The Nitro has a few unique design touches I appreciated. It sports hand pouches positioned along the upper perimeter of the quilt so you can flap out the quilt like a flying squirrel if you want to jump from a cliff (unlikely) or wrap the bag snugly around your body while sitting or sleeping (likely). It also has a balaclava-like slot for your face if you’re on your back, have the quilt pulled over your head for maximum warmth, yet want your face exposed to fresh air. This keeps your breath from wetting out the insulation around the top of the quilt. The slot self-seals when you pull out your head and roll onto your stomach.

Out of the box, the Nitro does not come with any form of attachment system to secure it to a sleeping pad, so the Vesper wins points here if you’re not willing/able to fabricate your own attachment system. If you’re willing to tinker to create the attachment system recommended below, then the two quilts score a draw here.

How did each of these quilts do at the lower ends of their temperature range? First let me clarify how subjective temperature ratings are. I sleep warmer than average while my wife is the opposite, so on autumn trips where nighttime temperatures might dip into the mid to high twenties I’ll sleep comfortably in a 20-degree sleeping bag wearing thin long underwear while my wife may be a little cold in a 0-degree bag wearing her coat. With that said, on a 65-mile hike through the Pasayten Wilderness this summer, I camped several nights in meadows that frosted over and formed a layer of ice inside the water bottles outside of the tent. Temperatures inside the tent were slightly above freezing and inside the Vesper 32 I slept comfortably, oblivious of the cold, wearing thin socks, silk-weight long underwear bottoms, a mid-weight shirt, and a thin hat. I would have easily been comfortable using the quilt in temperatures in the high 20s wearing the down sweater I had brought along.

The coldest temperatures I encountered while testing the Nitro 20F came during a four-day ski tour circumnavigating the Daniel-Hinman Massif in early May. Several nights we slept on snow and temperatures inside our shelter dipped a little below freezing as indicated by the ice that formed in my water bottle. Again, I was comfortable wearing thin socks, silk-weight underwear bottom, a mid-weight shirt and a hat. Wearing a down sweater and heavier socks would have kept me comfortable at the quilt’s 20-degree rating. All this being said, I’m confident my wife would have trouble staying warm, even with lots of clothing on, using either quilt at the bottom end of the stated comfort range.

In the end I confidently recommend either line of quilts to anyone wanting to sleep outdoors more comfortably and wanting to shave weight from their sleeping kit in the process. The Sierra Design Nitro quilts are arguably the better value for the cost-conscious buyer. They also have a few useful design features (hand slots for wrapping the quilt around the body and face slot for back sleeping) the Vesper lacks. Meanwhile, the Vesper will be worth the extra expenditure to ounce counters — compared to the Nitro, the Vesper trims 5 ounces of fat for a quilt rated to 32 degrees and 7 ounces for a quilt rated to 20 degrees F. Also, the Vesper’s out-of-the-box ability to functionally mate with any sleeping pad will benefit buyers who are not fiddlers.


A tested quilt-pad attachment system for maximum heat retention

A tested attachment system. Top picture shows one of six loops permanently glued (using Seam Grip) around the perimeter of the bottom of the sleeping pad. Bottom picture shows one of 6 loops sewn around the perimeter of the quilt that take a clip and then mate with the loops on the sleeping pad.

1.Use Seam Grip to attach (glue) two-inch-long loops (made from 4 inches of 1 mm cord) to the perimeter of the bottom side of your sleeping pad in 6 places — two on either side of the pad’s foot area, two on either side of the pad’s middle (around your hip sockets), and two on either side of where your shoulders contact the pad.

2.Sew 1-inch-long loops (made from 2 inches of 1mm cord) to the perimeter of your quilt that line up with the loops you’ve attached to the bottom of your pad.  Note: measure twice, sew once.

3.Attach clips to the loops around the perimeter of your quilt. In the field, snap these clips to the loops glued to the perimeter of your sleeping pad.


For more about quilts and a review of other models, see this review. For more information on Seam Grip see our Better Than Tape article.

This post was originally published on 11/16/2020.

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