Sleeping bags make up one of the “big 3” pieces of camping gear for a bikepacking trip. Along with your sleeping mat, they are the main source of warmth overnight. But what if there was another option? I’m a big fan of using backpacking quilts on a bikepacking trip, and I hope that after going through all the reasons I love them, you’ll agree.
Backpacking quilts are a great option for bikepacking. They are lightweight, easily packed into a small bag, and work well in all but the lowest temperatures. If you are bikepacking in any conditions where the temperature is above 40°F (5°C), then a backpacking quilt is likely a better choice than a sleeping bag.
So, we’ve established that I’m an advocate for using backpacking quilts on bikepacking trips, but why is that? I’ll take a look at all the reasons I’m on team backpacking quilt, as well as walk you through the situations where they might not be the best choice!
What is a backpacking quilt and how is it different from a sleeping bag?
A backpacking quilt is an alternative to a sleeping bag. They are used most commonly by backpackers who are trying to pack light.
You use a quilt in the same way you would use your sleeping bag to keep you warm in your tent at night.
The main difference between a sleeping bag and a quilt is that a quilt has no back to it, compared to the sleeping bag which is fully enclosed.
Quilts use the sleeping mat underneath you to act as the floor of your sleeping system.
Sleeping mats are designed to keep you insulated and quilts look to take advantage of this.
A quilt also does not have the hood of a sleeping bag, leaving your head more exposed.
The final main difference between a quilt and a sleeping bag is that quilts allow you to open the “foot box” at the bottom of the sleeping bag, this means they can be unfurled into the shape of a large blanket.
Basically, a quilt is just a duvet or blanket that you might use at home but is designed to be used outdoors.
Backpacking quilts have become more popular over recent years among “ultralight backpackers”, and with this has come more questions about their use in bikepacking.
How do you use a backpacking quilt?
Backpacking quilts are used as you would imagine. In the same way that you would use a quilt at home, simply lie on top of your sleeping pad and lay the quilt on top of you.
Quilts also come with clips that can be used to wrap around your sleeping pad. This stops them from moving around at night and helps to stop drafts from coming in under the quilt.
Quilts can be used in more ways than a typical sleeping bag, with the lack of a fully enclosed sleeping bag allowing you to move around more, for example sticking a leg out or opening the footboy so that you can use it as a blanket around camp.
You can use a quilt in almost any situation you would use a sleeping bag, but should you? What are the advantages or disadvantages of a backpacking quilt?
What are the advantages of a backpacking quilt?
Backpacking quilts firstly are great for those that move around a lot at night. The quilt can strap directly around your sleeping pad to keep it in place, however when you toss and turn at night, the quilt won’t get twisted around you as a sleeping bag would.
Another advantage of a quilt over a sleeping bag is its versatility. Being able to open up the footboy and completely unravel the quilt into a blanket can be great on those bikepacking trips where you will be spending a lot of time sitting around camp. Being able to use it as a blanket while sitting around a campfire is a nice bonus.
Being made from less material and not requiring additional features such as zips, quilts are typically lighter than their sleeping bag counterparts.
While this difference is not as obvious when comparing sleeping bags and quilts at the highest-end budgets, in the mid-range and budget categories, you’ll get a much lighter quilt than a sleeping bag for the same price.
It’s in this mid and budget range, where sleeping bags use heavier fabrics, and full-length zips, and require more material in general, which has a large impact on their overall weight.
Weight is obviously an important factor when it comes to cycling, but can be especially important on a bikepacking trip, especially any trip where you might have to push or carry your bike for a section.
Quilts have become more and more capable of keeping you warm at low temperatures as manufacturers have discovered ways of producing higher-quality down that is lighter weight and more packable.
Nowadays it is definitely possible to get a quilt that will keep you warm down to 30°F (0°C).
However, one of the main advantages of a quilt is its versatility. When it is warm in the middle of summer, you can have the quilt completely open like a blanket and just partially cover yourself.
At other times you can keep the foot box zipped up but not use the straps, and finally, you can use the warmest options to zip up the footboy and strap the quilt to the sleeping pad.
Not only do you have the option of all of these different variations, but it is easy to transition between the setups at night as the temperature changes.
Pack down size
Quilts typically pack down smaller than sleeping bags, this is obviously one of the main advantages of using a quilt compared to a sleeping bag for bikepacking.
Quilts don’t have zippers which is one of the key reasons they are able to pack down to a much smaller volume.
On any bikepacking or bike touring trip, the limited carrying capacity you have is precious.
The average bikepacker will take between 30-40 liters of gear with them on a trip, if you consider that a budget sleeping bag can take up to 20% of this space, you realize how much of a benefit a quilt could offer.
What are the disadvantages of a backpacking quilt?
With so many advantages to sleeping quilts, why doesn’t everyone use them?
While a sleeping bag is fully enclosed, quilts are not. While this is one of the reasons they can provide so much versatility, it does come with its drawbacks.
Drafts can occur when using a backpacking quilt and can be most noticeable at very low temperatures. They will be more common for those people that move around a lot in their sleep.
Sleeping quilts do come with elastic straps to attach the quilt to your sleeping pad, but some people find that even with these attached, they will let in more cold air than a sleeping bag would.
The lack of a hood
The lack of a hood on a quilt may not be a problem for everyone, particularly if you plan to use them in warmer weather.
However, if you are planning to use them in lower temperatures you will take the lack of a hood into account, making sure to pack insulation for your head such as a hat or a jacket with a hood.
Humans lose a lot of their heat through their heads, it’s important to make sure you keep your head covered if you’re sleeping somewhere that it might get cold overnight.
Not as effective at temperatures less than 30°F (0°C)
I’d say the sleeping bag is not the best place to save weight, and most bike tourists could save weight in a variety of cheaper ways.
How warm you are going to be will depend on your definition of “cold weather touring.” Quilts with appropriate insulation are going to be fine down to freezing. Below freezing, drafts will start to become a problem, and you will also need to bring an insulated balaclava or wear a jacket with an insulated hood.
People lose a lot of heat through their heads, so this is a very important consideration when using quilts at lower temperatures.
Sleeping directly on your sleeping mat
While it may sound weird, some people really do not like the feeling of sleeping with their back directly on their sleeping pad.
The plastic feeling is very uncomfortable for some people. While this can be overcome with sleeping pad liners, this extra piece of gear you need to take with you can take away some of the befits you gained by taking a more lightweight and compact option.
Should you use a backpacking quilt?
As someone who is lucky enough to own both a quilt and a sleeping bag, I use both frequently. For me, the main consideration is the temperature of my trip.
On warmer summer trips I will almost always reach for my quilt. Being able to have that versatility and temperature control is invaluable on hot nights when my tent can get too hot and sweaty.
On the other hand, I have had some cold nights under a quilt, being woken up by cold drafts, I am more hesitant to use them for cold trips (anything less than 35°F/2°C and I’ll be using a sleeping bag).
If I’m taking a quilt and I know the weather may turn, I make sure to take a good set of base layers with me, this helps to overcome some of the drafts you might feel and I find I sleep better this way.
When we asked bike packers at which temperature would they use a quilt, it appears my preference is quite a popular one. The majority of people using preferring to use quilts between 40°F and 50°F.
We asked those same bike packers how many of them used a sleeping bag or a quilt most often. As you can see, sleeping bags are still much more popular than quilts however this is likely due to sleeping bags’ general popularity.
Are backpacking quilts good for side sleepers?
I fall into that weird category of side sleepers, so I know how important this question is.
Quilts have some advantages for side sleepers, as well as some disadvantages.
First of all, as I sleep on my side I tend to move around more. Quilts are great for this as they don’t trap me as a sleeping bag does.
On top of this, quilts come in very wide options now. My main concern with a quilt was that my bum might stick out of the quilt at night and get cold. However, if you make sure to get a 50″ or 55″ wide quilt then you don’t need to worry about this at all.
I have used smaller quilts though, and in those cases, I did actually notice this happening.
So overall, there’s a risk with side sleepers that you might find part of your body (knees or bum) comes out for the quilt if you are using a thin quilt, but if you manage to get a wide one, they are a great option that provides lots of freedom.
How to add warmth to a backpacking quilt
So we’ve established that quilts are a great option while bikepacking, provided it isn’t too cold. So how can we make a backpacking quilt warmer?
The first thing to do is wear base layers under you the quilt while you are going to bed. This helps to stop any particular bad drafts from hitting your body.
Apart from making sure you are wearing suitable clothing, the other key step to keeping warm with a quilt is to make sure you are insulating your head. Wearing a hat or down hood over your head can really help to keep your warmth in overnight.
Another common tip used by bike packers and campers is to take a Nalgene bottle or hot water bottle with you under the quilt at night. Fill these with boiling water before you go to bed and these will likely stay warm until morning (unless you are in the coldest conditions). These can be great for keeping areas such as your feet and hands warm.
It’s also important to make sure the quilt you have bought is suitable for low temperatures. Some quilts are rated down to 20°F (-7°C), however, these are the most expensive options.
If after you’ve reviewed your quilt for its temperature rating, you should also take a look at the sleeping pad you have. As backpacking quilts have no back to them, they are really of the sleeping mat you are using to provide insulation to your body from the floor. If you have a budget sleeping pad, it is not worth investing in a more expensive quilt as you will still be cold!
If this still isn’t working you can consider adding a second blanket or quilt on top of the quilt you are using. This will add another level of insulation for you overnight, however, is not money or weight-efficient.
Backpacking quilts make a great choice for bikepacking. They have many key advantages such as being lightweight and easily packable while giving great shelter down to all but the lowest temperatures.
I am a big advocate for sleeping quilts, especially in the summer months when the ability to regulate your temperature overnight is invaluable. If you’re thinking about getting a quilt for bikepacking, I’d suggest the Therm-a-Rest Corus 20°F Quilt.