The first three stages of my camping gear life were 1) Whatever I Can Afford, 2) Obsessively Cutting Weight, and 3) The Heck With Lightweight, I Want Comfort. Now I’m in the fourth and hopefully final stage: Lightweight, Comfortable, and Smart. Which is what brought me at long last to quilts.
Like most campers, 99.9 percent of my overnights have taken place in sleeping bags. Even a lot of my van and car camping took place in sleeping bags. Quilts were over the horizon, used by alpinists and seriously obsessive gram shavers. But sleeping bags come with penalties. The restriction of moment is the big one, especially if you’re a wiggler and sprawler. There’s also the “extra” weight of the bottom of the bag. Most of a bag’s insulating properties come from the loft of the down or synthetic; when you compress that insulation by laying on it, you eliminate most of the air pockets that hold heat. More important for bottom thermal comfort is the insulation, or R-Value, of your sleeping pad.
Summers have gotten hotter, as you might have noticed, and this year I picked up a warm-weather system from Sea to Summit, matching the Ember Ultralight Down Quilt 35º (20 ounces) with the Etherlight XT Air pad (14 ounces). As someone who typically sleeps cold, 30ish is the warmest bag rating I use, even in the summer, and the pad has a miniscule R-Value of 1.2. This is a summer setup pure and simple, but there are plenty of warmer quilt and pad options from Sea to Summit, as well as lots of other brands.
Immediately upon using the quilt, I discovered all kinds of things that you know but you really know when you’re actually using the system. The first is that a quilt is way more versatile. Campfire blanket? Check. Wiggle around underneath it? Check. Stick out an arm, a leg, or all four appendages to cool off? Check, check, and check. The Ember has given everything I hoped it would for comfort and warmth-and blissful sleep.
What makes it-or any other camping quilt-work is how it integrates with the pad. You might think that a camping quilt is a simple rectangle that can slide off as you sleep. In fact, most quilts have some form of footbox. The Ember uses a drawstring and snap, which secure the quilt around the end of the pad and over your feet. I experienced no drafts and found the footbox to be every bit as warm and effective as one on a sleeping bag. If you want to wrap the quilt around your shoulders, simply uncinch and unsnap the footbox and you have your rectangle back.
The Ember also comes with thin straps that attach to the sides of the quilt and slide under the pad to keep everything in place. These are removable, but it seems pointless to detach them as you’ll spend much of the night trying to keep the lightweight nylon shell over your body. Far better to use the system as intended and stick a limb or two out when you need to cool off.
This quilt-most quilts-does not have a hood. Sea to Summit assumes some practicality on the part of its customers, who no doubt own at least one beanie to keep their head warm. If you do want something approaching a traditional sleeping system, Zenbivy makes a “bed” that slips a hood atop your pad.
The only beef that I have with a quilt system (and this is true of all of them) is that you sleep directly on the pad. Sea to Summit’s Etherlight XT has one of the brand’s softest pad shells, but it’s still slippery and anti-cozy and I did not enjoy it against my skin. (Thermarest, to their credit, acknowledges you might not like that skin/pad interface.) There’s a simple solution, though it adds cost and weight: Use a fitted sheet on your pad. STS offers one made with Coolmax for $30 and Thermarest has one that ranges $40 to $60. Both add about five ounces to your kit, but before my next backpack I’ll definitely be buying the Coolmax version.
Should there be a quilt in your future? I wouldn’t dump a perfectly good sleeping bag in favor of a quilt, but if you’re shopping for a new bag or have a hole in your kit that needs filling, I’d give it a good look. You could pick up a warmer quilt like the Ember 20º and mate it with progressively higher R-Value pads, giving you three- and even four-season options. I love the freedom of movement and the versatility around camp-with a fitted sheet, it will be ideal.