Everything You Need To Know About Top Quilts

What Is a Top Quilt?

A top quilt (or backpacking quilt) is an ultralight backpacker’s dream. Think of it as the ultimate minimalist sleeping bag. In a sense, a top quilt is a sleeping bag without all of the extra weight. It has an open back, no hood, and no zippers. This allows a top quilt to shave ounces and sometimes even pounds compared to a sleeping bag of the same temperature range. 

Top quilts were originally designed for hammock campers. This is because a hammock camper will typically have an under quilt hanging underneath their hammock keeping their underside warm. This allows them to use a top quilt inside of the hammock that does not have a back since the warmth for their backside will be coming from the quilt underneath them. In today’s backpacking world top quilts are becoming ever more popular for ground sleepers. Ground sleepers are switching to top quilts for the lighter weight, saving space, and versatility.

If you are new to top quilts, you probably have questions about the logistics. I will discuss how to use them and stay warm, the pros and cons of quilts vs bags, and many other frequently asked questions. 

How to use a Top Quilt on the Ground and Stay Warm?

Top quilts are the ultimate ultralight sleep system when you know how to use them. Although they require a learning curve, the benefits are worth the effort. There are a few key factors and steps to follow to correctly use a top quilt. While top quilts can be very versatile by allowing you to use them as a blanket, sleep with a leg out when it gets too hot, etc., you need to know how to stay warm in a top quilt when approaching temperatures near your top quilt’s comfort rating. 


Ensure you have an insulated sleeping pad rated for the proper temperature range:

Since top quilts have an open back it is vital that you are using a proper sleeping pad. Your sleeping pad should be rated to the same temperature range as your quilt or warmer. For example, if you have a 15 degree top quilt your pad should be rated with an R-Value of 3.5 or higher. 


Know how to use your pad straps:

Every company provides different pad straps. So the focus will be on OV pad straps in this section, but the same principles apply. Our straps are designed with a loop/opening that will slide around your pad. After you have slid your straps around your pad, slide the buckles on the strap to your desired location. The closer they are to one another, the tighter your quilt will be around you. After you have done this, buckle the quilt into the corresponding straps on your pad. You have now attached your quilt to your pad thus preventing drafts. (I buckle one side of my quilt to my pad, slide it into the quilt and wrap it around me to buckle the other side, but you can do what works best for you.)

There are also many videos on youtube showing how to use pad straps for backpacking quilts. Check out this brief demonstration in the video below: 4 Tips to Stay Warm in Top Quilts


Bring Something to keep your head warm:


Since your top quilt does not have a hood, you will need to bring something to cover your head. I recommend a down beanie or balaclava, but you can just bring your favorite winter cap depending on the temperature.

Please note that if you do bring just a beanie or winter cap, you will not have any coverage around your neck or face.  In colder temperatures, a balaclava would be the best option. 

That being said, not all balaclavas are equal! It's best to have one that adjusts to fit your head. However, to do so, some designs have plastic adjustment hardware right on the back, so when you lay down it pokes into the back of your head

To avoid this, check out our new LoftTek™ Hybrid Balaclava! Not only is it more comfortable, but the insulation itself is moisture resistant, meaning that if you've got that thing cinched tight and you're breathing into it all night, the condensation won't cause the insulation to fail (unlike down, which would collapse and stop insulating!)  


Cinch and button your draft collar:

Once you have climbed inside your top quilt and put on your cap it is now time to cinch and button the draft collar around your neck. This will prevent drafts from entering through the head opening on your quilt. 

For More information on these tips check out this video by clicking on the video below.

Top Quilts Vs Sleeping Bags?

So what are the pros and cons of top quilts when compared head to head against a typical down sleeping bag?

Pros of a top quilt:

  • Lightweight and compact: A top quilt will shed ounces and even pounds in your pack all while saving you space as well. This is because a top quilt does not have a hood, has an open back, and is free of zippers. All of these factors amount to huge weight savings and allow a quilt to compress much smaller than your typical sleeping bag. 
  • More versatile: A top quilt is a very versatile piece of gear, especially when it comes to covering a wide variety of temperature ranges on the trail. Since you are not zipped into a top quilt it is very easy to vent when you get too hot. You can easily create airflow or sleep with a leg out, or even drape the quilt over you like a blanket. But when those cold nights come you can cinch the quilt down and prevent all of those freezing drafts, keeping you toasty warm all night. 
  • Reduced Cost: Since there are fewer materials used in the making of a top quilt you can usually find them at a cheaper cost compared to a similar sleeping bag. This makes it great for backpacking on a Budget. 

Cons of a top quilt:

  • Potential Drafts: If a top quilt is not used correctly you could be bothered by drafts during the night. If you cinch your top quilt down as described above in the section, How To Use a Top Quilt and Stay Warm? Then you should not have to worry about drafts. But it is more likely to encounter drafts while using a top quilt vs a sleeping bag. 
  • You will need something to keep your head warm: Since there is no hood on a top quilt, you will need something warm and lightweight to keep your head warm at night. I recommend a down balaclava for its outstanding warmth to weight ratio.

Pros of a sleeping bag:

  • Fewer Drafts (Potentially): Although you can prevent drafts almost as well by using the right top quilt, it is still easier to prevent drafts using a sleeping bag as it accomplishes this without any special setup. 
  • Ease of Use/Simplicity: Sleeping bags for most people are familiar and comfortable. They are simple to use while top quilts can have a small learning curve. 
  • Hood is attached: Having the hood attached is an advantage as it makes keeping your head warm at night much easier. This is very important as you lose most of your body heat through the head area and opening of the sleeping bag. 

Cons of a Sleeping Bag:

  • Heavier: Sleeping bags can weigh more than a pound heavier than their quilt counterparts. For those of you that have done long-distance hikes or even smaller weekend backpacking trips, you know that every ounce/pound counts. 
  • Less Compact: A sleeping bag will take up a lot more space in your pack, especially if you are going on longer trips or are a thru-hiker. Saving space is a key component in deciding what Sleep system to use, plus more space in your backpack leaves more room for snacks. (the most important item on the trail, in my opinion).
  • Price: A high-quality sleeping bag is usually going to cost more than a comparable top quilt. This is because sleeping bags require more materials. So going to a quilt may help you not break the bank. 


Something to Remember:

Regardless of if you are using a bag or a top quilt, You will NEED an insulated pad:

 Your sleep system is only as warm as your weakest link. You could have a 0 degree top quilt or sleeping bag, but still, get cold in the ’20s or ’30s if you are using an under-insulated pad. Although this problem also applies to sleeping bags it is much more of a concern when using a quilt. 

For more information on top quilts vs sleeping bags check out this video:


Why Use a Top Quilt?

Top quilts are an amazingly versatile and ultralight piece of gear. I recommend using a top quilt for your 3 season camping (summer, spring, and fall, and maybe switching to a bag for winter camping) This will save you weight, space, and leave you that ever-important room for more snacks on the trail. A top quilt will make an excellent addition to any backpacker’s loadout. Whether you are a hammock camper or a tenter, a top quilt can become your ultimate ultralight companion helping you to live ultralight.

I believe the biggest reason to use a top quilt is to live and become ultralight. Ultralight not only boils down to the weight in your pack, but is also a way of life. Living ultralight allows you to simplify your life, lighten your pack, and experience life. A top quilt will help you achieve this by allowing you to do more with less. Its versatility and weight savings on your next backpacking trip will allow you to experience the true meaning of living ultralight. 


The Best TopQuilt of 2021:

I couldn’t let you go without telling you about Outdoor Vitals StormLoft™ Down TopQuilt - A quilt designed for ground sleepers first. Outdoor Vitals has designed it to be more approachable to those who have never used a top quilt. This quilt will help keep you warm at night by eliminating drafts, give you extra room in the shoulder and torso area, and lighten your pack. They added a larger boxed draft collar and tapered the top of the quilt, a new design that will prevent drafts on those colder nights and give you peace of mind when switching to a quilt or improving the ability to eliminate drafts from your current quilt. 


The Quilt’s redesign includes:

  • Boxed Draft Collar
  • Tapered Design to eliminate drafts
  • Extra fill for warmth
  • 2 locations for straps in the back to seal you to your pad. 
  • Sealed foot box to designed to fit the shape of your feet and legs while sleeping. 

Check out this podcast to deeper understand our new top quilt: Just click below or find Ep 53 on our podcast site.

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Living Ultralight is not just about the lowest pack weight. It's about more enjoyable experiences!

Tayson Whittaker