Ultralight quilt as an alternative for mummy sleeping bag

Lightening Your Load: A Guide to Ultralight Sleep Systems

As an enthusiastic ultralight backpacker, I’m always on the lookout for ways to lighten my pack without sacrificing comfort or warmth (too much). One area where there has been a significant innovation and change in attitude of my fellow outdoor lovers over the past few years is in lightweight sleep systems. Gone are the days when the traditional mummy bag was the only option. I still feel claustrophobic thinking back to some nights all twisted and sweaty in my mummy bag. Today, we have a variety of more unconventional sleep systems that cater to different needs and preferences. Here’s an overview of these alternatives to the mummy bag (which still has it’s use though) and how you can make the most of them on your next adventure.

Mummy bag, be gone!!

Some years ago, if you wanted a lightweight sleep system, your choices were pretty limited to the conventional mummy bag, maybe you would find a hoodless one, weighing a little less. These bags, known for their snug fit and less optimal warmth-to-weight ratio, have long been the go-to for backpackers. However, they often sacrifice comfort for weight savings, but luckily there are some good alternatives.

Today, the landscape is changing. While mummy bags still dominate the “normal outdoor market”, we see more and more backpackers moving towards a quilt. These quilts are more often being made by smaller, niche manufacturers (like Enlightened Equipment). These new designs aim to provide comfort and warmth without the bulk and weight of traditional bags. Despite their slow adoption in the mass market probably mostly based on a lack of understanding and of common expcetance, these systems are gaining traction among ultralight backpackers.

Why Consider a “non conventional” Sleep Systems?

Unconventional sleep systems, such as quilts, top bags, and wearable bags, offer several advantages over traditional mummy bags:

  1. Weight Savings: By eliminating unnecessary layers and focusing on essential insulation, these systems can significantly reduce pack weight. In a mummy you are basically compressing a lot of nice insulation.
  2. Flexibility: Many unconventional sleep systems allow for greater movement and customization. For example, quilts can be paired with different clothing layers to dial in comfort for varying conditions.
  3. Innovative Design: New ways of insulating, new and lighter materials, all these things can help create a lighter and hopefully better sleeping “system” (whether it is a bag, quilt or something else)

What alternatives are there for a traditional mummy sleeping bag.

  1. Quilts: Quilts are more and more common and offer a versatile and lightweight option for backpackers. Unlike mummy bags, quilts lack a bottom layer, relying on your sleeping pad for insulation. This design reduces weight and allows for more freedom of movement. Quilts are particularly popular among side sleepers who find mummy bags too restrictive.
  2. Top Bags: These are similar to quilts but include a bottom layer with no insulation, reducing weight while providing a bit more structure than a quilt. Top bags often feature straps or sleeves to secure the bag to your sleeping pad, preventing you from rolling off during the night.
  3. Wearable Bags: These hybrid designs combine a sleeping bag with insulated clothing. You sometimes see this in the form of a sleeping bag for just your legs (elephants foot) in combination with an insulated down jacket. Wearable bags can have openings for your arms and legs, allowing you to wear them around camp. They can save weight by eliminating the need for separate insulated clothing, although they might not be as warm or comfortable as dedicated sleeping bags and clothing. These are not my cup of tea yet.

Get the most out of your ultralight sleeping kit

To get the most out of your unconventional sleep system, consider the following tips:

  1. Insulation Control: Learn to roll inside your quilt rather than with it to avoid cold spots and drafts. This habit helps maintain consistent insulation around your body. This takes some time getting used to if you are new to a quilt, but after a few nights you will get the hang of it.
  2. Draft Control: Use insulating clothing, a bivy sack, or an insulated balaclava to manage drafts and boost warmth. Combining these elements with a quilt or top bag can significantly enhance your sleep system’s performance.
  3. Pad Control: So often overlooked, a good (and insulating) sleep pad is essential in combination with a quilt. Ensure your sleeping pad is adequate for the conditions (and has a sufficient R-value). For colder temperatures, consider using a thicker or higher R-value pad to prevent heat loss to the ground.
  4. Mind Control: In unexpected cold conditions, staying still and meditating can help conserve heat. I am not a rockstar in that, so for me, simple tricks like using a hot water bottle (fill up your Nalgene with some hot water) or a heat pad is an easy way to warm up the bag and stay a bit more toasty. You could also do some exercises (jumping jacks) and get warm and straight into bed, but that does not always work for me. Eating high-fat foods before bed can also help you stay warm.

In conclusion

Unconventional sleep systems like quilts and top bags are a promising and often much lighter and more packable alternative to traditional mummy bags for ultralight backpackers. By understanding and optimizing these systems, you can enjoy a lighter, more flexible sleep setup that meets your needs in various conditions. Whether you’re out for a short micro-adventure in your local forest or hiking through the mountains, knowing how to use your quilt in combination with other items (to keep you warm and toasty or cooler at night) can definitely enhance your backcountry experience, providing comfort and warmth without the weight.

Happy trails and sweet dreams under the stars!