Down quilt: a real alternative to traditional sleeping bags for families*
Sleeping bags are one of the heavier and bulkier items that you need when backpacking. This fact becomes even more of an issue when you are walking with young children, who can’t carry their own equipment yet. This is our sleeping bag story, and review of our current solution, a lightweight down quilt from Enlightened Equipment.
Our first sleeping bags we got, long before we had our son, were synthetic insulation bags (Mountain Equipment firewalker III) if my memory serves. The idea of synthetic insulation is it is quite a lot cheaper than down, and is still warm if it gets wet. We were strongly advised at the time that in the UK this was the best option. These bags had a comfort rating of +10 to -12 oC and weighed 1.8 kg each. The reality we found through use was that these were bulky, heavy, and we often felt cold, even in pretty moderate temperatures.
Lesson Learned 1: Comfort ratings can often be wildly optimistic, although more recently they have got better.
In 2007 we went trekking in Patagonia as part of a year travelling, we were keen to minimise weight so went for a pair of Snugpak travelpak traveller bags (www.snugpak.com). These have a comfort rating of +7 0C, so we knew we were going to be pushing their limits. However, rather than using them as sleeping bags we paired them up with great insulating groundmats and used them as two quilts on top of each other. This worked pretty well for two.
Lesson Learned 2: Most of your heat loss is to the ground not the air when camping. Even more so if the ground is wet – ie the UK! The ground mat you use forms a key part of your sleeping system.
Our third sleeping bag foray was a transition to down bags. We were planning a longer trekking trip in Patagonia, several days from any ‘bail out’ options if it went wrong. We plumbed for some lovely Alpkit sleeping bags – the Skyehigh 600 (www.alpkit.com). These have a comfort rating of -5 0C (and were actually comfortable at that temperature) and had the advantage of being available in left and right zip so we could zip them together. These are great bags, at about 1.3 kg each, and pack down reasonably well. We were very happy with these and were not in a hurry to change.
Lesson Learned 3: Down really is more compressible and warmer for the weight. It also wasn’t hard to look after.
Finally our son arrived on the scene and we were keen to not let this stop us, so we started looking at options. First came the Vango nitestar mini (http://www.vango.co.uk). It is cheap and to be honest our son ended up cold, and snuggled in with us in our bags. Second came a toddler down bag, a MEC explorer down bag (http://www.mec.ca). This is a really high quality bag, just like an adult down bag but scaled down and is great. However we found that keeping our son in it was a problem as he wriggled out during the night, so it would be a constant game of trying to shuffle him back in. There was also the worry of leaks: water plus down does not go together well. Also we were now carrying 3 sleeping bags (over 3.3 kg for the sleeping bags alone), meaning we needed pretty large rucksacks.
Lesson Learned 4: Sleeping bags for toddlers are difficult – when you find one that works, you have to work to keep your little one in it.
The desire to walk further and camp more with our son led us to the quilt option. These are often favoured by ultralight backpackers and from our previous experience we knew that not having a full sleeping bag was not necessarily a problem, given the right ground mats. Also on a toddler specific point, accidents are much less of a worry. With gravity on our side, and the sleeping mats being easy to wipe clean there is very little risk of our quilt getting wet through any night time accidents.
Looking round however, there are limited options. As always there are good options for individuals, some for couples but very few for families. We found two options which we thought might work: the PHD double ultra quilt (www.phdesigns.co.uk) and the Enlightened Equipment Itasca down comforter (www.enlightenedequipment.com). Looking at it more, we decided on the Enlightened Equipment option. It is cheaper, has box wall construction (which minimises cold spots), is a little larger and you can pick a temperature rating. We decided on the 10F (-12 0C) 1.19kg option (a saving of 2.1kg over our previous bags) and even got to pick colours we liked. These quilts are custom made in the USA, so it takes a few weeks before they are ready and of course you may land some import duties when getting them into the UK.
We use our quilt along with three thermarest neoair sleeping mats. (www.cascadedesigns.com/therm-a-rest) for our ground insulation and for comfort.
This combination is proving to be a fantastic, keeping us all warm even when there has been frost outside, and has a total weight for the three of us of 2.3 kg for the quilt and mats. We join the mats together to minimise drafts and also are slowly adding tabs to fix the quilt to the mats around the edges to increase our warmth as we head out of summer.
We love using our down quilt for many reasons. We are not restricted at all like you are in sleeping bags. We can all cuddle up easily which is lovely, particularly in the morning when we get to wake up slow together, and we only have to carry one quilt which weighs less and packs smaller than just one typical down sleeping bag of the same temperature rating. In hindsight I would have asked for some fixing tabs to be sewn into the quilt to make it easier to attach to ground mats, particularly as it is a custom build anyway.
Conclusion: Quilts are fantastic for young families. Thankyou Enlightened Equipment!
Disclaimer: We have not received any support/discount/financial reward from any of the companies named – we are just outdoor enthusiasts who have been searching for the ‘aha’ moment for us.
***Please note: This is a blog that was previously published on another of our blogs Adventurous Little Legs, and linked to an online store we also had. We have closed these both down. All content and pictures remain those of Stacey and Keith at Adventurous Little Legs and An Outdoors Family.