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M Crazy for Quilts – How Quilts Became My Sleep System of Choice, PLUS A Review of My Favorite, the Stateless Society Custom Quilt

by Ray Estrella

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Article Summary:

Let me take a moment to explain the reasons and route I took to get to quilts for backpacking. I am a toss-and-turn side-sleeper. It is almost impossible for me to sleep on my back, as it is very uncomfortable and causes me to snore (which then wakes me up). Way back (early 80s), my favorite three-season bag was a Sierra Designs semi-rectangular bag that I used above 40 F / 4 C. I used a TNF Cat's Meow bag down to 30 F / -1 C, and at the time I did not backpack in temps lower than that.

After my travel on the hilly Road of Life, I found myself in a great job situation and a state of lessened family responsibilities. So I jumped hard back into backpacking, extending it to winter and eventually mountaineering too. I made the move to 100% down for my sleeping bags and started discovering how to cut weight and volume with better gear (much to the delight of REI and its ilk). My only problem came in the sleeping department.

The warmest bags were (and still are) mummy bags, which are made to be slept in on one's back. But many of the best and lightest bags (750 fill being top-end at the time) used variable fill schemes with less down on the back/bottom, as the pad provides much of the insulation there anyway. For side sleeping I could roll the bag with me and have a cold back, or turn inside the bag and suffocate in the hood.

I went through a period of using Big Agnes integrated bags, as their larger cuts were very comfortable, and I really liked the idea of just doing away with the bottom fill of the bag to save weight. The hood was still pretty much useless for me, and much of a bag's rating comes from being able to seal the bag. Plus as I kept working towards the Light(weight Holy Grail, that is) the bigger styles were too heavy, and their higher quality fill bags were too tight for side sleeping, as they pulled tight against the shoulders and hip since they were locked to the pad.

Back in 2003 I had purchased Mukluks for winter backpacking from Nunatak USA and saw Tom's line of Arc quilts. While they intrigued me, I just could not justify the price for something I may not even have liked, so they just stayed in the back of my mind. Then GoLite came out with the Ultra 20, which I found on sale, so I gave it a try. While the Ultra 20 did not perform up to its rating for me, the comfort of a true quilt blew me away. Eureka! (I must say that the latest quilts from GoLite are much better than the first generation. I bought both my children UltraLite 3s, as they like quilts too.)

I bought my first custom quilt soon after, a mostly stock Arc Alpinist with an Epic footbox to prevent a wet foot. That worked so well, with such low weight and and low volume for the amount of warmth and comfort, that I took the plunge, selling every sleeping bag I owned (I lived in two states and had bags in both) with a rating warmer than 0 F / -18 C (sold one of them, too) to finance the purchase of two more quilts with a bit more customization. Once I got them, I haven't used a sleeping bag again outside of deep winter or testing commitments. You could say that I am hooked.

I have now spent many nights below freezing with my quilts - even down to 0 F / -18 C, and I may get lower this winter. Once I get below freezing, I do like to use straps to keep the quilt wrapped around my body and to keep openings from bleeding off my precious heat. A high R-value pad is imperative, and I find a wider one helps a lot to keep the quilt in place with my bent-leg style. I also use a down balaclava with my cold weather quilts to keep my head as warm as the rest of me.

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