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How to Choose the Best Ultralight Sleeping Bag

There's only one sure way to compare products: side-by-side...and that's what we do. Brandon is getting set to spend half the night in the Western Mountaineering Summerlite (on the right)  and the other half in the Mountain Hardwear Mtn Speed (on the left). We tested several styles of bags  and made sure to compare the most similar models closely. Zipper details make all the difference with these two similar bags.
By Brandon Lampley ⋅ Review Editor
Saturday October 31, 2015

How do you choose the best ultralight sleeping bag for your needs? Are you better off with a closed footbox quilt or a hoodless mummy? Or would a traditional backpacking sleeping bag better meet your needs? After five years of testing and comparing ten of the best feather light products in our Best Ultralight Sleeping Bag Review, we have some advice to make your decision easier.

First, if you're unsure about whether an ultralight product is right for you, our Buying Advice article for traditional backpacking sleeping bags provides a detailed analysis of the categories we test and score. This incredibly thorough overview covers types of insulation, shell fabrics, and construction techniques, as well as different styles of bags and their best uses. If you're unsure about whether an ultralight sleeping bag is right for you, or just want to bone up on construction details, check it out before reading on.

Ultralight Sleeping Bags vs. Backpacking Sleeping Bags


When this author first started backpacking, it was very common to head out on week-long trips with a 50-pound backpack and big ol' heavy boots. It was just the way most folks went about it. But today, not only is there much more advanced gear, but lots of backpackers and climbers recognize how much easier it is on your body to carry a light load. Hard-earned skill and experience are required to safely wander around in the wilderness with a 15-pound pack - but it is so much more comfortable. In addition, if you want to cover a lot of mileage each day or you're carrying your overnight kit up a technical climb, light is right. Plus, a lot of us with the experience to push the limits just want to see how light and fast and far we can go.

If you are new to backpacking, a traditional hooded mummy bag like those found in our backpacking sleeping bag review will likely be your best choice.

On average, the ultralight sleeping bags and quilts we review weigh half of what backpacking sleeping bags weigh but deliver similar warmth. How is that possible? It certainly demands some explanation.

Also be sure to check out our side-by-side review of the Best Ultralight Backpacks!

How can a one-pound sleeping bag be so warm?


Most of the bags we tested use the most advanced lightweight materials and the highest quality insulation. However, the materials are only one key part; how the sleeping bag is used is equally important. Most thru-hikers and alpinists sleep in most or all of their warm clothing on cold nights. Not only are they dressed and ready to go for a pre-dawn start, but they can also get away with a lighter sleeping bag. Ultralight enthusiasts also know how to pick campsites with a warm microclimate or protection from the wind. Ever put in your camp right in the bottom of the valley, only to walk a few hundred feet up the hillside at dawn and realize it's a good 10 degrees warmer up there? Choices like this one can make a huge difference in whether or not you stay warm enough to sleep through the night. Hot drinks before bed and at dawn, a Nalgene full of boiling water to preheat your bag, a set of crunches to ramp up the blood flow to the extremities…these are all tricks we use for a comfy and warm night's sleep.

Brandon stays warm and cozy in the Editors' Choice winning Katabatic Gear Palisade. This innovative quilt uses high-quality materials and a patented sleeping pad attachment system to offer an exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio.
Brandon stays warm and cozy in the Editors' Choice winning Katabatic Gear Palisade. This innovative quilt uses high-quality materials and a patented sleeping pad attachment system to offer an exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio.

Types of Ultralight Sleeping Bags


You might say we're comparing apples and oranges with this range of sleeping bags, but when we researched the best sleeping systems for ultralight backpackers and climbers, several styles of bags and quilts were revealed as top performers.

Quilts with Permanently Closed Footboxes


Quilts with a permanently closed footbox can be thought of as bottomless mummy bags. Attaching a sleeping pad underneath the quilt replaces the insulation and completes the warmth envelope.
Quilts with a permanently closed footbox can be thought of as bottomless mummy bags. Attaching a sleeping pad underneath the quilt replaces the insulation and completes the warmth envelope.

A quilt with a permanently closed footbox is essentially a mummy bag without a hood and without the back side of the bag. A traditional mummy style sleeping bag encloses you completely in a cocoon of insulation, with a hood that covers the head and cinches up around your face. While this time-tested design works well, the insulation on the back side of the bag is compressed underneath you while sleeping and the shell material that holds it is dead weight. A quilt with a closed footbox eliminates this extra weight by cutting away the back entirely. If you opt for this design, you should invest in a good sleeping pad to provide insulation underneath you.

It might be easiest to think of these quilts as bottomless, hoodless bags, as the footboxes enclose your lower legs and feet like a mummy bag. While these products are not as versatile as quilts that can fully open into a blanket, this design can offer the best warmth-to-weight ratio.


We tested three quilts with permanently closed footboxes, including the Katabatic Gear Palisade 30, which took home our Editors' Choice Award for its excellent warmth-to-weight ratio and superior pad attachment system. The roomy Big Agnes Pitchpine UL 45 also has an excellent pad attachment system, and is our Top Pick for Summer Use. It can be paired with a liner to extend the temperature range. And while we quite like the Nemo Equipment Tango Solo, it was on the heavy end of the spectrum. It is an innovative, warm, and comfortable product, and we recommend it for folks prioritizing roominess over weight.

Quilts that Fully Open into Blankets


Quilts that fully open flat are the most versatile ultralight sleeping bags. Close up the footbox and attach to your pad for colder temperatures or open up for summer nights when it's warm.
Quilts that fully open flat are the most versatile ultralight sleeping bags. Close up the footbox and attach to your pad for colder temperatures or open up for summer nights when it's warm.

The most versatile ultralight bags are quilts that can be opened up completely to form a flat blanket, but also have short zippers or snaps to close the foot box for maximum warmth. However, the option to open the footbox means these fully-opening quilts are more capable of adapting to temperatures much warmer temperatures, and they can be a great two-person cover for couples who want to snuggle in warm weather.

We tested three quilts that fully open into blankets, including the Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20, our Best Buy award winner. This is a premium quality quilt at a very affordable price. With its footbox zipped closed and cinched up, it functions much the same as the Editors' Choice winning Palisade; however, the Revelation has the added bonus of also opening into a flat blanket. The Feathered Friends Flicker 40 UL incorporates a full length zipper, and functions as a hoodless mummy when completely zipped up. If you love both the warmth of a hoodless mummy, and the option of a flat quilt, this is the bag for you. The Hammock Gear Burrow 40 is an affordable flat quilt perfect for summer temperatures.

Mummy Bags: Hooded & Hoodless


Closed mummy bags don't offer much in the way of girth adjustment and versatility  but many backpackers prefer the surrounding insulation. These are the best choice for rough bivouacs where you may be sitting to sleep rather than lying down.
Closed mummy bags don't offer much in the way of girth adjustment and versatility, but many backpackers prefer the surrounding insulation. These are the best choice for rough bivouacs where you may be sitting to sleep rather than lying down.

Mummy bags with hoods are what most people think of when they picture a backpacking sleeping bag. They are tapered to save weight and keep you warmer than bags with a rectangular cut. The hoods on these bags can be cinched around the face to keep cold out and seal warmth in. But hoods can be uncomfortable, and they add a lot of weight and construction cost relative to the warmth they deliver. A hoodless mummy paired with your warm hat and often a hooded insulated jacket is more comfortable for most and lighter. As we mentioned above, the biggest downside of mummy bags is that the insulation and shell material are compressed underneath you when you sleep, which means that you're carrying extra weight that doesn't provide great benefit.

Many active sleepers focused on warmth prefer a mummy bag; no matter how much you toss and turn, you will be enclosed in a warm cocoon. For rough bivies where you may be sitting rather than lying down, mummies are the best choice.


We tested two hoodless mummy bags this year. The hoodless ZPacks 20 Degree is incredibly light for a 20F rated bag and it uses a half-length zipper that you can open up for warmer weather. It was an award winner in our previous review and remains one of the top overall scorers. The Feathered Friends Vireo is a unique product in this bunch. The Vireo is designed to pair with a warm down parka, so it incorporates a lot of loft from the waist down but has less on your torso. We awarded it our Top Pick for Alpine Climbing. Finally, we tested two traditional hooded mummies in this year's review, the Western Mountaineering Summerlite and Mountain Hardwear MTN Speed 32. The Summerlite is very popular with thru-hikers, and receives our highest recommendation for those seeking an ultralight hooded mummy. The Mtn Speed is a premium bag, but with a significant drawback: the zipper often snags and can separate. Some folks like this bag so much, they pay the price and have the zipper replaced right from the start.

Best Uses for Ultralight Sleeping Bags


Brandon bivied on the 14 075 ft summit of Missouri Mountain during a scouting trip of the Nolan's 14 traverse. The ZPacks 20 Degree mummy was the critical warmth component of his 11 pound pack for 3 days and 2 nights. A thin base layer  Patagonia R1 Hoody  and Marmot Essence rain jacket were sleeping layers for warmth and daytime action suit.
Brandon bivied on the 14,075 ft summit of Missouri Mountain during a scouting trip of the Nolan's 14 traverse. The ZPacks 20 Degree mummy was the critical warmth component of his 11 pound pack for 3 days and 2 nights. A thin base layer, Patagonia R1 Hoody, and Marmot Essence rain jacket were sleeping layers for warmth and daytime action suit.

Whether you're backpacking for a week, thru-hiking a long trail, bicycle touring, or climbing big routes deep in the mountains, shaving off ounces can allow you to go farther, faster. Some folks are ambitious about the mileage they want to cover, and a light pack makes moving fast easier. But no matter if you're on the move for four or fourteen hours a day, it is more comfortable to carry a light load. If you have the experience to safely pare your load down to ultralight levels, your body will be thankful. On average, the models we test here weigh half of what a traditional three-season hooded mummy bag weighs. If you're planning to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail or ride one of the TransAm bicycle routes, these are perfect bags to minimize your load. While all of these models are good choices for ground-dwellers, quilts are the best choice for hammock campers. The Palisade, Revelation, and Burrow are our recommended top-quilt choices for hammock sleepers.

Most of these products forgo a hood to save weight, and ultralight enthusiasts wear most of their warm clothing as part of their sleeping system in colder temperatures. An insulated jacket with a hood, in addition to a warm hat, is a key component of most ultralight backpackers' clothing and sleep systems.

Your Ultralight Sleeping Bag as Part of a System


When building your kit for ultralight backpacking, your focus will be on selecting complementary products and systems that lead to an overall light Base Weight. Again, you can read about the fine details of systems and base weight over here in our shelter article.

Your "Big Four" items when building your kit include a sleeping bag and sleeping pad, along with your backpack and shelter. These are usually the heaviest four items a three-season backpacker carries, and the most important for nighttime weather protection, warmth, and safety.

If you want an ultralight base weight, 2.5 lbs or less is a great goal for your pad and bag combo. Nine of the ten ultralight sleeping bags and quilts we tested will let you meet this goal.

Sleeping System Examples


Here are couple sleep system examples and how they can be paired up with shelters of similar value. The first is for folks seeking the lightest and warmest set-up without regard to price and the next is focused on "bang for your buck" products. Choosing components with the best warmth-to-weight ratios means you could also add a super light bivy sack to your sleep system and still stay under 2.5 lbs.

The Best-of-the-Best System

Katabatic Gear Palisade 30: 18.8 oz, $460
plus
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite: 12.0 oz, $130
Total: 1 lb, 14.8 oz and $590

With the Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Cuben Bivy: 4.8 oz, $245
Total with MLD bivy: 2 lbs, 3.6 oz and $835

Pair this sleep system up with the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Square Flat Tarp: 10.2 oz, $340
Sleep plus Shelter Systems Grand Total: 2 lbs, 13.8 oz and $1,175

Carry this expert level kit in the zPacks Arc Blast 55: 21.3 oz, $325
Big Four Grand Total: 4 lbs, 3.1 oz, and $1,470

This expert level ultralight kit, with the price tag to match, has the added protection of a bivy sack (and it would weigh in under 4 lbs without). Every thru-hiker we know would be psyched to use this kit.

Ultralight Budget-Friendly System

Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20: 21.9 oz, $250
plus
Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol: 14.0 oz, $45
Total: 2 lbs, 3.9 oz (35.9 oz) and $295

Pair this sleep system up with the Mountain Laurel Designs Grace Tarp Duo: 19.1 oz, $170
Sleep plus Shelter System Grand Total: 3 lbs, 7 oz and $465

Carry this kit in the Osprey Exos 48: 33.9 ounces, $190
Big Four Grand Total: 5 lbs, 8.9 oz, and $655

These systems demonstrate not only how expensive it can be to shave ounces from your ultralight set-up, but that the investment can lead to a more protective, warm, and comfortable kit. Lots of folks have successfully thru-hiked long trails with systems similar to both of these. The main advantage of the premium system is an added safety margin if you choose to add a bivy sack, or the weight savings if you forgo it. The top-of-the-line bag and pad combo is exactly twice as expensive as the budget focused combo, but it saves you 5.1 ounces and is both warmer and more comfortable. This weight savings allows including the added weather protection and safety of a bivy sack for the same weight as the budget-focused bag and pad combo.

Safety & Warmth


Your sleeping system, along with your shelter to keep it dry, is your primary safety net while deep in the backcountry. On your quest to lighten your load, this should always be in the back of your mind. No! Actually, it should be right up front. Our testers who have thru-hiked big trails want us to emphasize this point - it can take a LOT of experience to use a 10 pound backpacking kit in threatening conditions. Read our Ask an Expert interviews with Liz Thomas and Junaid Dawud to get an idea of their journeys from novice, to lightweight backpacker, to ultralight thru-hiker.

When the weather takes an unexpected turn for the worse, you have two options: hunker down and wait it out or stay on the move for what could be hours or even days. In order to stay safe with your ultralight kit, you must know how to use your shelter plus sleep system to make it through a long unexpected storm. Two days and nights of cold rain (or even snow) are always a possibility, even in the summer, in most of the places we backpack. And we often hear folks say… well if my bag gets wet or I can't pitch my tarp, I'll just keep hiking to stay warm until the weather clears. But can you do this in the dark? Or in weather that makes it hard to see and navigate? Make sure your skills and systems will see you through hunkering down to wait out storms. Practice a lot. Spend nights out in terrible weather close to your home or vehicle to prepare.

What Temperature Rating?


Sleeping warmth varies from person to person. The 40 degree Flicker and 20 degree ZPacks both kept our testers warm enough during this trip in Vedauwoo  WY. Our lead tester who's a warm sleeper used the Flicker  and his partner the warmer ZPacks.
Sleeping warmth varies from person to person. The 40 degree Flicker and 20 degree ZPacks both kept our testers warm enough during this trip in Vedauwoo, WY. Our lead tester who's a warm sleeper used the Flicker, and his partner the warmer ZPacks.

If you have doubts about what warmth rating is appropriate for you, choose a product that is warmer than you think you will need. For example, our Editors' Choice winner, the Palisade, is available in several warmer versions. These bags have different names, but are nearly identical to the Palisade in construction. The 22F rated Alsek and 15F rated Sawatch are only 1.8 and 4.9 ounces heavier, respectively. Most of the models we tested have many options available for temperature rating. Also, one of the main benefits of ordering from a small manufacturer is that you can contact them directly with questions. They are often happy to discuss your specific intended use and help you decide which temperature rating is best for you.

Although the following three bags have multiple temperature rating options, we think the 30-degree version of the Palisade, the 20 degree version of the ZPacks bag, and the 20 degree version of the Revelation are the most appropriate temperature-rated versions for most three-season backpackers and thru-hikers. If you know you sleep cold, drop down one notch in temperature rating to a bag with more insulation.


Down & Moisture


We purposely selected all down insulated products for this review. Down has a significantly better warmth-to-weight ratio than synthetic insulation, but has one main drawback. It must be kept dry to maintain its loft and keep you warm. We can't emphasize this enough: keeping your sleeping bag dry and taking every opportunity to air it out in the sun is critical to your warmth and safety. If you exclusively backpack in environments that are very rainy, consider paying the weight penalty and using a synthetic insulated bag or quilt. Increasingly, ultralight manufacturers are producing quite light synthetic insulated bags and quilts.

Take every opportunity to make sure your down sleeping bag stays completely dry. After several days  condensation in your bag from your breath or sweat can reduce the down's loft a little. Take a little break when the sun is out and let your bag air out and dry out.
Take every opportunity to make sure your down sleeping bag stays completely dry. After several days, condensation in your bag from your breath or sweat can reduce the down's loft a little. Take a little break when the sun is out and let your bag air out and dry out.

Stuff Sacks: Only one of the bags in this review comes with a waterproof stuff sack. We highly recommend purchasing an after-market waterproof stuff sack for your bag. OutdoorGearLab has an entire article dedicated to the Best Sleeping Bag Stuff Sacks. In addition, many backpackers will line their entire pack with a waterproof liner. A heavy duty garbage bag, or better yet, trash compactor bag works great. If you're gonna be out for weeks or months, consider purchasing a durable and waterproof Cuben fiber pack liner. ZPacks makes excellent pack liners and well as stuff sacks. Find the complete selection here.

Types of Ultralight Sleeping Bags and Sleeping Position


For an in-depth look at the kinds of bags we tested, be sure to check out the Types of Ultralight Sleeping Bags in our full review. In this section, we take things a step further and discuss which types of bags are best matched to different types of sleepers.

Back Sleepers


Back sleepers have it easy - any style of ultralight sleeping bag works well. Traditional hooded mummy bags work great for back sleepers who've trained themselves to sleep very still. But most everybody moves around a bit in their sleep. As a result, hoodless models will be more comfortable and lighter, to boot.

Side Sleepers


Side sleepers do really well with quilts. The adjustable girth from the legs up not only lets you add more or less clothing, but you can make sections of the bag looser or more snug depending on how much you draw your knees up.

Belly Sleepers


Belly sleepers also do well with quilts, and most will find a fully-opening model awesome. We observe that a lot of belly sleeper like to "flag" one leg out to the side or have their arms crossed under their head like a pillow. A fully-opening quilt that lets you adjust the girth all the way down to your feet fits the bill.

Sleeping Sitting Up


Alpinists and hikers in super rough terrain may often find themselves in a sitting bivy at night. In these cases, a fully-enclosed bag is the best choice. Hooded and hoodless mummies that completely wrap you in insulation are the way to go. If you're sleeping sitting up and have a winter parka with you, then a half bag is a good option as well.

Hammock Hangers


It can be awkward getting into and out of your sleeping bag in a hammock. In this scenario, fully opening quilts are the most versatile and easy to use. The quilts we tested here make great top quilts, and Hammock Gear and Enlightened Equipment make under-quilts as well.

Testing the Hammock Gear Burrow (purple) side-by-side with the Zpacks hoodless mummy (green). Fully opening quilts like the Burrow are much more versatile for both ground dwellers and hammock campers.
Testing the Hammock Gear Burrow (purple) side-by-side with the Zpacks hoodless mummy (green). Fully opening quilts like the Burrow are much more versatile for both ground dwellers and hammock campers.

Care & Feeding of Down Sleeping Bags


As we have discussed above, taking every opportunity to make sure your ultralight sleeping bag stays as dry as possible is critical to maintaining loft and warmth on multi-day trips. Long-term care will ensure the best possible life span and performance. After long trips (or at least once a year) you should launder your bag. You can do it yourself relatively easily (we usually do), but several manufacturers offer professional cleaning services. The Feathered Friends Washing Service is one example.

To get started, find a large, front-loading commercial washing machine. Most laundromats will have them. A top loading washer with an agitator can damage down garments…don't do it. You'll also want to round up a down-specific soap like Nikwax Down Wash to take with you. Spot clean any really dirty areas of the shell material first with a cotton cloth and then turn your bag inside out. Use your down specific soap on the normal cycle with cold water for all cycles. Select a second rinse if that is an option, or run another full cycle after the first with no soap. Now you have a clean but wet bag… and drying it is the most time consuming step.

Move your wet bag to one of the big front-loading commercial dryers. Ideally, you will have used it immediately before for some other laundry to verify that the medium or medium low setting is indeed accurate. Your completely wet down bag will be very clumpy, so here's where a trick helps. We either throw a few tennis balls in with the bag (or a very clean pair of running shoes). While the bag tumbles and tumbles on medium heat, these items will help break up the wet clumps of down. You can also stop the dryer periodically and break up clumps by hand. And that's it. Just make sure you've identified a dryer that will not get too hot and damage the synthetic fabric of your bag. This is the perfect time to reapply a spray-on DWR treatment to your bag. We hit the foot area of the bag thoroughly after a wash. Make sure your bag is absolutely dry before storage. We tend to do this operation on a sunny day where we can lay the bag out in the sun for the DWR to dry for a couple of hours and then stick it back in the dryer on last time to be sure.

Take great care of your bag and it will take good care of you! The Summerlite is a top quality traditional mummy bag that will last for years with proper care.
Take great care of your bag and it will take good care of you! The Summerlite is a top quality traditional mummy bag that will last for years with proper care.

Brandon Lampley on the summit of Toro Peak  Miyar Nala  Indian Himalaya  after establishing a new 700meter 5.9.
Brandon Lampley
About the Author
Brandon graduated from Duke University, receiving degrees in Environmental Science, Geology, and Psychology; he then promptly moved to California to climb in Yosemite and backpack throughout the Sierra Nevada. He has hiked and climbed in 48 States and 20 or so countries. Brandon has summited Denali and Ama Dablam, pioneered first ascents in the Indian and Chinese Himalaya, and topped out a few El Cap routes. Kayaking in the Sea of Cortes for a month was a lifetime highlight. When his shoulders said no more climbing for a while, he decided to abuse his feet, and thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail with only 4 months off in between. Today he lives in the Colorado mountains when not traveling and playing. Brandon remodels historic homes and landmarks, and he trains and advises adventure athletes. He hikes, runs, and climbs in the mountains to stay sane.

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