Introduction: Camping/Backpacking Quilt System

I love camping, but I have never really liked mummy bags. As a side sleeper I would toss and turn in them and by morning I would always feel very claustrophobic. I often had trouble getting the temperature right ans wished I had an extra layer. Also if it was cold and I was down under the hood I would often end up with the hood on top of my face half smothering me by morning. And other nights during the summer I would often want a little something on top of me but my sleeping bag would be too much. I would use the sleeping bag as a quilt but it would fall off of me, and I would wake up cold.

As a result of these annoyances my interest was piqued when I learned about backpacking quilts. However, I wasn't fully sold. As the kind of person who rips the sheets off my bed during the night, I was afraid I might wake up freezing next to my quilt with nothing covering me at all. Then I learned about some of the strap systems that people have come up to keep their quilts on and I knew I wanted one. I was particularly intrigued and inspired by the Zenbivy bed, and later found the Enlightened Equipment quilts. Commercial quilts are expensive though and at least when I started this project, I didn't find any synthetic options though some are available now.

Seeing as I wanted to replace my sleeping kit for all weather, I decided to make 2 quilts. One would be twice as thick as the other. This way I could use one or the other or both to get the proper temperature.

Careful observers


Making a backpacking quilt is a somewhat personal endeavor as you can choose exactly what dimensions you want your quilt to be. Therefore, it is difficult for me to tell you exactly how much fabric you need. That will depend on the size of quilt you decide to make.

Here is what I used to make a single quilt (I made 2 quilts):

  • 2.25 yards of nylon fabric for each side
  • 2.5 yards of insulation for the quilt
  • 5 inches of extra fabric for the draw strings
  • 2 x 60 inch nylon strings
  • 1 yard of 1 inch webbing
  • 1 yard of 1 inch elastic
  • 1, 28 inch zipper
  • 4 flat buckles
  • 2 draw string
  • 2 cord locks for the draw strings
  • 1 toggle (a stick with a hole in it)
  • lint free polyester quilting thread
  • polyester yarn

I also used the following for the pillow case and the draft stopper:

  • 3/4 yard of ripstop nylon
  • 1/3 yard of insulation
  • 1 yard of 1 inch webbing
  • 1 flat buckle
  • 1 toggle

Step 1: Choosing Shell Material

For this project you will need to choose a shell material and an insulation. I figured out where I was going to buy my materials and that affected my choices. I chose Ripstop by the Roll for my supplier because they had everything I needed for the project. I wanted a lightweight nylon so I ordered fabric samples of the materials that I thought were most promising:

  • 1.0 oz Hyper D uncalendered
  • 1.0 oz Hyper D calendered
  • 1.6 oz Hyper D calendered
  • 0.66 oz Membrane 10 Taffeta

The Hyper D material is a version of ripstop nylon that that has a very smooth texture. I would describe it as nylon impersonating silk. Calendering is a process by which they roll the fabric between heated metal rollers melting it together slightly. Ripstop by the Roll recommends calendered fabric for technical quilts because this makes them more wind resistant. However, it also makes them less breathable. Something to consider is that the creators of Ripstop by the Roll are hammock campers so they are likely to be especially susceptible to windy conditions.

For my project I eliminated the Membrane Taffeta as an option because I thought that it felt too much like a plastic grocery store bag. I performed a quick experiment by taping the Hyper D fabric samples over shot glasses of water to see how different they were in breathability; the left glass was the control. None of them were particularly breathable so I decided to go with the lightest most breathable of the group, the uncalendered 1.0 oz Hyper D. I figured that I will normally be using the quilts in a tent or a bivy bag anyway so breathability will be more important than wind resistance.

For colors I chose to make one side of each quilt a very bright color in case I ever wanted to use the quilt as a signal. I chose a darker color for the other side so that I wouldn't always have to stand out. I decided to make each of the two quilts a different set of colors to insure that I would never mix them up. My final color choices were determined by what colors were available when I bought fabric.

Step 2: Choosing the Insulation

I chose synthetic insulation as opposed to down. One of the primary reasons for this is that I have done a lot of camping from rafts so I wanted something that would keep me warm even if it somehow ended up soaking wet. I imagine this might happen in a situation such as if I hit Lava Falls hole in the Grand Canyon and flipped my raft, causing all my gear to come flying out of the boat in what is known as a, “yard sale,” and then my dry bag leaked in the half hour it floated in the river waiting to be rescued. The trade off of this decision is that my end product is heavier and less compressible than a down quilt would have been for the same warmth, but I think that is a worthwhile price for the reliability of the synthetic. As an added bonus it is also easy to sew and wash.

Ripstop by the Roll offers 2 different types of synthetic insulation: Climashield APEX and Primaloft Gold. When researching the two, I found that the Apex Climashield is more robust than the Primaloft. Primaloft is mostly used in jackets and people have reported that the Primaloft in their jackets looses its insulating qualities over a couple years. Therefore, I chose the Climashield APEX.

Choosing the thickness is the next consideration. Unlike the world of sleeping pads where resistance to heat transfer is measured with a standard called an R value, sleeping bags have no such standard so there is no clear way to compare bags or insulation. I found several different charts with disagreeing information on what thickness of Climashield APEX you should have for different temperatures. They are as follows.

Ripstop by the Roll:

  • 50° F = 2.5 oz
  • 40° F = 3.6 oz
  • 30° F = 5.0 oz
  • 10° F = 7.5 oz
  • -5° F = 10 oz

Enlightened Equipment:

  • 50°F = 2.0 oz, approx. .75 inch thick
  • 40°F = 4.0 oz, approx. 1 inch thick
  • 30°F = 6.0 oz, approx. 1.25 inch thick
  • 20°F = 8.0 oz, approx. 1.5 inch thick

Tim Marshal via Backpacking Light Forum:

  • 2.5 oz = good to approximately 45°F
  • 5 oz = good to approximately 25°F
  • 7.5 oz = good to approximately 15°F

I've found that the recommended temperatures for sleeping bags are always optimistic. That is to say that the companies rate their sleeping bags by the temperature at which the sleeping bags will prevent death rather than the temperature at which you will be comfortable using them. Therefore, I decided to be conservative and I put more faith in the recommendations for thicker insulation per temperature.

I wanted to create a sleeping system that would work well for all temperatures. To achieve comfort at a wide range of temperatures I made two quilts with one quilt being twice as thick as the other. I chose the 3.6 oz insulation and doubled it up on the warmer quilt. After handling the insulation, I would not recommend doing it this way because the Insulation is more dense on the outer faces, so a double layer is heavier for the same insulating value then a single layer of double the thickness. Mostly I did this because it worked out to be the least expensive option, and I didn't know the insulation would be of variable density.

I have tested my double layer thick 6.6 oz quilt in a camper bed with the windows open during a blizzard at 27 degrees Fahrenheit and was toasty warm in just my skivvies though the camper mattress offered better insulation than a pad. More testing is needed to figure out temperature ranges. I am hopeful that the two together will take me down to near 0 Fahrenheit.

Step 3: Choosing the Quilt Dimensions

The quilt is essentially a rectangle with two triangles cut out of the bottom. To form the foot box a zipper attaches the sides together where those triangles were removed and then a draw string at the bottom closes it up.

To choose the dimensions for my quilt I used a sheet to make a prototype and I highly recommend you do this too. This was particularly helpful for creating the shape of the foot box. To do this, sew up the bottom end of the sheet 1”, then run a string through the tube. Use this as a draw string to close the end creating the foot box. Then sew diagonal lines up the footbox and see what feels good.

The picture shows the final dimensions I chose for my quilt. These dimensions include the seam allowances so the quilt ends up being 1 inch shorter in every direction with a half inch seam allowance. I will leave it up to you to choose the dimensions that suit you best. If you choose to make my quilt you will need to cut your two pieces of shell fabric and your insulation to 77 x 60 inches and then eventually you will cut out triangles for the foot box that are 30 inches tall and 8 inches wide as shown in my dimension image. Thanks to my Dad for modeling the prototype.

Step 4: Cut Out the Fabric, But Not the Foot Box

In this step you are just going to cut your fabric to length and width. Don't cut out the triangle sections at the bottom for the foot box. Note that I chose to use black for the last 8 inches of my quilt to add interest and to save money on fabric. Because I had to order by the yard, and I needed 4 pieces of fabric about 2.25 yards long it worked out well to cut 1 yard of black into fourths for the ends of my quilts. I chose to do a double flat felled seam to make it bomb proof. I don't think this was necessary now that I'm done as that seam doesn't really take much stress. If you decide to do this you could just do a plain seam and it would probably be fine.

When cutting out the fabric I highly recommend using a rotary cutter, mat, and quilting ruler as these will make your life so much easier. If you don't have these items though, scissors will certainly work. I taped several smaller mats together to give more space for cutting and used weight lifting weights and other heavy objects to keep things in place when I didn't have enough hands.

My final dimensions were 77 x 60 inches. This includes enough fabric for the half inch seam allowances.

Step 5: Layup, Cut the Foot Box Triangles, and Sew It All Together

After cutting out all the pieces assemble them in the correct order. The correct order is first shell right side up, second shell right side down, insulation. I used women's hair clips on one, and clothes pins on the other to secure the entire thing together both of which worked much better then pins. After it is all together, cut out the triangles for the foot box and re-clip those edges together.

Sew around the edges of the quilt leaving a 12 inch gap along the bottom edge for inverting. I left 8 inches, but it was quite difficult to invert which is why I recommend you use 12. A walking foot would be ideal if you have one but otherwise use the regular straight stitch foot. At corners plunge the needle down and rotate the quilt around the needle to make a nice sharp turn. A half inch seam allowance will make things easier when working with so much thickness.

Step 6: Invert the Quilt and Sew the Opening Closed by Hand

Be very careful not to tear the nylon when inverting the quilt. Hopefully it's obvious that you are inverting it so that the insulation is now between the 2 layers of nylon which will each be facing right side out. I used straight, hand stitching to sew my quilts closed. The picture shows where I've hand stitched it. Unfortunately I forgot to take the picture before completed the next step which is to sew all around the quilt. This is why there is an edge bead in the picture.

Step 7: Sew Around the Edge Again Creating the Edge Bead

After sewing the inversion hole shut, clip everything together again and top stitch around the edge a second time with a straight machine stitch. I sewed 3/8 inch from the edge which I'm quite happy with but you can give more or less as you wish. This step creates a very robust bead at the edge of the quilt which can then be used to attach the zippers and draw strings. This step is quite challenging as it's difficult to keep the bottom layer of nylon from folding under the needle and getting sewn down improperly. Take it slowly and check the bottom layer with your fingers every few inches to make sure the fabric is smooth on the top and bottom. If the bottom layer does get caught, rip your stitches out and resew that section.

Step 8: Tying the Quilt

I chose to tie these quilts rather than quilting them for greater warmth. To my knowledge there is no way to machine quilt that does not compress the insulation where the quilting has occurred, and the quilt will bleed heat along the seams. To tie the quilt, first lay out a grid. Having tried several different methods I've found that shards of bar soap from the shower are the best way to mark dark fabric. They make very clear marks that are easy to remove. For a more interesting appearance I laid out my grids on a 45 degree angle. I could not find information on proper tie spacing for Climashield APEX. My mom made a Ray-Way quilt kit with similar insulation and they recommend spacing ties 10 inches apart however, online I found normal quilts that call for 2 to 3 inch spacing. For my thicker quilt which I expect to use more often I set ties on a 5 inch grid. Mostly out of laziness, I went with 7 inches for the thinner quilt. So far both quilts seem fine. With the edges sewn together very well I don't think the ties are receiving much stress.

To tie the quilt, take synthetic yarn and a large needle and sew a single stitch from the top, through the bottom of the quilt, and then back up. Make the stitch 1/4 to 1/2 inch long. If you have a cutting mat it's possible to do this by pressing the needle through the quilt, running it along the mat underneath, and then pulling it back up without ever having to look at the bottom of the quilt. Make a spacer from a piece of cardboard slightly less than the thickness of the quilt. You will need to experiment to get exactly the right thickness. Set the card on edge then tie a square knot tightly over top edge of the spacer. When the spacer is removed and the tied insulation is adjusted the tie should be snug without compressing the insulation.

Step 9: Adding the Draw String to the Footbox and the Top.

To close the footbox and allow for constricting the top opening in cold weather you will need a tube of fabric and a drawstring at the top and bottom edges of the quilt. To make the tube cut a piece of fabric 2.5 inches wide and 1 inch longer than the length of the bottom quilt edge and another piece of fabric 2.5 inches wide and 1 inch longer than the top quilt edge. Fold the ends 1/4 inch twice and sew them down to create hems at each end. Then fold the fabric lengthwise and sew down the length with a 1/4 inch seam allowance creating a 1 inch tube. Next turn the tube right side out. This is easily accomplished by sewing shut one end and pushing a dowel into the closed end; when it is fully inverted remove the stitching holding that end closed, thereby reopening it. To attach the tubes to the quilt place the seam of the tube along the edge bead, and sew it down. Be careful not to get the fabric on the underside of the quilt bunched and caught under the needle, and also be careful not to stretch either the quilt or the tube as you sew as that will throw off the lengths.

Experienced sewers will note that I could have included the edge tube in the initial layup so that it would already be sewn into the edge bead in the earlier steps. This would even give a slightly neater appearance. I chose not to do it this way so that if a draw string tube wears out or tears, I can easily remove and replace it.

Step 10: Add the Zipper to the Footbox.

The zipper brings together the sides of the foot box where the triangles were cut out of the bottom of the quilt to form it into a tube. Again I could have made the appearance of the quilt slightly neater if I had added the zipper during layup so that the zipper tab would be inside the edge bead, and again I chose to tack it on the outside instead, so that if the zipper fails over time I can easily replace it. I positioned the zipper so that the teeth are just outside the edge bead. This prevents you from feeling the zipper when it is on the bottom of the quilt beneath your legs.

To attach the zipper first unzip the zipper and pin the bottom of the zipper to the bottom of the quilt on the outside on each side. Place the edge of the foot next to the zipper teeth with the needle in the center, and carefully sew the zipper down. Because the quilt and zipper can stretch, it worked better to sew both halves of the zipper starting from the bottom of the quilt even though this meant that I had to pull the quilt through the gap under the arm of the sewing machine for one side of the zipper. I found that adding more pins than the starting pin at the bottom just got in the way and were not helpful. Be careful once again to keep the back side of the quilt from getting folded under the needle and sewn down. Also, be careful not to put too much tension on the quilt as it will stretch slightly and then after you sew down the zipper and release the tension the zipper will be wavy.

Step 11: Creating the Draft Stopper

The draft stopper is a circular quilted piece that blocks the hole where the drawstring foot box doesn't quite close. Mine is 9 inches in diameter which is a function of the 10 inch plate I used as a pattern. This is just a miniature quilt made in the same way as the main body of the quilt. Cut the fabric, and lay it up in the same order: shell pieces right sides together with insulation on top. Sew around the edge leaving a 3 inch turning gap, invert it, sew the gap closed by hand, and topstitch around the whole draft stopper to create the edge bead. The last step is to tie it with yarn in the center but this time make the tie a little loose and add a toggle which is essentially just a stick with a hole in it. Now, to block the hole in the foot box put the draft stopper inside and close the drawstring between the toggle and the draft stopper. The toggle holds the stopper in place inside the end of the foot box.

Step 12: Creating the Pillow Case

One of the things that most annoys me camping is the way my pillow always slides up and off the end of my pad. Therefore, I made a pillowcase to attach it to the pad. The pillowcase is simply a tube of fabric which can be strapped down to hold the pillow in place.

To make this, start by measuring your pillow and cutting your fabric. If you have an inflatable pillow like mine consider its dimensions while looking down at it deflated in 2D such that it will have a height = y and a width = x. For the pillowcase cut a piece of fabric that has dimensions 2y+1 inches by x +1 inches. (We are using symbolic notation here because it turns out the labels used to describe pillow dimensions are surprisingly vague and confusing)

A rolled hem foot is perfect for finishing the edges on the lightweight fabric. However, they are quite tricky to get started. Basically you fold the fabric over twice, put the foot down, drop the needle into it, and lift the foot and get the roll started on the foot. Then you put the foot back down and sew. You must pull on the thread leads to get it going or it will just bunch and get stuck. If you haven't used one before there are multiple helpful YouTube tutorials. After you've watched some give it a try with some scrap material before you do the real thing.

With the edges finished I sewed the ends together forming the tube and sewed a double flat felled seam to make sure it was strong because it will be under stress. To do this use an Elmer’s glue stick to glue the pieces together with the edges overlapping by half an inch and pointing in opposite directions. You can also use seam tape; either way having some way to stick the two pieces together will make your life much easier. After the two sides are glued, role the seam one time so that the edges are contained inside and pin it together. The thickness of the double layer of fabric causes it to fold well. Then carefully sew down each edge. I just folded it and held it with my fingers while I sewed it. Again YouTube tutorials are your friend here.

I slip my pillow into this tube and then run a strap through the tube and buckle it around the pad to keep it in place. I'm not 100% satisfied with how well this stays in place so there is probably room for improvement in this design. If you have suggestions for improving this let me know in the comments.

Step 13: Creating the Straps and Attaching the Buckles

Originally when I started the quilt, I was going to use a system derived from the Zenbivy bed. In the pictures you can see the Cordura strips I attached to reinforce the quilt where I intend to attach clips or toggles to secure the quilt to the pad. If you are interested in their design you can take a look at their website here:

However, I ended up liking the strap system developed by Enlightened Equipment better and I decided to use this system in the end. You can see a YouTube video demonstrating their strap system here:

Based on the Enlightened Equipment system, I made 3 straps: one circles the pad and holds on the pillow, one circles the pad and has sliding buckles for attaching a quilt, and one does not circle the pad but just holds the quilt partially together.

To find the length of material needed to make my straps that circle the pad, I measured the circumference around my pad with a tape measure. Then I subtracted 2 inches to get the final length I wanted for my straps so that they would be snug, I added 2 inches for seam allowances attaching the straps to the buckles, and I subtracted the length of the buckle. Therefore the final length was the circumference around the pad minus the length of the buckles. For the shorter strap that doesn't go around the quilt, I pulled the quilt snugly around me and measured how long I wanted it to be. I made the strap that secures the pillow out of webbing, and the straps that secure the quilt out of elastic. All the buckles are attached to the quilt and to the strap sliders with webbing because that will last longer than elastic. The buckles on the quilt are attached 14 inches from the top and 25 inches from the top. I chose these locations because they just felt good to me.

I decided not to make the straps adjustable because that would require more trips to the store for hardware and be a little heavier, and I have no plans to change pads at the moment. At some time in the future I may make another set of adjustable straps. Another change that I made from the Enlightened Equipment system is to attach all the female clips to my quilts and the male clips to my straps so I didn’t have to remember which sides are male and female as described in the video.

Step 14: Finished!

You're done! Now stop screwing around with your gear and GO CAMPING!

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