The traditional sleeping bag is an outdoor staple. Ever since those first childhood camp-outs where you hopped around in one pretending to be a caterpillar, chances are that if you’ve been crashing outside, you’ve been doing it in a sleeping bag.
But sleeping bags aren’t the only option for a good night’s shut-eye. Read on for a handful of the best sleeping bag alternatives — as well as some ideas to avoid.
- There are a few different reasons why you might choose to use something other than a sleeping bag. Alternatives may be lighter, cheaper, less restrictive, or cooler in warm weather.
- In most cases, the best alternative to a sleeping bag is a camping quilt. Other good options include wool blankets, sleeping bag liners, or insulated poncho liners.
- It’s important to think about your sleeping system as a whole. For example, some sleeping bag alternatives may be better suited to hammock or cot camping.
- Outdoor gear choices are all about trade-offs. While a sleeping bag might not always be perfect in every way, it’s often the best option overall.
What to buy…
If you’re in the market for a camping quilt then the Kammock Bobcat 45 is a very nice, lightweight, compact, mid-range blanket (available from Kammock, Amazon, Moosejaw and Walmart). If you’re on a tighter budget then the equally nice, albeit bulkier, Galactic Down Blanket from Kelty is very well worth considering (available from Kelty, Campmor, Amazon and Campsaver).
Why Might You Choose Not to Use a Sleeping Bag?
A sleeping bag is a great outdoor all-rounder: portable, packable, and warm in cold weather. But, it’s got some downsides too — and depending on the situation, it might just be that there’s a better alternative.
For ultralight hikers and trail-running snakes, every gram in your pack counts. Given that your sleeping bag is probably one of the bulkiest bits of gear in your load-out, it’s tempting to try and ditch it in favor of a lighter-weight option.
When you’re ski-touring at 78 degrees North, an Arctic-grade sleeping bag is literally the difference between life and death. But bust out that same 800 fill-power goose down sleeping bag on a humid midsummer night in the South, and it’s a whole different story.
Some environments are just far too hot to sleep comfortably in a full sleeping bag — especially if you tend to run warm — and in these cases you might want to look for ways to keep yourself cooler.
When it comes to the classic mummy sleeping bag design, its biggest strength is also one of its biggest weaknesses. The shaped and tapered fit delivers the best mix of warmth versus weight, but for anyone with the slightest hint of claustrophobia it can also feel uncannily like being in a straitjacket.
It’s worth pointing out that different sleeping bags have different fits. Some are much roomier than others, but when you get down to the ultralight bags they’re often pretty tight. Changing position or even just turning over can mean thrashing about like an insect trying to escape its chrysalis, and some campers simply can’t get a good night’s sleep this way.
With outdoor gear, you often get what you pay for — and that’s particularly true of sleeping bags. Sure, you can pick a decent one up for $20, but there’ll likely be a compromise in weight, warmth or durability. In general, a decent sleeping bag will cost big bucks, and there may be a cheaper option that’ll suit you just as well.
What Alternatives Are There?
Many of the alternatives you’ll see recommended in outdoor articles and blogs are actually just different types of sleeping bags — and that’s important to note, because it shows what a huge range of different designs are available.
You can get sleeping bags with roomier fits, ventilation zips, and center or side openings, so it’s worth shopping around to find what suits you. You can even pick up a hybrid sleeping bag with an integrated comforter quilt and pillow, such as the often-recommended “backcountry bed.”
Likewise, when you look into lightweight alternatives, you might just find that the best option is actually an ultralight sleeping bag.
Having said all that, there genuinely are some good sleeping bag alternatives out there.
In most cases, camping quilts are hands-down the best sleeping bag substitute there is. In fact, in the world of outdoor evangelists, quilt people are almost as culty as hammock people.
A camping quilt is not like the folksy bedspread that keeps Grandma and her cronies out of mischief on Wednesday afternoons.
These ones are made from very similar materials to sleeping bags, usually with lightweight outer fabrics and synthetic or down filling. They provide similar warmth to sleeping bags, but pack down much smaller because they only go over the top of you rather than all the way round.
When you think about it, this makes pretty good sense. Down filling in particular insulates best when it’s allowed to puff up, yet in the case of a sleeping bag, half of that expensive insulation is crushed flat by your bodyweight. If you’re not really making the most of it, you might as well cut it — especially if you’re using a high-quality insulated sleeping pad to keep you warm underneath.
Quilts do have their drawbacks, the main one being that they slip off very easily because they’re so light. Some come with loops of elastic to attach the quilt to your sleeping pad and hold it in place, but you can also MacGyver a DIY system of your own using shock cord.
The other downside is that your head and feet can stick out and get cold. A warm hat and socks should solve this problem, but some quilts also feature a clever foot box to keep your tootsies toasty.
Sleeping bags only really came into general use in the twentieth century. Before that — whether you were a soldier, pioneer, cowboy, or hobo — chances were you curled up for the night under a cozy blanket.
For colder environments, wool is still best, and you can’t go wrong with the classic army blanket. In milder climes, though, a lightweight fleece one should be enough. Blankets are cheap and easy to come by, and in fact you probably already have one lying around that would do the job. Just be sure to give it a wash if you’ve taken it from the dog’s basket.
The biggest downside of a camping blanket is its bulk and weight, and in cold climates you may need two or three to get the warmth of a good sleeping bag. No problem if you’re car camping, but not ideal for the lighweighter.
If you’re car camping, a comforter is the ultimate cheapskate solution. A duvet or comforter is warm and oh-so-comfy — all you have to do is grab one off your bed and sling it in the truck.
While it’s obviously not a practical option for backpackers, a comforter can be the perfect sleeping bag alternative for car campers, van-lifers, and anyone else who roams on four wheels rather than two legs.
Sleeping Bag Liners
There are two main kinds of sleeping bag liner. The thin silk or cotton ones are for keeping your sleeping bag clean, while the fleece ones are for adding warmth to a lighter bag.
In the right circumstances, both versions can make practical sleeping bag alternatives. The lightweight silk ones are especially good for those swampy nights where you can’t bear anything more than the lightest of coverings, while the fleece ones can work as a sort of cheap and lightweight sleeping bag for warm nights in the RV or cabin.
Insulated Poncho Liners
Known in Army slang as a “woobie,” the quilted poncho liner has been a veterans’ favorite since it first saw use in Vietnam. Versatile and practical, you can wear it, sleep under it, or sit on it for a picnic. God forbid, you could even actually use it as a poncho liner.
Though not as warm or lightweight as a traditional sleeping bag, the beauty of the woobie is that in the right conditions it can stand in for both jacket and bedding. The insulation’s usually synthetic, so it should still conserve your body heat even in wet weather.
As well as the classic Army surplus-style poncho liners, there are also some more upmarket versions that literally zip together into a sleeping bag.
Cast your mind back to the heady days of teen house parties. Come 7am, how many of those bright young things were sprawled across sofas, rugs, and floors, snoring peacefully in nothing but the clothes they arrived in?
Alright, so the beer may have played its part, but a set of warm clothes can genuinely be a workable alternative to a sleeping bag. Think down jacket, insulated pants, thick socks, and a hat. It’s not going to be as cozy as most of the other options on this list, but it’s not bad in a pinch — plus there’s the added bonus that you can bug out in a hurry if you’re sleeping somewhere you shouldn’t.
However, if that’s the road you’re going to go down, may we suggest…
Sleeping Bag Suits
Yes, these are actually a thing.
Available at various price points, they’re kind of a cross between a sleeping bag and a onesie — and they let you move around in your sleeping bag without doing that awkward caterpillar hop. They’re almost always hooded, and the arms and legs usually have zips at the ends so you can put shoes on or use your hands.
Sleeping bag suits sound like a ridiculous novelty item, but actually they’re pretty useful. They pack down surprisingly small and they’ve often got some level of water resistance.
The only real downside is that they don’t usually keep you quite as warm as a real sleeping bag would. In particular, your feet tend to get cold because they’re in separate compartments rather than bundled up together.
Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” It’s probably a good job he never lived to see the Internet. Among the various other sleeping bag alternatives doing the rounds online, some pretty terrible ideas come up again and again…
Ah, Mylar emergency blankets — the universal miracle cure for all outdoor problems, as seen on blogs and forums worldwide. Championed as a viable way of upgrading tents and sleeping pads, and sometimes even as an alternative to a sleeping bag.
Except, of course, that this is nonsense.
If you’ve just run a marathon or have broken your ankle in the mountains and are awaiting rescue, a space blanket to wrap around you is an absolute godsend. However, making a deliberate choice to spend the night sleeping under one is eye-popping lunacy unless there’s really no other option.
A Bivy Bag
Some online articles also recommend bivy bags as an alternative to sleeping bags, but they really aren’t. In fact, a bivy sack is an alternative to a tent — it’s a basic form of shelter designed to protect you from wind and rain, and it has almost no insulating properties at all.
As you’ll know if you’ve ever used one, a bivy bag is very prone to condensation. Even with a sleeping bag to absorb some of the moisture, you often wake up pretty clammy, so can you imagine spending a night zipped into the equivalent of a cold plastic trash bag in just your underwear?
Don’t get us wrong, bivy bags can be one of the most liberating ways to sleep outdoors, but they’re something you bring as well as a sleeping bag, rather than instead of one.
Thinking About Your Sleep System
When you’re considering alternatives to sleeping bags, it’s worth keeping in mind that the sleeping bag is only one element in a wider system to keep you warm and comfortable.
Which alternative works best will depend on what you’ve chosen to sleep in or on.
Hammock enthusiasts declare that once you’ve been a tree-dweller, you never go back to sleeping on the ground. While we’d suggest that tent camping still has its place, it’s certainly true that a portable hammock can be a super-comfortable way to spend the night.
The big downside, of course, is that there’s just a paper-thin layer of ripstop nylon between you and the cold air below. For this reason, you’ll want to pick a sleeping bag alternative that goes all the way round you — such as a large blanket or fleece liner — or you’ll need to insulate underneath yourself by some other means.
You can buy dedicated hammock under-blankets or insulated hammock liners (which are like a shaped air pad), but some seasoned hammock campers prefer to use wool blankets, sheepskins, or furs.
A cot or camp-bed is just about the closest you’ll get to being in an actual bed on a camping trip, but the softness is produced by the tension in the frame rather than by an actual mattress.
This means that — like the hammocker — the cot camper will need to stop themselves losing body heat to the cold air underneath. The easiest way to do this is with an insulated camping pad, but the options mentioned above will work too.
Comforters and blankets work well with a camping bed, but if you’re going to use a backpacker quilt then you’ll need to improvise a really good method of attaching it — otherwise you’ll spend all night picking it up off the floor.
Sleeping on the Ground
The classic sleep set-up for camping is an insulated sleeping pad or air mattress, a sleeping bag, and a pillow (which can be as simple as a rolled up jacket or a stuff-sack full of clothes).
Most sleeping bag substitutes will work decently with this traditional system — especially sleeping bag liners and camping quilts.
A World of Trade-offs
Gear choices for camping and backpacking trips are usually about compromise.
Warmth, weight, cost, comfort, durability… there are very few bits of kit that tick every box, so what ends up going in your backpack or duffel bag will ultimately depend on your own requirements and preferences.
Sleeping bags aren’t always the perfect choice — for the reasons mentioned above — but they’re still often the best option when you weigh everything up.
However, sometimes they aren’t — especially if you’re willing to prioritize other factors over comfort. Pack weight, in particular, is a tricky question.
If you’re aiming to move fast through challenging terrain, then you have to decide whether you’re willing to trade a bit less comfort at night for an easier time during the day. In some cases, it might just be worth switching in a lightweight liner or pulling the trigger on that ultralight backpacker quilt.
What Can Be Used Instead of a Sleeping Bag?
Generally, the best sleeping bag alternative is a lightweight backpacking quilt. Blankets and insulated poncho liners are also good options, and for a camping trip in hot and humid conditions you can sometimes get away with a silk or fleece sleeping bag liner.
How Can I Stay Warm Without a Sleeping Bag?
In some cases, wearing warm clothes will be enough to keep you cozy at night, but you could also try blankets, comforters or an insulated poncho liner.
Are There Ultralight Sleeping Bag Alternatives?
The best ultralight sleeping bag alternative is a down-filled camping quilt. In very warm conditions, a silk or fleece sleeping bag liner can also be a viable option.
Can I Backpack Without a Sleeping Bag?
You certainly can. Usually the best alternative is an ultralight camping quilt, but some backpackers also use an insulated poncho liner or even just a blanket.