DIY: Climashield Apex Backpacking Quilt

It’s hard to find a decent synthetic sleeping bag these days.

[UPDATED]

I’m sure my friends in the Outdoor Industry will disagree vehemently with this statement. After all, there are hundreds of different synthetic sleeping bags available in today’s specialty outdoor market. Surely some of them must be excellent, right?

Let me explain.

A couple years ago I wrote a post about high-loft insulating layers. High-loft layers form the final cold weather layer in my proposed Simple Clothing System. In that piece I explored the pros and cons of down and synthetic insulations, including modern, water resistant down and both short staple and continuous filament synthetics. I explained why I consider synthetic materials superior to down for extended field use, primarily because of their ability to maintain loft and warmth over time in cold/wet environments. If you’re interested in that discussion you will find the post here.

Researching this piece I couldn’t really determine much about the wide range of proprietary synthetic insulations on offer from sleeping bag manufacturers today. Each company now seems to have its own insulation. None of them go into great detail to explain how the insulations are designed and manufactured. All you get on the websites is marketing jargon.

Now, there’s a good chance that much of this insulation is the same stuff from the same mill, just branded differently for each company. That happens a lot. But this doesn’t help when you’re trying to determine which insulation is going to perform best for your needs.

Not only is it difficult to figure out what these insulations are made of, it’s virtually impossible to find any real world discussion of long term durability. Most of them tout how light and compressible they are. Not how tough.

For years, the Holy Grail of synthetic insulations has been to replicate the weight, loft and compressibility of down. There’s been a lot of innovation in this quest over the past decade or so.

I’m more concerned about durability.

Synthetic insulations are bulkier and heavier than down. They’re also not nearly as durable. For example, I have a Feathered Friends Widgeon down bag from the early 1990’s that still has all it’s original loft. By comparison, my synthetic bag from the early 2000’s has lost at least half of its original insulating value. This is what I see as the main drawback of synthetics. They don’t hold up as well as down.

Given this fact, durability seems like the most important factor in which synthetic insulation to choose. There are plenty of light and compressible insulations out there, but which of these will maintain loft best over time?

Back in the 1990’s and 2000’s there was an easy answer to this question: Polarguard.

Ultralight backpacking quilts are easy to sew and an affordable way to get a Climashield sleeping bag.

Polarguard
Much of the durability of Polarguard had to do with the fact that it was a continuous filament insulation. Instead of short fibers, bonded together, Polarguard used a continuous filament of insulation woven into bats of various thickness. These were more stable than short fiber alternatives like Primaloft.

Back in those days, there were a few manufacturers who flirted with other materials like Qualofill or Primaloft, but these never provided satisfactory loft or durability. Then there was the disastrous industry-wide experimentation with Thinsulate Lite Loft. Lite Loft bags were initially puffy and compressible, but rapidly lost loft with use. Within a few years they were reduced to a couple layers of taffeta. Polarguard was the only fill that did a decent job of maintaining loft over time.

The only major outdoor company that refused to jump on the Lite Loft bandwagon at the time was The North Face. We all thought they were making a big mistake trying to sell bulkier Polarguard Cat’s Meows against Moonstone and Sierra Designs Lite Loft bags that went into the stuff sack like 550 fill down bags.

Guess we were wrong and TNF was right.

You can’t buy a Polarguard sleeping bag anymore. The Polarguard brand name is lost to history due to a series of acquisitions and bankruptcies that began in the late 1990’s. Link.

The current version of “Polarguard” is produced by a company called Harvest Consumer Insulation. Harvest manufactures a continuous filament insulation called Climashield Apex that is similar to, if not superior to Polarguard in terms of performance and durability. As far as I can tell from my research, Climashield is Polarguard in everything but name.

[This might be a good time to mention Wiggy’s sleeping bags. Wiggy’s is one of the few sleeping bag manufacturers sewing bags in the US. They use a fill they call Lamilite, which is a proprietary insulation made by laminating a layer of Climashield between two fabric scrims (previous versions of Lamilite used Polarguard). The scrims further stabilize the continuous filament fibers resulting in an insulation that is more durable, but also heavier and bulkier than standard Climashield. Wiggy’s bags have a loyal following among serious outdoor users who are willing to trade a little more weight and bulk for increased durability in a synthetic bag. I’ve been tempted to try these bags through the years and may do so in the future.]

OK, so Climashield is the new Polarguard.

This spring I started looking for a sleeping bag to replace my ancient Kelty Polarguard bag. What I discovered was that, with the exception of Wiggy’s and some small specialty manufacturers, no company was using Climashield to sew bags.

As I said, I’ve been tempted by the Wiggy’s bags in the past. And I gave ordering one some serious thought. But in the end I decided that I was interested in something lighter. Eventually my Climashield search landed me on the websites of small, specialty manufacturers of ultralight backpacking quilts.

Want to try the Ray Way? Here’s the book that changed backpacking.

Quilts
My first introduction to ultralight synthetic quilts was in Ray Jardine’s book, Beyond Backpacking. Quilts are a part of Jardines’ ultralight backpacking system which also includes sil-nylon tarps and minimalist backpacks. His bonafides are pretty serious. The guy has thru hiked the PCT, CDT and AT. Multiple times. With a base pack weight under 10 pounds.

When Beyond Backpacking was published in 1992 it was radical. I was working at Life Tools in ’92 and most of the packs we sold were 5,000-6,000 cubic inches. These packs weighed 5 pounds or more. Three-season synthetic bags weighed a little over three pounds. A light tent was 5 pounds. Jardine cut these weights to about a pound each with his ultralight approach. People through he was crazy.

Fast forward thirty years and many of Jardine’s innovations have slowly worked their way into the mainstream. Especially among long distance hikers. Tarps are commonplace, packs are smaller and much lighter, and lots of thru-hikers have adopted quilts in place of sleeping bags.

I’ve played around with various components of “The Ray Way” for the past couple decades. The ultralight tarp in the image at the top of this post was sewn off one of Jardine’s patterns, most of my backpacking over the past decade has been with a minimalist pack, and my 80 percent packout has gotten pretty light.

I haven’t tried a quilt yet.

No better time than the present.

Experimenting with the Ray Way. Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

MYOG
As I began to research quilts, I came across a number of small companies producing custom quilts in both Climashield and down. One of them, Enlightened Equipment, is not far from my house here in Winona. Small world.

I also came across a lot of resources for Making Your Own Gear. My favorite YouTube MYOG quilt video is the one embedded below from Backcountry Banter. Joe Brewer does an outstanding job of walking you through the complete project from designing the quilt through selecting and sourcing materials. If you’re interested in sewing a quilt, you’ll definitely want to watch his video a few times.

This video on the Backcountry Banter is an excellent introduction to a DIY quilt.

The following images are a step-by-step walk through the process along with a few tips I picked up along the way.

Low tech, but it works. I modified the quilt in the Backcountry Banter video to be sized right for my 6′ tall, 220# frame. This meant lengthening the quilt by 6″ and increasing the width to 58″. Cut 1″larger than finished dimensions to allow for a 1/2″ seam allowance. My notes show that I was thinking of making the quilt wider than 60″ but the fabric width didn’t allow for this. Instead, I chose the same with as the US Army poncho liner (AKA “woobie”) which I’ve used as a light quilt in warm weather.
This graphic from Ripstop by the Roll shows the approximate comfort ratings for different weights of Climashield. I was sewing a quilt mostly for summer use, so I chose 3.6 oz.
I chose uncalendared, 30D ripstop for the shell. 3 yards each for the outer and inner shell. Fabric width was 60″. Uncalendared fabrics are more breathable and air permeable than calendared fabrics, which are necessary if you’re sewing a down quilt. The fabric, insulation, and most notions were ordered from Ripstop By the Roll.
Ready to measure. The Climashield is on the bottom. Both shell layers are on top. The quilt is sewn this way and then turned inside out. Clothespins hold the fabric together while measuring. I used a Sharpie marker to draw directly onto the top layer of fabric before cutting.
The quilt tapers 30″ from the bottom to a finished bottom hem with of 45 inches. This means you measure in from each side to get the bottom to 46″ before sewing.
All cut out. Measuring, cutting and pinning components is the most time consuming part of this project. The sewing goes quickly once you have the groundwork laid.
Not quite done cutting. Next step is to cut two shock cord sleeves for each end of the bag. These are 2″ wide and an inch shorter than the width of the quilt at the top and bottom.
Sew a simple hem in each end of the shock cord sleeves. The video recommended backing the fabric with tissue paper, but I learned that this wasn’t necessary with 30D fabric and was actually a pretty big hassle. I quit using the tissue paper about 1/3 of the way through sewing the edges of the quilt.
Pinning the shock cord sleeves into the quilt. These are centered on each hem and pinned between the two shell layers. I expected this to be tedious but it went fairly quickly.
Snaps and loops. The quilt has 10 grosgrain ribbon tabs around the perimeter. These are cut to 3″ long and folded over when pinned into the quilt. Cut and melt the ends to prevent fraying. 4-6 of the tabs get plastic snaps to secure the bottom of the bag, top of the zipper, and top hem, if preferred.
Finished snap tabs. Using the KAM snap tool was easy. Poke a hole, insert the snap stud, slide the other half of the snap over the stud and compress with the tool. When pinning snap pairs into the quilt be sure to pin them in opposite orientations, one up and one down. that way you won’t have to twist the tabs to snap them together.
Tabs are folded over and pinned into place between the inner and outer shells. The two tabs with snaps go above the zipper and at the foot of the quilt. You can add a snap to the head of the quilt as well if you want to be able to secure that end. The other four tabs are positioned on the side of the quilt and can be used with pad straps if desired.
Pinning in the zipper. This is a 24″ #5 YKK separating zipper. The zipper, like tabs, is pinned between the shell layers. The TOP of the zipper should face toward the outside/top fabric side of the quilt. This prevents your feet from hitting the bulkier side of the zipper slider. The zipper mates toward the head and zips down to close the foot of the bag.
By the time you’ve pinned in the drawcord sleeves, tabs and zippers, you only have a few more straight pins to place before you’re ready to sew. Sew around the edge of the quilt with a 1/2″ seam allowance. Backtack over the tabs by reversing and sewing back over your stitching. Sew fabric side up. You don’t need the tissue paper.
Here’s a back tack near the hem of the quilt.
Right side out. Stop sewing when you get to the second zipper. Use the opening by this zipper to turn the quilt right side out.
Quilt turned right side out, ready to sew the zipper into place from the outside.
Finished tabs and top hem drawcord sleeve on the outside of the quilt.
Snaps sewn in place. Remember, one up, one down.
Here’s where things got weird. I must have spent a half hour trying to pin the Climashield inside a fold of fabric and then pin that fabric to the zipper. It was like trying to push on a rope. In the end I gave up and sewed the zipper in without hitting the edge of the insulation. This means there’s a small section of insulation that isn’t sewn into place. Probably not a big deal. Next time I’ll sew the insulation to the top shell fabric and THEN pin that fabric to the zipper.
After I gave up on the Climashield it was much easier to pin the zipper into place. Start with the bottom shell, fold the fabric over and pin. Then flip to the top. Fold the fabric and pin through both sides. Then pull the pins from the bottom. Sounds complicated but in the end was the smoothest way to get a folded seam on both sides.
Sew the zipper in place, back tacking at the top and bottom. If you want to get fancy you can match the shell color with thread for this part. I happened to have thread that was close, so I loaded the bobbin with the bottom color and spindle with the top color.
Zipper zipped. Snaps snapped. Time to thread some shock cord. This was easy in such lightweight fabric. I just tied a knot in the end of the cord, pinched it from the outside of the sleeve, and pulled it through.
Drawcord installed at foot.
Synching the drawcord creates the footbox in the quilt. This eats up 4-6 inches in the overall length, so it’s important to make sure you size your quilt long enough. Mine is exactly the right size. I could have gone a few inches longer.
If you decide you want to add more snaps later it’s easy to do. In fact, I might consider adding snaps after sewing is complete next time. Here I added a snap to the top hem so it would synch more securely around my neck.
All synched up. Looks a lot like a sleeping bag.
A very light sleeping bag. About 20 ounces in the stuff sack.
UPDATE: Being the slightly obsessive person that I am, I never was satisfied with the section of insulation that wasn’t stitched to the shell. Today I stitched it in place. Not perfect, but better.

Ultralight Is Right
The finished quilt weighs in at about 20 ounces. About half the weight of a three season synthetic bag and on par with the lightest down summer bags. It’s roomy enough that I’ll be able to layer clothing to push my comfort level lower on cold spring and fall nights. In the summer it will be cooler than my old Polarguard bag.

Given the success with this quilt I’m tempted to sew another one with 5 ounce Apex to see how cold I can push it in the early spring and late fall.

Costs for this project are modest. The fabric and insulation came in about about $65. All-in costs including the snap tool and notions was around $100. That’s about half the price of a commercially sewn quilt.

If you’re thinking of trying a quilt to lighten up your backcountry load, and you are at all handy with a sewing machine, you should definitely give this project a try. It’s a low cost way to experiment with new gear and a great way to get a truly custom sleeping bag that’s lighter than bags that cost two or three times as much.

Lessons Learned
Overall this project turned out really well. It was about 80 percent prep and 20 percent sewing. Once you have everything laid out and pinned in place things go very quickly.

I did learn a few lessons along the way. Here are the big ones:

  1. Pay careful attention to sizing. This quilt fits me precisely. For my next quilt I will probably add 12″ to my height to allow for a little more length.
  2. Remember to pin snaps in place with one up and one down so they mate properly.
  3. The top of the zipper should face the shell fabric that you want to be the top of the quilt. Pin the zipper so that it mates at the top and zips toward the bottom of the quilt.
  4. Carefully check all the the way around the hem for straight pins before you turn the quilt right side out. You don’t want to sew a pin into the inside of the quilt.
  5. Next time I’ll sew in the final zipper differently. I’ll fold the top fabric over the Climashield, pin and sew into place. Then pin the zipper in as before. That way the insulation will be secured all the way around the quilt.
  6. I didn’t need to use tissue paper to sew this project. That might change if you were using lighter fabric.

Materials List
6 yards 30D ripstop fabric
3 yards 3.6 oz Climashield Apex insulation
24″ YKK #5 separating
30″ 5/8″ grosgrain ribbon
10′ 1/16″ micro shock cord
4 micro cord locks
KAM snaps and tool
Polyester thread
Straight pins
Clothes pins or binder clips

Resources:
https://backcountrybanter.com/how-to-build-a-synthetic-top-quilt-diy-myog/
https://ripstopbytheroll.com/

5 thoughts on “DIY: Climashield Apex Backpacking Quilt

  1. Pingback: Kimchi-Gami – DIY: Climashield Apex Backpacking Quilt – Badlands Fieldcraft

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