Whether for backpacking or camping, sleeping pads should function in two ways: padding (obviously) and insulation from the cold ground (often more important).
In this article, we’ll be exploring the three primary considerations when choosing a sleeping pad for camping or backpacking:
- What type of activity will I be doing with my sleeping pad?
- What type of sleeping pad is best for me?
- What sleeping pad features are going to be most important?
Sleeping Pad Activity
Ask yourself first, what types of activities will you be using your sleeping pad for? Backpacking? Camping? Paddling? Bikepacking? Depending on which activity you’ll be using it for most – you’ll want to consider different things.
Backpacking/Bikepacking/Canoe & Kayak Camping
During activities like backpacking, cycling, and in smaller watercraft like kayaks and canoes, you will be restricted by space and want to consider a lighter, more packable sleeping pad. Your sleeping pad will be one of the four heaviest things in your gear – in addition to your sleeping bag, tent/shelter, and pack itself. So, it makes sense to save weight here.
To us, car camping doesn’t necessarily mean camping inside your car, though it can. We consider car camping any camping which you can bring your gear, in your car, right to the campsite. This would include campground camping, and many rustic or forest service camping around the world. If you’re car camping, the assumption is you won’t be as restricted by space and can pack a bulkier, probably more cushioned, sleeping pad.
Ultralight Travel/Thru-Hiking/Extended Paddling Trips
For the ultralight backpacker, obviously weight and size are even more crucial in your sleeping pad than in other “restricted space” activities. But if you plan on being out for an extended trip with your sleeping pad, as in a thru-hike, durability and field-maintenance need to be your primary aims.
Sleeping Pad Type
There are three types of sleeping pads you’ll see most often: air pads, self-inflatable, and closed-cell foam.
Most of the innovation in sleeping pads for camping have come in the air pad category. They are now lighter, more packable, and have a construction that allows for serious insulation. And boy are they comfy. Their are even styles of air pads out now that are specifically designed for “side sleepers” who have different body pressure/support needs than most.
You’ll have to inflate air-pads, either with lung-power, or with handy “pump sacks” that now come included with many newer pads. Of all the sleeping pad types, air pads are definitely the most packable and will be the lightest in most cases as well. Which make them great choices for “restricted space activities” like backpacking, bikepacking, and extended paddling.
Despite air pad materials getting more durable every year, one downfall is that they can puncture relatively easily. Still, punctures are pretty rare, easy to fix (even on the trail), and really only happen when mistakes are made or extensive wear and tear is obvious. Nevertheless, you should probably choose a different pad type if you’re planning on camping with your dog.
Some air pads make “crinkling” noises on tent floors. It’s not awful, but can be distracting to others in your tent if you’re a wiggly sleeper. Beware the crinkle.
Some air pads can get moisture into the inside cells when inflated by mouth. This moisture can freeze in really cold temps or mold in hot summer months, causing damage. Consider an air pad with a pumpsack that will virtually eliminate this issue.
Some of Our Favorite Air Pads
We love the NeoAir because it’s seen it all and its lack of size and weight are kind of a joke. At 12 ozs and an insulation value of 3.2 (that’s good for an air pad), the NeoAir is a feature packed, comfort-filled air pad that you’ll never regret packing.
We love this BA signature sleeping pad because it’s a time-tested, field-approved piece of equipment (that is nowhere near as expensive as the NeoAir). It’s a bit heavier than the NeoAir, but it just feels more durable, and packs down almost as small. Also, there is NO BETTER customer service or warranty than Big Agnes. They are an honest company that stands behind the stuff they make. If your Big Agnes equipment ever breaks because of normal wear and tear, they will either repair or replace it for you.
Best Budget Buy: Klymit Static V
The Klymit Static V is pretty awesome, ESPECIALLY for the price. While the version above is great for 3 Season retreats, they also created an insulated version for colder weather pursuits. It inflates quickly and the unique baffling of the air chambers are great for side sleepers.
Two negatives: Because of the baffling, it’s really not made for sitting on as too much pressure in one spot on this pad will just push the air outward, and you’ll sink to the ground. Also, when we tested these pads, they were pretty tricky to get all the air out of when packing them. We did finally get the hang of them, but they do take a bit more work to deflate and pack than their competitors.
Self-inflatable sleeping pads are just that: self-inflated. Open the valve and aire will fill the cells automatically. As opposed to air pads however, self-inflating sleeping pads use air only as supplemental support to their open cell construction. Many self-inflating pads are designed specifically for backpacking or “car” camping. Not as compact or light as air pads, they still offer great support and warmth, and are often less expensive than most air pads.
Self-inflating sleeping pads are also often made with more durable materials, so they’re great for kids, camping with dogs, or extended trips where wear and tear are likely.
Some of Our Favorite Self-Inflatable Sleeping Pads:
The ProLite by Therm-A-Rest is probably one of the most standard pieces of camping equipment available – and that’s a good thing. You can’t go wrong with this time-tested and affordable classic.
The Comfort by STS has an R-Value (Insulation performance) of 4.1, which can keep you warmer in cooler temps. It inflates automatically and has a silicone covered surface for added slip and water resistance. If you’re looking for self-inflating sleeping pads, you should definitely check this one out.
Best for Car Camping: Therm-A-Rest Luxury Map
Made with thicker padding and more plush materials, the LuxMap is perfect for those camping excursions where space and weight aren’t an issue. This thing is so nice, you won’t be ashamed to put your guests on it at home.
Closed-Cell Foam Pads
Most likely the lightest (and technically most durable) sleeping pad type available, closed-cell foam sleeping pads offer minimal padding and virtually no maintenance. Closed cell foam pads are best used when weight is a more crucial consideration than comfort. Trusted by mountaineers all over the world before air pads or self-inflating pads were even thoughts, closed-cell foam is the ultralight backpacker’s and thru-hiker’s preferred choice.
Just beware that while closed-cell foam is lightweight and durable, it is NOT meant to be the most comfortable. If you’re a minimalist, CC foam is a great choice. Otherwise, do yourself a favor and look in a different direction.
A Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pad We Love:
Sleeping Pad Features
No matter what type of sleeping pad you choose, there will be other features to consider as well. Below is a list of the most important:
We’ve mentioned insulation and R-Value throughout this post a bit. R-Value is a measurement of a material’s (or product’s) ability to insulate. Manufacturers and retailers will often post R-Value in sleeping pads so you can understand what to expect. Sleeping pad R-Values can range from 1.0 (low) to 11 (high). If you’re going to be camping in cooler temperatures or in more variable weather like in the mountains or desert, look for a pad with an R-Value of at least 3. Women may also want to consider a higher R-Value, as they are more likely to lose heat than men. Be aware of pads that DON’T have an R-Value listed. This probably means the sleeping pad was not tested for R-Value, and may often mean it does not insulate at all.
Size and Weight:
We’ve already discussed how different types of sleeping pads have different weight and packability considerations. But even within the separate types, there are different sizes available. The industry standard size for most manufacturers is 20″x 72″ with longer sizes up to 80″ and widths available up to 30. You can even get half or 3/4 sizes to shave weight. When considering size, you must also consider weight, but it pays to think of the dimensions of your tent as well. Be sure to not choose pads that won’t fit comfortably on your tent floor.
Air pads obviously need more inflation than self-inflating sleeping pads, but consider the inflation process. Is it lung-powered? This can be a challenge with some pads, especially after a long day backpacking, and even more so at higher elevations where your breath is already short. A sleeping pad with a quick-inflate valve or pump-sack can be a huge difference maker.
Pump-Sack Example: Big Agnes Pumphouse Ultra Sleeping Pad Pump
Sleeping Pad Surface:
Look for textured or brushed fabric, as opposed to straight nylon. Rub your hand across the inflated pad. The more friction created, the less likely the pad is to slip and slide on the tent floor (and make noise as you move). Also, consider what it might feel like to sleep right on top of the pad, next to your body or even skin. Would it be comfortable or abrasive? Trust me, a balance of soft and friction is do-able and should be easy to find these days.
How to Choose Your Sleeping Pad
When you’re choosing your next sleeping pad, consider what you’ll be using it for first. Then consider what your needs are: Is saving weight or space a priority? Saving money? Do you have injuries or ailments that require more support while sleeping? Will you be camping in colder or more variable weather? This guide should help point you in the right direction when choosing a sleeping pad. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out in the comments section. We’d love to hear from you!
Other Articles You Might Like:
- Guide to Buying a Backpacking Tent
- What to Buy FIRST for Your First Backpacking Trip.
- What to Consider When Buying a Backpacking Pack