When most people think of a sleeping pad, they likely characterize it as a nice cushioned layer, designed to function as a buffer from the hard floor of a lean-to, lumpy roots, or uneven rocky earth. For a piece of gear with such a simple function, sleeping pads are a surprisingly complex category of outdoor product and shopping for a new pad can be daunting if you aren’t familiar with current sleeping pad technology. However, as with any outdoor product, you can narrow your selection if you consider the types of adventures and activities you love to do and what features are ideal for you.
Here is a handy guide to the features to consider when shopping for a new sleeping pad.
Different Types of Sleeping Pads
Manual Inflation Air Pads
Manual inflation pads are simple, reliable and light. They require manually blowing into a valve on the end of the pad or using a manual pump An open core design, like Thermarest’s Triangular Core Matrix, Nemo’s baffled construction or Big Agnes’ I-Beam construction, makes these pads lightweight and highly packable. Some are made with insulated or heat reflective materials and are suitable for use in cold, winter conditions.
The downfall to any air pad, however, is the threat of them puncturing or tearing. They are made with the intent of rigorous use, but accidents do happen, that unseen rock or twig can do some damage. In the event that it does puncture, a basic repair kit is either included with the pad, or available as an accessory.
Ideal for: Backpacking, lightweight camping, car camping, if you need a comfortable mattress
Self-Inflating Air Pads
Self-inflating sleeping pads are similar to manually inflating pads, but instead of using open core construction, they have an open-cell foam layer that allows the mattress to inflate automatically. When you open the pad’s valve, the open-cell foam expands and air fills the mattress, which minimizes the amount of effort and time involved with preparing your bed for the night. Some additional manual inflation is required to achieve your desired firmness, but like a manually inflated air pad, you run the risk of a puncture or tear. Repair kits are also either included with self-inflating mattresses or available separately. Self inflating pads and manually inflating pads are very similar and have the same usages. For ease of use in a slightly heavier package, opt for a self-inflating pad. For a lighter weight option that packs to a smaller size, go with a manually inflating pad.
Ideal for: Backpacking, canoe camping, overnight hiking trips, car camping
Closed Cell Foam Pads
The foam sleeping pad is the most basic sleeping pad style, made using a dense foam, filled with small closed air cells. This option is incredibly lightweight, durable, and the most affordable option. One major drawback is the inability to adjust the firmness of the pad; what you see is what you get. Also, they take up a lot of space, frequently having to be fastened to the exterior of packs, which you will hardly notice due to their light weight. Often, closed cell pads have a metallic reflective layer on one side of the pad to provide insulation.
Ideal for: Mountaineering, alpine and ice climbing, bike touring, thru-hiking, ultralight adventures.
Shapes & Sizing
Most sleeping pads will come in a variety of sizes to accommodate personal needs of different shoppers. If you’re checking in at 6’5” you are going to want a longer pad. Likewise, if you’re only 5’6” a regular sized pad should do just fine. Sleeping pads are sized in inches and/or centimeters, so you can easily determine what size mattress you need by converting your height into those measurements. Choose a pad that a a few inches longer than your height so that your feet won’t hang off of the end. People doing long, ultralight trips or thru-hikers who are willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort in order to optimize weight and compact size will opt for a small pad, then put extra clothes or a pack under their legs.
In addition to length, the thickness of your sleeping pad is important. The thicker the pad, the more comfortable it will be, especially on rough ground. Thinker pads generally have more material and are less packable. If you are car camping or canoe camping, or if you know that you would need a comfortable bed in order to fall asleep, go with a thicker pad. If you know that you can get by with a thinner pad, or if you absolutely need to prioritize low weight, go thin.
One feature of a sleeping pad that is easy to overlook or that many campers don’t know or think about is the insulation. The air in an inflatable pad or the dense foam in a closed cell mattress warms with your body heat and insulates you from the cold ground. Some sleeping pads also feature a heat reflective material in their construction, which directs body heat back toward you rather than transferring it to the ground. Temperature ratings on sleeping bags are actually made with the assumption you are using a sleeping pad!
A sleeping pad’s ability to insulate is measured using an R-value. This is the measurement of a materials thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the warmer it will be. For example, Therm-a-rest’s NeoAir All Season pad has an R-value of 4.9, while their NeoAir Trekker only has an R-value of 2.0. In this example, the higher R-value of 4.9 is considered sufficient insulation through winter conditions.
Buy the Pad that Suits You
Sleeping is a personal experience and only you truly know what level of comfort you need to sleep soundly. Think about the terrain that you’re going to be sleeping on. If you are going to lay your pad on rough ground, or you know that you can’t sleep without a certain level of cushion under your back, opt for a thicker pad. If you can sleep like a rock in any conditions, go for lighter weight and packability. Likewise, if you are winter camping or mountaineering, make sure you have a pad with insulating properties like a closed cell or self-inflating pad. If you are going to be in a situation where your pad could be punctured easily, choose a closed cell pad. If you think about the context that you will use your sleeping pad in, you can easily narrow your choices down to a few mattresses that will function perfectly for you and your personal sleeping style.