How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

How to choose a sleeping pad

Though the sleeping bag may steal the spotlight when it comes to camping gear, the sleeping pad is no less important. Absolutely necessary to getting a good nights’ sleep in the backcountry, sleeping pads are the barrier between you and the cold, hard ground.

Just like everything else in your pack, choosing a sleeping pad that’s right for you depends on a few things, like:

  • What time of year are you going camping?
  • Are you a side-sleeper, or do you sleep on your back?
  • Is your pack weight a concern? How about space?

Here’s a handy guide of the basics to consider when shopping for a new sleeping pad.

TYPES OF SLEEPING PADS

MANUALLY INFLATED SLEEPING PADS

Manually-inflating air pads

Examples of manually inflated sleeping pads, each with a different type of valve. From left to right: The Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Pad, the Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xlite, and the NEMO Cosmo Air Mattress.

Simple, reliable and light, this type of sleeping pad requires you to blow into a valve or use a pump to inflate them. If you want the lightest pad possible that still has a decent amount of cushion and is suitable for sleeping on your side, this type of pad is the way to go.

Their open-core design, with individual baffles that fill up with air, make these pads lightweight, highly packable, and very cushioned—often being 2.5 to 3 inches thick. Some are also made with a layer of insulating foam or heat-reflecting materials, which makes them suitable for use in cold conditions.

The downfall to any inflated sleeping pad is the threat of them being punctured. Though they are made to stand up to rigorous use, an unseen rock or sharp twig can do some damage. If they do get punctured, a basic repair kit, either included with the pad or purchased after the fact, will patch it up as good as new.

Ideal for: Backpacking, lightweight camping, car camping, and if you’re a side sleeper.

SELF-INFLATING SLEEPING PADS

Self-inflating mattress

The Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus. Therm-a-Rest created the first self-inflating sleeping pad in 1971, and is still the top brand for this category of sleeping pad.

Self-inflating sleeping pads are similar to manually inflated pads, but instead of using a open-core, baffled construction, they have an open-cell foam layer that allows the pad to inflate automatically. When you open the pad’s valve, the open-cell foam expands and fills with air, 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 usually just a couple of breaths. Like a manually inflated air pad, you run the risk of puncturing a self-inflating pad, so repair kits are also either included or available separately.

Self-inflating pads and manually inflating pads are very similar and have the same usage, but for ease of use (in a slightly heavier, bulkier package) opt for a self-inflating pad.

Ideal for: Backpacking, canoe camping, overnight hiking trips, car camping, and if the last thing you want to do at the end of a long day is blow up a sleeping pad.

CLOSED-CELL FOAM SLEEPING PADS

Closed cell foam pads

The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (left), weighing in at 14 oz, is a popular sleeping pad for ultralight thru-hikers. The Alps Mountaineering Foam Mat (right), is another lightweight, inexpensive option.

The closed-cell foam sleeping pad is the most basic sleeping pad style, made using a dense foam filled with small closed air cells. They will often have a metallic, heat reflective layer on one side of the pad to provide extra warmth. This type of pad is incredibly lightweight, durable, and the most affordable.

They’re also great for impromptu breaks—since they don’t need to be inflated and deflated (and can’t pop), they can be easily thrown anywhere on the ground for a seat while you’re eating lunch or when you’re taking a siesta during the hottest part of the day.

The major drawback to these is a relative lack of cushion; a closed-cell foam pad only has about a half inch of it. They work best for people who sleep well on their back, since this lack of cushion means side sleepers will deal with uncomfortable pressure points throughout the night.

Since they are only able to be rolled or folded up, you’ll have to fasten a closed-cell foam sleeping pad to the exterior of your pack. Though their ultralight weight makes that a relatively small price to pay, if you you foresee hiking on trails that are very closed-in with trees or undergrowth then you may find your pad getting caught up on them, which can be frustrating.

Ideal for: Mountaineering, alpine and ice climbing, bike touring, thru-hiking, ultralight adventures, and if you don’t struggle with sleeping on the ground.

SHAPES & SIZING

Sleeping pads come in a variety of sizes to accommodate different needs. They’re sized in inches and/or centimeters, so it’s easy to determine what size pad you need based on your height.

You should choose a sleeping pad that’s a few inches longer than your height, so your feet won’t hang off of the end—it’s no joke how much body heat can be sapped away from contact with the ground. People doing long, ultralight trips, or thru-hikers who are willing to sacrifice a little bit of comfort in order to optimize weight and packability will sometimes opt for a smaller pad, then put extra clothes or a pack under their legs.

In addition to length, the width and shape of your sleeping pad is important to consider. Most regular-sized sleeping pads are 20 inches wide with a mummy shape, which serves the average-sized camper well in terms of balancing comfort, weight and packability. If you are a broader person, or feel like you need more space to move around at night, a wider (large sizes of sleeping pads add 5 inches to the width, making them 25 inches wide) or rectangular-shaped sleeping pad may be a better choice.

Different widths and shapes of sleeping pads

Different shapes and widths of the NEMO Tensor sleeping pad. The two pads on the left are both 20 inches wide, with the mummy shape of the first pad further shaving material and weight. The third pad, which is both rectangular and 25 inches wide, sacrifices weight savings for comfort.

INSULATION

One feature of a sleeping pad that’s easy to overlook is insulation. The air in an inflatable pad or the dense foam in a closed-cell sleeping pad 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 made with the assumption you are using a sleeping pad, which underscores their importance.

Neoair Xtherm

The Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xtherm has an R-value of 5.7, making it one of the best-insulating pads available—suitable for use in -40° temperatures.

R-VALUE

A sleeping pad’s ability to insulate is measured most often using an R-value. This is the measurement of a material’s thermal resistance.  The higher the R-value, the warmer it will be.

R-value ranges

R-value ranges

Some manufacturers, like Big Agnes and NEMO, don’t use R-values. They opt instead to simply specify a temperature range their pads are suited for.

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’re winter camping or mountaineering, make sure you have a pad with insulating properties, like foam or a heat-reflecting inner layer. 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 pads that will function perfectly for you and your personal sleeping style.
How to choose a sleeping pad

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