Which Type of Sleeping Pads are Good for Camping?

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Sleeping pads serve two vital functions when it comes to having a good night’s sleep in the great outdoors: cushioning and insulation. While it might seem like having a comfortable surface to sleep on is a pad’s most useful function, its ability to keep you warm throughout the night is often more important.

Camper putting sleeping pad into tent

Here’s how to choose a camping or backpacking sleeping pad:

  • Types of sleeping pads: Discover the three fundamental kinds of pads and how they work: air, self-inflating, and closed-cell foam.
  • Intended use: Choose whether your pad will be used for backpacking, automobile camping, or winter camping.
  • Warmth (R-value): R-value measures a pad’s capacity to prevent heat loss to the ground; greater R-values are warmer.
  • Sleep system : Being comfortable at a particular temperature depends on many other variables, including the temperature rating of your sleeping bag. It is critical to correctly match your pad and bag with your sleep system if you want to keep warm.
  • Features:  Choose which other attributes are most essential to you: weight, cushioning, size, ease of inflation, and so forth.

Try them in person: To make your final choice, go to your local REI and try out a few different pads. Lay down in your usual sleeping posture and move about as usual. When you see pads in person, you can simply judge weight and packed size.

Types of Sleeping Pads

Air Pads

inflatable sleeping air pad

Air pads come in a wide variety of styles, from lightweight ones ideal for backpacking up to extra-thick ones that are great for glamping. To boost warmth, most air pads now include insulation and/or reflective materials. Several air pads provide different inflating techniques, allowing you to conserve your breath.

Pros: Air pads are incredibly comfortable and lightweight and the most compact type of pad when packed. By releasing or adding air from the valve, you may adjust the hardness of the mattress (s). The designs and intended end uses differ greatly. Be sure that the one you pick has an R-value suited for the conditions you expect.

Cons:  The lighter and more compact the air pad, the higher the price. They can be punctured or ripped (this is most common when sharing a tent with dogs), but field repairs are possible if you carry the appropriate patch kit.

If the outside temperature changes, air pads will feel as though they are losing air, so check and adjust the firmness immediately before you go to sleep. Moisture from breath may get trapped within, resulting in poor performance or bacterial or mold growth. Utilizing a hand pump and keeping your pad unrolled with the valve(s) open can assist avoid moisture accumulation.

Some air pads make a loud crinkly sound when you move around, which can be annoying to yourself or tent mates. There is just another incentive to try on pads at a shop.

self-inflating sleeping pad

Self-inflating pads combine open-cell foam insulation with air. When the valve(s) are opened, the foam expands and automatically draws in air. Some are specifically designed for backpacking and can be folded lengthwise and then rolled up to fit inside your pack. Others are intended for automobile camping and are rolled up rather than folded. Self-inflating pads provide a variety of warmth, size, and price choices.

Pros: They’re comfortable and reasonably compact, they offer excellent insulation, and you can adjust their firmness by adding or releasing air. They are more durable than air pads in general.

Cons: They are more costly and heavier than plain foam pads, and they are not as compact as air pads. They can be punctured or ripped, though field repairs are not difficult.

Closed-Cell Foam Camping Mats

closed cell foam pad

These basic backpacking and camping pads are made of dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells. They are often rolled up or folded in a Z shape.

Pros: They’re lightweight, inexpensive, durable and offer consistent insulation in all conditions. There is no need to be concerned about punctures or leakage. They are useful for improving insulation and preventing punctures when used below other kinds of pads. These are the only pads that are safe to carry on the outside of your pack. These may also be used as seat pads in the camp.

Cons: They are less comfortable. They are hefty and rather rigid and firm.

Choosing the Best Sleeping Pad for You

Sleeping Pad Quick Comparison

Activity Type of pad Features/Benefits
Car camping Self-inflating pad or thick air pad There is a lot of cushioning and a broad variety of R-values available.
kayak & canoe touring
Air pad or lightweight self-inflating pad Comfortable, lightweight, compact, and with a broad variety of potential R-values.
Minimalist backpacking Ultralight air pad Lightweight, compact, and with a broad variety of potential R-values.
Thru-hiking Closed-cell foam camping mat Lightweight and durable
Winter camping Well-insulated air pad or self-inflating pad High R-value

When choosing a new sleeping pad, the key factor is the warmth of your overall sleep system (discussed below). It’s also a good idea to consider your planned end use:

Car camping: When you’re not limited by size and weight, you can choose a thicker, larger mattress for sleeping comfort. They are often less costly than their lightweight equivalents. Self-inflating pads are often excellent alternatives for automobile camping.

(If you want to use standard sheets and blankets instead of a sleeping bag, large inflated air mattresses are another alternative. However, these mattresses are relatively heavy and bulky and may lack insulation, so check product specs. Proper inflation necessitates the use of a pump.)

Backpacking:  Those who prefer good sleep comfort when backpacking (or touring by bike, canoe or kayak) might choose self-inflating or air pads, which offer a variety of thicknesses, durability, insulation value and weight. Optional chair kits transform your self-inflating or air pad into a comfy seat with a backrest. Backpackers may find this to be a lightweight luxury.

Minimalist backpacking:  All other considerations are subordinated to low weight and tiny packing size. Your best bet will most likely be an ultralight air pad. Some insulated full-length air pads now weigh less than a pound. Be sure to look at the packed sizes of your pad options when in the store and factor that into your decision.

Thru-hiking:  Low weight is vital here, but so is long-term durability. Your best bet is to use closed-cell foam cushions. To conserve weight, many thru-hikers use a “short” or “3/4 length” foam pad (you can lay your empty pack or extra clothing under your feet for a bit of insulation if needed).

Winter camping:  For frigid air temperatures, an insulated, high R-value air pad works well. Camping in the snow also needs additional insulation. Because R-value is additive, consider using a closed-cell foam pad underneath an insulated, moderate or high R-value air pad or self-inflating pad. The long-lasting closed-cell foam pad increases insulation while also protecting the inflatable cushion from punctures and other damage. It also acts as a backup in the event that the inflatable pad becomes damaged and cannot be repaired.

Sleeping Pad Warmth

a sleeping bag atop a sleeping pad

Insulation and R-Value

A sleeping pad’s insulation is crucial to a warm night’s sleep because you lose body heat to the cold ground beneath you. Pads reduce heat loss by using a range of materials and construction methods.

The R-value of a sleeping pad evaluates its ability to resist heat passage through it (hence the “R”). The greater the R-value of a pad, the more it will insulate you from cold surfaces. The R-values of sleeping pads vary from less than 2 (barely insulated) to 5.5 or more (very well insulated).

Manufacturers now use a consistent method to test sleeping pads for R-values, so you can compare this essential spec between any two pads, independent of brand, model, or kind.

Key facts about R-values in sleeping pads:

  • Higher numbers mean more insulation.
  • The scale is simple: an R-value of 2.0 pad is twice as warm as an R-value of 1.0 pad.
  • Just add the R-values of the piled sleeping pads to get the overall insulation.

Your Sleep System

Your Sleeping Pad and Bag Work Together

It’s always been true that your real-world warmth and comfort can vary from the tested temperature ratings based on many variables, including humidity, wind, type of shelter, ground conditions, clothing and personal preferences. The most important aspect, however, is your sleep system. A sleep system is made up of three essential components: 1) the sleeping bag, 2) the sleeping mat, and 3) the clothes of the sleeper.

If you use a less-insulated pad in colder weather, your sleeping bag may not perform as well as it should. It’s important to note that a sleeping bag’s test rating is based on a person who is wearing long underwear and socks, and is sleeping on an insulated pad with an R-value of approximately 5.5. (Accurate measurements require keeping those factors constant throughout all tested bags.)

The Magnusson Lab at REI Co-op has undertaken extensive research to assess total sleep system comfort. Sleeping bags and cushions with differing thermal performance were tested alone and in various combinations. The simple chart below illustrates suggested sleep system combinations depending on projected overnight low, sleeping pad R-value, and sleeping bag temperature rating.

Sleep Systems: What Sleeping Pad and Sleeping Bag Rating Should I Get?

Expected Nighttime Low 50°F 32°F 20°F 0°F
Pad: R-Value Range Under 2 2 – 3.9 4 – 5.4 5.5+
Bag: Temperature Rating 30°F or lower 20°F or lower 15°F or lower 0°F or lower

For the temperature rating of your bag, use its “lower limit” rating if you are a warm sleeper; use its “comfort” rating if you are a cold sleeper. Read How to Select a Sleeping Bag for Backpacking to learn more about sleeping bag ratings and how to pick one.

assortment of sleeping pad shapes and sizes

Sleeping Pad Weight

While ultralight pads are ideal for traveling, they are more pricey. You can save weight by choosing a mummy or tapered shape that reduces volume and packs smaller. Short-length closed-cell foam cushions are also lightweight. If you’re backpacking with a partner, a two-person lightweight sleeping pad can save ounces.

Sleeping Pad Length

At the very least, your shoulders and hips must fit on a mat. Standard (72-inch) and long (78-inch) cushions help insulate your legs and feet, which is especially useful on cold autumn and winter journeys. A shorter or 3/4-length pad (often 47 or 48 inches) weighs less and packs more compactly (you can put folded clothing or your pack under your legs and feet for some insulation).

Sleeping Pad Width

Almost every pad has a standard width of 20 inches. If you’re tall or like to move around a lot, a width of 25 or 30 inches would be ideal (but consider the size of your tent to ensure you can fit two wider pads side by side). Often the “long” version of a pad defaults to being wider as well, though in some styles you can get a wide pad that is still “regular” length.

Some pads have larger side baffles, often called “rails,” to cradle you and help keep you from rolling off as you turn during sleep. They are very appealing to youngsters.

Sleeping Pad Inflation

Some pads contain a high-volume inflation valve as well as a deflation valve, which may speed up or slow down air flow in or out. Some modern pads feature bigger “neck” apertures, allowing for faster inflation with fewer breaths. Pads with separate inflation chambers or layers can give you peace of mind; if one layer fails, the other will still give you some cushioning.

Sleeping Pad Surfaces

If you have trouble sleeping, choose a pad with a bumpy or brushed-fabric surface. This helps keep you and your sleeping bag from sliding off during the night. It may also be more tranquil.

Additional Sleeping Pad Considerations

Pad sleeves Some sleeping bags have an inbuilt sleeve for storing a pad. This prevents you and your sleeping bag from falling off in the middle of the night. When purchasing a pad, measure the breadth of the sleeve.

Hand pumps If you don’t enjoy having to expel your breath after a long day of trekking, seek for a pad with an inbuilt hand pump or buy a bag-style hand pump that folds up compact and weighs just a few ounces (sold separately).

Patch kits are an excellent choice for backpacking. Determine if they are included with the pad or offered separately. Be sure to understand how to patch a puncture before you leave home, in case you have to repair one in the dark.

Related Questions

  • What is the best thing to sleep on when camping?

    A sleeping pad is the finest item to sleep on when camping. On general, inflated sleeping mats are more comfortable than closed-cell foam choices, although they are more expensive. If you’re going automobile camping, you may also consider a camping air mattress.

  • Which camping pad is best?

    The Best Backpacking and Automobile Camping Sleeping Pads

    1. Our choice. Therm-a-Rest LuxuryMap Sleeping Pad. The greatest automobile camping sleeping pad.
    2. Our choice. Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Air Sleeping Mat. …
    3. Also great. Exped MegaMat Duo 10 M. …
    4. Budget pick. Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol. …
    5. Also great. Exped Widget Pump.
  • How thick should a camping mat be?

    2.5-3.5 inches

    2.5-3.5 inches: This is the ideal size for automobile camping sleeping mats. A 3-inch self-inflating pad will be high off the ground, very stable, and provide lots of insulation due to the foam.

  • What is the difference between vertical and horizontal baffles sleeping pad?

    The vertical baffles along the length of the quilt keep down from dropping to the sides, which is particularly problematic for side sleepers. The horizontal baffles at the base of the quilt help keep the footbox fully lofted and limit the amount of down that can shift away from your feet.

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