How to Choose Sleeping Pads

Tents keep you dry. Sleeping bags keep you warm. It’s easy to give the love to other parts of your backcountry sleep system. Sleeping pads, as far as many people believe, just add some comfort. In reality, they’re as critical to keeping you warm and comfortable as your sleeping bag: Without a good sleeping pad, not only could you be kept awake by the rocks and roots underneath you, but you’ll be missing insulation from the ground and getting cold quickly, and likely not getting a good night’s sleep.

But with the number of sleeping pads of different types, sizes, warmths, materials, widths, and more, it can be hard to know where to start in picking the right one.

Knowing how or where you’ll be using your sleeping pad is the first step. For example, a great pad for car camping may not be great for long backpacking trips, and your ultralight air pad may not be enough for winter expeditions. Think about where you’ll be using your pad, as well as what you’ll be doing when you’re there. Keeping these thoughts in mind will not only lead to more effective pad choices, but will also allow you to use your pad to its full potential.

GO: Shop For Sleeping Pads

Credit: Lauren Danilek

What Are Sleeping Pads Made Of?

The first fork in the road to choosing the best pad for you comes with the decision between the two main categories of sleeping pads: foam or inflatable. There are pro’s and con’s to each category, and there is not necessarily one best option, although each has its superior applications.

Foam

Foam pads, generally closed-cell foam (which provides better structure and support than open-cell) are the simplest, least expensive part of a sleep system. They are foolproof to use, naturally lightweight, and practically indestructible, making foam a reliable and time-tested asset to a weary camper. They’re also highly effective insulators from the ground.

These pads are not typically made very thick to save on weight and bulk, and as such do not always provide the “sleeping-on-a-cloud” feeling that one desires after a hard day, but that does not mean that a foam pad is not comfortable, especially when you’re roughing it out in the wilderness. Because they only roll or fold up rather than deflate, they also don’t pack particularly small and are generally kept on the outside of a backpack.

Foam pads are popular in winter settings, doubling up with an air pads, as well as for backpackers or thru-hikers who need the ultimate in durability and reliability, as well as a light weight

Inflatable

The more high-tech alternative to foam pads are the inflatables—light, packable, and increasingly comfortable, these sleeping pads offer a lot to any camper, especially for backpackers and people looking to limit backpack size. A far cry from the air mattress you’d find in a friend’s guest room, modern inflatable pads are getting smaller, lighter, and tougher than ever before. These can actually be broken down into two more categories: self-inflating and air pads.

Self-inflating pads use a clever membrane of open-cell foam inside the pad that will enable it to expand and fill with air all on its own, assuming the valve is open. This generally will get you most of the way, then you may still want to top it off with a couple breaths for more support. The extra foam layer means that these can be slightly warmer than air pads, and they’re obviously easier to set up, but aren’t as packable.

Self-inflating pads are popular for shorter overnights or car camping where size and packability isn’t as much of an issue.

Air pads are essentially just a bag with a valve, and must be inflated by mouth, or increasingly commonly, with a separate inflating bad. These are the lighter option and often more comfortable because of the generally thicker inflated size, and they pack down smaller to boot.

Air pads are the bread and butter of backpackers, packing small and adding exceptional comfort and insulation.

Inflatable sleeping pads of any type can offer exceptional weight savings and surprising comfort, albeit at a higher cost. Of course, the possibility of puncturing an inflatable pad is an important factor as well—they’re much easier to damage than a foam pad. So make sure you know how to field-repair an air pad (it’s not hard).

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Sizing

Most sleeping pads come in a length enough to fit an adult, head to toe, but there may also be options for short or long pads, or even pads in different widths. Look at the size options of that specific pad—they may be different from model to model or brand to brand.

Regardless of your height, there may be cases where using a full-size sleeping pad is not exactly what you’re looking for. Particularly in ultralight applications like thru-hiking and alpinism, where every gram counts and pack space is at a premium, some users find that smaller pads, some creativity, and a little sacrifice of comfort can pay off for performance and weight savings.

Sleeping in the Cold

The winter is objectively the hardest time to camp comfortably. Cold conditions and a frozen sleeping surface make for rapid heat loss. Having an effective sleep system is crucial for winter camping (as well as the chilly shoulder seasons) to not only stay safe, but also to enjoy the experience. As for sleeping pads, the more insulation the better, and that often means bigger, or simply more pads. Sleeping pad insulation can either come inherently from the foam making it up, larger air chambers, or even a layer of synthetic insulation not unlike what you would find in a winter jacket on the inside of the pad.

What buyers need to look for in effective cold-weather pads is the associated R-value of the pad. This is the metric used to measure thermal resistance, in other words how well a material insulates. Read lots more about the R-value here, but remember that higher numbers mean better insulation. R-values are also additive, so you can combine two pads (for example, a foam pad and an air pad) to increase the insulation.

Use this chart to get a general sense of the recommended R-value of the sleeping pad you should use for each season:

  • Summer: 1+
  • 3-Season: 2+
  • Winter: 3+
  • Extreme Cold: 5+

Also keep in mind that sleeping pad temperature ratings assume you’re using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.4. If you’re sleeping bag is rated to 30 degrees but your sleeping pad only has an R-value of 3, you’ll likely be colder than you would expect.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Stuff Sacks and Inflators

Today, the stuff sacks of numerous sleeping pads serve double duty as an inflation bad. A single puff into it can be the equivalent of 10 if you were simply blowing into the valve, allowing you to blow up the pad quicker, easier, and without using all your breath. If a sleeping pad doesn’t come with an inflator, they make worthwhile accessories.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Valves

Take a look at the valve on the sleeping pad you’re considering purchasing. Some use a simple twist-closure which allow you to inflate the pad then quickly spin the valve to seal it off. Others use convenient one-way valves which let you blow in and catch your breath without worrying about the air escaping. A secondary opening that bypasses the one-way valve deflates the pad quickly when it’s time to pack up. Pay attention to how easy the pad is to inflate, deflate, and even how easy it is to let out small amounts of air, customizing the firmness when you lay down at night.

Credit: Lauren Danilek

Durability

Balancing a sleeping pad’s lightweight and packability, and its durability can be a tough compromise. Pay attention to the denier of the material making up a sleeping pad: Higher numbers mean greater durability. Weigh this against the weight and packed size of the sleeping pads. If you’re someone who cowboy camps a lot, placing your pad directly on the ground, or is generally rougher on your gear, you may want to sacrifice and bring something a little heavier but more durable. If you’re careful with your gear and plan to sleep in a tent, you might be able to get away with something a little lighter but less durable.

Maintaining your sleeping pad is simple and easy most of the time. With regular use, wiping down dirt and letting pads dry out completely after using is almost all that needs to be done.