The Sleeping Pad Shopping Guide
Right up there with your tent and sleeping bag, the sleeping pad is one of the most important pieces of gear that will determine whether or not you have a good night's rest when you're backpacking.
Choose wisely and you'll sleep like a baby, waking up refreshed to take on the next day's journey. But if you choose the wrong sleeping pad you'll be miserable and sore.
The problem with finding the right sleeping pad is that so many of the factors are subjective. Manufacturers will give you the R-value (aka how insulated is the pad) and the size but that's about it. Everything else like the comfort and noise levels are a matter of personal opinion.
After reading this article you'll be able to quickly identify what factors are most important for you to find the right sleeping pad and what features are extras that aren't worth paying for.
3 Types of Sleeping Pads
The first step to choosing the right sleeping pad is figuring out what style best suits you. There are 3 main categories to consider and we'll take a look at each one in depth.
- Inflatable - These pads are filled with air and are usually lightweight and relatively comfortable.
- Self inflating - These pads inflate themselves and are very comfortable but they weigh more due to the self inflating mechanisms.
- Closed cell foam - These pads are made of solid foam and they're the least comfortable to use. The trade off is that they're very lightweight and affordable because they have no moving parts.
Inflatable sleeping pads are the most popular and widely used in the backpacking world. They're lightweight while still being comfortable to sleep on. There are a ton of choices that range from ultralight sleeping pads up to thick, luxurious pads that can weigh several pounds.
Pros: Inflatable sleeping pads are lightweight and more comfortable than closed cell foam pads. They're easy to adjust the firmness by adding or removing air and can be packed down to a very small size so they fit easily in your backpack.
Cons: Inflatable pads can be punctured but this risk is relatively low if you choose your campsite carefully. You can also carry a repair kit with you to fix any leaks. Inflatable pads can also be very noisy which can be annoying if you move around a lot in your sleep.
[amazon box=”B00PZL14EK” rating=”5″ title=”Best Inflatable Pad: Thermarest Neo Air Xlite” description=”The Thermarest Neo Air Xlite is consistently rated as the #1 inflatable sleeping pad. It’s small size, light weight, and comfortability all blend together to make it a master of the 3 most important categories when choosing a sleeping pad.”]
Self inflating sleeping pads have a special valve mechanism that sucks in air and does about 80% of the inflation work for you. This usually takes a coulpe of minutes and only fills the pad up part of the way. To get it fully inflated you'll have to finish the job with a couple of deep breaths but it's much easier than a regular inflatable sleeping pad.
Self inflating pads are much thicker than inflatable pads and as a result, more comfortable. The trade off is that they're extremely bulky, usually so much so that they won't fit inside of your pack and will need to be strapped to the outside.
Pros: Self inflating pads do some of the work for you and are very comfortable to sleep on. They also have higher R values than regular sleeping pads because of the self inflating mechanisms inside of the pad.
Cons: Self inflating pads are very bulky and heavy compared to regular inflatable pads. If you buy a long or wide inflatable pad it probably won't fit inside of your pack without taking up more than half of the space.
[amazon box=”B01LYNE43A” title=”Best Self Inflating Pad: Sea to Summit Comfort Plus” description=”The Sea to Summit Comfort Plus is a plush, 3inch thick self inflating pad that feels like a bed. The tradeoff for this comfort is that it weighs almost 2 pounds and is very bulky when rolled up.”]
Closed Cell Foam
Closed cell foam is the oldest version of a sleeping pad. It's a solid piece of foam that goes between you and the ground and doesn't require any air or moving parts. Since foam pads are so simple they're usually much more affordable than inflatable pads.
They're also lighter weight and you don't have to worry about getting a rip or a hole in the pad. The downside is that they're less comfortable than inflatable pads for most people since there's less padding underneath you.
Pros: Closed cell foam pads are cheap and reliable. They'll never break in the middle of a backpacking trip and they're extremely lightweight. Foam pads can also easily be used as chairs/resting spots at camp since you don't have to worry about rocks poking holes in them.
Cons: Foam pads don't collapse down so they're pretty large when packed away which is why most people strap them to the outside of their backpacks. They're also less comfortable than inflatable pads.
[amazon box=”B005I6R0WC” title=”Best Closed Cell Foam Pad: Thermarest Zsol” description=”The Thermarest Zsol is the unanimous pick for #1 foam pad in the backpacking world. It’s affordable, lightweight and insanely durable.”]
Sleeping Pad Features to Look For
When you're looking for a sleeping pad, figure out which of these factors are most important to you. You'll have to prioritize because almost no sleeping pad on the market will be the #1 choice in every area. Pick which ones are most important to you and which ones you're OK with being subpar.
I'm going to list these features in the order that was most important to me when I was on the hunt for a new sleeping pad. This might not be the same order of priority as what you have in mind but that's OK, just make sure to remember what ones you care about the most.
The R-value is a measurement of how well a sleeping pad will insulate you from the ground. The main goal of a sleeping pad is to keep you insulated from the ground so you don't lose all your heat during the night so this is the first feature to check when looking for a sleeping pad.
The best way to think about the R-value is that it equals the resistance to heat loss.
A low R-value means less insulation which means you will lose heat more quickly. A high R-value means higher insulation so you will keep your body heat trapped in your sleeping bag.
If you're camping during the winter you'll want an R-value of at least 5.0. For summer camping you can get by with an R-value of 2.0 or higher. Some people are fine with lower R-values but I wouldn't want anything less than 2.0 just in case I end up camping somewhere that gets down into the 30s during the summer.
Right up there with keeping you warm, a sleeping pad should be comfortable to sleep on. I've had a couple nights of backpacking where I didn't sleep well and it made the hike the next morning 10x harder than it should have been. Getting a good night's rest when you're backpacking is priceless and your sleeping pad plays a huge role in this.
The best way to judge the comfort of a sleeping pad is by reading other people's reviews. You can't even really test the comfort of a pad in the store because laying on it for a few minutes doesn't show you what it will be like overnight.
There are 2 dimensions you have to choose when you buy a sleeping pad; the length and the width.
A standard sleeping pad is 20" wide and a wide pad would be 25" across.
A standard pad's length is 72" with the long version usually measuring 78".
If you're even close to being 6' tall, I'd recommend getting the longer/wider size sleeping pad. They weigh a couple ounces more but are 10x more comfortable. It sucks to roll off of your sleeping pad in the middle of the night and the extra room makes it feel a lot more spacious in your tent.
There are also some short sleeping pads that are 48" long. These are mostly meant for ultralight backpackers who are looking to cut every spare ounce. The idea behind this is that your sleeping bag mostly gets compressed underneath your back so that's the only spot that you need the insulation of a sleeping pad.
Your legs don't compress the down very much so you don't really need a pad between your legs and the ground. I thought it felt weird to sleep with my legs hanging off the sleeping pad so I never considered the short pads as an option.
Like all backpacking gear, the lighter you can make it the better. The weight of the pad is going to be tied to the size and R-value. A large size sleeping pad with a high R-value will weigh more. A standard size sleeping pad with a low R-value will weigh less.
Figure out what the trade off is worth to you and make the decision. Usually you'll be sacrificing less than a half pound to get the sleeping pad you want so there isn't a lot to gain by skimping on the size or R-value.
Obvious one here, not trying to break the bank when I get a sleeping pad. You can get a great sleeping pad for $100 and there's even some great options in the $50-$75 range. Of course you can go all the way up to several hundred dollars on some of the thicker, more luxurious pads so make sure to compare the price when looking at different sleeping pads.
Sometimes a pad will cost $50 more and the only difference is that the R-value is a 6.0 instead of a 5.0. Once you cross the $150-ish range, the additional money doesn't get you as much in the way of extra features or lower weight.
This isn't something people usually think about when they're looking for a sleeping pad but it's really important. This just means thinking about how well you can stay on the sleeping pad at night.
If you toss and turn a lot during the night, you will probably want to find a pad that's 25" wide and maybe even one with raised baffles on the edges to keep you in place.
If you don't move at all and don't need extra space, go with the 20"and save some money and weight.
Ease of Inflation
After hiking up 3,000' feet in Colorado I was exhausted. I set up my tent so I could collapse on the ground and rest and when I went to blow up my sleeping pad I realized I didn't have the energy to even breathe out 15 times to fill the pad up.
Some sleeping pads are gigantic or have small valves which means they take longer to fill up. Huffing and puffing for 5 minutes while you get light headed isn't fun and you'll dread setting up camp every time you go backpacking.
Look for sleeping pads that have 2 valves, one for inflating and one for deflating so you aren't fighting with the pad to keep the air inside of it.
If you don't have a lot of room in your pack, you'll probably need to rule out self inflating pads or closed cell foam. Even if you do have a 60L pack like I do, I wouldn't be able to fit my self inflating Mountain Alps sleeping pad inside because it's so gigantic.
Most inflatable sleeping pads pack down to about the same size (the size of a Nalgene water bottle). But self inflating pads can be pretty big and unwieldy, especially if your backpack doesn't have straps on the bottom to hold a sleeping pad.
Some sleeping pads are noisy and people complain about having a hard time sleeping because the pad is so loud. Personally I've never noticed this and I usually bring a pair of ear plugs with me anyways when I'm backpacking so I can sleep easy. For some people this is a major annoyance so you'll want to look out for reviews where people complain about the noise.
Other Things to Consider
Some sleeping pads have separate valves for inflating and deflating your sleeping pad. This makes it easier to handle because you don't have to constantly fight air escaping the sleeping pad as you try to inflate it.
If you're not sure why this would be helpful, imagine blowing up a balloon and trying to tie it shut and keep all of the air inside of it. You always have air rushing out and it's a struggle to tie it as fast as possible.
By using separate valves for air going in and out, you don't have to fight against your sleeping pad to keep it fully inflated which makes it easier to manage. After spending the day hiking up a mountain, the last thing you want to do is fight with your sleeping pad, blowing more and more air into it so it can be comfortable to sleep on.
Double Stacking for Cold Climates
If you like to backpack in cold climates, it can be more cost efficient to buy 2 sleeping pads and stack them together to increase the R value than it would be to buy 1 really nice sleeping pad.
A common strategy for cold weather hiking is to buy a closed cell foam pad that goes on the ground first, then you place your normal sleeping pad on top of it. Since closed cell foam pads are so cheap you'll save money and also give your inflatable pad a little extra protection from the ground.
To calculate the R-value of a 2 pad setup, just add the individual R-values together. So a closed foam pad with an R-value of 3.0 and an inflatable pad with an R-value of 2.5 would have a combined R-value of 5.5 when stacked together. Easy enough.
Besides keeping you from coming into direct contact with the ground, your sleeping pad's main mechanism for keeping you insulated at night is the air inside of the pad.
Quite simply, the more air you put in your pad, the more insulation you'll have. It's recommended you inflate your sleeping pad as much as possible if you want to maximize the R-value.
By not fully inflating your sleeping pad you make it more likely you'll come into contact with the ground when you roll around at night. This is especially true for side sleepers.
Side sleepers put more pressure on their pad near their hips and should take extra care to fully inflate their sleeping pads to help counter this.
Sleeping Pad Material
Some sleeping pads are REALLY loud when you move around. All sleeping pads make noise but some are worse than others.
If you're a light sleeper and want to avoid being woken up during the night by a loud pad, you should look for one that has a textured or brushed-fabric surface. This helps reduce the noise level when you move around during the night and makes a big difference.
I've never found this to be a big problem but it's definitely a personal issue so for some people the noise level alone of a specific pad will be a total deal braeker.
The only way you can tell how noisy a sleeping pad will be (other than buying it and using it in the real world) is to read a TON of reviews. If you read enough of them you'll probably come across someone who had an issue with the noise level. The more complaints you see about the noise, the more likely it is that pad is actually noisy and it's not just people complaining over nothing.
Most people buy a sleeping pad and sleeping bag as two separate items. Later on you can swap out your pad or bag for a new one with no issue.
As ultralight backpacking has become more popular, there's been a push by some people to cut the weight of their sleep system by using a quilt. The issue with a quilt is if you move around at night, it can let in air since the back of the quilt isn't sewn shut.
To combat this, manufacturers have created sleep systems which are sleeping pad and quilt/sleeping bags which go together. They usually consist of some type of attachment mechanism on the sleeping pad like clips which will grab on to the quilt and keep it in place at night, even if you toss and turn during your sleep.
These systems have the obvious benefit of using a quilt which helps reduce weight and the increased comfort by preventing cold air from getting into your quilt. The drawback is that they're usually model specific which means if you want to upgrade or change your pad/bag later on, you'll have to change out both pieces of gear since the new one won't be compatible with your previous setup.
If you don't want to use your lungs to inflate your sleeping pad you can buy a small hand operated pump. Personally I don't want the extra weight or expense and blowing up my sleeping pad usually only takes 30-60 seconds. There are some lightweight pumps out there that only weigh a few ounces though if you're interested in one.
A repair kit is an essential piece of gear to bring with you when hiking. Having a leak in your sleeping pad means you'll end up the ground during the night with an R-value of 0.
Even in warm weather, the ground is usually a constant 50-60 degrees which will quickly suck the heat from you when you're asleep.
Some sleeping pads come with a repair kit and some don't. There really isn't any rhyme or reason to it so you'll have to carefully read the product details for any pad you're looking at.
When I bought a $40 self inflating sleeping pad on Amazon it came with a repair kit.
The REI Flash I bought directly from REI didn't include one.
So double check before your purchase and know what you're getting. If the sleeping pad you want doesn't come with a repair kit you can just pick one up separately for pretty cheap.
Wrap Up/More Info
If you want to see what sleeping pads I recommend you can check out my Ultralight Gear List here.
You should also check out this helpful, 5 minute video on how to choose a sleeping pad by Sierra Trading Post. There's some great info in here. Good luck!