How To Buy a Sleeping Pad

There isn’t anything nice about lying on lumpy, rocky terrain – even soft grass eventually becomes squashed down to the hard ground underneath. Luckily sleeping pads separate you from the hard ground and elements. There are different types of sleeping pads for different conditions and climates, not to mention personal preference of what feels “just right”.  Read on to figure out your options for blissful slumber in the backcountry.


Each type of sleeping pad has its benefits and drawbacks, and will ultimately depend on the conditions of your trip. A few questions to ask are:

  • How many nights will you sleep on it?
  • Do you need to carry it?
  • Will size be in issue?
  • What environment/climate will you sleep in?

Air Pads: These feature tubular-shaped rows along the length of the pad that inflate with a pump or lungs. They are light, compact and offer great comfort that can be customized based on air pressure.

This style of pad varies in thickness, length, width, cut and weight. Thanks to modern design techniques, some top end hiking pads weigh in well under a pound for a regular length pad.

In general, a thicker pad will be more comfortable than a thin pad. It will usually also weigh more and take up more room in a pack. The amount of foam inside the pad will also affect how well the pad compresses for carry and weight. More foam also means a more comfy pad though, so weigh your priorities carefully.

Many camping air pads contain open cell foam inside the construction of the mattress that adds to the insulating nature of the air mattress. Check the R-Value of the mattress to find out how much it will insulate you from the cold ground.

Self-Inflating: Some air pads that use a combination of open-cell foam and air for cushioning will largely blow themselves up when a valve is opened. They are a great option and take a lot less huffing and puffing than a basic air pad. By storing them inflated and only rolling up when travelling, the self-inflation works much better. These are usually a little heavier than non-self inflating pads because more material is required to press the pad open from the inside out.

Closed Foam: These are less packable than the other pads, but offer excellent cushioning and insulation. They are also lightweight, making them a great option for backpacking if you don’t mind attaching them to the outside of your pack. They also have nothing to deflate, meaning they can’t be punctured, and are extremely durable. These work great in the cold.

Air Mattress: We’ve all slept on them when crashing at someone’s house and maybe even in a car, where they belong. They are heavy, bulky, and require a pump to inflate. But they are also extremely comfortable and a great way to acclimate your significant other to the “outdoors.” Full sized air mattresses can be fun and comfortable car camping companions, especially for long stays in developed campgrounds.

Length: Depending on your sleeping style, you might not mind a pad that only comes to your hips. Or you could be just the opposite and absolutely need something that keeps your feet soft and insulated.  If weight and space are an issue, a ¾ or ½ sized pad might be a great way to cut down on the bulk.

Width: You want the pad to cover at least the width of your shoulders or hips, whichever is larger. If you don’t, you’ll have to decide which side of your body you love more. Companies provide the width of pads at the shoulders.

Weight: Sleeping pad weights vary greatly. One popular company offers pads ranging from 8 ounces to nearly six pounds. Heavier pads are usually more comfortable and have a greater R-Value for insulation. Obviously, they also are a lot to carry and don’t compress well.

Thickness: The thickness of the pad will help determine how soft/hard it feels compared to a similar pad of differing weight.  It also can determine how well it insulates your from the ground below.

R-Value: To put it simply, the R-Value is a measurement of a material’s insulating capacity. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will feel underneath. Step up in R-value when the conditions are colder and precipitous. R-Values range greatly, from around 3 for a thin, light backpacking pad to more than 11 for a base camp pad.

Packability: Most sleeping pads are the same shape when laid out, but can vary greatly when rolled up and packed away. If the pack is going on your back, this can make a lot of difference. Check company provided information to learn about the packed size of any pad.