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.