How to choose a sleeping pad

Sleeping pads provide 2 vital benefits: cushioning and insulation. Cushioning might seem like a pad's most useful function, but often more important is its ability to insulate your body from cold surfaces. This article helps you find the best sleeping pad for your needs.

Shop REI's selection of sleeping pads.

How Do Sleeping Pads Work?

Sleeping pads insulate the same way that sleeping bags and clothing layers do. They trap and hold a layer of "dead" (non-circulating) air between your body and the cold (in this case, the cold ground). Your body gradually warms this layer of dead air and it becomes an insulating barrier.

Beneath you, though, a sleeping bag's heat-trapping loft gets compressed to almost nothing due to the weight of your body. As a result, you need a pad to buffer you from heat-depleting contact with the cold ground (this is known as "conductive" heat loss). The insulative performance of a pad depends upon how much air it holds inside and how free that air is to circulate.

Shop by Your Style and Activity

  • Minimalists and long-distance hikers seek out the lightest possible pad. Low weight and a small packed size override all other factors. Pick a basic foam pad or a "short" or "3/4 length" of a self-inflating or air-pad model.
  • Backpackers who prefer more comfort can choose pads with greater thickness and durability. The tradeoff, of course, is a modest increase in weight.
  • For car camping, boat camping and other situations where size and weight are not limiting factors, you are free to choose a thicker, larger mattress for more luxurious sleeping comfort.
  • Winter camping on snow requires more insulation. REI recommends the use of 2 pads: an inflatable air pad atop a closed-air-cell foam pad. The foam pad adds insulation and offers insurance in case the inflatable pad gets punctured.

Sleeping Pads for Backpacking

Air Pads

Air pad for backpacking

These pads use air for cushioning with some models integrating insulative fill or reflective materials to increase warmth. They must be manually inflated; some models include an external stuff-sack pump or integrated hand pump to help inflate the pad.

Pros: Comfortable and lightweight. Fine for backpacking or camping in warm conditions; insulated models can be used year-round.

Cons: Heavier than simple foam pads and more expensive. Can be punctured or ripped, though field repairs are not difficult.

Shop REI's selection of air pads.

Self-Inflating Pads

Self-inflating sleeping pad

Pioneered by Therm-a-Rest® pads, these offer a combination of open-cell foam insulation and air. Open the pad's valve and air fills the vaccuum.

Pros: Comfortable; compact; excellent insulation; automatic inflation; adjustable firmness.

Cons: Heavier than simple foam pads and more expensive. Can be punctured or ripped, though field repairs are not difficult.

Shop REI's selection of self-inflating sleeping pads.

Foam sleeping pad

Foam Pads

These basic backpacking pads feature dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells.

Pros: Lightweight, inexpensive; durable; excellent insulation. Won't absorb water.

Cons: Less comfortable. Relatively stiff and firm, so they tend to be bulky.

Shop REI's selection of foam pads.

Compare Specs and Features

Length: At a minimum, your shoulders and hips need to fit on a pad. Regular (typically 72" long) and long (from 75" to 78") pads will insulate your legs and feet—a big plus on chilly fall and winter trips. A short or 3/4-length pad (usually 47" or 48") weighs less and packs smaller.

Width: Nearly every pad offers a standard width of 20". If you tend to roll around a lot, you may want a width of 25" or 30". Tapered-shape pads reduce volume a bit and pack smaller. Also, consider the size of your tent to ensure you can fit 2 wider pads side by side.

Women's pads: These pads are shorter (66" is typical), and many add insulation at the hips and feet.

R-value: Insulation is measured according to its capacity to resist (that's the "R") heat flow. The higher a pad's R-value, the better you can expect it to insulate you from cold surfaces. The R-values shown on REI.com product pages are provided by the manufacturers and range from 1.0 (minimally insulated) to 9.5 (well insulated). Thicker pads generally offer higher R-values.

Textured surface: If you're a restless sleeper, look for a pad with a textured surface to minimize slippage.

Camping Mattresses

Camping air mattress

Air Mattresses

These car-camping mattresses use air for comfort and are much thicker than foam pads. They are as close to a real bed as you can get and are usually sized to take regular sheets. Some include multiple air chambers for custom adjustments; others feature bulit-in pillows.

Pros: Extremely comfortable. Easy and quick to inflate with a portable electric pump. Suitable for car or boat camping, or as a guest bed at home.

Cons: Relatively heavy and bulky. Pump required for proper inflation. No insulation; for mild conditions only.

Shop REI's selection of air mattresses.

Self-Inflating Mattresses

These use the same foam-and-air technology as the self-inflating pads for backpacking, but they are thicker and more comfortable.

Try Before You Buy

If possible, visit your nearest REI store to try out a few different pads before deciding on a single model. This will help you get a feel for:

  • How much cushioning (pad thickness) you need to be comfortable.
  • What length and width you prefer
  • A pad's weight and packability and how quickly it inflates.

Accessories

Pad chair kit

Sleeping pad options include:

Chair kits: These let your self-inflating or backpacking air pad do double-duty as a comfortable seat, complete with backrest. A lightweight luxury for backpackers.

Sit pads: These downsized sleeping pads offer a cushioned seat for backcountry use. They're easy to pack and help keep your clothes clean; their downside is not having a backrest.

Pillows: To enhance your sleeping comfort, bring an inflatable or compressible camp pillow.

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