If you’ve been sleeping uncomfortably on an air mattress or a foam pad during your car-camping excursions, this guide is for you. There’s a better world out there, one filled with insulated, warm, comfortable sleeping pads that will lull you to sleep. You’ll wake up warm and comfortable with no back kinks or trampoline-style bouncing involved.
We started our search for the best sleeping pads of 2018 by looking at REI customer reviews. We only considered car-camping sleeping pads, not backpacking sleeping pads. We read hundreds of reviews from verified purchasers, then spoke with REI experts about sleeping pad must-haves. Then we narrowed our list to seven sleeping pads to test out and packed them into our car for a weekend under the Pacific Northwest stars. We inflated each sleeping pad according to its instructions, lounged and slept on them, and took notes about each pad’s deflate rate and durability. After all that research, we found that we liked these three sleeping pads for the following categories: best overall, best for couples and best for campers on a budget.
The Best Overall Sleeping Pad
Pad thickness: 3.5 inches
Pad weight: 4 lbs. 9 oz. (regular); 6 lbs. 3 oz. (extra-long)
Dimensions: 72 x 25 x 3.5 inches (regular); 78 x 30 x 3.5 inches (extra-long)
MSRP: $129.00- $139.00
We think the REI Co-op Camp Bed 3.5 Self Inflating Sleeping Pad is the best in its class. It inflates quickly and easily (simply spin open the self-inflate nozzle, leave the pad in your tent for 10 minutes, then top it off with a few rounds of breath) and feels comfortable all night long. We tested this pad on a rocky surface and we couldn’t feel any of the tiny stones poking through, even when we rolled over. This pad inflated faster, stayed inflated for longer (no overnight deflation!) and felt less like sleeping on the ground compared to every other model we tested.
The Camp Bed 3.5 features a polyester top that feels soft on the skin. Its polyester bottom is thick and feels like it would be hard to pop, and the pad’s 6.0 R-value offers more insulation than most of the other pads in this price range. We didn’t feel any ground coldness during the night, even as the temperatures dropped into the low 60s. In addition to the air in this pad, cored open-cell foam adds extra comfort and warmth.
The only annoying thing about this pad is getting it back in its stuff sack: Make sure to give the pad ample time to deflate, then take your time rolling it up. Otherwise, you’ll be hard-pressed to fit it into its original bag. Some users reported these pads get harder to roll up over time, too, so using the included straps after you roll the pad up is key.
Says one user: “My old bones and joints are getting too old to rough-it and the Camp Bed is the cats meow for getting comfortable night’s rest. I'm 6' 3" I bought the XL and I can scoot around, turn over and stretch out and don't have to worry about slipping off the edge of the bed. The XL might be too large for a backpacker to lug around, but with a little rearranging, I have no trouble packing it in the kayak.”
The Best Sleeping Pad for Couples
Pad thickness: 3.9 inches
Pad weight: 9 lbs. 14.7 oz. (double); 7 lbs. 8 oz. (regular)
Dimensions: 77.6 x 52 x 3.9 inches (double); 72 x 41 x 3.9 inches (regular)
The Exped MegaMat Duo 10 is known to be one of the best car-camping sleeping pads on the market, and after sleeping on it for a night in the woods we think its reputation holds up. The MegaMat Duo 10 provides both comfort and stability: It feels like an air mattress but doesn’t bounce around like one because of the built-in open-cell foam. The pad’s 9.5 R-value insulation meant we were incredibly warm all night, and because the double duo pad is so large, we didn’t slip off at all. In fact, we thought this sleeping pad was closer to a bed than anything else you can sleep on in the wilderness. (We tested the double, but if you don’t plan to sleep with someone else, Exped also offers a single version.)
There were a few small downsides to the Exped MegaMat. The pad didn’t blow up easily during our first night of using it: It didn’t inflate much on its own after the instructed hour passed (for the first use only), and the built-in pump failed to inflate the pad. We ended up using an aftermarket pump to fill the pad more quickly. According to the pad’s reviews, this is quite common on first use. When we took this pad out for the second time, the self-inflate properties worked more quickly and we didn’t need the aftermarket pump at all.
It’s also worth noting that this is definitely a car-camping sleeping pad. It doesn’t pack down small. But it comes with a nice carrying duffel for fairly easy transport and the pad’s overall comfort made it our favorite sleeping option for couples, despite these minor issues.
“We are obsessed with this mat. It's so comfy we use it for guests at our house and it's been our main bed for the last month as we just moved into a new house,” said one REI customer. “We LOVE it. It takes a few nights to get the absolute most out of it but even on the first night, it's still super comfy and awesome. Comes with a mini manual inflator to speed up the process if you're anxious to get to bed. It just keeps getting better over 2, 3 and 4 nights. Our camping friends threw away their air mattress after seeing our mat and now they own it too.”
The Best Sleeping Pad for Campers on a Budget
Pad thickness: 1.5 inches
Pad weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz.
Dimensions: 72 x 27.5 x 1.5 inches
We think the Kelty Discovery Sleeping Pad is the most supportive sleeping pad option for car campers on a budget. Despite its thin appearance, we found it to be surprisingly comfortable while lounging on the rock-covered ground. The budget price of the sleeping pad makes it a great choice for those who only plan to camp occasionally, or for people who want a lightweight mat that they could also take backpacking.
Compared to the other low-cost pads we tested, the Discovery was the most supportive, easy to inflate and most insulated option. It blows up on its own within two minutes, after you twist the self-inflate knob, although you may want to top it off with a breath or two. It stays inflated all night long, too, and you don’t feel the ground beneath you when you roll. One tester, who has low back issues, liked this pad more than its expensive peers because he said it offered incredible solid spinal support all night long.
Sleeping Pads for Car Camping: Buying Guide
Sleeping pads started as thin foam pads that could be rolled up and packed away for backpacking trips. In the early 1970s, Therm-a-Rest created a self-inflating foam mattress that provided insulation and modest comfort. It was a hit for car campers.
Since then, the comfortable, car camping-oriented sleeping pad industry has exploded. You no longer have to choose between a thin foam pad or a bouncy, non-insulated air mattress. “When you’re car camping, the expectation is that you want something close to the comfort of your home, but in a tent,” says Jon Almquist, REI’s product manager of Co-op Brands. Now, most car-camping sleeping pads offer open-cell foam sandwiched between layers of air-proof materials.
When it comes to car camping, comfort is king and size matters less. Thus, you can get away with bringing a pad that doesn’t compress to the size of a small vessel but provides more comfort. Popular types of sleeping pads include self-inflating pads, which inflate automatically by allowing the air to come in and out through a valve that encourages the pad’s foam to rebound, and air pads, which require a pump or your breath to inflate.
Backpackers will often choose sleeping pads that are lighter and more packable, like insulated air pads or closed-cell foam pads, which are lightweight and don’t inflate at all.
What is R-value?
R-value is a measure of insulation. The higher the number, the warmer the pad. The R-values shown on REI.com product pages range from 1.0 (minimally insulated) to 11.0 or more (very well insulated). For example, if you’ll be car camping in fair weather, you’ll probably be fine with an R-value in the upper 2s and lower 3s. If you get a thicker sleeping pad, the R-value will typically increase because of the construction of the pad.
It’s important to note that your sleeping pad is just one part of your sleep system; your sleeping bag choice also matters when it comes to retaining warmth.
How should I store my sleeping pads?
Sleeping pads can last for a long time. “I’ve had some that have lasted for over 10 years,” says Almquist, although he notes that he’s very careful with his pads.
After you come back from a camping trip, leave your self-inflating sleeping pads unrolled with the valves open. Almquist says he stores his in a pile under a spare bed. “Air pads don’t inflate on their own, so we recommend that when you’re done with your trip and you take it out of your car, open it up and put a little air in there so it relaxes. This allows the insulation to stay lofted so it’s not compressed between camping trips.”
Moisture can cause sleeping pads to deteriorate over time, so try to use a pump rather than breathing into an air pad. “Blowing into them adds unnecessary moisture, so the less breathing you do into them, the better,” says Almquist.
If your sleeping pad does get a hole, patch kits are available.