Editor’s note: Inventory can be unpredictable this year with COVID-19, so some of the items in this list might be temporarily out of stock when you read this guide. We’ll do our best to update it accordingly.
Sleeping on the dirt can be a lot of fun—as long as you have a good sleeping pad. The right mattress will cushion your joints, insulate you from the cold ground and pair nicely with your sleeping bag. But you shouldn’t have to fork over an entire paycheck just to rough it outside.
Thankfully, this year’s crop of budget-friendly sleeping pads proves you can enjoy a night’s rest at a sliver of the price. But how do you know which option is best for you? Easy: You ask us.
A crew of enthusiastic co-op members took the best sleeping pads that $100 can buy at REI into the wilderness in search of tranquil nights under the stars. They cowboy camped in Utah’s desert, backpacked in Glacier National Park, posted up in rustic backcountry lean-tos in New York’s Adirondacks and yes, threw down in their backyards—all in the name of gear testing. In the end, we boiled their notes and insights into this guide, which includes options for both backpacking and car-camping. Read on to find the ideal, less-than-$100 sleeping pad for you.
Want to create a sleep system? Read our Best Budget Sleeping Bags to find a match for you pad.
Best Sleeping Pad for Fast-and-Light Backpacking
- Versions: Unisex short, regular, and long
- Pad type: Self-inflating Insulation: Open-cell foam
- R-value: 2.4
- Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz. (regular)
- Price: $84.95–$114.95
Test Results: Backpackers, celebrate: You can have durability and carry it, too. The self-inflating ProLite is more resistant to popping and leaking than a standard air pad, and its T-shirt-soft, 50-denier polyester cover withstands rough-and-tumble excursions. We used it as a sit pad at camp and slept straight on the ground on mild Colorado summer nights, and the ProLite didn’t suffer so much as a snag. But it isn’t as bulky as most self-inflating pads: Therm-a-Rest designed the ProLite with diagonal-cut channels that reduce bulk without affecting insulation, so it compresses down into the football-sized stuff sack.
At this weight, however, comfort takes a slight hit. Though some of our testers found the 1-inch-thick mattress suitable (one compared the insulation to memory foam), side sleepers wanted more cushion. Also, the tapered shape (which keeps the ProLite light and packable) means that one foot will often slide off the pad, especially if you’re taller.
Therm-a-Rest improved on the classic ProLite in 2020 with a new valve that makes it easier to set up. It has a larger opening, which allows up to three times the airflow compared to the previous iteration, the brand says. The result: satisfied (and lazy) testers. “I got to camp, let it inflate and sat in the sunshine soaking my feet in the river,” says one such happy camper. “It was ready within five minutes.” Buy here.
Bottom Line: Perfect for warm-weather backpacking, the Therm-a-Rest ProLite is a durable self-inflating pad that’s lightweight and packable enough for faraway excursions.
- Nights out: 10
- Testing states: Colorado
- Best testing story: One member used his ProLite for a night of summer camping in the ridged bed of his pickup truck. “I parked the pad on the tailgate and watched the sunset over the mountains before stargazing all night,” he says. “It was one of my best summer memories.”
Best Sleeping Pad for Luxe Backpacking
- Versions: Unisex petite, regular and wide
- Pad type: Air pad
- Insulation: Synthetic
- R-value: 4.5
- Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz. (regular)
- Price: $89.95–$119.95
Test Results: “My pad is comfier than your pad,” declared one tester of the Insulated Air Core Ultra. Those are backcountry fighting words, but this 3.25-inch-thick mattress backed up the claim, tallying a perfect score in the comfort department in our head-to-head test. But this pad’s ability to lift your weary joints more than 3 inches off the ground is only part of the story.
The most affordable sleeping pad in Big Agnes’ lineup, the Insulated Air Core Ultra boasts an R-value of 4.5, making it warm enough for three-season use when paired with the right bag. Big Agnes achieves this relatively high warmth rating with lightweight polyester insulation that works in conjunction with a reflective foil that traps heat and sends it back to your body like an emergency blanket. Our testers also praised the guardrails on the Insulated Air Core Ultra. The chambers are one-quarter inch thicker on the outside (3.5 inches total) than in the middle, which helps the sleeper stay centered on the pad.
The Insulated Air Core Ultra is an air pad, which means that it’s louder than other mattresses in this lineup. (“I sounded like I was snoozing on a pile of crumpled newspapers,” our Montana tester reports.) It’s also more susceptible to pops and leaks, so always travel with a patch kit. Our sample held its own against sticks and brambles in Glacier National Park, but we wouldn’t make cowboy camping a habit. Nice touch: It comes with an upcycled inflation sack (made from excess pad material), so you can save your breath for the hike ahead. Buy here.
Bottom Line: The Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra provides unparalleled comfort for the price, making it a great option for backpackers willing to heft a bit more for a better night’s sleep.
- Nights out: 19
- Testing states: Colorado, Montana
- Best testing story: One member’s advice: Position your tent door toward the best view because you’ll want to linger in bed after spending the night on the Insulated Air Core Ultra. “I woke up in an alpine meadow and took my coffee right there, staring down Mt. Sneffels from my sleeping bag,” he says of Colorado’s photogenic Fourteener.
Best Sleeping Pad for Car Camping
- Versions: Unisex regular and long; women’s regular and long
- Pad type: Self-inflating
- Insulation: Open-cell foam
- R-value: 5.1 for unisex; 5.3 for women’s
- Weight: 2 lb. 8 oz. (unisex regular)
- Price: $69.95–$79.95
Test Results: If you want a lot of warmth for a little money, you’ll be hard-pressed to do any better than the Trailbreak from REI Co-op. With a whopping 5.1 R-value, the Trailbreak is the warmest sleeping pad in our head-to-head. “Not only am I a generally cold sleeper, but I also have Raynaud’s, so brisk weather at camp is my nemesis,” explains one Colorado tester. “But I passed out on the Trailbreak and slept straight through a 27°F night in Great Sand Dunes National Park without experiencing cold feet.” Credit the smart design, which focuses most of the insulation in the 1.75-inch-thick foam beneath your torso—where your body needs it most. Less insulation in the edges and foot of the pad keeps weight (and price) down.
Of course, all that cozy foam adds ounces. At 2.5 pounds, the Trailbreak is the heaviest pad in our test. You can backpack with it (if you lash it to the outside of a pack), but its home is in frontcountry car campgrounds, where bulk and weight don’t matter as much.
As with the Therm-a-Rest ProLite, getting this self-inflating pad sleep-ready is easy on the lungs. Open the valve, wait about eight minutes and top off with a few big breaths. Two separate valves—one for inflation and one for deflation—take any guesswork out of the process. Buy here.
Bottom Line: The REI Co-op Trailbreak brings the heat at a ridiculously low price, giving it a place in a car-camping kit year-round.
- Nights out: 14
- Testing states: Colorado, New York
- Best testing story: “This pad is so cushy that I could throw it directly on top of New England’s mountain balds and never worry about a rogue branch or root poking me,” says one tester. In addition to the plush foam, the Trailbreak has a soft fabric cover that’s comfy next to skin.
Most Versatile Sleeping Pad
- Versions: Unisex short and regular
- Pad type: Foam
- Insulation: Closed-cell foam
- R-value: 2.0
- Weight: 14.5 oz. (regular)
- Price: $39.95–$49.95
Test Results: It’s no surprise that a closed-cell foam pad was the lightest, most durable and most affordable in our test. What is surprising is that this particular one—the NEMO Switchback—is comfortable to boot. It’s almost an inch thick (20 percent thicker than its competitors) with squishy nodes that cushion joints and muscles. One editor dubbed it plush enough for back or stomach sleeping, “and when folded back on itself, it’s the comfiest sit pad I’ve ever used,” she says.
But the comfort doesn’t come with a size penalty. When folded, the Switchback’s nodes nest together, so it packs down just as small as thinner closed-cell foam pads, making it a good option for backpacking. “I used this on a fast-and-light desert mission, and I barely noticed I was carrying it,” said one tester after a week-long trip through Utah’s San Rafael Swell. (Note: An inch of cushion likely isn’t enough to support your hips on hard ground if you’re a side sleeper.)
Of course, the versatility of a closed-cell foam pad like the Switchback belies its categorization on REI.com. Our testers used the Switchback as an ultralight backpacking pad, a durable car-camping pad and a sit pad (you can’t puncture a foam pad). They layered it on another mattress to double the warmth rating, accordioned it on its side to create a windbreak for their stoves and laid it on the beach in lieu of a towel. That’s good bang for your buck. Buy here.
Bottom Line: The NEMO Switchback is ultralight, ultradurable and ultraaffordable, making it a solid option for most adventurers.
- Nights out: 13
- Testing states: Colorado, Utah
- Best testing story: Consider another use for the versatile Switchback: “Lying on this pad in the sand is kind of like luxuriating on waterbed, only much grittier,” our guide tester says.
By Ken Knapp
When shopping for a backpacking sleeping pad, you’re juggling the big three: low weight, adequate warmth and, well, padding. Specs tell the tale for weight and warmth; cushiness is more subjective. Size affects weight, of course, and, if you’re looking at an extra-wide and/or long pad, you should double check the dimensions of your tent to make sure it fits inside OK. If you’re looking for a car-camping sleeping pad, your motorized packhorse is doing the heavy lifting, so just pick the warmest, cushiest pad you can afford (taking into account storage space both at home and in your vehicle).
Any backpacking pad can also be used for car camping. If you want one pad for both activities, then choose it based on its backpacking attributes because car-camping pads are simply too bulky and heavy for backcountry use.
Types of Sleeping Pads
You have three main sleeping-pad styles to choose from.
Air pads: These inflatable mattresses are comfortable, pack down small and weigh very little. All quality air pads have some form of insulation inside, ranging from down to synthetics like PrimaLoft® to sophisticated arrays of reflective paneling. Air inflation is both a virtue and a drawback, however, allowing you to fine-tune pad firmness, but also making them subject to softening as temps drop. You also have to take care to ensure nothing punctures your pad. Field repairs are possible if you carry a patch kit. For tips on fixing both air pads and self-inflating pads, read How to Repair a Sleeping Pad.
Air pads are prone to making loud, crinkly sounds when you move around, which some people—and their tent mates—find annoying. Brands have engineered less rustly versions, but other pads will still be the quieter choice.
The air pad in this guide is the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra.
Self-inflating foam pads: These have open-cell foam insulation for warmth and padding, plus air inflation to enhance cushioning. To inflate one, you open a valve to let the outside air pressure plump up the pad. To get it fully inflated to your liking, though, you’ll have to blow a lungful of air or two into it.
Self-inflating pads’ warmth comes from the open-cell foam inside. Compared to air pads, they are heavier and bulkier to pack (you likely must strap it on the outside of your pack), but they’re also more affordable. Because they’re inflated, take care not to puncture them—and carry a field-repair patch kit on your trips.
Closed-cell foam pads: The original backpacking pads, closed-cell foam mattresses still have devotees who revere them for their low prices—compared to other pads—and durability. (They can also be paired with another pad to boost overall warmth.) Constructed with air-cell-filled foam, these pads provide minimal warmth and minimal padding, but do so with minimal weight. Closed-cell foam pads fold or roll up for packing, forming bulky shapes that often must be strapped onto the outside of your pack. Many backpackers cut closed-cell foam pads down to a smaller size in order to ruthlessly slash weight or to create a sit pad.
Our lone representative in this guide is the NEMO Switchback.
R-value measures a pad’s resistance to heat flowing through it (hence the “R”). Higher R-values are warmer. Below are rough guidelines about temperature conditions for different R-value ranges:
- R-value less than 2.0: Warm-weather pads
- R-value 2.0 to 3.9: Cool-weather pads
- R-value 4.0 to 5.4: Cold-weather pads
- R-value 5.5 and greater: Extreme-cold-weather pads
One big factor in warmth level is the sleeping bag you pair with your sleeping pad. This combo is your sleep system, which gives a more accurate picture of how warm you’ll sleep.
If you use a less-insulated pad at colder temps, your sleeping bag might not live up to its temperature rating. To learn more about pad warmth ratings and get a look at how bags and pads work in tandem to keep you toasty, read the Sleep System section of How to Choose a Sleeping Pad.
Our nine testers tallied more than 100 nights outside between June and August of 2020. They slept in the sand in Utah, shivered through wind gusts in Alaska and sweltered during the muggiest of nights in upstate New York.
At the end of our field test, we asked our sleepers to rate each pad on its weight, warmth, comfort, durability and packability. We tallied up the scores, found the averages and presented the best of the best to you in this guide.
Article by Heather Balogh Rochfort. Heather is a freelance writer and author specializing in the outdoors and adventure travel, particularly as they apply to women and families. Her organization WildKind educates and empowers families to find their wild. As a lifelong Colorado resident, Heather loves Type-II fun above treeline where the sun is hot and the oxygen depleted. Things she does not like: rock climbing. REI member since 2008, which she thought was impressive until learning that her husband was a member before he was old enough for a bank account.
Photography by William M. Rochfort, Jr. Will is a freelance writer and photographer based in Carbondale, Colorado. His hobbies include backpacking, bikepacking and skiing with his wife and daughter, but he is mainly known for his rare ability to double-fist milkshakes prior to meals. REI member since 1998.