How to Choose Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads play two very important roles for getting a solid night's sleep in the great outdoors: cushioning and insulation. While it might seem like having a comfortable surface to sleep on is a pad's most useful function, its ability to keep you warm throughout the night is often more important.

Here’s how to choose a sleeping pad for camping or backpacking:

  • Types of sleeping pads: Learn about the three basic types of pads and how they perform — air, self-inflating, and closed-cell foam.
  • Intended use: Decide which activity your pad is for — backpacking, car camping, winter camping, etc.
  • Features: Decide which features are most important to you — weight, cushioning, size, insulation.

Try them in person: To make your final decision, try to visit your local REI and test a few different pads. Be sure to lie down on your back or side as you would typically sleep, and try rolling on the pad as well. This will give you a sense for what feels comfortable, and you can easily assess the weight and packed size.

 

Types of Sleeping Pads

Air Pads

inflatable sleeping air pad
 

Air pads have gotten lighter than ever and are ideal for backpacking. Most air pads now contain insulation or reflective materials to increase warmth. You’ll need to inflate them, usually with your breath (most can be inflated in 3 minutes or less). However, some models feature a built-in hand pump and some brands offer a lightweight bag-style external hand pump (usually sold separately).

Pros: Air pads are incredibly comfortable and lightweight and the most compact type of pad when packed. Most are designed for backpacking or camping in warm conditions (about 3 R-value) while others are designed with additional insulation for four-season use. You can customize the firmness of the mattress by releasing some air from the valve while you’re lying on it.

Cons: Air pads tend to be more expensive the lighter and more compact they are. They can be punctured or ripped (this is most common when sharing a tent with dogs), but field repairs are not difficult.

Air pads have a tendency to feel as if they are losing air if the outside temperature fluctuates, so try to blow them up right before you go to sleep. While rare, moisture from breath can get trapped inside, leading to freezing issues in winter or mold issues in summer. (Using a hand pump will help prevent moisture build-up.)

Some air pads make a loud crinkly sound when you move around, which can be annoying to yourself or tent mates.

 

Self-Inflating Pads

self-inflating sleeping pad
 

 

Self-inflating pads offer a combination of open-cell foam insulation and air. Open the pad’s valve and air fills the chambers automatically. Some are specifically designed for backpacking and can be folded lengthwise and then rolled up to fit inside your pack. Others are designed for car camping and are rolled up without folding. This category has the options for the warmest, widest and (aside from closed-cell foam pads) the least expensive pads.

Pros: They’re comfortable and compact, they offer excellent insulation, and you can adjust their firmness by adding or releasing air. They’re made with stronger fabrics than many air pads so are a good choice for children. They don’t feel like they lose air at night.

Cons: They’re heavier and more expensive than simple foam pads, and not as compact as air pads. They can be punctured or ripped, though field repairs are not difficult. 

 

Closed-Cell Foam Pads

closed cell foam pad
These basic backpacking pads are made of dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells. They’re usually rolled up or folded in a Z formation.

Pros: They’re lightweight, inexpensive, durable and offer good insulation. You don’t need to worry about punctures or leaks. These are the only pads that can be carried on the outside of your pack without fear of damage. They can also double as sit pads in camp.

Cons: They are less comfortable. They’re relatively stiff and firm, so they tend to be bulky.

 

Choosing the Best Sleeping Pad for You

camper using a sleeping pad outdoors
 

Sleeping Pad Quick Comparison

Activity

Type of pad

Features / Benefits

Car camping

Self-inflating pad or thick air pad

Lots of cushioning, but bulkier and heavier

Backpacking/Bikepacking/
Kayak & canoe touring

Air pad or lightweight self-inflating pad

Comfortable, lightweight, packs small

Minimalist backpacking

Ultralight air pad

Lightweight, packs small

Thru-hiking

Closed-cell foam pad

Durable, but not as comfortable

Winter camping

Well-insulated air pad or self-inflating pad

Synthetic fiber or down insulation offers a high R-value

When choosing a new sleeping pad, it’s helpful to keep the following considerations in mind:

Car camping: When you’re not limited by size and weight, you can choose a thicker, larger mattress for sleeping comfort. Often these are less expensive than their lightweight counterparts. Self-inflating pads are often good choices for car camping.

(Large inflatable air mattresses are another option if want to use regular sheets and blankets instead of a sleeping bag. However, these mattresses are relatively heavy and bulky and they lack insulation, so they’re best for mild conditions only. A pump is required for proper inflation.)

Backpacking: Those who prefer good sleep comfort when backpacking (or touring by bike, canoe or kayak) can choose self-inflating or air pads, offering a variety of thicknesses, durability, insulation value and weight. Optional chair kits let your self-inflating or air pad do double-duty as a comfortable seat, complete with backrest. This can be a lightweight luxury for backpackers.

Minimalist backpacking: Low weight and a small packed size override all other factors. An ultralight air pad is probably going to be your best bet. Some insulated full-length air pads now weigh less than a pound. Be sure to look at the packed sizes of your pad options when in the store and factor that into your decision.

Thru-hiking: Here, low weight is important, but durability for the long haul is also key. Closed-cell foam pads are your best bet. Many thru-hikers pick a “short” or “3/4 length” foam pad to save weight (you can lay your empty pack or extra clothing under your feet for a bit of insulation if needed).

Winter camping: Camping on snow requires more insulation. REI recommends the use of two pads: an insulated, high-R-value air pad or self-inflating pad atop a closed-cell foam pad. The closed-cell foam pad adds insulation and offers insurance in case the inflatable pad gets punctured.

 

Sleeping Pad Features

assortment of sleeping pad shapes and sizes
 

Insulation and R-Value

Even in summer, insulation is important to a good night’s sleep because you lose body heat to the ground. To counteract this, most air and self-inflating pads now have a layer of synthetic insulation inside. A few pads offer down insulation and tend to be geared toward sleeping in very cold environments.

A sleeping pad's R-value measures its capacity to resist (hence 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 (very well insulated).

Most manufacturers give either an R-value or temperature range to help you gauge how much insulation the pad provides. Thicker pads generally offer higher R-values and the average summer camping pad should be around 3 or higher. Campers who sleep cold, often women, may want to choose a pad with an R-value of at least 4. Some women-specific pads put more insulation in the core and feet area where women lose heat fastest. Note that unlike with sleeping bags, choosing a higher warmth rating in a sleeping pad won’t lead to overheating.

 

Sleeping Pad Weight

Ultralight pads are excellent for backpacking but are more expensive. You can save weight by choosing a mummy or tapered shape that reduces volume and packs smaller. Closed-cell foam pads in short lengths are also quite low in weight. If you’re backpacking with a partner, a two-person lightweight sleeping pad can save ounces.

 

Sleeping Pad Length

At a minimum, your shoulders and hips need to fit on a pad. Regular (typically 72 inches long) and long (typically 78-inch) 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 inches) weighs less and packs smaller (you can put folded clothing or your pack under your legs and feet for some insulation).

 

Sleeping Pad Width

Nearly every pad offers a standard width of 20 inches. If you’re a large person or tend to roll around a lot, you may want a width of 25 or 30 inches (but consider the size of your tent to ensure you can fit two wider pads side by side). Often the “long” version of a pad defaults to being wider as well, though in some styles you can get a wide pad that is still “regular” length.

 

Sleeping Pad Construction

Some pads have larger side baffles, often called “rails,” to cradle you and help keep you from rolling off as you turn during sleep. These are especially nice for children. Some pads feature a pillow baffle for your head. Baffle design is largely a personal preference.

 

Sleeping Pad Inflation

Some pads have both a high-volume inflation valve and a deflation valve, which can speed air flow in or out. Some new pads have larger “neck” openings that allow fast inflation with fewer breaths. Pads with separate inflation chambers or layers can give you peace of mind: If one layer fails, the other will still give you some cushioning.

 

Sleeping Pad Surfaces

If you're a restless sleeper, look for a pad with a textured or brushed-fabric surface. This helps keep you and your sleeping bag from sliding off during the night. It might also be quieter.

 

 

Additional Sleeping Pad Considerations

Sleep systems: Some sleeping bags have an integrated sleeve to hold a pad. This keeps you and your sleeping bag from sliding off in the night. Check the sleeve width before you buy a pad.

Hand pumps: If you don’t like expending breath after a long day of hiking, look for a pad with an integrated hand pump or purchase a bag-style hand pump that rolls up small and weighs only a couple ounces (sold separately).

Patch kits are a good idea for backpacking. Find out whether they come with the pad or are sold separately. Be sure to understand how to patch a puncture before you leave home, in case you have to repair one in the dark.

 

 

Video: How to Choose a Sleeping Pad