A Buyer's Guide to Sleeping Pads

In theory, nothing is more important than a good night’s sleep. When camping, I’ve learned through painful experience this theory is true. There are few worse ways to spend a night than tossing and turning inside a cold tent.

Thermarest Ultralite Sleeping Pad
A Therma-rest NeoAir Xlite Sleeping Pad, an ideal pad for three-season ultralight backpacking that works great at the campground, too. See similar sleeping pads Amazon.

While I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, I suspect poor quality sleeping pads are a primary cause of many sleepless nights while camping. Using a poor quality sleeping pad—or worse, not using a pad at all—is a recipe for a long, cold night in the wilderness.

In many ways, sleeping pads are more important than sleeping bags—yet, few campers realize it. The result is that many campers purchase an expensive sleeping bag, and then buy a Big Box Store special sleeping pad. After the camper spends several cold nights in the woods, they then blame their sleeping bag for performing poorly—never recognizing that their sleeping bag (or the clothes they happen to wear) is the true culprit.

Since Montana is a chilly place much of the year, and night’s are often cold even during summer months, I’ve prepared this guide about sleeping pads.

This article examines the importance of a sleeping pad, the different types of pads available, and provides suggestions on how to choose the right sleeping pad for specific camping needs.

This article covers the following topics:


Quick Summary

Two Purposes - The primary purpose of a sleeping pad is to insulate the camper from the cold ground. The secondary purpose is to make for a more comfortable night's sleep.

For Winter Camping - Get a thick sleeping pad with an R Value of 5 or greater.

For Summer Car Camping - Sleep in comfort and use a luxury sleeping pad.

Air-Filled Pad Advantages - Air-filled pads, compared to foam pads, are more comfortable and warmer.

Versatility - Midweight pads provide the most versatility, and work well for most camping needs.

Where to Buy - Quality online retailers such as REI, Eastern Mountain Sports and Moosejaw are all excellent places to shop for a sleeping pad. My suggestion is to start at REI, due to their well-organized website and the detailed technical information - particularly the insulating value - provided about each pad.

View Sleeping Pads at REI


The Two Benefits of Sleeping Pads

There are two primary benefits a sleeping pad provides.

Comfort

This is obvious. The sleeping pad provides a cushion from anything “on the ground.” And, depending on the type of pad chosen, the pad often is a fine substitute for a normal mattress. While it is always tempting to “avoid creature comforts” when camping, there’s no reason to torture yourself eight hours every night by sleeping on something uncomfortable.

Warmth

The warmth that a sleeping pad provides a camper is the most important benefit. What many campers don't realize is that sleeping pads are vital to keep a camper warm at night. No matter how thick or fancy a sleeping bag is, when someone sleeps the bottom of the sleeping bag loses all insulating ability since the insulation is crushed beneath the weight of the camper.

Since the insulation is crushed, if a camper doesn’t use a sleeping pad they are essentially sleeping on the cold ground.

A sleeping pad prevents this problem. The sleeping pad provides an insulating barrier between the cold ground and the camper. The thicker the pad, generally the more insulation it provides.


The Three Types of Sleeping Pads

The three types of sleeping pads for camping are:

  • Foam Sleeping Pads
  • Self Inflating Sleeping Pads
  • Air Pads

Each pad type has specific uses.

Foam Sleeping Pads

Foam pads have one big benefit compared to other pads - they can't leak.

Foam Sleeping Pads
A Thermarest Zlite Foam Sleeping Pad. See similar pads at Amazon

Once upon a time, foam sleeping pads were by far the most popular pad.

Today, however, few people other than ultralight backpackers use foam sleeping pads.

The reason for their declinig popularity include lack of warmth and comfort (in thinner pads), a low "weight to warmth" ratio when compared to quality air pads, and their bulk.

While foam pads still have their place at the campground and in the backpack, air sleeping pads are, for most people, the better option.

Self Inflating Sleeping Pads

Years ago, self inflating sleeping pads were the workhorse. And due to their durability and lightweight, self inflating pads are still popular - especially among campers.

Self Inflating Sleeping Pad
A self-inflating sleeping pad. See similar pads at Amazon.

Due to their popularity, self-inflating sleeping pads come in a myriad of insulating values, thicknesses and width.

In general, the thicker the pad the warmer and more comfortable the pad is. However, the warmer pads are also bulky and relatively heavy.

As their name suggests, self-inflating pads do self-inflate...to a degree. However, the pads won't fully inflate themselves. Typically, anywhere from 5-15 breaths of air is needed to fully inflate a self-inflating sleeping pad.

Deflating a self-inflating pad is a bit of a chore. Opening the valve lets out about half the air contained in the mattress. To remove the remaining air, a person needs to slowly roll the pad, using their knees to prevent air from getting back into the pad.

Overall, for backpackers self-inflating pads make little sense anymore, since they are bulkier, heavier and not as warm as the newer ultralight air filled sleeping pads. However, for car camping - and for base camps - self inflating pads are still a good choice.

Air Pads

The newest arrival on the sleeping pad scene is called, simply enough, an air pad. Unlike self-inflating pads, air pads aren't self inflating.

Thermarest Sleeping Pad
A Thermarest 4-Season Ultralight Air Sleeping Pad. See similar pads at REI.

In terms of "warmth to weight," air pads provide the best value. An ultralight four season pad (with an R Value above 5) typically weighs less than 2 pounds and packs down incredibly small.

Because of their packability and lightweight, air pads have become the sleeping pad of choice among backpackers.

But air pads aren't just for backpackers. For float camping and even car camping, air pads are excellent pads to use. Their thickness, warmth, ease of inflation/deflation and sheer comfort makes air pads an ideal all-around sleeping pad.

Overall, unless you have a specific reason to buy something else, most people will find air pads the best sleeping pad available for their uses. This is especially true for backpackers and campers who seek a luxury sleeping pad.


Air Sleeping Pads vs. Foam Sleeping Pads

There is no “one right choice” when deciding whether to buy a foam or air-filled sleeping pad. Each type of pad has its benefits and drawbacks. Still, there’s some general guidelines that campers might want to follow when deciding which type of pad to buy.

In terms of warmth, air-filled sleeping pads are far superior to foam pads. Most foam pads have R Value’s of less than 1.3, which is suitable for warm weather camping but of little value when the weather gets below freezing.

In terms of comfort, again, air-filled sleeping pads are superior to foam pads. Air-filled pads are typically far thicker than foam pads. That extra thickness protects the camper from objects on the ground and often makes the pad feel luxuriously soft.

With these two big advantages, campers might wonder why foam pads are even made. Well, foam pads do have their uses.

A Thermarest Z-Seat. An excellent "around camp" foam sleeping pad. More Info at Amazon.

First, foam pads have one distinct advantage over air-filled pads—they’ll never leak. While quality air filled pads are difficult to puncture and simple to repair, it’s been my experience that when air-filled pads develop a leak it always happens at the least opportune times imaginable—like 3am on a frosty or stormy night.

Second, foam pads have uses outside of sleeping. Since they are “puncture proof,” they make excellent “around camp” mats for backpackers.

Note - if you simply want a small "around camp" mat, consider buying a Thermarest Z-Seat. It weights next to nothing, packs down tiny, and makes an ideal "seat" or kneeling spot.


Which Sleeping Pad to Choose

Which sleeping pad you choose depends entirely on the type of camping you do. Here are some suggestions to follow:

  • Winter Camping - Get a thick self-inflating or air pad, with an R Value of at least 5, but higher is better. A lightweight foam pad can be used beneath the air pad to increase the R Value, too. The Thermarest NeoAir Xtherm (R Value 5.7) is a superb air pad for winter camping. More info about the Xtherm at Amazon.
  • For Warm Weather Backpacking - When ounces count, you there's two choices. Choice one is a ultralight foam pad. The problem....these pads have low R Values (usually less than 2). The second choice - and by far the best choice - is an ultralight air sleeping pad, such as the Thermarest NeoAir Xlite (R Value of 3.2) or NeoAir Xtherm (R Value 5.7). See all available NeoAir sleeping pads at Amazon.
  • Car Camping Only - Simple. Go with the thickest, warmest, softest self-inflating or air pad you can find. Leave the foam at home.
  • One Pad for Car Camping & Occasional Backpacking - If you aren't a hard-core backpacker, but need a pad that works "ok" for backpacking, then get a rectangular shaped air pad with an R Value of at least 4. The higher value also means the pad is softer and thicker. Also considering getting a pad that is 25 inches in width, instead of the standard 20 inches. Thermarest and Big Agnes both make excellent "dual purpose" sleeping pads. See All Thermarest and Big Agnes Pads at REI.

Where to Buy Quality Sleeping Pads

First, avoid buying sleeping pads from the big box stores. While those pads work fine for kid sleepovers, these pads are wholly unsuited for camping in Montana.

Offline, quality sleeping pads are widely available at outdoor sporting good stores that sell technical gear. In particular, REI, Cabela's and Eastern Mountain Sports sell an extensive line of quality sleeping pads.

Online, there's many places to buy sleeping pads.

So let me make a suggestion. Begin shopping for a sleeping pad at REI.Com. Besides having a large selection of quality sleeping pads, they provide detailed technical information about each pad. In particular, REI lists the vital insulating value (expressed as the R Value) for each pad they sell.

View Sleeping Pads Available at REI

Other good online stores to buy sleeping bags from include:


Prices for Select Thermarest NeoAir Sleeping Pads

For a true multi-purpose air sleeping pad, the various styles of NeoAir sleeping pads from Thermarest are tough to beat. They are light, packable, warm and durable. If you're searching for a sleeping pad that works well at the campground and in the backcountry, one of the Thermarest NeoAir sleeping pad styles will likely work for your particular needs.

Prices below are from various online merchants. To price compare, be sure to browse all NeoAir sleeping pads at Amazon, too.


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