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  • How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Camping

    The right sleeping pad can be the difference between a miserable and an awesome backpacking trip, no question. And if it’s been a while since you’ve considered this particular category of outdoor gear, you may be surprised just how far we’ve come from the good old days of that flimsy blue foam rollup!

    Read on to learn more about how to choose sleeping pads for camping and backpacking as you work through your camping-out checklist for the summer.

    Understanding the Sleep System

    The need for comfort, insulation, and shelter dictates the components of your outdoor sleep system. Along with a sleeping bag or bivy sack and the clothing you wear to bed, a well-chosen sleeping pad or two ought to be among those sleep-system components. If you’re car camping and lean towards using an air mattress – though it’s larger, bulkier, and requires a pump – it’s undoubtedly a reliable choice for frontcountry campgrounds (and backyard campouts!), and perfect for accommodating multiple sleepers sharing a bed.

    A sleeping pad isn’t just about buffering you from hard and uneven terrain: It also provides critical insulation against heat loss to the ground (or the snowpack). A sleeping bag or bedroll laid straight on the tent bottom—let alone the ground—can make for a chilly night indeed.

    Essentially, the modern sleeping pad (or air mattress) substitutes for the heaped-up conifer boughs, leaf litter, and other natural bedding that wilderness travelers utilized for comfort and insulation for many years. (Obviously gathering, say, hemlock boughs or dead leaves to floor a survival shelter is acceptable in a legitimate emergency wilderness situation, but otherwise, the use of such natural materials doesn’t square with the Leave No Trace ethics all outdoor users should ascribe to.)

    Long story short, a sleeping pad will help ensure that you (a) aren’t shivering your way through a cold, sleepless night and (b) waking up with aches and cricks from head to toe.

    Types of Sleeping Pads

    In terms of the comfort and packability of sleeping pads, campers and backpackers have never had it better. There’s a whole mini-galaxy of sleeping pad designs and technologies (and price points!) nowadays, and choosing the best type for your needs and preferences takes a little consideration.

    Tent with different types of sleeping pads within it.

    Air Pads

    Air pads are manually inflating sleeping pads, puffed up with your own lung power, an inflation sack, or a hand pump. Packing down to almost minuscule dimensions into their stuff sacks and in the featherweight category, air pads are probably the number one choice for most backpackers at this point.

    Besides their packability and lightweightness, air pads are handy on account of how adjustable they are: You can customize their level of inflation, adapting to different terrains and tweaking to your personal comfort.

    The incorporation of extra insulation or reflective material, furthermore, gives some air-pad models all the more utility for cold-weather campers.

    What are the downsides of air/manually inflating pads? First and foremost, they’re more prone to damage out in the wilds: A puncture can render them useless as padding—that is until you patch ‘em! Repairs are pretty simple and straightforward, so long as you remember to pack the patch kit.

    Higher-quality, more lightweight air pads can also get quite pricey, it’s worth noting. And some are “crinklier” than others, making for a rather noisy night’s sleep.

    Self-Inflating Pads

    Self-inflating pads use a combination of air and open-cell foam to do their job, and—as the name suggests—they inflate most of the way on their own when you open the valve. You huff and puff into the valve a little at the tail end to move the inflation process across the finish line, so to speak. As with air pads, you can adjust the level of inflation for optimal comfort.

    Speaking of: Many campers contend that self-inflating models are just about the most comfortable sleeping pads out there. They can be a sort of best-of-both-worlds compromise, beefing up insulation and loft via inputted air while still conforming nicely to body contours thanks to the foam matrix.

    While still quite compact when packed down, self-inflating pads are a bit bulkier than air pads. Some campers outfit themselves with self-inflating models for the frontcountry and air pads for the backcountry. But there are many more packable versions of self-inflating pads—ones which, for example, can be folded before rolling up—which work very well for backpacking. Self-inflating pads also tend to be more durable than their manually inflating counterparts. They’re vulnerable to puncturing, of course, but (as with air pads) can usually be repaired in a snap.

    The main cons of the self-inflating category are generally greater weight and bulk, with a price tag higher than most foam pads.

    Foam Pads

    Foam sleeping pads are, roughly speaking, the old-school kind. Closed-cell foam pads (open-cell foam soaks up water and moisture and thus isn’t recommended) are classic backcountry gear, even if many modern-day backpackers turn up their noses at them.

    Closed-cell foam pads provide a thinner, less insulating sleeping surface. They can’t compete with self-inflating and air pads in the insulation or comfort departments. Higher-quality foam pads roll or fold up to a fairly compact degree, but you’re still generally going to be strapping these to the outside of your pack.

    On the pro side of things, foam pads are midway in the weight department—lighter than self-inflating pads generally, and often only a bit heavier than an air pad. They definitely appeal to the budget-conscious: The cheapest foam pads will set you back only a few dollars. And because a puncture or tear doesn’t degrade their performance, foam pads are mighty durable, and can be used as a cushion for sitting: great for trailside lunch breaks and campfire (or campstove) hangouts.

    Finally, as we’ll get into later, an inexpensive foam pad can be used in conjunction with a higher-quality self-inflating or air pad as part of a cold-weather sleep system.

    Key Features to Consider

    Our above overview of the three main categories of sleeping pads has hopefully primed you for thinking about the basic features and considerations to help choose the best model for you.

    But because there’s a lot of personal preference involved here—and everyone’s body is a little bit different—it’s important to try out the sleeping pads you’re considering. Most outdoor retailers are happy to accommodate in-store testing.

    Here are some things to key into:

    Comfort, Support, and Manner of Sleeping

    You want to make sure a sleeping pad gives you good support, particularly against those contoured parts of your body you’re putting pressure on while sleeping. A sleeping pad that works great for a back or tummy sleeper might leave a side sleeper’s shoulders and hips sore.

    Whether you sleep “hot” or “cold” helps determine how much insulation you need in your sleeping pad. And a crinkly sort of inflatable pad might do all right for a backpacker who tends to snooze hard and deep the whole night through, but a more toss-and-turn sleeper is liable to drive themselves (and any tentmates or neighbors) crazy using one.

    Insulation & R-Value

    As we’ve already emphasized, insulation from the cold ground is a chief purpose of any sleeping pad, but some are vastly better at this than others. The degree of insulation a pad provides—specifically, the pad’s resistance to heat transfer through its material—is measured by its R-value.

    For sleeping pads, R-values often range from less than 1 to 6 (or even above). The higher the R-value, the more insulating the sleeping pad.

    Foam pads may have an R-value of only 1 or 2 or so. At a minimum, it’s best to aim for R-values in the 3-to-5 range, which provide decent insulation for three-season camping. Winter backpackers (and those who sleep especially cold) will want to go higher still.

    If you plan to use multiple sleeping pads for your sleep system—as many cold-weather campers do—you can simply add up the individual R-values of the pads to estimate the total insulation.

    Weight & Packed Size

    Our breakdown of sleeping pad types covered a lot of this territory. Car campers obviously have a lot more leeway when it comes to choosing heavier, bulkier (and thus perhaps comfier and warmer) sleeping pads, while backpackers are inherently much more conscious of packability and weight.

    Specialized models of sleeping pads designed for ultralight backpacking do exist, such as the NeoAir XLite and Sea to Summit Ultralight.

    Durability & Repairability

    Consider the material, such as polyester vs. nylon, and denier (D)—a measure of fiber density that is often, though not always, suggestive of overall toughness—to gauge the durability of a given sleeping pad.

    The bottoms of many sleeping pads, exposed to more wear and tear, have a higher-denier rating than the tops. Air pads often have lower denier ratings, the price in durability you pay for super-light construction.

    Foam pads not only boast quality durability, but (as already mentioned) aren’t affected by the punctures that can sabotage self- and manually inflating sleeping pads. But, again, you can usually speedily repair an inflatable pad in the field with a patch kit.

    Additional Features

    There are all sorts of other sleeping-pad attributes you might want to weigh. Some backpackers—not least those who like to push daily mileage or who are camping in chilly conditions—might gravitate toward a self-inflating pad for the ease and speed with which it can be readied for bed as compared to an air pad.

    But speaking of air pads, remember that an inflation sack or hand pump can make inflating them significantly quicker and easier as compared to the huff-and-puff method.

    Sleeping pads with more textured surfaces often better stabilize you during the night, lowering the chances you’ll slide off.

    A number of outdoor manufacturers now offer integrated sleep systems with exactly matched and fitted sleeping bag/sleeping pad combos—not essential, but certainly something to consider. Couples might think about going for one of the double sleeping pads now on the market.

    Choosing Based on Activity Type

    The following section, focused on choosing a sleeping pad based on the kind of camping you’re likely to be doing, is more of a summary of much of the info we’ve already covered.


    Backpackers are generally going to lean toward lighter and more packable sleeping pads. There are options across all three basic design categories. (More than a few longtime backpackers still lay their weary bones down on an old-fashioned-style foam pad without complaint, and that’s A-OK!)

    Car Camping

    Man on his laptop while car camping.

    Image by freepik

    Less concerned with weight and space demands, car campers can afford to put comfort and luxury at the top of the priority list when assembling their sleep system. They thus often go with larger, thicker sleeping pads—or an air bed or air mattress.

    Cold-Weather Camping

    Sleeping pads with higher R-values (5-plus) are, of course, better suited for cold-weather camping.

    Winter campers can majorly increase their sleep system’s insulation by layering sleeping pads: Many place a closed-cell foam pad underneath a self-inflating or air pad up top, buffering themselves all the more from the chill of snow-covered ground.

    Maintenance & Care

    Take good care of your sleeping pad, and you’ll get as much life out of it as possible. Keep inflatable pads in stuff sacks and carry them inside your pack to reduce the likelihood of puncturing. Use a groundsheet to protect not only the bottom of your tent, but your sleeping pad as well.

    At home, store your sleeping pads unrolled in a cool and dry space.

    Bring Mountain House on Your Next Camping Adventure

    Person eating Mountain House meal while sitting in front of tent.

    While shopping for your sleeping pads, make sure you’ve also got what you need for your campsite pantry: Browse our Mountain House camping and backpacking meals to ensure you have the tasty fuel you need for your next adventure!

    Featured photo by Chaewul Kim on Unsplash

    Inspired for an Adventure? Check out Beef Stroganoff - Pouch and Beef Stew - Pouch