Choosing a Sleeping Pad
Sleep in Comfort. Tonight.
In my opinion, there’s nothing more important while camping than getting a good night’s sleep. It can really make or break a trip for you. So why not take the time and research your best options for a sleeping pad!
There are lots of things to consider when choosing which one is right for you, so we’ve done our best at making things as simple as possible with this post.
What is your primary use for the pad?
How you are using your pad really determines what kind of pad to look for or what features may be important.
If you are looking to get a pad for a backpacking trip, you are probably looking to find one that is lightweight and packs down pretty small. Backpacks and the contents inside can add weight pretty fast, so trying to shave some where you can is key. Not to mention you are pretty limited on space, so finding one that can roll up to the size of a small water bottle might be important too.
This type of camping allows you to bring almost anything you want; if it fits in the car, you can bring it! So chances are you’ll be perfectly fine with a pad that doesn’t pack as small and are OK with a little extra weight. You’ll have your widest range of pads to choose from here; from very economical and basic to expensive and luxurious.
Camping in the winter can be an awesome experience if you’re prepared for it. The solitude you can find outdoors during this time is pretty amazing. Those temperatures are sure gonna drop at night though, and depending on where you are camping, could get well below freezing. You’re going to want to find a pad that insulates you from the ground very well and has a high R-Value to keep you the warmest you can be.
What kind of pads are out there?
Similar to most camping items, when you go shopping you’re going to be inundated with so many different price points, types, styles, colors, shapes, noises, and features.
But there’s really only three main types of sleeping pads, so that makes things a little easier for you. As with all these pads, check the R-Value and make sure it covers the coldest you expect it to be.
AIR SLEEPING PADS
Air pads are probably the most common ones out there. You can have super light-weight and compact ones for backpacking all the way to really thick and durable pads for car camping. These types of pads are by far the most compact when packed up and can be incredibly comfortable to sleep on when customized just to you. You can change the firmness of the pad by letting out or adding air in. You can use your breath to inflate them, which may take a while, or use some inflation tools that are starting to come with sleeping pads like what Big Agnes offers.
If you use your breath to inflate them you run the risk of your pad losing pressure and feeling like it has a hole in it. But really when you use your breath to inflate your pad, you’re blowing warm air into the pad itself. Then, when the air you inflated your pad with cools off, the pressure decreases because it’s colder (yay science!). This can also happen with just regular temperature fluctuations during the night. You can help reduce this by using other means to inflate your pad like air pumps or bags that push air into your pad.
These pads are prone to punctures though, so make sure you have a field repair kit with you; which is usually included in the box. They can also get really expensive, really fast as you go for lighter-weight materials.
SELF-INFLATING SLEEPING PADS
Self-inflating pads use a nice combination of open-cell foam on the interior and air. You typically just open the valve and let them inflate for a while before laying on it. By opening the valve and letting air in, you are allowing the foam to expand and bring in more air. If you desire more or less firmness you adjust it the same way as an air pad by releasing or adding more air. Typically, these pads are cheaper than air pads and more expensive than the closed-cell pads below.
Some of these pads can be used for backpacking, but tend to not pack down as small and are heavier than air pads. In my opinion, where they really shine is car camping since you’re not usually concerned with space and weight savings. These pads also tend to be more durable than air pads and if they do puncture, they can be repaired in the same way with a field repair kit.
CLOSED-CELL FOAM SLEEPING PADS
These are super basic pads and that’s OK! These pads are made of foam that is very dense and durable. They don’t compress when packed, so you usually have to roll them up or fold them like an accordion. Because of this you normally have to carry them on the outside of your pack if backpacking. But, even though that’s where they’re stored, you don’t have to worry about punctures. They’re incredibly durable, lightweight, and really not that expensive at all when compared to the other two types.
Even though these pads are very thin, they insulate you from the ground really well. You can even use these pads underneath an air or self-inflating pad for some extra insulation on colder nights!
Temperature Ratings (R-Value)
As you lay on the ground, it slowly sucks the heat away from your body. Even on 70-80 degree nights you can wake up shivering. To help with this, you use pads! But not all pads are created equal; among other things, their R-Value can vary greatly.
A pad’s R-Value is its ability to resist the transfer of heat from you to the ground. This scale is measured from 1.0 to 6.0, where 1.0 is good a summer night above 65 degrees and 6.0 is great for camping in sub-zero temperatures.
Essentially, the higher the number, the greater the insulation. A pad with a rating of 3.0 is 3x as warm a pad with a rating of 1.0, so it’s pretty simple to know how much warmer one will be over another. What happens if you stack multiple pads together? You can simply add the R-Values and voila, you have your new rating!
Simple R-Scale breakdown:
<R2.0 = 50F+ minimum nighttime low
R2.0 to R3.9 = 32F+ minimum nighttime low
R4.0 to R5.4 = 20F+ minimum nighttime low
>R5.5 = 0F minimum nighttime low
Creating Your Sleep System
What is a sleep system you might ask? It’s a combo of three very important things to help you get a good night’s sleep: your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothing you sleep in. We won’t get too much into clothing here, but remember to sleep in enough clothing to keep you warm at night. If you’re curious about how to choose a sleeping bag, check out our post!
Your sleeping pad and bag work hand-in-hand to keep you comfortably warm at night. You can’t just throw a sleeping bag on the ground or you’ll wake up freezing. This is because the insulation you’re laying on top of is compressed and no longer functions properly.
Hence, why you need a sleeping pad; it makes up for the lost insulation from the bag by creating a pocket of air between you and the ground.
Make sure your pad and bag are appropriately matched too, i.e. don’t use a 0-degree bag with a 2.0 R-Value pad in the winter or you’ll have a bad night. And it goes the other way around too, don’t use a 50-degree bag with a pad rated 5.0 for winter camping.
Other Features to Consider
As long as the R-Value is the same when comparing pads, the thickness of the pad is entirely up to you. I, personally, am a side-sleeper. This usually means I need a pad that is going to have a little more cushion because my shoulders and waist will push down deeper into the pad more than sleeping on my back would. That extra cushion helps my body not touch the ground through the pad. I look for 2.5-3” pads when shopping. So if you’re a back-sleeper, you could get away with thinner pads.
You’ll typically find insulated pads with a higher R-Value rating. In air and self-inflating pads, this is usually achieved by having a material inside the pad itself that reflects your body heat back to you. Having this insulation option usually increases the price by a little more too, but depending on your situation, it may be more than worth it.
Most pads come in two shapes: mummy and rectangular. Mummy and rectangular pads can be paired with mummy-shaped bags. But you shouldn’t use a rectangular bag with a mummy pad or may wake up with a limb off of the pad and be a little chilly. Mummy pads are generally lighter-weight than rectangular pads due to less material being used, but rectangular pads give you a little extra wiggle room on the pad.
Length - A regular pad length is ~72” and a long is ~78”. Make sure you get the right size for you to make sure your feet and legs stay insulated too! For weight-conscious backpackers, some brands make ½ and ¾ length pads as well. You can just put some clothes underneath your legs and feet if using these.
Width - The standard width for pads is normally 20”, but you can buy wide and extra wide pads (25-30”) for those who like a little extra room or move around a lot while sleeping. If you get a wider pad, make sure it fits in your tent with anyone or anything else you have in there!
In most cases, the weight of your pad really only matters when you’re backpacking. Although I have stayed in places where even when car camping, you have to walk several hundred yards to your campsite. Regardless, there is usually one thing that happens as you shed weight on your pad: the price increases very fast. So sometimes it can be worth asking yourself, is saving 8oz. worth the extra $100?
EASE OF INFLATION
Ever blown up a pool float on a hot day and nearly passed out a few times doing it? Luckily, pad makers over the years have developed all sorts of cool ways to make life easier when inflating your pad. The best feature to look for is a one-way valve that lets air in, but not out. I feel that should be mandatory on every pad these days.
Some pads have wide openings at the top that let you just blow a few puffs of air in and then roll the pad tight like a dry bag. Therm-A-Rest even makes a little backpacking friendly air pump that runs on batteries. Nemo makes a pad that has a built-in foot pump. Big Agnes pads ALL come standard with a bag that opens up and hooks to the inlet (looks like a dry bag); open it up, blow some air in, and close it real tight. Then you just roll the bag down and push the air in.
You may not think about it when trying the pad out in a store, but how much noise the pad makes can be a huge factor. While most pads are going to make some noise when rolling around, other pads sound like you’re trying to open a bag of chips with oven mitts on. We’re looking at you Therm-A-Rest NeoAir! Your partner in your tent won’t be happy and it may wake up others in nearby campsites. But hey, at least bears won’t stop by with all that noise!
There you have it! A pretty good overview of how to choose the pad that works best for you. There’s also nothing wrong with having multiple pads for different conditions. You can always stack them together to add warmth or lend one out to a buddy.
If you have any questions about anything we didn’t go into detail on, feel free to get in touch with us! We could easily write pages and pages on this topic, so we had to keep it somewhat short.
See you out there!