Just because you aren’t sleeping in a bed, that doesn’t mean you can’t be comfortable while camping. Sleeping pads (a.k.a. camping mattresses) provide extra padding and help insulate you from the cold, hard ground. They come in different types, shapes and sizes, and you can choose from brands like Therm-a-Rest, MEC, Exped and Big Agnes. But how do you know which camping mat is best for you?
Here are some things to consider when you’re choosing a sleeping pad:
Types of pads: There are foam pads, air mattresses, self-inflating pads and inflatable insulated pads – find out what one’s for you.
R-value: Learn how this measure of insulation connects to staying warm.
Features to look for: Depending on your sleep-style, type of camping or body shape, you may want to consider these options.
Sleeping pad types
There are four main types of sleeping pads to choose from: closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating sleeping pads, air mattresses and inflatable insulated sleeping pads. Choose the one that makes the most sense for your camping, backpacking, bike touring or other adventure plans:
Closed-cell foam sleeping pads
These simple mats are made of dense foam filled with tiny air pockets. They don’t compress so you need to roll or fold them when you carry them.
Pros: Inexpensive, lightweight and durable because you don’t have to worry about holes or leaks.
Cons: Bulky, don’t feel super-plush when you’re lying on them, and provide moderate insulation.
Best for: Backpackers on a budget, ultralight hikers, thru-hikers and anyone who prioritizes durability. Also make handy seats at camp since they won’t absorb moisture.
Self-inflating sleeping pads
Self-inflating sleeping pads use a layer of open-cell foam inside a fabric shell. When you open the valve, air rushes in, and gradually fills the spaces in the foam to inflate the pad. For an extra-firm pad, some people like to blow more air into the pad.
Pros: Moderately comfortable, provide good insulation, and less expensive than air-filled pads.
Cons: Less compact and heavier than air-filled pads, less durable than foam pads (but easy to repair and more durable than air pads).
Best for: Car campers or backpackers who want moderate comfort and durability but don’t want to spend too much.
Inflatable insulated sleeping pads
These provide more insulation than simple air mattresses, since they also have insulating materials inside. The insulation can be a special reflective material, or it can be down or synthetic fill (similar to a sleeping bag). There are many different levels of insulation available, so you can choose an inflatable insulated sleeping pad that’s good for the temperature you’ll be camping in. You can inflate many of them with just your breath, but there are also pumps available.
Pros: Comfortable, pack down very small, lightweight, provide good insulation, and you can customize the firmness by adding or removing air.
Cons: Expensive, less durable (but easy to repair), and pads with reflective material can make a loud crinkly noise.
Best for: Car campers or backpackers who want a comfortable sleep; camping in cold weather.
Air mattresses are a popular option for car camping. They use sealed chambers full of air to provide a comfy sleeping surface but they don’t have any insulation. You’ll need to bring a pump to inflate them at the campsite.
Pros: Comfortable, available in sizes that work with standard bedding, and you can customize the firmness by adding or removing air.
Cons: Bulky, heavy, provide low insulation (not ideal for cold weather), you need a pump.
Best for: Car camping in warm weather, since they don’t retain a lot of heat.
Insulation and R-Value
Sleeping pads don’t just keep you comfortable, they also keep you warm. Even in summer, the ground is colder than the air. Using a sleeping pad can help keep you warm by insulating you from the damp dirt or chilly gravel beneath you.
The warmth of a sleeping pad is indicated by its R-value, which is a measure of a material’s resistance (R) to heat loss. Basically, the higher the R-value, the greater the warmth. You can see the R-value for each sleeping pad on mec.ca in the specs tab.
R-values range from 1 (minimal insulation) to 10 (very well insulated). Sleeping pads with an R-value of less than 3 are best for really warm weather. R-values of 3–4 are best for 3-season use. For winter camping, choose a sleeping pad with an R-value of 4.5 or higher.
“If you don’t want to buy a dedicated sleeping pad for winter camping, then bring your regular 3-season pad and purchase a closed-cell foam pad to layer underneath it. This adds extra insulation without being expensive.” – MEC staff tip
Features to look for
Once you know what type of sleeping pad you’d like, you can narrow down your choice by looking for certain sizes and shapes, thicknesses, packability potential, and even pumps:
Size and shape
The most common size for sleeping pads is 183 x 51cm (72 x 20in.), which is a good size for most adults. But since not everyone is the same, sleeping pads can come in many other shapes and sizes to suit different camping styles and body types:
Mummy-shaped: Unlike rectangular pads, these taper toward the feet to save space and weight. Best for weight-conscious backpackers.
Shorter length: Best for kids, shorter adults or people who want to save weight and space by using extra gear (such as a backpack or climbing rope) under their feet. Typically 119–150cm long.
Extra-long: A solid option for tall sleepers who don’t want their feet hanging off the end. Typically 190+cm long.
Extra-wide: Great for people who toss and turn or like a bit more room. Typically 63+cm wide.
2-person: Lighter and more compact than a pair of pads pushed together (and no cold gap in between!). Best for couples.
Women’s-specific: Slightly shorter in length than standard pads and with more insulation in the core and feet where women feel the cold most. Best for people who sleep cold.
Pads come in a wide variety of thicknesses, between a streamlined 1.5cm and the ultra-plush 11cm. Thicker pads offer more comfort and cushiness, but they are heavier and bulkier. Side sleepers and comfort-seekers should choose a pad that’s at least 4cm thick.
Weight and packed size
If you’re car camping, you probably have lots of room in your trunk for bulky, heavy and super-comfy sleeping pads. But if you’re backpacking, paddling or bike touring, you definitely need to keep weight and packed size in mind when you choose a sleeping pad. You can save weight by choosing a shorter length or mummy style pad. As well, inflatable insulated pads are often available in ultralight options.
Check the packed dimensions of the sleeping pad and make sure you can roll or fold it into a shape that fits inside your backpack or pannier. You can safely carry closed-cell foam pads on the outside of your pack, but self-inflating and inflatable pads should go inside your bag to protect them from punctures.
Pumps for sleeping pads
Large pads can take a long time to blow up if you’re just using your breath. And although it’s unusual, moisture from your breath can cause mould or ice to build-up inside your pad. If you’re worried about this, you may want to pack a pump. There are lots of options to choose from, including lightweight battery-operated pumps, hand pumps and stuff sacks that double as a pump. Some pads even have an integrated pump built in.