A sleeping pad cushions you and keeps you warm as you sleep. Without a sleeping pad, the cold ground draws heat away from you in your sleeping bag and you experience a colder night’s sleep. the type of pad you select will depend on how far you plan to carry it and how cold the conditions will be when you’re sleeping outside.
Simple foam pads are very inexpensive, durable (there is no risk of puncture) and relatively lightweight. They insulate well but can be bulky and don’t feel super-plush when you’re lying on them. Foams vary in quality, some are denser, some are designed to stay flexible in very cold temperatures and some are better at resisting abrasion and UV light.
For winter or cold-weather camping, adding a foam pad under an inflating pad increases the warmth and also gives you options if you want something to sit on at camp that won’t absorb moisture.
- Fast and light trips
- Camping directly on rough ground
- Winter camping or mountaineering
- Adding a layer below an air or self-inflating pad
Air filled pads
These lightweight pads offer a lot of comfort. Most have little or no insulation, but include heat-reflective materials and chambered constructions designed to hold warm air near your body. The inner chambers also function to keep the pad stable under you, so it doesn’t feel “wobbly” when you shift in your sleep. Their minimal insulation suits warmer-weather camping, so they are not ideal for extending seasons or travelling into higher elevations, but they are very compact and easy to carry. Many models also include a system for inflating them. If you have several of these pads to inflate, it can be a time-consuming task.
- Ultralight backpacking and hiking
- Summer camping
- Car camping
More expensive than closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating pads insulate well and are still light and compact. Most contain a layer of open-cell foam, which is an excellent insulator when filled with air. Some include a layer of down or synthetic material, which adds warmth, but should be protected from water and dampness. As with any inflating pad, it is possible to puncture them or to develop a leak at the seams or the valve. Most include a repair kit, so you can fix them in the field, but you do have to carry the repair kit.
When inflating a foam-filled pad, it’s best to open the valve and allow the pad to self-inflate. Add a few breaths later if required, or use the included pump system, to prevent moisture from accumulating inside.
- Backpacking and hiking trips
- Canoe or car camping
- Winter camping
Choosing the right size sleeping pad
If you’re going backpacking, you’ll likely be exchanging some comfort for lightness and compactness. If you plan to be car camping or canoe tripping, you might go with a thicker, larger pad that offers more comfort for several nights out.
- A shorter, ¾ length pad is designed to insulate just your body core. Most people use their extra equipment, (a jacket, extra clothing, climbing rope or a backpack) under their feet to extend the length and insulating capacity of the pad.
- Lots of backpacking pads taper toward the feet, a design that makes them light and compact, but sleepers who shift in the night might find that tend to move off their pad too frequently.
- Thicker pads are generally warmer and offer more cushioning on rough ground, but are also heavier and larger when packed.
- If you’re above average height, you might want to choose a pad that extra-long so your feet don’t hang off the end.
- For a two people, a double-width pad can provide better insulation than two pads placed together (no cold gap in between) and will save the weight of a system to join them together.
The warmth of a sleeping pad is indicated by its R-value, a measure of a material’s resistance (R) to heat loss. Higher numbers indicate greater warmth. If you’re winter camping or sleeping on snow, consider combining an inflatable pad with a closed-cell pad. Two pads provide better cushioning, insulation, and protection from accidental punctures. The combination will also help keep moisture away from your sleeping bag.
- For winter camping use a pad with an R-value of 4 or higher.
- Use a foam pad below your main pad to increase warmth.
- Down within a pad is a great insulator, but you need to take care that it doesn’t get damp.
Sleeping pad care and repair
After your trip, wipe down the pad with a damp cloth and mild soap. Let it air dry fully before putting it away and store it unrolled with the valve open.
If your sleeping pad has a pinhole, a tear or the valve leaks, you can use the repair kit that came with it to patch the surface or replace the valve.