How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

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Having a comfortable sleep system is crucial when camping, so it can be daunting to know how to choose a sleeping pad. I will always recommend trying out a sleeping pad in a store before purchasing, or at the very least before you head out on a trip, because everyone has different preferences.

There are many options out there, so to make the search less daunting, here are the components I would consider when choosing a sleeping pad.

Types of Sleeping Pads
What Pad is Best for You?
R-Value
Sleeping Pad Features
Additional Sleeping Pad Considerations

Types of Sleeping Pads

As you’re deciding how you will choose a sleeping pad, the first thing to consider is what type will suit you best. As we break down the three different types of pads, think about where you’ll take your pad, what kind of camping you’ll do (car or backpacking), and how much space you have in your tent or car setup.

Air Pads

nemo tensor
Image from Trailful Outdoor Co.

There is a wide variety of air pads out there, ranging from ultralight options for backpacking to large, extra-thick options for glamping. Air pads have chambers to capture the air blown into the pad; the smaller the chambers, the more warmth the pad will provide because there’s less air movement throughout the pad. A lot of air pads offer alternative options for inflating that will save your breath. 

Pros:

  • Most compact when packed
  • Most comfortable and lightweight
  • You can customize the firmness of the pad by inflating/deflating the pad
  • Can be used for camping and backpacking, depending on the pad you get

Cons:

  • They can deflate when the temperature fluctuates drastically during the night
  • Tend to be more expensive the lighter and more compact they are
  • Can be punctured or ripped (easily repaired if you have a patch kit though)
  • Some air pads make a crinkly noise due to the insulation/reflective material inside

Self-Inflating Pads

thermarest sleeping pad
Image by Thermarest

Self-inflating pads have a combination of open-cell foam insulation and air. These pads have valves that will allow the foam to expand and bring air in when opened. Most self-inflating pads are meant for car camping as they don’t compact down as small as other pads, but there are a few options that can be used for backpacking. Self-inflating pads offer a variety of options for size, warmth, and cost.

Pros:

  • They inflate on their own
  • They offer excellent insulation
  • You can adjust firmness by letting air out
  • Generally more durable than air pads

Cons:

  • Heaviest of the three types
  • Not as compact as air pads
  • Can be punctured or ripped

Closed-Cell Foam

Nemo Switchback sleeping pad
Image by REI

These pads are used for both backpacking and camping and are made of dense foam filled with small closed-air cells. Typically they are rolled up or folded in a “Z” pattern. 

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Inexpensive
  • Offers consistent insulation in all conditions
  • Durable; you won’t have to worry about punctures or leaks
  • Can double as a sitting pad around camp

Cons:

  • These are less comfortable
  • Tend to offer a lower R-value than other pads
  • Bulky and can’t compress
  • Relatively stiff and firm

What Pad is Best for You?

ActivityType of PadBenefits
Car CampingSelf-inflating pad or air padYou have more room to work with while car camping, so you’re not limited by weight. These two options offer extra cushion and a variety of R-values.
BackpackingUltralight air pad or closed-cell foam padThese pads minimize the weight you’ll carry while still being comfortable. The R-values offered are conducive to high-altitude weather. 
Winter CampingHigh R-value air pad or self-inflating padYou can put a closed-cell foam pad underneath a self-inflating or air pad to increase the insulation in extreme temps. 

R-Value

When looking at sleeping pads, you’ll see different R-value ratings for each pad. The R-value measures a pad’s ability to resist heat flow through it. After it goes through testing, it’s assigned a number 1-10; the higher the number the more effective it is at insulating.

R-Value of 2 or lessMinimally insulated; typically good for 2 seasons or mild temps
R-Value around 3Well insulated; typically good for 3 seasons or moderate temps
R-Value of 4 or moreVery well insulated; typically good for the 4th season (winter) and severe temps

Sleeping Pad Features

When considering how to choose a sleeping pad, there are a few features to keep in mind. The sleeping pad’s weight, length, and width. 

Sleeping Pad Weight

If you’re backpacking and looking to save on weight, you can save a few ounces by opting for a mummy or tapered shape; these will also save space in your pack and the tent. Just remember, the more ultralight the pad, the more expensive it will be.

Sleeping Pad Length

Sleeping pads come in different lengths to accommodate different heights. At the very least, your shoulders and hips need to be supported by the pad, but ideally, you want the pad to fit the length of your body. Regular pads are typically 72 inches and long pads are typically 78 inches. Always check the specs, because the exact measurement can vary by brand.  

Sleeping Pad Width

Almost every pad has a standard width of 20 inches. If you need a larger size or tend to roll around a lot, you can opt for a pad with a width of 25-30 inches. Before purchasing one, check the dimensions of your tent to make sure a wider pad can fit with the other gear in there. 

Some pads have a feature on the sides of the pads, like rails, that keep you from falling off the pad during the night. These are great for kids.  

Additional Sleeping Pad Considerations

Most pads will come with a patch kit, but it’s always nice to have one on hand when you go camping so you can do some field repairs if the need arises. 

After you feel comfortable on how to choose a sleeping pad and you’ve done some research, check if a local outdoors store carries the pad you’re interested in and try it out in the store. Every person has a different preference, so it’s nice to test it out before committing to the product. Then get out there and enjoy the outdoors!

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