With so much cool camping gear to choose from, it’s easy for the simple sleeping pad to get overlooked. But one miserable night’s sleep will usually cure that. A good sleeping pad will help you rest well and recover quickly, and it won’t slow you down a bit.
Here’s the Gear Guy’s advice for buying the best sleeping pad for your next adventure.
SLEEPING PAD BUYING GUIDE
There are two types of sleeping pads:
• Air pads: These lightweight inflatable pads usually “air up” with a few deep breaths. Some are self-inflating, meaning they mostly inflate on their own when unrolled but require a few breaths to firm up. Air pads are lightweight and pack down enough to fit inside your backpack.
• Closed-cell foam pads: These simple pads insulate well and are less expensive than air pads. Plus, they’re nearly indestructible. But they’re also bulkier and usually need to be carried under external straps on a pack rather than inside it.
CONSIDER THESE FACTORS BEFORE CHOOSING A SLEEPING PAD
• Air mats occasionally puncture and go flat. Many come with a patch kit, but it can be difficult to locate a hole and repair it in the field. A mat’s denier rating indicates how strong its fabric is. The lower the rating, the softer — but lighter — the mat will be. A high denier rating means the fabric is tough but heavier.
• The standard size for sleeping pads is 20 x 72 inches. Taller than 6 feet? Most manufacturers make a larger size, but it’ll cost you.
• They’re not just for padding. They also protect you in chilly temperatures or when you’re sleeping on the cold ground. Most sleeping pads use heat-reflective material for added warmth.
• Some air pads make loud crunching noises when you shift around on them, which can be an annoyance to tentmates.
• For car camping, there’s almost no limit on size, so don’t fret over buying a lightweight backpacking air pad. A bulky air mattress — or old school cot — will do the job.
• Before buying, make sure the mat or pad is comfortable to you. The energy you lose through a bad night’s sleep will far exceed the energy you save by carrying a lighter pad on the trail. Make sure you get a pad on which you can sleep comfortably.
WHAT’S THE R-VALUE?
A sleeping pad’s R-value measures how well the pad insulates in cold temperatures.
• An R-value below 3 indicates minimal insulation, adequate only for warm nights.
• A value of 3 or higher denotes a mat with insulation for camping on cool nights (above freezing temperatures). Chronically cold sleepers should find a mat rated closer to 4.
• Look for 5 or higher for camping on frozen ground or in freezing temperatures.
Here are some of the Gear Guy’s top sleeping pad picks:
At 2.5 inches thick and 1 lb. 4.5 oz., the Sea to Summit Comfort Light ($170) features unmatched pound-for-pound comfort, thanks to air cells that conform to your body’s shape. Dual-layer construction maximizes comfort and insulation in the torso, while single-layer construction in the head and legs keeps weight down. Two valves make for instant deflation, while inflation is a aided by Sea to Summit’s 35-liter Air Stream Dry Sack. The Thermolite synthetic insulation has an impressive R-value of 4.2.
Dollar for dollar, you won’t find an air mattress more comfortable than the plush Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra ($100). At 3.5 inches thick and weighing just 1 lb. 5 oz., it delivers deluxe comfort at a reasonable weight and low bulk (slightly larger than a liter bottle). Double ripstop fabric and lamination improve durability while keeping the mat lighter and smaller (5×9 inches packed). Separate valves for inflating and deflating make both processes quicker, but it still requires more than a dozen strong breaths to inflate. Big Agnes doesn’t provide an R-value, but rates the mat at 15 degrees.
The 15-ounce REI Co-op Flash ($100) might represent the best value of any mat designed for lightweight backpacking. Weighing less than most competitors, its packed size of 4 x 9.5 inches compares with or is only slightly larger than others; and its 2 inches of thickness offers middle-of-the-pack comfort. REI’s dual-fiber synthetic insulation and Mylar reflective layer give this air mat an R-value of 3.7, higher than many three-season air mats. Plus, it inflates faster than most.
Backpackers counting ounces will appreciate that the mummy-shaped Exped SynMat HL ($180) weighs 15 oz. with a packed size of 5×9 inches. It’s comfy, too, with nearly 3 inches of thickness. While it inflates with about 14 strong breaths, the Exped Schnozzel Pumpbag ($40; sold separately) pairs with the SynMat for even quicker inflation. The R-value of 3.3 insulates well enough for three-season camping. The 20-denier fabric keeps the weight down but is more susceptible to punctures and tears than heavier fabrics.
With the 15-ounce Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm ($200), you get an all-season air mat with more insulation than any competitor. Credit its superior warmth-to-weight ratio to the ThermaCapture Radiant Heat Technology’s reflective layers. That gives the mat a winter-worthy R-value of 5.7. At 2.5 inches thick, it’s comfortable on surfaces from hard ground to firm snow. The bottom side is made tougher with 70-denier fabric, and at just 4×9 inches packed, it’s only slightly larger than a liter bottle — making it compact enough for summer use.
The Klymit Static V ($50) delivers impressive value at a hard-to-beat price. The pad offers 2.5 inches of thickness and weighs just 1 lb. 2 oz., with an R-value of 1.3. When it’s inflated, the V-shaped air tubes prevent flat spots, and side rails keep you from bouncing off. ALSO COOL: You can find it at scoutstuff.org or at select Scout shops.
Outdoor beds don’t get simpler or cheaper than a good foam pad. The 14-ounce Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol ($45) sets the standard in this category for packability, durability, low weight and comfort. (TIP: Look for soft ground, like pine needles or sand.) The egg-carton-patterned pad folds up like an accordion and lies flat when you open it. BONUS: It has a heat-reflecting surface for added warmth. But at 0.75 inches thick, don’t expect five-star comfort.