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How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

When it comes to camping and the outdoors, a few items are essential for having a good time, as well as staying safe and healthy. While some are obvious—camping tents, food and water, proper clothing, etc.—one item could potentially be overlooked: the sleeping pad.

Using a good sleeping pad is by no means an admission that you prefer luxury to ruggedness. In fact, heading out into the woods for a camping trip without one, especially in winter, would be seen as an irresponsible oversight. Without a good night’s sleep, you won’t be able to take on the challenges of the next day (and if you’re camping in cold weather, good luck trying to keep out the frigid temperatures without one).

So once you’ve decided you need a pad for your outdoor adventures, it’s time to take a look at the different kinds available.

Choosing a Sleeping Pad

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads

For years, backpackers have turned to self-inflating sleeping pads to stay comfy and warm throughout the night. These sleeping pads are constructed with advanced foam technology that can be rolled tightly for easy carrying, expand easily to provide an insulating layer of air between you and the ground, and offer a comfortable night’s sleep.

The Therm-a-Rest ProLite, for example, is regarded as one of the best sleeping pads for backpacking, mountaineering, winter camping, and any other multiday adventure. The product works by tightly wrapping the foam technology in a waterproof shell. When a valve is opened, the foam expands, drawing air into open parts of the foam to create an ideal mix of comfortable foam and insulating air.

Keep in mind, though, that these are some of the more expensive pads on the market. As with any inflatable piece of gear, you also run the risk of ripping and tearing (with proper care, however, this is uncommon).

Closed-Cell Foam Pads

Another highly popular model is the classic foam pad, which doesn’t require any inflation at all; it’s typically rolled tightly and held closed with webbing straps or Velcro. Other models fold accordion style, which can lead to difficult packing if you’re not careful. Because their construction is less complex, they’re lighter than self-inflating sleeping pads and are also much more durable. These pads usually weigh less than a pound, making them great for backpacking trips if you’ve got room in your pack.

Remember, though, that what you gain in lightness and durability, you may lose in comfort and insulation. To save space, closed-cell foam pads aren’t too thick, so they provide less support for you as you sleep. Also, without an insulating layer of air, the cold ground below you can more easily suck the heat from your body through conduction.

Still, these are great choices if you’re looking for an affordable three-season pad to use for years to come. (As a bonus, you can easily trim these pads down to fit your exact body dimensions.)

Manually Inflated Sleeping Pads

As a cousin to self-inflating sleeping pads, manually inflated products offer many of the same benefits, only toned down a bit. While you could use a high-end self-inflating pad for extremely cold conditions, manually inflated pads often don’t come with the same insulation and therefore are better for three-season use. Also, as their title suggests, you’ll need to blow these pads up yourself, causing breath moisture to build up inside the cells of the pad. This will ultimately decrease its insulating abilities.

Like their counterparts, these pads are excellent for backpacking over long distances, as they can be compressed to save space, and the cushion of air makes for a very comfortable sleep below your sleeping bag. However, remember that these pads are susceptible to rips, tears, and other punctures, which, if the product is not built with any insulation, can lead to a cold night on the hard ground.

Air Mattresses

You can’t discuss sleeping pads without mentioning the most comfortable (yet bulkiest) sleeping pad of all: the air mattress. These are great for car camping, family camping, or the weekend warrior who wants to spend some time by the lake, but prefers to carry the comforts of the bedroom along.

Most often, these mattresses must be inflated using a manual pump or even an electric device that you can plug into your car’s power outlet. Although they provide ultimate comfort, they offer very little or no insulation at all. Save this type of pad for a summer camping trip.

Women-Specific Sleeping Pads

In addition to having generally smaller dimensions, women-specific sleeping pads tend to have extra insulation at the hips and feet.

Which Is Best?

We’ve given you the most common types of sleeping pads. Now it’s up to you to take a look at the terrain and climate of where you’ll be camping, as well as the activities you’ll be doing while there.

 ProsCons
Self-InflatingLightweight
Compact
Good insulation
Comfortable
Can be pricey
Can be ripped or punctured
Closed-Cell FoamLightweight (sometimes even lighter than self-inflating)
Affordable
Good insulation
Won’t rip
Least comfortable
Bulky
Manually InflatedLightweight
Compact
Comfortable
Manual inflation can be time-consuming
Can be ripped or punctured
Not the best at insulating (though insulated models do exist)
Air MattressMost comfortableHeavy and bulky
Not insulated
Can be ripped or punctured

For longer backpacking trips, regardless of climate, go with a self-inflating or manually inflated sleeping pad. These provide the best balance between easy packing, lightweight construction, and sleeping comfort. Choose one that isn’t bulky and can compress down into a stuff sack, saving room for other necessities. Make sure to bring a repair kit along, too, and know how to use it in case the pad is punctured.

If you’re most likely going to use the sleeping pad a few weekends out of the year in warmer temperatures, it may be best to go with a low-cost closed-cell foam pad. If rolled tightly or folded up, these could potentially fit inside your hiking backpack, but most often you’ll see them secured outside the pack.

For winter camping, focus on insulation. Take a look at the pad’s R-value, which measures its ability to keep heat from leaving your body. A strong R-value is typically between 3.5 and 4.5.

Don’t assume sleeping pads are for the weak or outdoor-inept. Choosing the right pad can mean years of warm, comfortable nights, wherever you end up sleeping.

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