As with many pieces of outdoor equipment, the average outdoor person would think something like a sleeping pad would be simple. Place a sleeping bag on top, curl up for the night and off to the land of Sandman you go.
But, as it seems with every piece of gear, what should be simple is made to be complex.
An outdoors person can spend up to $160 in a sleeping pad! Throw in buzz-words such as R-value, Closed Cell Foam, self-inflating, Open Cell, etc. it is no wonder why people can get confused on what pad to buy!
This article will attempt to explain some of the more common types of sleeping pads for backpacking and general outdoor use. If you just want the quick and dirty overview, it is near bottom of the article.
What this article will NOT do is individually review pads. I think it is more instructive to look at the various types of pads and explain the pros and cons of each type. I also believe that there is truly no ‘best’ gear, only what is the best for an outdoor person’s hiking style, goals, comfort level, etc. And, quite frankly, there are too many choices and models to choose from to go over each individually!
If this guide helps narrow down a particular type of pad for you, I’d browse other sites for more in-depth reviews for individual brands and models. Backpackgeartest.org is an excellent site for unbiased, thorough reviews in real-world environments.
For some examples of personal use, I am a minimalist, so the ‘blue foamer’ works well for me for most of my backpacking. When I do shoulder season backpacking or camping, I bring a Z-Lite (formerly Z-Rest). And for winter camping? I’ll combine two pads to create a better R-value.
I was called “Dances with Cactus” on the Arizona Trail….
My better half is a cold sleeper and needs a more comfortable pad. She used to use a Therma-a-Rest, but now that I showed her how to go lighter (and buy the new toys for her! 😉 ), she loves her Neo-Air.
Of course, it is easy to go light when someone carries the stove, cook set, tent and extra food. 😉
All good choices for different types of backpacking styles and goals. And this article will hopefully help let you make the same option!
Before Buying the Pad
Before buying the pad, there are four items to consider:
Pad Length – How long of a sleeping pad do I need to be comfortable and warm at night? Will a shorter pad fit my needs? Should I buy a foam pad that I can customize easier to fit the desired length?
In lay person’s terms, the higher the R-Value, the more a pad will insulate you from the cold robbing ground. A blue foam pad with an R-Value of 1.4 will be quite chilly in the Colorado Rockies during winter. A down-filled pad with an R-Value of 8 in the summer of the southern Appalachians would make you swelter.
Get a pad that will fit the temp conditions you expect to face! The appropriate pad (or pads) and sleeping bag combo will often make the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep or feel like you are in an ice box. Sectionhiker.com has a great chart of pads and their common R-Values along with weight and price.
Big Agnes has a useful chart as well that shows what the R-Value rating correlates to in terms of comfortable sleeping temperature. (e.g., an R-Value of 1 is comfortable to about 35F. An R-Value of 4 is good for about 15F. And so on.)
As with all temperature ratings for bags, clothes, etc., the R-Value is just a rough guide that varies from person to person. Some people sleep cold; some people sleep warm. Wearing a hat to bed, the location of a campsite, your sleeping bag, if you are dehydrated, etc. can all have an effect on how warm you will be at night while sleeping.
Weight – As a rule of thumb, the better insulated and more comfortable a pad is, the heavier it will be (not always with newer pads, though). A trade-off, but sometimes being more comfortable at night is worth the extra weight penalty. Conversely, if you are hiking all day, the extra 2lbs of Therm-a-Rest will be noticeable! If you are base camping, hauling a heavy pad that is very comfortable may be worth the schlep, too.
Pad Type – Pads can be broken down into Foam Pads, Inflatable-Pads, and Self-Inflators. Each of these types has different sub-categories as well. Each type of pad (as with all gear) has their plusses and minutes and are often suited for one backpacking style, situation, time of year, etc. versus another.
A groovy bachelor’s pad. Seen on Mad Men. Not covered at PMags.com
One item to consider before purchasing the pad is the length of the pad itself. Many people needlessly buy full length (6′ long) sleeping pads when they are not needed. Besides being heavier, the full-length pads are typically more expensive.
Unless you are close to or over 6′ tall or winter camping (where no part of your body should be touching the cold robbing ground), a full-length pad is probably not needed.
A 3/4 length pad (generally 48″) usually suffices for most people in three-season backpacking. The trick is to roll up extra clothes or other gear items to use as a pillow and to place other items under the legs or feet. In warmer weather, the shorter pad really works well. I should say upfront that I am on the shorter side at 5’6″, so this trick works well for me vs others who may be tall. Some people may need a longer pad just because it is more comfortable. Another favorite idea is to take a shorter pad as your primary pad and supplement it with a very light and thin foam pad.
Larry Bird. Not a good candidate for a 3/4 length pad
What are the pad types?
Depending on your comfort level, weight preference and time of year, there are different kinds of pads to choose from.
Foam Pads – The Lightweight Backpacking Choice
Foam Pads (typically closed cell foam or CCF), are made of just that: Foam. The foam pads are very durable, warm enough for three-season hiking, waterproof and light. They also have the advantage of being able to be cut down to make customizable lengths. Typically, these are the least expensive of all the sleeping pads. The disadvantages of foams pads are that they are not as comfortable as other types, are bulky, and sometimes have a lesser R-Value vs. other pads.
Within this category, there are two prominent sub-categories in my opinion:
The ‘Blue-Foam Pad’ – The sleeping pad seen at every XYZMart, big-box sporting goods stores, surplus stores and discount stores in general. Very light (I have it cut down to 5 oz; cut it down even more, it weighs less!), very durable. At $10 or so, it is an excellent bargain. The blue foam pad scraps make excellent pot cozies, and (when covered with turkey basting pans) and excellent base for your stove in cold weather camping. The disadvantages of the blue-foamer are that the R-Value at 1.4 is relatively low and may not be the best pad for winter camping and possibly shoulder-season hiking. Many people do not find the blue-foamer to be comfortable. The blue-foamers can be bulky (esp if not used as part of a pack stay in an ultralight backpacking system).
The Closed Cell Foam Pad aka The Blue Foam Pad aka the Blue-Foamer
- BEST FOR: Minimalists and lightweight backpackers, those on a budget, people adept at choosing good camps peak three-season use and those with who do not need a more comfortable pad
Ridge Rest / Z-Lite (formerly Z-rest) type: Another CCF type of pads. The Ridge Rest and the Z-Lite are both roughly the same weight. Both these pads are a step up in comfort, weight, and price from the blue-foamer. Because the R-Value is higher (2.8 and 2.6 respectively) vs. the blue foam pad, these pads tend to be better for late or early shoulder season backpacking.
The Ridge Rest rolls up like the blue foam pad but is not as easily customizable. The R-Value is a little higher than the Z-Lite and is considered (by a fair amount) to be slightly more comfortable than the Z-Lite as well. The Ridge Rest is also less expensive.
The Z-Lite folds up accordion style and can easily be shortened in sections. The folding-style makes the Z-Lite a favorite of those who use lightweight and frameless rucksacks.
Ridge Rest Z-Lite
- BEST FOR: Those who want to go lightweight but don’t want the more extreme minimalism of the blue-foamer. These pads also work well for shoulder season backpacking when a little more warmth is required. Take the Ridge Rest for more comfort and warmth; the Z-Lite for more versatility. May not be as comfortable for some vs. the inflatable pads. As with the blue-foam pad, the bulk factor can be an issue.
Inflatable Pads – Comfort and Warmth (at a price)
These pads are not the same as the inflatable pads used at summer camp and found in the sport good section of a discount store.
These pads are made a little thinner material and are lighter. These pads are considered by many to be the most comfortable.
These pads must be blown up by the hiker. Many of them come with a small pump that adds about two ounces to the weight of the pad. You can use this pump to inflate a pad, but it is not necessary (just easier). Some pads have the pump built in.
All inflatable pads are somewhat fragile (some more so than others) and not a good choice for those who backpack in rough terrain and/or hard on their gear. I admit my bias against these pads; I don’t trust anything a repair kit is sold for. 🙂 Still, the comfort (and R-value for some of these pads), make them a popular choice for various people. These pads do not work well with the frameless rucksacks popular with ultra-lite backpackers. These pads do pack down considerably smaller than both the foam pads and the self-inflating pads.
There are two basic types of these pads:
Inflatable Pads without an inner core: Popular brands include Kooka Bay and Big Agnes. These pads are a considerably lighter version of the air pads for sale at discount stores. Very comfortable, somewhat light and not as expensive as other backpacking-centered pads. The minus side of these pads is that they only have an R -Value of 1. They are a better choice for late-Spring for late-Summer backpacking and may not work well for other seasons.
Big Agnes Clear Pad
- BEST FOR: Two-season backpackers who want comfort without a extreme weight or price penalty. If you are going to see any kind of cooler temps (~35F or so), then this will not be a good choice of pads. Be sure to not beat on these pads either!
Inflatable Pads with a core: A relatively new version of these pads combine the light materials of the above type pad with an inner core (down or synthetic insulation; nylon) that helps provide a higher R-Value. The result is a comfortable pad that is light and extends beyond one or two season use of backpacking.
A new NeoAir just came out with an R-Value of nearly 5 for winter backpacking. If you are a deep winter backpacker, ExPed has various down filled pads rated all the way to nearly -40F for really cold temps! Considered how much R-value these pads provide, the weight is very reasonable. Since the ExPed pads do have a fill material, there is the slight chance the outer covering can wet out and cause the insulation to become damp. See the winter camping section for more information on winter pad strategies.
The cons of these type of pads are they can be fragile and are expensive. The 3/4 length ultra-light version of the NeoAir pad retails for $120 For a person on a budget; they can be costly. The comfort, warmth, and weight does make this type of pad an increasingly popular choice, however.
- BEST FOR: Those who want the most comfort, warmth and lightness combo in their pads for three-season backpacking and are careful with their gear. Also good if space is an issue. Not as easily used for frameless rucks. They are also expensive.
Self-Inflating Pads – The Comfort and/or Basecamp special
The self-inflating pads (Therm-a-Rest being the most well known) have been a mainstay of backpacking for 25+ yrs now. As the names suggest, just a few quick puffs of air inflate these pads. Easy! There are many types to choose from various manufacturers.
These pads are not as durable as the foam pads, but not as fragile as the newer inflatable. They can be among the heavier three-season backpacking pads. These pads do have a higher R-Value compared to other pads for a comparable thickness, but generally do weigh more. These pads (esp. the store brands) are less expensive than the inflatable pads with a core. Because these pads are open cell foam inside, they are somewhat more susceptible to wetness than the closed cell foam pads if the outter covering wets out. The pads themselves range from the sub-pound ones meant for backpacking all they way up to ones intended for base camping and have a high R-Value. These pads are less bulky than the foam pads, but not as compact as the inflatable.
With the newer inflatable pads with an inner core, the popularity of these pads are waning. Still, they have a niche for people who want comfort in camp, need a somewhat more rugged pad vs the inflatables (but. I still don’t trust anything a patch kit is sold for. 😉 ), and want to do some late or early season backpacking with something more comfortable than a foam pad. These pads and aren’t quite as expensive vs the newer inflatable pads, too.
- BEST FOR: A general purpose three-season pad for those who want some comfort but not the high price of the newer inflatable pads. These pads are happy medium pad for a price, comfort and some durability (if not weight in most cases). Works well for base camping trips as well.
Here’s a quick and dirty overview of the pads available and what may work best. This list is just a high level overview. Your ideal pad may change based on hiking style, budget, time of year, conditions faced, etc. Look at more thorough gear reviews to see what is a good fit for you.
- Minimalist, person on a budget and/or want the lightest pad available? Blue Foam Pad
- Need something light and durable but still want comfort and/or backpacking during the shoulder season? Z-Lite or Ridge Rest
- Need comfort, something only moderately expensive and backpacking in peak two season weather? Inflatables
- Want the absolute best comfort, weight and warmth combo and don’t mind the price? Inflatables with an inner core
- Need an all round pad for comfort and three-season backpacking? Self-inflatable pads
- Winter backpacking? See below!
Winter backpacking requires more of everything: More warmth, more insulation, more gear, more equipment, etc.
Sleeping pads used for winter backpacking are no different. A person can have a -20F bag but if they are camped out on too thin or short of a pad, then the night will be much colder than expected.
Near Mitchell Lake at sunset on a fine winter evening
R-Value is critical to keep in mind when picking out a sleeping pad (or pads) for winter camping and backpacking.
Generally speaking, an R-Value of ~3.5 – 4 will cover 25-15F temps. An R-Value of ~4.5 would be the suggestion for deep winter (say 10F and below) camping.
For deep winter camping, many people will take more than one pad. Not only do multiple pads provide more warmth and comfort, but the multiple pads are often lighter and warmer combined than one heavy pad alone.
The rules of thumb for R-Values and temperature ratings may apply differently based on the person (cold or warm sleeper?), sleeping bag used, dehydration and general conditions.
Many people will also take at least one full-length pad. Feet touching any part of the ground makes it easy for warmth to be lost. A popular combo is the use of two pads: One pad is 3/4 length that is typically used all year and a full-length pad broken out for cold weather conditions.
Below are some suggestions for a sleeping pad or sleeping pads combo for winter backpacking and camping:
A self-Inflatable (Therma-a-Rest type) and a foam pad: A favorite combo for many winter backpackers and campers. Provides the needed R Value, gives many people the right balance between comfort, warmth, weight and bulk. The Ridge Rest (or even a Z-Lite) goes underneath the Therma-a-Rest to help protect the mattress in addition to providing more R-Value. A blue-foam pad may be good if the thicker pad has a higher R-Value and/or you are a warm sleeper.
Two inflatable pads of any sort: Could be a light combo and perhaps less bulky than the above. The idea of trusting two inflatable pads (some which may be on the fragile side) for winter strikes me as a potential issue, though. But, for those who may be more gentle on their gear and want the most absolute comfort, this combo may work well.
Two foam pads: The lightest and least expensive combo for general winter backpacking and camping. May not be the most comfortable for some people. A bit bulkier than the other solutions.
One inflatable pad with a high R value: There are now quite a few pads with high R values. One pad does provide less bulk to carry and sometimes weight. May at times be an expensive option. One good idea is to bring a very thin and light foam pad for to help protect the expensive (and warm!) pad.
For more information on backcountry winter activities, check out this article aimed for day use and this companion article meant for winter backpacking.