How to Pick the Perfect Sleeping Pad


Written by Gabby Tachis, Staffer at Novato

If you’re in the market for a new sleeping pad to make your outdoor adventures that much more comfortable, this guide was made for you! Buying a sleeping pad can be tricky with the crazy amount of options out there. Which one is right for me you ask? Let’s go over some differences:

 

INFLATABLE vs. SELF-INFLATING vs. CLOSED CELL FOAM

First off, there are three different types of sleeping pads: inflatable, self-inflating, and closed cell foam. They each have their pros and cons in regard to weight, packability, and comfort level. Here are the different types and some benefits and drawbacks to each.

 

INFLATABLE

Inflatable sleeping pads (AKA air pads) are a great option for someone looking for a lightweight, compact pad. When ready to be used, just take it out of your pack and inflate by either blowing into it or using a pump. They are pretty easy and quick to blow up. Once ready, you have a comfortable resting spot for the night. Certain air pads are best for minimalist backpacking where space is limited and weight needs to be kept low, like this Nemo air pad that packs down to the size of a water bottle. Other inflatable pads are great for car camping because of how much comfort they provide when inflated (shout out to Exped for making their MegaMat sleeping pad just as comfortable as your bed at home). Make sure to look at the weight and size of each inflatable pad to find out if it will better suit car camping or backpacking (more info on this below when we explain which pads better suit which activities). Although inflatable sleeping pads are a great option, they are not the best for light sleepers who are bothered by the crinkling noise they can sometimes produce. They can also be punctured relatively easily when compared to the other types of pads. Luckily, most inflatable pads come with patch kits for when that does happen, and it’s a pretty easy fix.

Key Takeaways: Inflatable pads are the most lightweight and packable option but can sometimes be noisy and are more prone to punctures.

 

SELF-INFLATING

Self-Inflating (AKA open cell foam) sleeping pads are made of foam with little air pockets that allow the foam to expand when ready to use. Within about 5-15 minutes after unrolling the pad and opening the valve, it will be fully inflated with no work on your end, making it super convenient. They are a little bit heavier and less packable than the inflatable pads, but the foam provides an extra layer of comfort. These pads do have an extra layer of fabric when compared to the inflatable pads making them less likely to puncture, but it still can happen (again, they usually come with a repair kit). Since the open cell foam is self-inflatable, it is great for people who do not want to deal with blowing up their pad at the end of a long day of hiking. It also provides a nice layer of insulation and comfort that air pads do not always have.

Key Takeaways: The self-inflating pads are a great middle of the road option, providing more insulation and increased durability, but are not as compact and lightweight as the inflatable pads.

 

CLOSED CELL FOAM

Closed cell foam pads are the ones that you see hikers carrying on top of their packs. The reason they can be carried outside of a pack is because of their outstanding durability. They are made of dense foam that does not puncture like the other two options. Although they are a little bulkier when compared to the other types, they are virtually indestructible and pretty inexpensive. With that being said, it usually does not provide the same level of comfort as the other options.

Key Takeaways: Closed cell foam is a great option for those who value durability over comfort level and packability.

 

WARMTH, SIZE, & SHAPE

 

WHAT ABOUT WARMTH?

When camping in cold conditions, it is important to have a pad that keeps you warm. A sleeping pad’s insulation is rated with something called an R Value, which is a measure of thermal resistance. Basically, it measures your sleeping pad’s ability to stop the cold from the ground from reaching your body and making you cold. The higher the R Value, the better insulation your sleeping pad has, and the less likely you are to end up being cold in the middle of the night. If you are camping in the summer, you will only need a sleeping pad with an R Value of around 2, but if you are camping in the cold winters, you will generally want something at a 5 or higher. For fall camping, something around a 3 or 4 will do. All sleeping pads sold at Sports Basement will have an R Value listed in the product description section.

 

SIZE AND SHAPE

If you’ve been shopping around for sleeping pads, you may have seen that they come in all different shapes and sizes. But which one is right for you? Let’s start with shape. Sleeping pads usually come in two different shapes. The “mummy-cut” pads are rounded at the top and narrower towards the feet, while other pads are just a plain old rectangle. The mummy-cut style is typically lighter and smaller, better for a minimalist backpacker. The rectangle shaped pads on the other hand are much better for those who may move around a bit more in their sleep or want room to stretch out.

Next is length: You may ask, “If I’m tall shouldn’t I just get the large size?” Well…not necessarily. If you want your whole body resting on the sleeping pad for maximum comfort, you should get a size that’s the same or a little longer than your height. But the longer the pad, the heavier it is. This is why some opt for the small size pad to shave off weight and space. This would mean that your legs and feet are not resting on the pad, however, meaning that there is no insulation near the lower half of your body. If you are winter camping, a longer pad is a must to avoid getting cold at night. But if you are camping in good weather, trying to keep the pack as lightweight as possible, and you are okay with resting your legs on your pack or something similar, the small size pad will be a great lightweight option.

 

WHICH PADS WORK BEST FOR WHICH ACTIVITIES?

 

CAR CAMPING

The great thing about car camping is that size and weight are not a huge concern. That means you can focus more on comfort. The heavier inflatable pads are a perfect choice for this. Might as well get the best sleep possible, right? A great option for this would be any of the Megamat Max pads, which provide a whopping six inches of comfort to make it feel just like your bed at home.

 

BACKPACKING

Inflatable pads are a great option for backpackers because many of them are light and compact. It is always nice to not have to worry about your pad taking up space or weight that you could use for other backpacking essentials. The Therm-a-Rest Neoair Uberlite is a perfect option for those looking for a lightweight pad to use in summer conditions. For someone looking for a bit more comfort and warmth on your next backpacking adventure, the Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro is the way to go.

 

THRU-HIKING

The last thing you want to worry about on a thru-hike is puncturing your pad in the middle of nowhere and not being able to fix it. For this reason, I would recommend a closed-cell foam pad to give you that extra durability. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pad is a great option that is almost indestructible, but still lightweight and compact.

 

WINTER CAMPING

The most important factor when hiking in the winter is staying warm. Some great options for this offered at SB are the Therm-a-Rest Mondoking 3D and The Therm-a-Rest Luxurymap. Make sure to pair these with the right sleeping bag, as well (see below for more info on that).

 

OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND

 

WHAT IF I'M A SIDE-SLEEPER?

It is especially important for side sleepers to put as much space as they can between their body and the ground so that when their hip sinks into the pad, it does not sit directly on the ground. For this reason, side sleepers should go with a thicker pad, say 3.5 - 4 inches. These are usually found in some self-inflating and inflatable pads. The Big Agnes Insulated Q Core SLX is 3.5 inches thick, making it a great option for side sleepers. Another great option is the Nemo Astro Insulated mat. Back and stomach sleepers can usually get away with a thinner sleeping pad as thin as 2 inches.

  
 
WHY ARE SOME SLEEPING PADS LISTED SEPCIFICALLY FOR WOMEN?

When shopping for a pad, you may notice that some are labeled as women’s, while others are unisex. And you may be asking yourself, “Do I need to get a pad made specifically for women?” In short – no, it is not absolutely necessary. Since women tend to need more insulation near their core and feet, female-specific pads provide more warmth in those areas. They also tend to be shorter – so it is nice for a shorter user to cut down on weight. With that being said, both types of pads will work for women.

 

MATCHING MY SLEEPING BAG TO A SLEEPING PAD

Okay, now you know which sleeping pad to buy, but what about the sleeping bag? The combination of your bag, pad, pillows, and clothes is usually referred to as your sleep system. It is important to make sure your whole system sets you up for success in the outdoors. Remember that R Value we talked about earlier? Well, sleeping bags have temperature ratings as well, usually referred to as “EN” or “ISO” ratings. These ratings are all estimates, so for your sleeping bag to function at or close to its said temperature rating, it is important to have a pad with an R Value to match the temperature rating. For example, if you are camping in the extreme cold with a sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees or lower, you will need a sleeping pad with an R value close to 6 or above to stay comfortable through the night. Unfortunately, having a warm sleeping bag does not make up for a pad with a low R Value, or vice versa.

 

You are now ready for your next adventure! If you have any other questions on sleeping pads (or any other gear), visit your local Sports Basement and any of our expert staffers will be happy to help you out!

- Gabby at Sports Basement

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