How to Choose the Best Sleeping Pad for the Great Outdoors

How to Choose the Best Sleeping Pad for the Great Outdoors
April 26, 2016 lmg

Even though we’re all about paracord bracelets that can save your life, we still admit that there are a lot of other things you should have in your gear when you go camping. So we asked experienced camper and hiker James Menta to help us with choosing the best sleeping pad for the great outdoors.

Looking to add a dash of comfort to your camping expedition? Let’s take the topic and demystify it once and for all, cut through the clutter of information and get back to the basics that really matter.

Two vital benefits come from a good sleeping pad:

  • Cushioning
  • Insulation

Cushioning probably appears to be the more important of the two, but its ability of insulating your body from different cold surfaces is often much more relevant.

Before you decide to buy a specific sleeping pad, be sure that you know enough to get the best one for your needs. I’ll do my best to help you get a feel about several important aspects of a perfect sleeping pad.

Trying out a couple of different sleeping pads will allow you to learn about:

– How much cushioning do you need in order to feel comfortable. In other words, how thick your pad should be
– What is your preferred length and width of the pad
– How much it weighs, and how compactly you can pack it. Also, if it’s an inflatable pad how quickly it inflates

Different sleeping pads types

When it comes to differentiating the types of sleeping pads, we have:

  • Air pads
  • Foam pads
  • Self-inflating pads

Let’s say a few words about each and every one of them, shall we? But before we do that, let’s take a quick glance at an air mattress as a choice for your camping trip.

Air mattresses – They derive their comfort from the air, and they tend to be much thicker than, let’s say, foam pads. They are as close as you can get to a real bed in the great outdoors, and they are, usually, made so that your regular bed sheets will fit just perfectly. There are a lot of different additional features air mattresses can include such as built-in pillows or custom firmness adjustments via multiple air chambers. They are very comfortable, easy and inflate quickly. They’re perfect for boat or car camping, and can even be used as a guest bed at your home. On the other hand, they are relatively bulky and lacking in terms of insulation. That’s why they’re recommended for usage in mild climates only. You’ll also need a pump.

Air pads – They also use air to provide extra cushioning, but some models integrate insulation or some reflective materials for increased warmth. They can only be inflated manually. Some models some with stuff-sack pump that’s external and some with a built-in hand pump. They are very lightweight and comfortable, perfect for backpacking and camping in warmer conditions. You can use insulated models year-round since they offer much better protection from cold surfaces. They are heavier and more expensive than regular foam pads though. As with anything inflatable, there’s a possibility of it being pierced in the field, but repairing it is quite easy with a proper patch kit.

Foam pads – Dense foam featuring small closed air cells is what makes a basic backpacking sleeping pad. They’re very durable, lightweight and quite budget friendly. Excellent insulation is guaranteed, and they don’t absorb water, which is a blessing for camping in more humid environments. They can be somewhat less comfortable. They are relatively firm and stiff, so bulkiness is something that can’t be avoided.

Self-inflating pads – These sleeping pads offer a combination of air and open-cell foam insulation. The air will automatically fill the vacuum once the pad’s valve is opened. Self-inflating sleeping pads are very compact and comfortable. They will provide you with some excellent insulation, and their firmness is adjustable. That’s always a great option if you like to customize and play around with the firmness level as much as I do. On the other hand, they are more expensive and heavier than your average foam pad. Everything about everything inflatable applies here also. They can be pierced or ruptured, but the field repair is a piece of cake.

What is R-value?

You might hear someone talking about R-value, and wonder that is. It’s simply a measuring unit used to determine the insulation level of your sleeping pad. We measure the pads insulation according to its capacity to resist heat flow (that’s where the “R” comes from). Better insulation and protection from cold surfaces will be provided by the pads with higher R-values. Higher R-value will generally be offered by thicker sleeping pads.

Length and width of your sleeping pad


At a bare minimum, your hips and shoulders must fit on your sleeping pad.

We differentiate:

– Regular sleeping pads, which are usually 72 inches long
– Long sleeping pads, which go between 75 and 78 inches
– ¾ length pads or short pads. They pack smaller and weigh less
– If a pad fits your size it will also insulate your feet, which is an enormous plus on winter and chilly fall trips.

Width and shape

Standard width of a sleeping pad is 20 inches. If you’re an active sleeper and tend to move a lot you might consider getting a wider version anywhere between 25 and 30 inches. If you’re thinking about buying a semi-rectangular or mummy shaped sleeping pad, you’ll want to know that they’ll pack smaller and cut down volume a bit.

Choosing a sleeping pad based on your activities

You’ll want to adjust your sleeping pad choice to the type of outdoors adventure you have in mind. So, let’s see how this plays out.

Car/boat camping are activities where weight and size aren’t limiting factors. In these conditions, you can totally get away with choosing a large, thick mattress for comfortable and luxurious sleeping.
Backpacking is quite the opposite though. If you’re willing to trade off on some weight, you can get a decent level of comfort by using a sleeping pad with greater durability and thickness. There is also an option of a chair kit, which will turn your self-inflating sleeping pad into a comfortable chair, together with a backrest.
Long-distance hiking and minimalist backpacking will require the lightest pad imaginable. Overriding the other factors are small packing size and low weight. Your best bets are “short” pads or the basic foam ones. Self-inflating models are a viable option too. Some sleeping pads are marketed as “ultralight”, so keep that in mind while shopping.
Winter camping means snow, meaning you’ll need all insulation you can muster up. My recommendation here is a foam pad with an air pad on top of it. Foam pad will offer some extra insulation and offer backup in case the inflatable one gets punctured.

That’s it for sleeping pads. You have all the vital information, now it’s just a matter of going shopping and letting yourself go in the great outdoors.

For even more in depth reviews of specific sleeping pads (and general outdoor gear) check out Enjoy!

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