Updated December 20, 2016
Backpacking sleeping pads are an important component to any outdoor sleep system. They are designed to protect the body from cold, damp ground conditions and to provide some comfort from uneven, hard and lumpy surfaces, while remaining lightweight, durable and packable.
My early camping years were spent waking up on the hard cold ground after my military surplus air mattress deflated during the night. It was heavy to carry and after thirty minutes of blowing up, left me lightheaded and often dizzy.
I remember waking up in the middle of night to the sound of the “zipping” noise as my sleeping bag skated over the top of the air mattress whenever I turned over in my sleep, that is when I didn’t slide off it and find myself waking up on the ground.
Those days are history, now. Thank goodness! Backpacking sleeping pads have come a long way since then! Today, it’s all about weight, comfort and packing size.
Weight is everything when backpacking and today “ultralight” is the focus.
Look for pads weighing 2 pounds or less that offer reasonable comfort, insulation and durability.
All of the pads on this webpage are ultralight.
There is nothing plush about sleeping under the stars when backpacking and comfort is relative depending on what kind of position dominates your sleep.
Another consideration is insulation against ground temperatures, R-value.
A super warm sleeping bag won’t protect you from freezing, because your body compresses the loft of the sleeping bag against the ground.
It is the job of the backpacking sleeping pad to protect against icy temperatures and moisture seeping up from the ground to keep you from waking up with a freezing body.
Tailor the R-value insulation of your pad needs to those of your sleeping needs.
If you sleep cold, choosing a pad with a higher R-value per ounce will offer more protection.
Also, tailor the R-value insulation of your pad to your backpacking style and to known camping conditions. For example, if you are a summer backpacker who camps in warm weather conditions only, then an uninsulated pad will be suitable.
Deep winter campers will need a pad with a high R-value rating of 5 for comfort plus a closed-cell foam pad for added insulation and a reflective blanket underneath their sleeping bag to help preserve body heat.
The packing size of backpacking sleeping pads varies with type of pad, material composition and amount of insulation.
By far, the most compact pads are the uninsulated kind made of “ultralight” construction. Some pads are designed to compress to the size of a soda can.
Most air pads and some warm pads, such as the Therm-a-Rest XTherm and XLite, pack small enough to fit inside a backpack. Other lightweight pads will need to be strapped onto the outside of the backpack.
When I took up backpacking, I ditched the old military air mattress in favor the popular thin blue closed-cell foam sleeping pad. It’s what everyone used before the advent of high tech fibers and innovative design.
This classic camp pad is still popular, because it is very affordable, easy to use, waterproof, durable, light-weight, doesn’t deflate, serves multiple uses in camp and can be used as essential survival gear. Though it is a bit bulky to pack and is the least comfortable of backpacking sleeping pads, there’s no doubt this timeless pad is tough and defies wear.
I have used my blue foam sleep pad as a wind block so I could start a fire to keep warm by and to keep the flame lit on my packable stove while cooking dinner. Folded up, my foam camp pad made a very cushiony sit-upon and terrific knee pads. It even makes a great float in a favorite swimming hole.
My foam pad has sheltered me from driving rain, done time as a crash pad for many much needed naps while on the trail and has been used as a make-shift cooler to keep perishables cold. Once I had to cut off the ends of my foam sleeping pad to use as a cushion for an injured limb, which was immobilized with sticks and was secured with tethering line and bandanas.
So enduring is this pad option, it is the go-to secondary pad of choice for cold weather camping.
If you want budget-friendly backpacking sleeping pads that can take what the outdoors can throw at them and you can still pass it on to your kids (and grandkids), then closed-cell foam is your pad of choice.
Best ease of inflating--REI AirRail 1.5
A more customized sleeping solution, marrying the best of characteristics of old-time air mattresses with foam backpacking pads, is the self-inflating sleep pad. Invented by Therm-a-Rest™ in 1972, self-inflating pads are a combination of open-cell foam encased in a shell of high-tech material.
Self-inflating backpacking sleeping pads pack a little heavier, but are not as bulky as closed-cell foam pads.
These pads are easy to use; just unroll, open the valve and they self-inflate. Customize the comfort by topping it off with a little more air from your lungs and close the valve . . . very convenient.
They also come in very handy for a more comfortable packing experience!
New innovations in materials and design have produced lighter self-inflating mattresses of reasonable durability and puncture resistance that pack smaller than the original and provide a rather comfortable and quiet sleep (side sleepers find them a little thin and complain of some discomfort).
Remember the inflatable vinyl air mattresses people used to use in swimming pools and at the beach? The idea has been redesigned, made with innovative lightweight construction and materials, making them a pricey sleep solution option.
Though these pads are most compact to pack and lightest in weight, cold weather camping versions include insulation, which increases cost and weight.
For sleepers who move a lot or sleep with one ear open, be forewarned; some of these pads crinkle and squeak.
If you take good care of your air pad, it will take care of you. Increase its durability by using a Tyvek™ ground cloth.
Sometimes valves need repair, so take along a Therm-A-Rest Valve Repair Kit.
For those who wish to preserve their lungs, especially at high elevations, use specially designed accessories such as Therm-A-Rest AirTap Pump Kit, Therm-a-Rest Neoair Pump Sack, Exped Schnozzel Pump Bag or Sea to Summit Air Stream Dry Sack Pump. I love gear that does multi-duty; pump sacks or bags are nice as they double as stuff sacks.
Some campers like to cuddle up together when they sleep. A sleep pad coupler kit turns two pads into one larger pad.
Backpacking sleeping pads come in different widths, lengths and shapes, so there is a choice for every body and every kind of sleep style.
Keep in mind usage. These sleeping pads go beyond serving the sleeping needs of backpackers and long distance expeditions only. Any minimalist camper will appreciate their small profile: bicyclists, motorcyclists, climbers, water and winter sports adventurers, car road trippers . . .
. . . and even avid RVer’s. (Remember my indispensable blue closed-cell foam pad? It's rolled up and stored in my travel trailer. I use it as a cushion on hardwood picnic table bench seats, to kneel on when I'm hooking up or working on the ground, and to lay on when I need to get underneath my trailer or truck.)
After narrowing your selection based on weight, comfort, insulation, pack size and the types of pads available, in the end, the best way to choose the right one to meet your adventuring needs is to try out a few and see which pad fits you best.
Go to a nearby outfitter store and try them. If this is not possible, order some pads online, try them out at home, keep the one you want and return the rest.
The serious trekkers I know have impressive collections of backpacking sleeping pads to meet their specific adventuring needs.
If you have a favorite pad, please share about it in the comment section below so others can benefit from your experience and backcountry wisdom.