A backpacking sleeping pad very importantly provides warmth by insulating us from the cold ground at night, and ideally a sleeping pad will also provide sufficient comfort to allow for a good night of rest. As an item that’s one of the heaviest and bulkiest core gear items you will carry on any backpacking trip, the sleeping pad requires some thought and consideration when it comes to selection and application. With a multitude of options available there's a sleeping pad to specifically suit any season and backpacking trip, as well as those that offer a wide range of versatility across many situations.
R-Value and Warmth
The most important function a sleeping serves is to keep you warm; although we all like to be comfortable we can’t be comfortable (or safe) if we’re cold. Thus, consider a sleeping pad’s r-value when making a choice. However, there’s no free lunch; the warmer the pad the heavier and bulkier it will be. As such we have to seek a balance just like anything else. For general 3 season use here in the Rockies where it always gets a bit chilly at night, I target a sleeping pad with an r-value around 3. Combined with an appropriate sleeping bag for the forecasted lows of course, I’ve found this to provide sufficient warmth into the higher 20’s. When it will be colder, I combine this pad with the thinnest (1/4" or less) and lightest generic foam pad I can find particularly of the Evazote foam variety that can easily be cut down to a custom size or folded over to double up if needed – such as the Evazote Exped Doublemat, or this option on Amazon, and foam pads sometimes carried by many cottage makers / vendors also work well. Essentially, you are looking for a thin 1/8" to 1/4" foam pad that will cover you width wise (depends on your main pad width of choice), and at least offer torso length coverage or more. This system that will keep me comfortably warm to the high teens. If it will be colder than that I will combine my usual sleeping pad with a thick foam pad of nearly an equal r-value. As an example, the Exped Synmat UL7 – find our full review here – which is my choice for an inflatable pad (the current equivalent Exped Synmat UL adds a tacky surface layer) combined with the RidgeRest Solar (the warmest foam pad from Therm-a-Rest) provides a total r-value over 6 and this combo has kept me warm on winter trips well below 0.
On this trip with a low for the night well below 0, I packed both this Ridge Rest Solar plus an insulated inflatable.
Some inflatable pads like the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra feature no insulation at all (r-value around 1) and basically provide mostly comfort from the ground, but not cold ground. These pads are lighter and cheaper, and might be useful for a dedicated summer sleeping pad in warm locales. On the flipside some winter sleeping pads, such as the Exped Downmat 9 or the NeoAir X-Therm, are heavily insulated and would be sufficiently warm all on their own for cold winter camping and for cold sleepers. On both sides of the coin though each are on the specialized end of the spectrum; I prefer the adaptable approach of using one 3-season rated pad, and then adding in a thin, or thicker foam pad when needed for colder temperatures. For the 3 season pad I like an inflatable to provide the comfort and some baseline level of insulation, and when combined with the additional foam pad the foam pad protects the inflatable and will even serve as a fail-safe should the inflatable spring a leak.
As a general starting guide an r-value of 2+ has been useful for me on summer trips in the mountains and for 3 season use in warmer locations; warm into the 30 degree range. I find an r-value of 3+ most useful all-around, providing sufficient warmth for most 3-season trips in the mountains and down to the 20 degree range. However if you sleep colder or warmer, you can implement some respective addition or subtraction here. For winter trips I do not mess around and take a combination of pads totaling a 5-6+ r-value. Pads that feature an r-value under 2 I find useful only as part of a larger system (as a solution to boost warmth as part of an overall sleep system), but not on their own.
Sleeping Pad Size
Sleeping pads are usually offered in multiple lengths and depending on your height and use, an appropriate fit can be found. If you’re going with an ultralight approach a shorter pad can work that offers coverage for the most important part of your body - your torso and core, but your feet and legs will hang off the end. To insulate this area you can pile gear and your backpack - that might just have an insulating foam backpanel, at the bottom of the shorter sleeping pad. This will save the most weight, but still will not be as warm or as comfortable as a longer pad. My preference is to use a pad that’s at least close to my height. A few inches shorter is fine as we often sleep a bit shorter than our height with knees and back bent, etc., or longer than your height offers the most luxury. Either way, by getting your whole body on the pad you will sleep warmer.
The standard width for most sleeping pads is 20 inches. Often a wide version (not really standardized, but usually 25”) is also offered and even up to double wide pads for two like the Exped Duo 2-person sleeping pad are offered. (Although two one-person pads can always be strapped together – Sea to Summit makes the best solution for this I’ve used) Preference will of course depend on your size and sleeping style. A 20” pad works for me, but there’s not much wiggle room and I do sleep better on a wider pad that offers more room to bend your knees for side sleepers or for toss and turners. Many tents are based around this 20” width standard, so be sure your pad will fit in your shelter of choice and combined with whatever width pad your partner may have if you’re sharing a tent.
Either way longer and wider pads offer more comfort but at the cost of an increase in weight and bulk. I’ve accumulated several sizes over the years, so on trips where I’ll be covering a lot of miles I take a standard 6’ pad; on more relaxed trips I like the comfort my Synmat LW (Long/Wide) offers. No matter the size, you will find sleeping pads available in both traditional rectangular as well is in tapering, mummy shapes that narrow towards the feet. While tapered pads offer some weight savings, a rectangular sleeping pad offers more room.
The lower section of a mummy-shaped sleeping pad. Weight is saved, but there's not as much toss and turn room.
A great target for an adequately warm and comfortable full length standard 3-season sleeping pad for most locations is around 1lb with the weight falling below that as we get into shorter and/or less warm pads, and above that as we get into longer, wider, and warmer pads. Save for a dedicated winter pad, approaching the 2lb mark is best reserved for sleeping pads in more of the super comfortable and warm, but heavy and bulky car camping variety.
Closed Cell Foam Pads
The simplest and cheapest option to go with is a closed cell foam sleeping pad. I’m much more comfortable on an inflatable pad, but as previously described, I still have an assortment of closed cell foam pads in my gear stash to combine with an inflatable pad for additional warmth on shoulder season and winter trips with my 3 season rated Exped Synmat UL7. However, the foam pad excels in the reliability department – it won’t leak and you don’t have to carry a patch kit. They are also usually cheaper.
The downside is they pack bulky and you will probably have to carry it on the outside of your backpack. This can be a pro though, as the pad will be easily accessible to use as a sit pad on breaks and for lunch. Foam pads are usually just around an inch thick or a bit less, and then compress further when you’re on it. You will definitely feel the ground and any rocks or roots that might occupy your campsite, but if the comfort works for you the foam pad is a reliable and affordable choice. Note that you will want to avoid open cell foam pads, as they will absorb water and when they do they take a long time to dry. Reserve these for use on the futon at home.
Foam pads are bulky to carry, but convenient for breaks.
Most foam pads can be had for under $50. Some popular options include such venerable choices as the generic blue foam pad, the Therm-a-Rest Ridge Rest (a classic), and the more conveniently packing ZLite Pad. And in recent years, the later two classic foam pads from Therm-a-Rest have been updated with an aluminized reflective (warmer) coating in the respective RidgeRest SoLite and the ZLite Sol pad for a small boost in warmth and durability.
Inflatable sleeping pads offer a few advantages and disadvantages compared to their closed cell foam cousins. Usually thicker than foam pads when inflated, an inflatable pad can keep you totally off the ground and the inflation level can be adjusted to suit your own comfort preference. Thinner inflatables are better for back sleepers and the thicker variety better for side sleepers. If you toss and turn, look for a design that is raised around the sides a bit to help center you on the pad and keep you from falling off in the night. Inflatable pads also pack smaller, usually around the size of a Nalgene and even a long / wide inflatable will easily fit inside a backpack. Inflatable pads usually feature baffles arranged in a horizontal, vertical, or sometimes in a pod like arrangement like the Sea to Summit Ultralight we’ve also previously reviewed. Preference varies; I like the lengthwise tubes that I find help me stay centered on the pad. Self-inflating pads usually have a flatter sleeping surface.
The downside of inflatable pads is that they can be punctured, baffles can fail, you have to inflate it, and to be sufficiently warm inflatable pads will use insulation or special baffles that bump up the price. If you carry an inflatable, you should also bring a patch kit along just in case, and use care where you put the pad. For inflation I prefer to not use my breath, not only can this be a little difficult at high altitudes after a long day, but it introduces moisture. Many manufacturers offer a pump bag solution - like the Exped Scnhozzel I use, and battery operated pumps are even available.
The standard of inflatables a couple decades ago, some are still self-inflating as well. Keeping an inflatable pad protected and inside your tent is ideal. Many people may also take a smaller foam pad to use as a dedicated sit pad in this situation. Some inflatable pads, though not all can be a bit noisy and some can also have slick surfaces that can migrate around the tent, or have you migrating on top of them at night. Some strategic dots of Sil-Net on your (especially if it’s silnylon) tent floor can help mitigate the slipping, and if you combine an inflatable with a foam pad of any type as I often do in colder weather it will mitigate this issue.
For a lightweight insulated inflatable pad, you are probably looking at something in the $100 - $200 range. Popular inflatable pads can be found in the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir series that utilize a combination of baffling and aluminized reflective features to provide warmth, the Exped Synmat series that uses microfiber insulation, and many options exist from makers like Big Agnes and Nemo Equipment.
Selecting a backpacking sleeping pad is without a doubt, a huge balance between weight, comfort, price, reliability, and warmth - and while there’s no best sleeping pad and no free lunch, with so many options out there there’s no doubt an option that suits your style can be found. As a side sleeper who values all the above points fairly equally, I like a comfortable 3 season inflatable pad as the main cog in my sleeping pad system, and add in a thin foam pad for just a touch of additional warmth when it's needed and a thicker foam pad for winter conditions.
For a full selection of lightweight sleeping pads that you can then narrow down by type, price, size, etc. take a look here at REI.com.