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How to Choose a Backpacking Sleeping Pad

Tuesday November 5, 2019
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If you're diving into the sleeping pad market, you've probably noticed there are around one billion models available. Fear not, we have compiled some no-nonsense advice to help get you off to a good night's sleep. Once you've studied up, you can head over to Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads and get up to speed on the current best offerings. If backpacking, trekking, or big walling aren't in the cards, but you like to spend nights out under stars close to the car, check out our Best Camping Mattresses review.

Types of Sleeping Pad Construction


Backpacking sleeping pads come in three different flavors. There are closed-cell foam, which is pretty "old school", self-inflating which is also relatively old school, and air construction, which seems to have almost completely taken over the sleeping pad market. Each of these pad designs has specific areas where they perform better than the other types, and in some cases, these pads can be used in conjunction with each other.

Self-inflating


These products use an open-celled foam (like a sponge) sandwiched between two pieces of fabric. When the valve is open, the foam expands and inflates the pad. The foam also traps air and retains heat. It usually takes around five minutes for a new pad, but old ones with compressed foam will take longer and take more breathes from you. Keep in mind that "self-inflating" is a bit of a misnomer, as all these pads need a breath or two to reach their desired firmness. Most ultralight enthusiasts eschew the convenience of the self-inflation for the weight savings of an air constructed pad. It's best to store this type of pad semi-inflated and not compressed to extend the life of the foam.

Pros: Supportive, easy to inflate, decently comfortable, less bulky than foam

Cons: Less durable than foam, less comfortable than air construction, can be fairly bulky

Closed Cell Foam


Closed-cell foam pads are probably what the general public thinks of when you say you're going camping. These usually aren't as comfortable as inflatable pads, but what you don't get in comfort is made up for in durability. As we discuss in the next section, durability is a problem with inflatable pads. Closed-cell foam, however, can't pop. It can rip, tear, shred, tatter, cut, ribbon, or even slash, but it will still likely be usable. These pads are generally lightweight and an excellent way to add extra warmth and ground protection to inflatable pads.

Pros: Durable, inexpensive

Cons: Bulky, uncomfortable, often difficult to brush off snow and dirt

The Z-lite SOL is a great foam pad. Because it doesn't inflate  you don't have to worry about using it directly on the ground.
The Z-lite SOL is a great foam pad. Because it doesn't inflate, you don't have to worry about using it directly on the ground.

Air Construction


"Air pads are the wave of the future" is what we would have said eight years ago. Well, the future is now because there are hundreds, maybe thousands of inflatable pads on the market to choose from. These pads are generally very plush, lightweight, and come in a wide variety of insulation levels. While the side sleepers of the outdoor world rejoice in this new wave of comfortable sleeping pads, there are some downsides. Filling a thin laminated fabric with air, then laying a hundred plus pound human on top can and does cause air leaks. Being days away from civilization with a flat pad can be pretty miserable. Our advice is to always have a patch kit with additional repair patches, rubber cement, and superglue.

Pros: Often super comfortable, the thickness makes the lumpy ground less of an issue, can pack down crazy small
Cons: Not as durable as foam, take longer to inflate, sometimes feel bouncy


Prioritizing Your Needs


Because there are so many options on the market today, prioritizing your specific needs right out of the gate is a critical step towards making a solid purchase. Are you heading out on primarily fast and light missions into the mountains? Are you occasionally backpacking but mostly car camping? These considerations might sway you towards more comfortable and heavy sleeping pads or towards ultralight pads that sacrifice some comfort.


Comfort


In addition to warmth, comfort is the biggest reason to buy a sleeping pad. If you camp exclusively in warm climates, comfort is the only reason to buy one. We think that pads with smooth surfaces are more comfortable than those with deep baffles. Pads that are two inches thick are really nice because they make sleeping on uneven ground less problematic. Deep in the backcountry, it's really nice to have a pad that can turn a pile of pine cones or grass clumps into a cloud-like mattress. Our testers found that self-inflating pads typically felt more stable than air construction pads but often didn't provide as much cushion. Overall, we think that air construction pads are the more comfortable of the two until you start comparing them to The Best Car Camping Mattress.


Weight & Packed Size


The further you plan to hike in a day, the more important the issue of weight becomes. Consider for a moment that you're working out at the gym. If you're only doing five reps, adding five pounds of weight might not be that big a deal. But if you're going for 50 reps, that five pound increase makes a major difference. Reducing weight is important if you plan on pushing yourself to your limits. That said, not everyone will place the same importance on weight reduction. Comfort, warmth, and price are much more important metrics for many casual outdoor enthusiasts. Reducing weight almost always comes at the expense of one or more of these three things. Figuring out what is most important to you will help you make the best choice.

With a standard 12oz coffee mug for scale  these pads represent the spectrum of sizes. The Static V2 on the far left is a similar packed size to other light weight award winners such as the XLite and XTherm. The far right  Exped Synmat 9  was extremely comfortable for long periods and ultra warm but has a large packed size.
With a standard 12oz coffee mug for scale, these pads represent the spectrum of sizes. The Static V2 on the far left is a similar packed size to other light weight award winners such as the XLite and XTherm. The far right, Exped Synmat 9, was extremely comfortable for long periods and ultra warm but has a large packed size.

A small packed size helps you use the smallest backpacking backpack possible. This reduces weight and lets you carry a less bulky (and therefore more mobile) backpack. The Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air is one of the most packable pads we tested, stuffing down to the size of a coke can or two. Again, keep in mind that smaller packed size can come at the expense of warmth and comfort. For example, the self-inflating REI AirRail 1.5 is one of the bulkiest inflatable pads we tested, but it is very comfortable. Closed-cell foam pads don't compress as much as inflatable pads, but their supreme durability allows them to be lashed to the outside of your pack without having to worry. While they are physically quite bulky, CCF pads don't take up any internal volume, in this way, foam pads could be considered the most space-efficient pads available if you don't mind having them strapped on the outside of your pack. The biggest downsides to placing your pad outside your pack occur when bushwhacking through dense vegetation, scrambling through chimneys, or hauling your backpack up short sections of rock.

Warmth


In cold climates, warmth is the most important reason to bring a sleeping pad along. You must realize that your pad is just one integral component of a much broader sleep system designed to keep you alive and warm. Understanding this is critical to tailoring your set-up to be as lightweight and as warm as possible. First, think about what kind of shelter you'll sleep in the most. A double-walled tent or properly made snow cave is vastly warmer than an open bivy or ultralight shelter. Moving past your shelter choice, the next two things responsible for keeping you warm and comfortable at night are your sleeping pad and backpacking sleeping bag. Often people blame their sleeping bags for cold, sleepless nights when their pad was actually to blame! Obviously, you need a good sleeping bag to have a chance at staying warm, but don't think for a second that your pad isn't just as important - the ground can zap your heat faster than the air above you.

Layering the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm on top of the ZLite Sol will give you a cozy R-value of over 8.
Layering the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm on top of the ZLite Sol will give you a cozy R-value of over 8.

Further, you should think about what surfaces you're likely to sleep on (ice, dirt, snow, rock), what the ambient temperatures are, how much of your body will be contacting your sleeping mat (side sleeper or back sleeper), and how inflated your pad is (e.g., firmness vs. softness). If you frequent cold environments, you should buy a pad with as high an R-value as possible. Pads with low R-values combat frigid environments with ease when supplemented with cheap, closed-cell foam pads. For many people, the two pad combo is a great option because it is usually cheaper than a high R-value pad and will be lighter in the summer when the foam pad is unnecessary.

Warmth Basics


Before we start jumping into some of the physics behind sleeping pads, we need to first remember that cold is nothing more than the absence of heat and that heat involves the transfer of energy from warmer objects to colder objects. Got it? Great! Now let's move on to three of the primary ways we lose heat when we're sleeping: conduction, convection, and radiation. In case you don't remember thermodynamics from school, know that heat transfer via conduction has to do with you touching something colder (ex: touching metal in the snow). Convection has to do with a fluid or gas moving over you (ex: getting chilled from the wind). Radiation is heat transferred via electromagnetic waves to objects around you. The temperature difference between you and your surroundings dictates how much heat you lose by radiation. At temperatures below -20ยบ F, heat lost through radiation becomes significant.

We used this pad directly on snow inside this cave/deadman snow shelter. Our reviewer used a 15 degree down sleeping bag and was chilly all night. The pad itself felt cold and pulled much more heat than pads with higher R-values.
We used this pad directly on snow inside this cave/deadman snow shelter. Our reviewer used a 15 degree down sleeping bag and was chilly all night. The pad itself felt cold and pulled much more heat than pads with higher R-values.

Understanding R-Values


Most manufacturers give their pads a number called an R-value that relates how well the pads resist the flow of heat. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will feel. The equation is linear, meaning that a pad with an R-value of 3 is 3 times better at resisting heat loss than a pad with an R-value of 1. Unfortunately, getting an accurate R-value for sleeping pads is a very complicated issue, and no industry standards are governing how manufacturers report this data. Laboratory tests often fail to include many real-world variables, such as significant internal convection heat loss caused when you toss and turn. Inflating your pad to full capacity ensures that you take advantage of its full R-value. Now that we have the basics out of the way, let's jump into some of the details.

Inflation Level


According to an experiment performed by Backpacking Light, the level of inflation greatly affects the real world R-value of a sleeping pad. Simply, the more air you have in the pad, the warmer it is. This also means you'll be sleeping on a very firm mat, which many people will find uncomfortable.

Sleep Surface


An often overlooked component of staying warm while sleeping out is what surfaces are best for heat retention. If your choice is between snow and rock, it's better to sleep on snow. Most of that snow is air, which is a great insulator, whereas rock is incredibly good at transferring that warmth in a hurry. As a general rule, if overnight temps have been below freezing, it is likely better to bivy on snow than rock. No matter what season, if pine boughs or soft leaf litter is an option, these soft surfaces can yield comfortable and warm places to sleep.

The night before this picture was taken  our tester slept directly on ice and was quite cold. This night  he migrated to a dry patch and was much warmer. We don't recommend the Venture for winter use.
The night before this picture was taken, our tester slept directly on ice and was quite cold. This night, he migrated to a dry patch and was much warmer. We don't recommend the Venture for winter use.

Supplementing an Air Mattress with a Foam Pad


Throughout this review, there are mentions of using the Z Lite SOL as an adjuvant to other pads to boost R-Value. We have found this to be an extremely functional way to not only add extra puncture resistance and versatility to our sleep system, but it does add a significant boost to our overall warmth. Utilizing this method also equips you with two separate pads that can be used individually for ultralight missions or warmer days when the boosted R-Value isn't needed.

The XTherm was one of the best sleeping pads we tested again! It is so light it allows the addition of the Z Lite without too much struggle. Not only does the Z Lite create a pop-free barrier between inflatables and the ground  it adds a significant insulation layer between your body and warmth sucking granite.
The XTherm was one of the best sleeping pads we tested again! It is so light it allows the addition of the Z Lite without too much struggle. Not only does the Z Lite create a pop-free barrier between inflatables and the ground, it adds a significant insulation layer between your body and warmth sucking granite.

Warmth Conclusion


At the end of the day, our experience has taught us a few simple rules of thumb when it comes to choosing a sleeping pad for warmth. First, you need to think of your pad as part of your sleeping system. If you skimp on your pad's warmth, you should definitely use a warmer sleeping bag and vice versa. Second, we have found that pads with R-values between 2.0 and 3.0 generally work well for three-season use but should be supplemented with a foam pad for use in the winter, where an R-value of around 5 or above is ideal. Pads with R-values lower than 2 are great for summer, but you may want to supplement them with a closed-cell foam pad on colder nights in the spring and fall. Third, know how your own body works! If you know you're a cold sleeper, do yourself a favor and opt for a warmer sleeping pad.

NeoAir XTherm pads. Nose Bivy  Mt. Huntington  AK.
NeoAir XTherm pads. Nose Bivy, Mt. Huntington, AK.

Inflation


No surprise, self-inflating mats are the easiest to inflate; they are filled with open-celled foam that does most of the work for you. After letting the pad sit for a few minutes, you'll just need to top it off with a couple of puffs.

Air construction sleeping pads are a mixed bag when it comes to how easily or difficult they are to inflate. While some have included pump bags, which often makes inflation super easy, others don't and require some serious lung labor. When looking at sleeping pads, don't dismiss the usefulness of a quality pump bag. The Exped Schnozzel, for example, is compatible with many sleeping pads and makes filling quick and straightforward. Pump bags also eliminate the moisture buildup inside air pads, which can eventually cause mildew or mold growth.



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