Comprehensive sleeping pad guide for the practical hiker

A good sleeping pad is an essential part of your backpacking sleeping kit.

Sleeping bags don’t save you from the uneven bumpy floor your tent sits on.  You must have a sleeping pad, the quilt veterans can vouch for that. A sleeping pad not only provides comfort while sleeping on the ground it also provides the insulation you lose when you compress the back portion of our sleeping bag. Otherwise, the cold ground would suck out the heat you produce and you will have a hard time getting warm even with the most expensive sleeping bag. This article will help you decide which sleeping pad is right for you according to the environment you are going to be using it the most in!

Sleeping pads can be closed cell foam(or just foam in short), inflatable(air pads) or a mix of the two – self-inflating sleeping pad. We are going to leave air matrasses out of the way because that is car camping territory. They can be very comfortable and roomie but very heavy because of it.

Click here to see the best sleeping pads for the practical hiker!

Closed cell foam pads – a good foam pad is nearly indestructible. It is the only solution to a thorny, rocky and rough ground. So if you are hiking in the desert or a place with a lot of thorns in general (I hate goat heads, had so many punctured bike tires from them) then a foam pad is your best bet.

Closed cell foam pads are better suited for people sleeping on their back. Side sleepers will not be comfortable on them because of the small amount of cushioning. They are the least comfortable of the bunch. You should try sleeping on them at home before you head out for the first time.

Another drawback can be the packability. The foam pad is light but takes up a lot of space. You can attach it to the outside of the backpack in various ways. It’s not really a major issue if at all for most.

Closed-cell foam sleeping pad. Picture credit to Miki Yoshihito
Air sleeping pad

Air sleeping pads – depending on the thickness and construction these are very comfortable in every sleeping position. The downside is they can easily have a puncture but that can be just as easily repaired in the field with a repair kit. Some pads come with their own repair kit. People might be disheartened at the end of a long hike to have to blow up the sleeping pad, but that is a small price to pay for the comfort they provide. You should be using an air pump for that anyway.

Weight – air pads can easily go under a pound.

Sleeping-pad-guide-for-the-Practical-hiker
Self-inflating sleeping pad

Self-Inflating foam pads – they are described as “self-inflating foam pads”  because when you roll them out the compressed open cell foam inside sucks in the air from the outside once you open the valve. Some will still need to be manually inflated to finish the job. They are more durable than the air pads.

With a self-inflating sleeping pad, you get the best of both worlds. The pads are not as crunchy as the inflatable ones. They can be a bit less or a bit more comfortable than the inflatables and much more comfortable than just the foam pads. Depends on the model you pick.

Self-inflating pads are heavier than the air pads starting from  20 oz. for the light versions and some can easily go over 2 pounds for the hefty 4 season models.

They have the inherent bulkiness of the foam and are not immune to punctures. To prolong the life of the sleeping pad when storing it treat it like a sleeping bag – let it loose, not compressed with the inflating valve open.

Which sleeping pad is right for you?

I’d consider the closed cell foam pads as the standard option that is also easy on the wallet. Like I said earlier they are the least comfortable, so try them out before you go out hiking. Not needing to worry about punctures is a big plus.  Keep in mind you will have to practice sleeping on your back if that is not your regular sleeping position. The foam pad provides limited cushioning and sleeping on your back on it is the most comfortable position. I will go into more detail in a future article about proper rest and sleeping positions. They are the only choice when you will be sleeping on rocky terrain that will otherwise puncture an air pad. You could combine them if you still want maximum comfort.

The inflatable sleeping pads are the comfort pick.  How much is the price of quality sleep? Well, a good inflatable sleeping pad’s worth I guess. Just have a repair kit on hand.

Personally, I like the idea of the self-inflatable sleeping pads being the best of both worlds – sort of, – ish, maybe. What puts me off is that they have both the negative aspects of being puncture prone and being heavier than the air pads. I’d just stick with regular closed cell foam sleeping pads and the inflatable stuff when there are no thorns or the devilish goat heads around. Your mileage may vary! A comfortable self-inflatable sleeping pad may be all you need in a 2 day hike when you don’t have to worry much about weight.

What does R-value mean?

R-value is a measurement of a sleeping pad’s ability to “R”esist heat loss. The higher the number, the better insulation the pad provides. The R-value of a sleeping pad ranges from 1.0 to 10.0. In summer you want a pad with 3.0 R-value and 4 for women. There are sleeping pads specifically designed for women with more insulation on the core and feet areas where women lose heat faster.  Sleeping pads between 5 – 10 R-value are considered for winter use.

One thing that bothers me is that there is no standard for “R-value”. Companies place R-value on their sleeping pads based on their own tests. Most of the time they get it right.

Some manufacturers add temperature ranges to make it easier for buyers.

Winter sleeping pads can even have down or synthetic insulation for extremely cold conditions.

Keep in mind you don’t need to buy a new winter sleeping pad if you want to go backpacking in the winter. You can just use a closed cell foam pad as the first layer and put a more comfortable inflatable pad on top of it to get the insulation you need to stay warm.

You will encounter the words “insulated” and “uninsulated” for the same model of sleeping pad. As confusing as this may be – fear not! I will shed some light into this wordy mess.

Uninsulated sleeping pads are not necessarily … uninsulated. They simply have less R-value than the insulated version – always check the R-value!

You still need a pad even when sleeping in a hammock!

Cool air moves freely around your back while hanging in a hammock. This can draws heat away from your body even faster and you do need a sleeping pad or an underquilt to prevent it. Inflatable and self-inflatable pads would be best for that purpose. I’ll cover hammock backpacking in another article where we can go into more detail!

Sleeping pad sizes

Sleeping pads can come in a variety of sizes depending on their intended use.

Length

Regarding length they usually come between 72-78’’ to cover your full body length but there are even longer options.

There are ¾-length pads that are 46-48’’ long. Their purpose is to be even more lightweight but you will need to put some clothing under your feet instead to compensate for the missing insulation.

Sleeping Pad width is another thing to keep in mind. The backpacking sleeping pad standard is 20’’ width which may leave your arms outside at times. For that reason, there are wider 25’’ pads that weigh more. For the broad-shouldered greek gods, there are 30’’ models.

How to repair an air sleeping pad or a self-inflating sleeping pad in the field

It’s pretty straightforward. If you’ve ever had to repair your bicycle’s punctured tire you can skip this part.

To start, you need to locate where the puncture is. Blow up the pad and listen carefully around it. Once you’ve found the leak, clean up the spot around it and use the repair kit you carry.

Avoid UV drying glues because most of them dry brittle so it will crack. The longer curing glues take about 8 hours to cure. So just patch up the spot, carefully pack it so you don’t disturb the patch and … wait about 8 hours or whatever time it says in your patch kit before you inflate the air sleeping pad again.

Sleeping pad shapes

Those can be closely compared to the sleeping bag shape designs – rectangular which are inefficient weight wise and mummy shaped which will be my preferred lighter solution. There are exceptions to this and having a bit of extra wiggle room isn’t a bad thing.

Air sleeping pad baffles

This is a personal preference, but a well-designed sleeping pad shouldn’t make you think about what is the direction of the baffles.  Some sleeping pads can have bigger baffles along the edge to keep you from rolling out of them and some have a head cushion built in.

We will discuss baffle design in individual reviews. Some manufacturers can get a “less desirable” design quite right compared to others so keep an open mind.

Valve types for self-inflating and air sleeping pads

There are two types of valves – twist and pull valves (a classic) and flat valves. Manufacturers often use only one type of valve so if you have a valve preference you’d have a brand preference that goes with it. But if you like the brand but not the valve … do what I do:

Deal with it and sigh with mild frustration…

Now twist and pull valves are simple and inferior to flat valves. They can let air out gradually no matter how tight you twist them and they poke out of the sleeping pad. Sadly most of even the high-end sleeping pads use those. Because of their plastic consturction – they can easily break by stepping over them by accident.

Flat valves are cleverer, they do not leak air, they are tough as nails and they help to quickly inflate and deflate the air pad and don’t stick out. 

Why should you use a pump to inflate an air sleeping pad?!

Inflating an air pad using your lungs has been done for decades. That should be a thing of the past tho.

By inflating an air pad with our lungs we introduce moisture into the air pad. We exhale water vapor no matter what, that is why we have condensation in the tent if we’ve been in there for a while.

So why is moisture in the air pad bad? Well, moisture can promote the growth of harmful bacteria or mold over time and we do not want that. When deflating the pad, mold spores can spread to your other gear and that is simply a headache you don’t want to deal with.

It is worse having moisture in a self-inflating sleeping pad because of the open cell-foam inside which provides an ideal surface for bacteria to develop.

Now some manufacturers have thought of that and have coated the inside of their pads with anti-microbial coatings, but still, it’s better to inflate them with a pump.

So when you get an air sleeping pad – get a pump for them. A few extra ounces of weight are worth the piece of mind and saved breath!

Conclusion

And there you have it. Sleeping pads are an essential piece of equipment that should be in every backpacker’s kit. If you can have a good night’s sleep on a closed cell foam pad  – congratulations you’ve saved some money and gained a very reliable piece of gear in the process. For the rest, there are the more expensive, but more comfortable air sleeping pad options. Depending on the type of hiking you do, you might choose the air sleeping pad for it’s lightweight and comfort. Thru-hiking and ultralight hiking would be the logical choice there.

But if you want a more durable air sleeping pad and can deal with a bit more bulk and weight- the self-inflating pad could be your best bet. They are priced relatively close to air pads so the choice comes down to what feels right to you. I know you’ll make the right choice!

Click here to see the best sleeping pads for the practical hiker!

Let me know in the comments below what is your favorite type of sleeping pad and why did you choose it.

Until next time,

Happy hiking!

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