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How to Buy a Good Sleeping Pad For Camping

With so much cool camping gear to choose from, it’s easy for the simple sleeping pad to get overlooked. But one miserable night’s sleep will usually cure that. A good sleeping pad will help you rest well and recover quickly, and it won’t slow you down a bit.

Here’s the Gear Guy’s advice for buying the best sleeping pad for your next adventure.

SLEEPING PAD BUYING GUIDE

There are two types of sleeping pads:

Air pads: These lightweight inflatable pads usually “air up” with a few deep breaths. Some are self-inflating, meaning they mostly inflate on their own when unrolled but require a few breaths to firm up. Air pads are lightweight and pack down enough to fit inside your backpack.

Closed-cell foam pads: These simple pads insulate well and are less expensive than air pads. Plus, they’re nearly indestructible. But they’re also bulkier and usually need to be carried under external straps on a pack rather than inside it.

CONSIDER THESE FACTORS BEFORE CHOOSING A SLEEPING PAD

• Air mats occasionally puncture and go flat. Many come with a patch kit, but it can be difficult to locate a hole and repair it in the field. A mat’s denier rating indicates how strong its fabric is. The lower the rating, the softer — but lighter — the mat will be. A high denier rating means the fabric is tough but heavier.

• The standard size for sleeping pads is 20 x 72 inches. Taller than 6 feet? Most manufacturers make a larger size, but it’ll cost you.

• They’re not just for padding. They also protect you in chilly temperatures or when you’re sleeping on the cold ground. Most sleeping pads use heat-reflective material for added warmth.

• Some air pads make loud crunching noises when you shift around on them, which can be an annoyance to tentmates.

• For car camping, there’s almost no limit on size, so don’t fret over buying a lightweight backpacking air pad. A bulky air mattress — or old school cot — will do the job.

• Before buying, make sure the mat or pad is comfortable to you. The energy you lose through a bad night’s sleep will far exceed the energy you save by carrying a lighter pad on the trail. Make sure you get a pad on which you can sleep comfortably.

WHAT’S THE R-VALUE?

A sleeping pad’s R-value measures how well the pad insulates in cold temperatures.

• An R-value below 3 indicates minimal insulation, adequate only for warm nights.

• A value of 3 or higher denotes a mat with insulation for camping on cool nights (above freezing temperatures). Chronically cold sleepers should find a mat rated closer to 4.

• Look for 5 or higher for camping on frozen ground or in freezing temperatures.

SLEEPING PADS

Here are some of the Gear Guy’s top sleeping pad picks:

At 2.5 inches thick and 1 lb. 4.5 oz., the Sea to Summit Comfort Light ($170) features unmatched pound-for-pound comfort, thanks to air cells that conform to your body’s shape. Dual-layer construction maximizes comfort and insulation in the torso, while single-layer construction in the head and legs keeps weight down. Two valves make for instant deflation, while inflation is a aided by Sea to Summit’s 35-liter Air Stream Dry Sack. The Thermolite synthetic insulation has an impressive R-value of 4.2.


Dollar for dollar, you won’t find an air mattress more comfortable than the plush Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra ($100). At 3.5 inches thick and weighing just 1 lb. 5 oz., it delivers deluxe comfort at a reasonable weight and low bulk (slightly larger than a liter bottle). Double ripstop fabric and lamination improve durability while keeping the mat lighter and smaller (5×9 inches packed). Separate valves for inflating and deflating make both processes quicker, but it still requires more than a dozen strong breaths to inflate. Big Agnes doesn’t provide an R-value, but rates the mat at 15 degrees.


The 15-ounce REI Co-op Flash ($100) might represent the best value of any mat designed for lightweight backpacking. Weighing less than most competitors, its packed size of 4 x 9.5 inches compares with or is only slightly larger than others; and its 2 inches of thickness offers middle-of-the-pack comfort. REI’s dual-fiber synthetic insulation and Mylar reflective layer give this air mat an R-value of 3.7, higher than many three-season air mats. Plus, it inflates faster than most.


Backpackers counting ounces will appreciate that the mummy-shaped Exped SynMat HL ($180) weighs 15 oz. with a packed size of 5×9 inches. It’s comfy, too, with nearly 3 inches of thickness. While it inflates with about 14 strong breaths, the Exped Schnozzel Pumpbag ($40; sold separately) pairs with the SynMat for even quicker inflation. The R-value of 3.3 insulates well enough for three-season camping. The 20-denier fabric keeps the weight down but is more susceptible to punctures and tears than heavier fabrics.


With the 15-ounce Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm ($200), you get an all-season air mat with more insulation than any competitor. Credit its superior warmth-to-weight ratio to the ThermaCapture Radiant Heat Technology’s reflective layers. That gives the mat a winter-worthy R-value of 5.7. At 2.5 inches thick, it’s comfortable on surfaces from hard ground to firm snow. The bottom side is made tougher with 70-denier fabric, and at just 4×9 inches packed, it’s only slightly larger than a liter bottle — making it compact enough for summer use.


The Klymit Static V ($50) delivers impressive value at a hard-to-beat price. The pad offers 2.5 inches of thickness and weighs just 1 lb. 2 oz., with an R-value of 1.3. When it’s inflated, the V-shaped air tubes prevent flat spots, and side rails keep you from bouncing off. ALSO COOL: You can find it at scoutshop.org or at select Scout shops.


Outdoor beds don’t get simpler or cheaper than a good foam pad. The 14-ounce Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol ($45) sets the standard in this category for packability, durability, low weight and comfort. (TIP: Look for soft ground, like pine needles or sand.) The egg-carton-patterned pad folds up like an accordion and lies flat when you open it. BONUS: It has a heat-reflecting surface for added warmth. But at 0.75 inches thick, don’t expect five-star comfort.

54 Comments on How to Buy a Good Sleeping Pad For Camping

  1. The sleeping pad is making me want to go camping.

  2. “A scout is thrifty”. Why does boyslife continue to push $100+ gear when $30 gear is sufficient? And don’t say “I can afford it”. If you can afford a $100+ pad, buy a $30 pad and put $70 towards sending an underprivileged boy to summer camp.

  3. Thermarest selfinflating matresses. Using them for 30 years. Just got a new one last year for me and one last month for my son. Z-rests for our ultralights.

  4. I have the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra and it is awesome!

  5. Walmart is cheep

  6. Try a Cabela’s cot or sleeping pad! They are AWESOME!!!!!

  7. I have an eno singlenest. It is awesome for the price

  8. Check out the Big Agnes insulated air core for us arctic campers.

  9. Shotgun Scout // June 7, 2014 at 5:42 pm // Reply

    I have the sea to summit pillow shown and the alps foam pad. Together with an ozark trail sleeping bag works pretty good for pretty cheap.

  10. I just like to sleep on the bare ground and I like to not sleep in a tent or hammock the ground is my choice.

    • Knife Xpert 157 (aka Chad 101) // May 31, 2013 at 10:50 pm // Reply

      60%-75% of your body heat is lost thru the ground. At least one sleeping pad is a must. Even if it is really warm at night, a sleeping pad can also add extra comfort.

    • If you can do this comfortably you are an experienced camper. Kudos to you for being an advanced camper; I too do the same thing when ever possible. A true ultra light camper learns these sort of things and can really lighten their gear load, it’s not unheard of to have a 6# pack for a 3 day outing; including food. I dehydrate my own meals to reach that weight though.

  11. Hey Gear Guy,
    could you post something about the therma-rest trail scout
    Thanks!

  12. Get a compression sack for your clothes, and sew a peice of fleece on the outside. Sleep on the fleece patch. This is very light and minnimises carying a pillow and a compressoin sack.

  13. New Scout Mom // September 1, 2012 at 4:07 pm // Reply

    Thanks for all the info. I’m in my 2nd year of scouts and trying to learn as much as possible. I’ve read all the info that I could about sleeping bags and liners online, but nothing I could find explained it as well as you did. I learned more in the 20 minutes on this page than the 20 hours of my research prior. Thank you for this site!

  14. Xtreme Bakpakr // June 1, 2012 at 5:50 pm // Reply

    buy hte Big agnes air core pad! affordable, and its as comfy as unicorn fur on cloud of cotton candy!

  15. If you really like a pillow, try an inflaitable one. I bought 3 at Wal-Mart about 4 years ago and take one on my backpacking trips simply because they pack so small, so why not. It can inflate from 1/2 – 3″ high and 17′ long. It has 1″ of open cell foam build into the fleece pillow case for extra comfort. I found them on sale for $4.00 each. I used to use a large ziplock 1/2 filled with air and wrape my fleece jacket around it; the air pillow is more solid and less noisy. I don’t roll up my clothes as a pillow because either they’re dirty and smell or I’ll sweat on my clean clothes making them dirty before I wear them.

  16. I bought one from Target and its lasted me 5 years!

  17. You’ll need to cut an X in a tennis ball and put one over each leg/foot of your cot or you will poke a hole in the bottom of your tent. Or get a cot that has a continuous length of tubing across the bottom where it touches the floor.

  18. LifeintheWild.com // August 12, 2011 at 6:55 am // Reply

    My vote goes to the Thermarest NeoAir. It’s nice packing my pad away in my bag rather than strapped to my gear loops on the outside.

  19. runnerdude11 // May 1, 2011 at 6:51 pm // Reply

    Never ever use pillows…They weigh you down on backpacking trips and they can be replaced easily with a bundled up sweatshirt. Most also become obsolete when wet.

    • I agree with the pillows except I have a bad neck so I use a total pillow in my hammockthe small total pillow is tiny it can support my neck and I have a water proof case for it.

    • if you have an inflatable sleeping pad, just stick sum thing underneath the head part to prop it up a bit. that way, you don’t need to bring a pillow and your head is propped up.

    • Isn’t this the same guy that couldn’t have a 4 ounce compass on his watch because it “was to heavy”?

    • Yes -stuff the sweatshirt into its own sleeve for a comfortable pillow. It won’t unfold during the night.

  20. I have one of those Sea To Summit sleeping bag liners. I take it on short summer skiing and mountaineering trips when there is still snow on the peaks. It turns my 30 degree bag into a fifteen degree bag! my liner works great!

  21. I use the awesome Term-a-Rest Trail lite pad. I use the small. Although, it doesn’t cover you completly, it still is great and keeps me warm. It is really lightweight too!

  22. AwesomeOpossumDUDE // September 10, 2010 at 2:59 pm // Reply

    This is totally rockin’!

  23. exped mats and pillows are amazing!

  24. I use a exersize mat from wal-mart its cheap, light, and really comfortable. It came with its own strap so i just hook it to my pack. It works great!

  25. The Slumberjack Super Guide 30 degree sleeping bag is awesome.

  26. I use a Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad. The pad is full length, with 2.5 inches of thickness. It’s great for backpacking because it weighs only 22 ounces and packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle!

  27. Exped pillow is 3 oz and inflatible.

  28. thermarest is the best for there sleeping pads and pillows

  29. HippieScout151 // July 27, 2010 at 9:06 am // Reply

    I like LL Bean all the way for this kind of thing!

  30. I never know what liners were till now!

  31. thermarest pillows work great for backpacking

  32. kaedawg246 // June 26, 2010 at 11:30 am // Reply

    I found a sleepin ba that keeps you warm to temperatures down to -57 Degrees. It is in the $50 to $100 range.

  33. Is there a specific link to the 100th anniversary slleping bag? I am having trouble finding it.

  34. Velocitydude // May 21, 2010 at 2:35 pm // Reply

    Try the Cocoon Airsore Pillow instead. It weights 2 ounces and takes up barely any room.

  35. thanks for the nice selection

  36. it is awesome

  37. It is very helpful to now how I can buy all the stuff I need.

  38. i have found that a sleeping pad is very important for cold weather

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