Boys' Life magazine

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.