How to Choose The Best Sleeping Pad

How To Choose the Best Sleeping Pad for Camping

As much as we love camping, we’ll be the first to admit that sleeping on the ground is no fun if you don’t have a good pad. And nothing ruins a great day outdoors quite like a sleepless night outdoors. 

Sleeping pads play a key role in getting a good night’s rest. They insulate you from the cold ground—something the squashed underside of your sleeping bag can’t do—and cushion your body, reducing joint soreness, sore spots, and tossing and turning. A good sleeping pad can make the difference between a long night of shivering and a deep snooze that leaves you refreshed and ready to take on the next day’s adventures.

Here’s how to compare materials, identify common features, and choose a sleeping pad that’s right for you.

In this article you’ll learn:

How to understand R-Values

The different types of sleeping pads

Features to look for

How to choose a sleeping pad

Understanding R-Value

Most sleeping pads have a warmth rating called an R-value. This is a measure of the pad’s insulation—its ability to prevent the flow of warmth from your body into the cold ground. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will be. 

R-values around 2.0 or 3.0 are best for warm-weather summer camping down to about 32°F. Anything between 4.0 and 5.0 is warm enough for winter trips down to 20°F or so. Expecting temps near zero? Opt for an R-value closer to 6.0.  

Types of Sleeping Pads

There are three main types of sleeping pads: closed-cell foam, inflatable pads, and self-inflating pads. Here’s what you need to know about each.

Closed-Cell Foam

Closed-cell foam pads get their insulative properties from tiny air pockets inside the foam. They tend to be a favorite of long-distance backpackers because they’re inexpensive, lightweight, easy to clean, and durable—you can lash them to the outside of your pack without worrying about them getting punctured or rained on. (These same qualities make them great for kids.) However, they’re bulkier and less cushioned than inflatable pads (light sleepers and side-sleepers beware).


Inflatable sleeping pads, or air pads, are among the lightest and most compressible pads on the market. They offer more cushion than closed-cell foam pads—some are as much as 4 inches thick. Inflatables come in both insulated and uninsulated versions, so check the R-Value carefully. Many also come with pumps so you can inflate them without blowing them up yourself (which can be taxing, and introduces moisture into the pad, increasing the risk of mold). Downsides: The lighter ones are prone to punctures from sharp rocks, pinecones, and dog claws (carry a patch kit). Some folks also don’t like the sound of crinkling every time they roll over in the night. Finally, inflatable pads tend to be more expensive than foam.


Thanks to a combination of closed-cell foam and inflatable air-space, self-inflating pads offer a good balance between packability, durability, and warmth. Another benefit: The foam interior acts as a spring, allowing air to enter the pad, which means you don’t have to work as hard to blow it up. That means less moisture buildup from your breath, which reduces the risk of mold and bacterial growth inside the pad over time. The downsides: Self-inflating pads can still suffer puncture damage, they often weigh more than other pads, and they’re bulkier than inflatables. 

Photo Credit: Kennan Harvey/TandemStock Photo: Kennan Harvey/TandemStock; (top) Adam Mowery/TandemStock

Features to Look for

Sleeping pads might seem simple, but there are tons of features to consider. Here’s what to look for when you’re shopping.

Z-fold: Some closed-cell foam pads roll up, and others have folding panels, which can make them more compact and easier to pack.

Reflective coating: Aluminized reflective coatings reflect heat, boosting warmth while adding negligible weight.

Separate deflation valve: While inflation valves are narrow and only allow air to pass in one direction, deflation valves are wide-open ports that allow for fast, easy deflation. Some pads have both.

Separate inflation chambers: Some sleeping pads have two separate inflation chambers. That means more valves (and therefore more weight), but a nice backup: If one chamber gets punctured, you still have half the cushion.

Brushed surface: Active sleepers sometimes prefer a textured or brushed material on the top of a pad, which makes your sleeping bag less likely to slip off.

Tapered shape: Most pads are rectangular. You can save weight by choosing a sleeping pad that narrows at the bottom, mimicking the shape of a mummy-style sleeping bag. Con: Narrower pads are easier to slip off.  

Length: Many pads are available in long and short (or three-quarter) lengths. Some campers will only be comfortable on a full-length pad, but a shorter pad saves weight (and you can put your pack at the foot end if you need more insulation there).

Width: The standard sleeping pad width is 20 inches, which is adequate for most campers, but large folks and anyone who wants more roll-around room can find pads that are 25 inches wide or more.   

How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Camping 

Ask yourself these questions to choose a sleeping pad that’s right for you.


  1. What’s the coldest possible temperature I’ll encounter? What R-value will I need?
  2. Do I tend to run hot or cold when I sleep? Do I need a warmer setup than most people?

Weight and Packability

  1. What kind of camping will I be doing? Will I need to carry my pad for long distances?
  2. How important is comfort to me? Am I willing to sacrifice cushion for a lighter or thinner pad?
  3. How big is my pack? Does the pad need to be compact enough to fit inside?


  1. Will I be using a ground tarp or sturdy tent footprint that would protect an inflatable from punctures?
  2. Am I willing  to patch an inflatable pad if it tears?
  3. Do I care more about low weight, or should I get a heavier pad that might last longer?


  1. How long is my sleeping bag? Is this pad long enough?
  2. Do I want a shorter pad? Am I willing to sacrifice some warmth for the weight savings that comes with carrying a 3/4-length pad?
  3. Is this pad too long to fit in my tent?


  1. Am I a bigger person or an active sleeper? Do I need an extra-wide (25- to 30-inch) pad, or will the standard 20-inch width be sufficient?
  2. Does my sleeping bag have a pad sleeve in the bottom? Is this pad narrow enough to slide into the pad sleeve?
  3. Do I roll off my pad frequently at night? Do I need a pad with raised baffles or side-rails?
  4. Do I have a chair kit (or want one)? Will this sleeping pad fit? 
  5. Is this pad too wide to fit in my tent?

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.