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
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 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.