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How To Choose The Best Sleeping Pad For Your Next Adventure

Camping expert Alex Dolan is here to help you find the best sleeping pad for your next trip to the great outdoors!

Photo by Şahin Yeşilyaprak

Buying a new sleeping pad can be a much more in-depth process than you might at first think. With so many modern advances in camping technology and so many tried and true methods for getting a good night's sleep, how do you pick the option that works best for you? In truth, finding the "perfect piece of gear" takes a lot of time and experience trying what you do and don't like while you are camping so you can develop an opinion about your personal preferences. Luckily, there are some ways to get a head start on making those choices. Here are some facts about the technology available on today's camping gear market to help you choose the best sleeping pad for your next outdoor adventure.

Getting Started

Consider what kind of camping you will be doing. Will your sleeping pad need to be light enough to carry in your backpack during a 100+ day thru-hike? Are you looking for the most comfortable pad you can find to outfit your van or adventure vehicle? Will you be car camping with the freedom to bring an air mattress and all the luxuries of home on your outdoor adventure? Will you be embarking on a multi-day rafting trip that requires a water resistant sleeping pad that will hold up in the rugged terrain of the Grand Canyon? There are great options for all of these scenarios but none that will rank #1 in every category. As you make changes to compensate in one category, you inherently make sacrifices in others. Often, choosing the best piece of equipment is about weighing pros and cons and deciding on the best compromise.

A tent and a sleeping bag set against the sunrise
Photo by Jack Sloop

Self-Inflating / Open-Cell Foam

A self-inflating pad utilizes open-cell foam technology that will decompress and inflate as it is unpacked. While some additional air will need to be added to create a stiffer sleeping surface once the pad is "self-inflated," the ease of use is a huge upgrade from an inflatable pad. Open-cell foam is highly insulated, which means it will keep you warmer in cold weather.

And self-inflating pads are more durable than inflatable pads. While a punctured or leaky self inflating pad will not offer the same rigidity as one that can be topped off, it will still be more comfortable than an inflatable pad that has been punctured. In this sense, self-inflating pads are more durable than inflatable pads.

The only disadvantage to self-inflating pads is that they are generally heavier than inflatable and foam pads. So if you are backpacking or bike-packing long distances, this may not be the best option for you. However, if you are car camping, raft camping, or if the hike into your campsite is relatively short a self inflating pad will offer you superior comfort and the best night's sleep you can get.

The NRS River Bed is my preferred sleeping pad while I'm out on multi-day white water rafting trips or if I am spending a night in the back of my SUV. It sheds water, and it is so durable that it doubles at a seat or padding while rigged into the raft during the day, so you won't need to use valuable space in dry bags. The valve system is the same one used in many white water rafts, so it is super durable and you can use your raft pump to top it off. I honestly sleep better on this thing than my own bed.

Foam Pad

Foam pads (also known as closed-cell foam pads) are durable, affordable, and generally lighter than self-inflating pads. While they are not as light as inflatable pads, they are still popular among thru-hikers on trails like the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail due to their incredible durability.

The biggest disadvantage of foam pads is how bulky they are, which makes them difficult to pack inside of your backpack. Many backpackers will simply strap them to the outside of their pack to avoid this. With a foam pad there is no need to worry about thorns or sharp rocks that you may encounter. They are durable enough to lay down and sleep on in a gravel parking lot if the situation may arise. A foam mat is not going to offer as much support and comfort as most inflatable pads or self inflating pads but it will come with the peace of mind that it will do its job night after night.

The Alps Mountaineering Foldable Foam Mat is the perfect example of a sleeping pad that will get the job done without breaking the bank or breaking your back on a long through-hike.

Inflatable Pad

If a lightweight pad with superior comfort is what you are looking for, then an inflatable sleeping pad is your best option. There are a ton of different options on the market. Some are insulated with a high r-value for extra warmth in cold climates, while others have a low r-value and are made for warm-weather trips. Inflatable pads also have the ability to conform to the shape of your body, making them more comfortable. Often, the first thing to fail on an inflatable pad is the valve. If this happens your pad won't hold air and you will essentially be sleeping on the ground. So make sure the pad you choose has a good valve system. Many of the nicer inflatable pads have internal air baffles. This means there are multiple air pockets inside the pad that are independent of one another. If one baffle is punctured you will at least have a partially inflated pad to fall back on.

The Sea To Summit - UltraLight Insulated Mat is a durable 16oz backpacking pad with thermolite insulation. With an R-value of 3.3 it will help you stay warm on cold nights. The included stuff sack doubles as a pump sack. The mummy-style shape will easily slide into your mummy sleeping bag. It comes in three different sizes. The valve system is durable and makes micro adjustment easy. Its superior insulation and light weight makes it an incredibly popular pick for backpackers.

Air Mattress

Air mattresses have been a staple of car camping for decades. Once they are inflated they appear to have all of the comfort of your spring mattress at home, but they fold up rather neatly when they are packed away. However, many of us have probably had the experience of waking up in the middle of the night on an air mattress that is half deflated. Maybe you were sleeping next to someone who you are now sleeping on top of because your combined weight has forced enough air out of the valve that you are both rolling toward the middle of a mattress that feels more like a hammock. Self-inflating pads won’t do this, and offer far superior comfort to an air mattress. The biggest advantage to air mattresses is their relative cost. While some air mattresses are sturdier than others, the best ones are similar in cost to a self-inflating sleeping pad.

The Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe Self Inflating Mat Double is far superior to any air mattress I have slept on. With four inches of pure comfort underneath you, you will be sure to get a good night’s sleep. One thing that a few reviewers of the product have noted is how quiet it is. Rolling around on a rubber air mattress can be quite noisy and distracting. With this particular mat, you can feel free to toss and turn to your heart’s content without worrying about disturbing the people around you.

Other Considerations

When sleeping on a slight incline, your sleeping bag may have a tendency to slide off of your sleeping pad. There are a couple remedies for this. Some sleeping bags have straps to hold your sleeping pad in place while you sleep. Other sleeping pads are designed to go inside of your sleeping bag. Consider the shape of your sleeping bag when picking out your sleeping pad. If your sleeping bag is a mummy shape, there are lots of pads on the market designed with this shape as well, facilitating the pad-in-bag method.

If you have ever found yourself about to pass out from inflating your sleeping pad or mattress with the power of your lungs, you are not alone. Pump sacks are the solution. They are devices that are easily filled with air around you which can then be transferred into your sleeping vessel. The Sea to Summit - Jet Stream Pump Sack is a nice add-on if your sleeping pad or air mattress did not come with a pump sack.

Sleep is essential to the human condition. It regenerates our bodies and rejuvenates our minds. Without proper sleep at night our performance in the outdoors is hindered the following day. This not only means you will have less fun but also can make our fragile bodies vulnerable to costly mistakes when exploring potentially dangerous outdoor environments. A comfortable sleeping pad is the best way to ensure adequate rest when planning a camping trip. Hopefully you found this overview useful when deciding which type of sleeping pad is right for you and your next outdoor adventure.

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Written By
I have years of experience planning and executing multi day river trips for up to twenty customers at a time and countless summer nights living out of my Honda Element, moving from river to river, living wherever the water is flowing. I have also toured the San Juan Islands via kayak, and circumnavi...

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