How to Choose a Sleeping Pad: A Step by Step Guide

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Picking a sleeping pad can be one of the most difficult choices when camping or backpacking. With so many options out there, it is hard to know which one is best for you and your needs. In this article, we will help you through a step-by-step process to find the perfect sleeping pad for your next adventure

Type of Sleeping Pads

Sleeping pads can be broken up into three categories: air mattresses, self-inflating foam mats, and closed-cell foam.

  • Air Mattress– These are lightweight but they often leak so it’s important to check them regularly before getting in your tent at night. They are easy to inflate with a built-in pump or your breath, however, you will need more breaths than the average person if it’s cold outside.
  • Self-Inflating Foam Mat – These mats have an open-cell foam that self-inflates when opened up and allows air movement between the cells for insulation properties. These mats are very durable and, oftentimes, have an R-value that rivals the closed-cell foam pads. They also provide insulation from cold or hot surfaces by virtue of their open cell structure which allows them to conform to rocks and uneven ground
  • Closed Cell Foam Mat – Closed cell foam is extremely lightweight but they don’t compress well so they are best for shorter backpacking trips. They have an R-value of approximately .75 which is enough to keep you warm in colder climates but not too much insulation that your body heat will be trapped inside the pad on warmer nights.

Sleeping Pad Size and Weight

The weight of your sleeping pad is important but it’s also about how far you are willing to carry that weight. If you’re backpacking, the heavier the pad the less backpack room you will have for gear which can be frustrating if your bag ends up getting too heavy on a long trip. The length of the sleeping pad you choose will also depend on how tall you are. A longer pad provides more insulation for your feet but if it’s too long, you might end up rolling off the side during the night which can lead to a very uncomfortable morning

Sleeping Pad R-Value

Many people see higher numbers as being better when in reality it depends on what your needs are. If you’re a cold sleeper, then an R-value of at least .75 is recommended but if you sleep warm, any sleeping pad with an R-value higher than that will keep you warm

Sleeping Pad Insulation Material

The insulation material in the sleeping pad plays a big role in how warm you stay throughout the night. A sleeping pad with an insulation material will be warmer than one without it. Most pads have some type of synthetic fiber for insulation, but the top-of-the-line pads have synthetic down for maximum warmth. Down is lightweight and compresses small but it’s not meant to get wet

Sleeping Pad Thickness

Thickness is another important aspect when choosing a sleeping pad because this helps provide cushioning and insulation from the cold and hard ground. If you’re a side sleeper, thicker pads will keep your hips and shoulders warmer than thinner ones

Sleeping Pad Shape

The shape of the sleeping pad is important to consider because this decides how well it fits into your tent or under your legs when lying down in your hammock.

  • Rectangular: These pads are by far the most popular and fit well inside a tent or under your legs in a hammock.
  • Mummy: These sleeping pads provide more insulation than rectangular ones because they have less material around you which means you lose heat to the environment more slowly. This works best if it’s cold out but, on warmer nights, this can make it feel more constricting
  • Semi-Rectangular: These are somewhere in between the rectangular and mummy sleeping pads. They provide insulation but don’t have as much material around you so they can be a happy medium for most people depending on where you intend to use them
  • Others: There are other shapes that some manufacturers make including tapered, semi-mummy, and shoulder bag styles. Depending on where you plan to use your sleeping pad determines which shape is best for you

Choosing the Best Sleeping Pad for You

  • Car camping: If you’re not concerned about weight and space, go with a closed-cell foam pad which is the cheapest option. They are very durable but don’t compress well for backpackers
  • Backpacking: If you’re backpacking, go with a closed-cell foam mat or one that is inflatable because they are lightweight and compress small. The downside to the inflatable ones is that if your pad leaks it’s game over for insulation though there are some brands that make self-inflating pads
  • Winter: If you’re spending time in the backcountry during winter, consider investing in an insulated sleeping pad with at least a .75 R-value. The higher the number the better it will insulate against cold
  • Hiking: If you are hiking long distances or over rough terrain, go with something lightweight and inflatable because they are easier to carry but there are some brands that make self-inflating pads
  • Camping: If you’re camping, then go with something lighter but still comfortable like an inflatable pad because they pack small and don’t take up much room in your car which is important for backpacking trips
  • Sea kayaking/Fishing: For sea kayakers or fishermen who spend the night on their boat, consider a self-inflating pad because they are more comfortable and don’t have to worry about punctures

What to Avoid

As with any product, there are some cons to consider when choosing a sleeping pad. Here’s what you should avoid:

  • Inferior Quality Pads – If it doesn’t say the R-value of the pad is above .75 then keep looking because that means it isn’t as warm and won’t insulate against cold ground or water
  • Cheap Pads – If the pad is less than $50 then it probably won’t last as long and could puncture easily
  • Large Packing Size – The larger a sleeping pad packs, the more difficult it will be to fit into your backpack or attach to your kayak so go with something smaller if you don’t want added bulk.

FAQ

Q. Will this pad work for my hammock?

A. Yes, as long as it’s an underquilt then you can attach it to the bottom of your sleeping bag and insulate yourself from the cold air below.

Q.What is the R-value of a sleeping pad?

A. The R-value of a sleeping pad is the ability to resist heat flow from one side of it. The higher this number, the better it insulates against cold ground or water.

Q: How do you inflate a sleeping pad?

A. You can use your mouth to blow into it or, if there’s one available on the pad, plug in an electric pump and let it fill up for you. Sleeping pads are filled with either air or foam so choose depending on preference and where you’ll be using it.

Q.What does self-inflating mean?

A. This means that when you open up your bag and unroll your mat, air automatically starts to flow into it and self-inflates which means you don’t have to blow air into it. This makes it faster and easier to set up.

Q.I’m backpacking, what size sleeping pad should I get?

A.The larger the packing size of the sleeping pad is the more difficult it will be to fit into your backpack so go with something smaller if you don’t want added bulk. If you are hiking long distances or over rough terrain, go with something lightweight and inflatable because they are easier to carry.

Q.I’m kayaking overnight, what size sleeping pad should I get?

A.Sea kayakers or fishermen who spend the night on their boat may want to consider a self-inflating pad since it is more comfortable and doesn’t have to worry about punctures.

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