REI Outlet

Best Backpacking Sleeping Pad of 2021

The main purpose of the sleeping pad (or sleeping mat) is to insulate the sleeping person from the cold and humidity rising from the ground. In this article we will give you guide you to choose the best backpacking sleeping pad.

Depending on the thickness and the quality of the sleeping pad it also makes it more comfortable to sleep on compared to sleeping on the hard ground.

The most important thing when choosing a sleeping pad for backpacking is that its’ insulation properties are good enough for the conditions you are going to use it. After this comes other factors such as weight, packing size and comfort.

Closed cell-foam vs self-inflating vs air pad

There are three types of sleeping pads:

  • Closed cell-foam pads
  • Air pads
  • Self-inflating pads

It’s impossible to say which type is the best sleeping pad for your backpacking trip. All types have their advantages and disadvantages. If you are looking for the cheapest and the most reliable sleeping pad then the closed cell-foam pad is the obvious choice. However if you are looking for more comfort and better packability you probably choose between an air pad and a self-inflating pad.

There are many brands which have high quality backpacking sleeping pads available: Therm-a-Rest, Sea to Summit, Nemo, Big Agnes, Klymit, Exped etc.

Closed cell-foam pads

Closed cell-foam sleeping pads are the cheapest and the most reliable option because of the solid virtually indestructible build. Generally speaking the insulation capacity (R-value) of a closed cell-foam pad is a bit better than in an self-inflating mat with the same weight. However closed cell-foam sleeping pads are not that comfortable to sleep on.

In addition closed cell-foam pads are bulky and will need to be packed outside of the backpack. Like air pads and self-inflating pads also closed cell-foam pads can have a layer of heat radiating material on the other side of the pad. It’s purpose is to reflect radiant heat back to your body.

Air pads

Air pads need to be inflated while a self-inflating pad inflates by itself when the pad is taken off from its storage bag. Air pads are the lightest option and the best sleeping pad for the ultralight backpackers (or you could always cut a closed cell-foam pad to the length of your torso…). Air pads also pack the smallest — even as small as a soda can.

Air pads and self-inflating pads designed for colder condition can have down or some synthetical insulating material inside. This increases the insulating capabilities of the pad. Also the fabric of air pad or self-inflating pad can be some material which radiates heat back to the user (or cold back to the ground).

Self-inflating pads

Self-inflating pads usually still need a couple of additional blows of air to be fully inflated. Self-inflating works because the pad has some kind of foam inside which starts to enlarge when the pad is rolled open.

The risk with air pads and inflating sleeping pads is that the surface can be damaged easily. That’s why you should always have a patch kit with you to repair the possible damages. Sleeping a night with an empty air pad or self-inflating pad would be a nightmare!

What is R-value?

What you will notice when comparing sleeping pads is a mysterious R-value. It simply tells how good insulating properties the sleeping pad has. Higher the value the better it insulates you from the cold.

Ultralight sleeping pads designer for summer backpacking can have R-value as low as 1. Winter sleeping pads with an insulating layer can have R-value as high as 6. R-values are additive, so if you use two sleeping pads together you can simply add their R-values and get the total insulating capacity.

Sleeping pad R-values for different conditions. Image by Therm-a-Rest.

Frequently asked questions

How thick should a sleeping pad be?

It depend how much comfort you would like to have when sleeping on a sleeping pad. Closed-cell foam sleeping pad can be as thin as 0.5 inch while the most comfortable air pads and self-inflating pads can be over 3 inches thick.

What is the best sleeping pad for side sleepers?

Side sleepers usually need a thicker sleeping pad. The best scenario would be that you could test and compare sleeping pads in a store.

What is the lightest sleeping pad?

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite is considered by many as the best possible option if the weight is the biggest factor when choosing the sleeping pad.

Do you really need a sleeping pad?

First of all you need to know where you are going to sleep. On a hard rocky ground it may be impossible to sleep without a sleeping pad. On the other hand on a soft ground where you can possible build a sleeping surface from grass you could sleep perfectly comfortably. Just don’t forget that a sleeping pad also protects you from the moisture coming from the ground.

Does sleeping pad go inside sleeping bag?

It all depends of the sleeping pad’s type and how you want to pack your sleeping gear. Packing a closed-cell foam pad inside the sleeping pad would be stupid. However packing a small air pad inside the sleeping bag could be quite practical.

Last update: December 15, 2020

No Comments