How to Choose the Right Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

Some foam pads double as padded seats on
hard picnic benches, like the yellow Therm-a-rest Z Lite
I'm sitting on here! (PC: D. Herscovitch)
I turned up my nose at the idea of taking a sleeping pad as a beginner backpacker. I didn't need to be
comfortable, I needed to be hardcore!

But the truth is, sleeping pads function for one important purpose that has nothing to do with comfort - insulation. We lose body heat to the ground and air when we're sleeping outside, and a sleeping pad is a key piece of gear to have to combat that.

As with most pieces of gear, there's a lot to consider when you're looking for the right one. This list isn't exhaustive, but when you're shopping, hopefully it helps narrow down options!

Types of Sleeping Pads

Foam pads are typically of dense, closed cell foam, are usually the lightest type of pad, and you'll often see them strapped to the outside of a backpacker's pack because they're less susceptible to rips and tears than other types of pads. They're super easy to set up - just drop them on the ground - and can be great to sit on in camp. But because they're generally firm and thin, they don't tend to be very comfortable.

Self-inflating pads are exactly what they sound like - pads that inflate on their own. They're typically a combination of foam and open air chambers, and when the valve on the pad is opened, they inflate on their own. They offer a lot more insulation than a foam pad, but can be fairly bulky and are susceptible to rips and tears.

Air pads, or inflatable pads, need to be manually inflated, but are lighter than self-inflating pads and more compact than foam pads. Some contain additional insulation or reflective material that makes them even warmer, and depending on what seasons you're using the pad in, you can go for more or less insulation. You can make the mattress more or less firm by adding or releasing air, and most pack down small enough that they're ideal for backpacking. They're also susceptible to rips and tears, and tend to be more expensive than other types.

Attributes and Considerations

Pack size and weight is significantly more important if you're carrying your gear around with you. If you're car camping, the size and weight of your equipment doesn't matter - the beauty of car camping! Some air pads will pack down to the size of a Nalgene bottle or smaller, which makes them ideal. Foam pads tend to be the lightest, but also take up more room. Ultralight air pads take up less room and are generally more comfortable, but also more expensive.

On my first backpacking trip, I strapped a giant blue foam pad to the outside of my pack. It was very much not comfortable to sleep on, and I switched to air pads after that! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Length and width are important attributes to consider, especially if you're taller than the average human. At a minimum, the pad needs to be wide enough for your shoulders, and long enough for your entire body when you're stretched out on your back. "Regular" sized pads are typically 20"x72", and for me at 5'9" tall, it's a perfect fit, especially when I'm in our our tiny two-person tent. Some companies make long sized pads as well as wide pads, and the latter can be good if you roll around or sleep on your side. Just make sure it'll fit in your tent! If you're going super ultralight, a short, narrow foam pad can be all you need.

This Big Agnes air pad has some serious ridges!
Insulation matters both because if you're in a warm climate, you need less of it, and if you're in cold temperatures, it can make or break how well you sleep. The pad is part part of an overall sleep system that also includes your sleeping bag, and they can complement each other. You can use the temperature rating of your sleeping bag to complement the warmth the pad offers, for example.

When reviewing specifications, the higher the R-value, the warmer the pad is. In warmer seasons, pads with R-values around 3 have been perfect for me, higher is better if you're sleeping outside in winter, or tend to sleep cold.

You can also supplement lower R-value pad with a foam pad to make it more comfortable in colder seasons. The system gear companies use to determine the R-value isn't an exact science, but it's a good place to start. The level of inflation, whether you sleep on your back or your side, and other situation-specific factors can affect the R-value.

Fabric construction is especially important for those of us who wiggle all over the place when we're sleeping. Some pads have baffles or rails that can help you avoid slipping off the pad, or sliding down. If you know you move a lot when you sleep, look for a sleeping pad with a brushed surface or fabric with texture. For warmer temperatures, the Big Agnes Cross Mountain 45ยบ bag and Therm-a-rest Neo-Air All Season pad are ideal for me temperature-wise, and because the pad slides into a sleeve in the bag.

The amount of time and energy you want to spend on inflation matters. Don't feel like blowing up your mattress every time you set up camp? Go for a foam pad or self-inflating pad. But of course, it's not that simple. You'll compromise in other areas if you avoid air pads just for that reason. This isn't an attribute I worry about at all - comfort and warmth are more important to me - but it's still something to consider.

On this trip, two of my friends opted to bring their Therm-a-rest Z Lite foam pads, and the rest of us had air pads in our packs. It's all personal preference and situation-dependent!

My Favorite Sleeping Pads

If you want an air pad and have an unlimited budget, any of the Therm-a-rest XTherm pads are about as good as it gets. It feels like you're sleeping on a cloud, and it's incredibly warm.

For all-around use in just about every situation I'm in, the Therm-a-rest Neo-Air All Season pad is my go-to. I can stay warmer or cooler depending on the sleeping bag I pair it with, and it's thickness helps me stay comfortable. And I always carry a patch kit, just in case. As far as foam pads go, the Therm-a-rest Z Lite is my pick. I will absolutely always choose an air pad if given the option, but as far as foam goes, this one's awesome.

Are there any other sleeping pad attributes or situations you can think of that are worth considering? What's your favorite sleeping pad? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!