In Matt Walker’s book Why We Sleep he writes that “The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact.” That’s a very definitive statement, but as a society, we have forgone sleep for productivity at the detriment of our creativity, mental health, and emotional well-being. For some of us, we try to head off this catastrophic impact by venturing outside and an escape to nature may be the only time we can actually get some sleep.
But going from your California King mattress to the ground can still result in a sleepless night as you toss and turn, trying to get comfortable and stay warm. By the time you head back to the civilized world, you’ll smell like campfire and maybe have a little sunburn, but be just as tired as you were before.
This is where the luxury of a quality sleeping pad can make an impactful difference on how you sleep when camping.
It sounds like a simple enough product, but there are different sizes, types, and considerations to think through before choosing a sleeping pad. Here is some information that will help you make a more informed decision so the next time you’re out in nature, you’re hopefully sleeping on a pad that lets you get a restful night of sleep.
Types of Sleeping Pads
Typically used for backpacking (since they’re lightweight and puncture proof), foam sleeping pads are made from a dense foam filled with closed air cells. Some, like the Big Agnes Third Degree are rolled up for carrying while others, like the Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol, are folded up accordion style.
Because foam pads are often thinner than their inflating counterparts, these types of pads can also be used as seats when hiking, sitting around the campfire, or anywhere there is uneven ground. That thinness comes at a disadvantage when it comes time for bed, though and foam sleeping pads are usually the least comfortable option.
Aside from sitting and sleeping, a foam pad can also be used as extra insulation during colder weather or as a protective barrier underneath your inflatable sleeping pad. If you are on a budget, you could get a foam pad to start, then upgrade to an inflatable sleeping pad and use your old foam pad underneath for more support.
Inflatable pads step up the comfort by letting you lay on a cushion of air. Because they can be deflated, this type of sleeping pad is available in a range of thicknesses, versus a foam pad which is typically kept on the thinner side due to packing constraints.
Additionally, the firmness of the sleeping pad can be adjusted with the volume of air. So, if you’re looking for a soft, embracing feel, save your breath and air it up a little less than usual.
Speaking of saving your breath, some manufacturers make pumps or inflation sacks that speed up the process and mean you don’t need to work on breathing exercises to prepare for your next camping trip. The inflation sacks are quite portable and easy to take along compared to a standard pump, so if you’re backpacking, pick up one of those. They’re also preferred over breathing as using your own lungs pushes damp air into the pad. Over time, that dampness can lead to bacteria or mold.
Similar to your standard inflatable pad, self-inflating pads let you lie on air, versus a foam pad. However, they typically have a dense foam core that facilitates the inflation of the pad. Think about a damp sponge – if you squeeze it, then put it down, it will return to its normal shape. The same thing happens in a self-inflating sleeping pad where the foam is compressed when the bag is packed, and as it uncompresses it draws air into the pad, inflating it.
Because there is foam within the pad they typically won’t be as compact as a normal inflatable sleeping pad and they will be a bit heavier. That trade off comes with some benefits though. Due to the foam and extra insulation, self-inflating pads can be a little more comfortable and offer better insulation between you and the ground.
Most self-inflating pads will inflate to a reasonable level as long as they’re left alone, but may need a few puffs of air to get them to your preferred firmness. The same inflation sacks or pumps for your inflatable pads can be used to firm up a self-inflating pad.
Sleeping Pad Uses
Depending on how and where you are camping, your sleeping pad needs will change. Here are some possible scenarios.
You’ll most likely want a foam pad when backpacking. The foam pads are very robust and less prone to being punctured or damaged, meaning you won’t have to worry about being deep in the woods and losing your comfort. Their durability also means you can strap them to the outside of your pack without worry of a wayward branch snagging it. This leaves precious cargo space inside your pack for other essentials.
If you are wanting something more comfortable, an inflatable sleeping pad will pack down and can be stuffed inside your back without a huge space penalty.
If you don’t have to haul your gear any further than from your trunk to the campsite, go with either an inflatable or self-inflating sleeping pad. You aren’t having to worry about weight and you’ll be much more comfortable. If you really want to glamp it up, you might as well bring a foam sleeping pad and place it underneath your inflatable setup for extra insulation and padding.
Winter CampingI’m not sure why anyone would want to sleep in a tent in the middle of winter, but I’m sure people have their reasons. That being said, for the best insulation, you’ll likely want to stick to a self-inflating sleeping pad. The Big Agnes Hinman has a R value of 5, the warmest rating there is, while some of their insulated inflatable pads are rated from 1-3. To kick the warmth up a notch, pair it with a foam sleeping pad.
Once you’ve decided on where you are camping, another important consideration is the season. Just as sleeping bags are rated for different temperature ranges, sleeping pads are given a R-value to help you understand how insulating they are.
This R-value is a determination of a sleeping pad’s thermal resistance to heat loss and is rated on a scale from 1-5, or higher, with 1 being the least insulating and 5 being the most. This means that on a warm summer night you’ll want a pad with a R-value of 1. In deep winter, or if you get cold easily, look for something with a R-value of 4-5.
This visual from Big Agnes provides a quick reference point for the level of insulation, and the season, a specific R-value is good for.
Historically, sleeping pad manufacturers tested their own bags and the R-value given to each was not attached to an industry standard. This means that a sleeping pad from one brand with a R-value of 3 didn’t actually match the insulating properties of another manufacturer’s pad also rated at a 3. In 2019, this changed and the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) developed a test that can be used by all manufacturers to standardize their ratings. Adventure Journal has a write-up explaining the new standard and how the test works.
Building Your Sleep System
You could have the warmest sleeping pad, by way of R-value, but still be freezing cold at night. This is because you’ll want both your sleeping bag and your sleeping pad to be aligned on their purpose. If you’re camping in the fall, a high R-value sleeping pad will be mostly useless if paired with a summer sleeping bag. The opposite also holds true. A sleeping bag that is rated to 20 degrees or lower will not work well if paired with a foam sleeping pad on the cold ground.
When selecting a sleeping pad and sleeping bag, consider how you’ll use them and what season you’ll be heading out. If you’re leaning towards a warmer weather sleeping bag, choose a pad with a lower R-value. For a colder weather sleeping bag, choose a pad with a higher R-value.
Choosing Your Sleeping Pad
So now that you know you can’t just grab and go with any old sleeping pad, you can start to determine what you need based on different criteria. Here are a few ways to help you start to narrow down your options.
What season will you be camping in?
This will help you determine the R-value of your sleeping pad. Once you know this, it can eliminate whole categories of products. For summer, you have a wide range of options. But for cooler weather, you’ll want to look for high R-value pads, which are typically inflatable or self-inflating.
How do you camp?
Are you backpacking? Or just parking your Sprinter Van somewhere and want to lay on the ground instead of in your bed? This will help you determine the size of pad to get. And how much room you have to pack it. Check the manufacturer’s site for the packed dimensions.
Is your mattress at home soft or firm?
If it’s firm, you’d be alright with a foam sleeping pad. If it’s soft, go for one of the other options.
What’s Your Sleeping Pad Budget?
If the first paragraph is anything to go by, sleep is not something you skimp on. Figure out your camping gear budget, but if you can reallocate funds to get yourself a more comfortable and insulated sleeping pad, do that versus buying a portable refrigerator that takes up the whole cargo area of your truck.