How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

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The sleeping pad insulates the sleeper against the cold creeping in from the ground and offers a comfortable enough bed so that you can sleep in all sorts of conditions. Selecting the best sleeping pad for camping in the conditions at hand is as important as the sleeping bag selection. If you’re not that familiar with what’s perfect for your needs, this article helps with choosing a sleeping pad that works.

When planning to acquire your first sleeping pad, first think about where and when you wanna use it. For example, the best camping sleeping pad for winter use isn’t the best ultralight sleeping pad. And the best sleeping mat for warm climate really sucks in the Arctic when it is Ragnarök cold. Below you’ll find the most important questions that you should ponder before any sleeping pad comparison:

  • In what kind of terrain will you use the sleeping pad?
  • Do you use the sleeping pad in extreme temperatures or just in a warm climate?
  • Are you sizewise more of a hobbit, cave troll, or something in between?
  • How comfortable should the sleeping pad be?
  • How lightweight and packable should the sleeping mat be?
  • What kind of a budget do you have?

Everything affects everything, and thus the best backpacking sleeping pad is always a compromise in which the most important aspects for you are emphasized.

Sleeping pad types

The modern hiker has two main types of sleeping pads to choose from: the foam sleeping pad and the inflatable one. Which one is better depends on the terrain, temperature, and your packing style, comfort level, budget, and personal preferences. Many use them both at the same time.

Foam sleeping pads

When it comes to modern sleeping mats, the closed cell foam sleeping pad is probably the most common and the cheapest. It is also very reliable since it won’t explode when it touches rocks, sticks, or other sharp objects, so you can place it in all sorts of terrain. It is also instantly ready to use and insulates against cold better than the basic inflatable pads.

The bad thing is that even the best foam sleeping pad isn’t that comfortable. You can improve the comfort level by increasing the thickness, but it isn’t possible to make them overly thick because rollability and packability will quickly start to suffer. A single foam pad isn’t recommended for elderly hikers, princesses regardless of your gender, and people with back problems, especially if the trip is long. Furthermore, the foam pads take quite a lot of space but are luckily still quite light.

There are two main types of foam sleeping mats. The smooth closed cell pads that you roll into a tube and dimpled accordion-style pads. The dimpling makes the pad lighter. Furthermore, it traps air in between the pad and the sleeper, making it also warmer. The downside is that the pads are also a bit more expensive and usually only comfortable if you’re drunk.

Four different foam sleeping pads folded for transportation

Pictured from the left Kaira XL, Therm-A-Rest RidgeRest Classic, Therm-A-Rest Z Lite, and Savotta FDF sleeping pad.

Then there are other creative solutions, such as the Finnish army sleeping pad and the Bundeswehr sleeping mat, which both are made from foam but in a unique way. The best closed cell sleeping pad is the one that works for you the best.

Inflatable sleeping pads

The inflatable sleeping pad is a bit like an air mattress used at home but usually thinner, lighter, and more packable. They are more comfortable than the foam pads and fit in smaller spaces when carried. The downsides include the higher price (usually), poorer insulation (excl. winter models), and poorer durability. You need to be more careful when selecting your sleeping place and remove all twigs, sharp stones, and other things that can puncture your bed. You must be especially careful with Ultralight models. Even the best ultralight sleeping pad is not as durable as the regular models because they are made from thin materials to cut down bulk. You can luckily very efficiently eliminate the problems with insulation and durability by putting a foam pad underneath.

There are two kinds of inflatable sleeping pads: the self-inflating sleeping pad and the one that you need to inflate yourself. Both work very well, it is more a matter of personal preferences. Even the best self inflating sleeping pad will not get filled completely. You still need to add some more air manually. And when you want to deflate it, you need to do it actively and quickly, since it keeps inflating itself. But you don’t need to huff and puff the whole thing yourself. And when you blow air in the pad, you also add some moisture inside, which isn’t ideal in winter because it makes it colder. So using a pump is always advised. Snugpak BCO Air Mat inflated with an in-built pump

There are self-inflating sleeping pads and those that either come with an in-built pump like this Snugpak BCO Air Mat, or need a separate pump or huffing and puffing.

Traditional sleeping pads

Since there are still traditional bushcrafters out there, let's mention a couple of historical sleeping pads. In Finland, a traditional wintertime wilderness bed is made by layering spruce branches under the sleeper. Cutting branches isn’t part of our everyman’s rights, so you need to have a permission from the landowner to do so. Or camp close to a site where spruces have been felled. In less coniferous areas, people have been using branches from other trees, moss, leaves, an such with fairly similar results. Here in Finland, I wouldn't do that in many places because of ticks. When I tried the spruce bed for the first time, I got pleasantly surprised how comfortable spruce needles actually are. And they also smell very nice. Put the convex side up and stuff the sticky bit under the softer needles. If you want more comfort, lay a tarp or deer hide on top of the branches.

You can also use a deer/reindeer/elk/moose calf, etc hide also independently as a sleeping pad. They are very comfortable and warm. The con is that they are bulky and weigh more than modern pads. Tanned deer hides also shed a lot. Untanned hides that have only been scraped and dried shed craploads less and are thus better for outdoor use.

Winter hiker sitting on top of a reindeer hide in snow

In winter a reindeer hide is a very warm and comfortable sleeping pad. If the snow is wet, you can put the hide on top of e.g. BW rain poncho.

The third option is the sort of an ancestor of sleeping bags and pads called the bedroll or cowboy bedroll. It consists of a blanket rolled inside an oil cloth. These are nowadays used by some reenactors and traditional bushcrafters. It is a heavy, cumbersome, cold, yet ever so wonderful! However, not recommended for cold winter use, unless you can have a proper fire burning all night.

Terrain where you use the sleeping pad

The area where you sleep plays a significant role in sleeping pad selection. If the place has lots of twigs, rocks, or other sharp things, the best camping sleeping mat is made from foam. If the terrain is hard but without sharp stuff, the inflatable one is more comfortable. If you hike in very versatile terrain and you like both comfort and durability, take one of each and put the foam one underneath. In wet terrain, the Finnish army foam pad with waterproof cover that folds out is quite nice to have. Myself I use the BW Rain Poncho underneath to keep the wet goo off the pad.

If the terrain is really bumpy and uneven, a hammock might be a better option than sleeping on the ground. When it is freezing cold, you should use a foam sleeping pad or an underquilt/underblanket when hammock camping. The best sleeping pad for hammock use is probably the underquilt. However, it isn’t a sleeping pad in the traditional sense because it is attached underneath the hammock. So it isn’t used for cushioning the sleeper but for insulating against the cold. This way it won’t get squished and it insulated better.

Seasons of use

The season and especially the temperature also have a big impact on the sleeping pad selection. Luckily you won’t need a sleeping pad for every fashion season. Summer, 3-season, and winter are the usual divisions but it all depends on what kind of seasons you have in your neck of woods. I manage quite nicely with the same setup throughout the year excluding the super cold winter nights when the temperature is colder than -20 degrees Celsius (-4 F)

What the heck is the R-value?

When you’re looking for that best sleeping pad for hiking, the R value often jumps out from the product description. It tells you how well the pad insulates against the cold attacking you from the ground. The term comes from building engineering but the sleeping pad R values aren’t directly comparable to the values used in construction business. The sleeping pad R-values used in hiking are usually 1-7. The bigger the number, the better the pad insulates. Below you’ll find a rough classification for different seasons.

Summer sleeping pad1-2
3-season sleeping pad3-4
Winter sleeping pad5+ (When it is really cold, 6+)

So that it wouldn’t be too easy, the R values can be a bit subjective because some manufacturers have their own ways of interpreting R values. For a long while they weren’t at all comparable between various manufacturers. Somewhere around 2020 they came up with the industry-wide standard called the "ASTM R-value"(American Society for Testing and Materials). So, whenever you see those letters in the description, you know that it is then comparable to other ASTM R values.

Furthermore, how you define winter and then handle those conditions also makes things a bit more complicated. What some folks think is warm, is freezing cold to others. And a night in a tent pitched in a dense snowless forest is a lot warmer than out in the open in frozen windy tundra. You should take these factors into consideration when selecting your sleeping pad. If you freeze easily, go with a higher number than recommended. If your winter is warm and snow-free, you are probably ok with a 3-season pad. If you only venture in the frozen wastes far north or south, get the warmest there is and so on.

Three-season sleeping pad

If you don’t hike in the Arctic winter and don’t freeze easily, insulation isn’t your top priority because good insulation adds bulk and increases the price. Comfortability and packability are more important. In case you have back issues or spend a lot of time on the sleeping pad and wish to avoid them, you should go with a thicker pad. If you like ultralight living, and comfort isn’t your thing, pick one that best fits in your pack. Light inflatable ones fit in the side pouch, bigger ones in the main compartment, and the foam pads outside.

Winter sleeping pad

It might be worth clarifying that by winter we mean the Arctic kind. So, the season when water freezes and snowmen come out to play. When you’re selecting the best winter sleeping pad, the most important thing to consider is how well it insulates the sleeper against cold creeping up from the ground. You can either choose a single thick and well insulated winter sleeping mat or put two thinner ones on top of each other.

A thin inflatable sleeping pad on top of the Savotta FDF Sleeping Pad in snow

You can improve the insulation in winter by laying two sleeping pads on top of each other.

Both work quite nicely. The best cold weather sleeping pad for me has been the combination of two pads for a few reasons. The combo is cheaper than high-quality winter sleeping pads. I also like their packability but that depends on how you like things packed. The two-mat combo is also durable when you put the foam underneath. And if the inflatable one bursts, you still have the foam one.

Others like the simplicity of just bringing one sleeping pad. If you are a violent sleeper, you also eliminate the problem of having one pad fly east and the other west while you battle your nighttime demons. Furthermore, it is easier to remember one thing than two things. If you manage to break your only pad, you will sleep on a very hard surface unless you remembered to pack a repair kit (which you should in any case).

Your size vs the sleeping pad size

This is pretty straightforward but so essential that it cannot really be left out. Smaller and lighter folks can manage with a shorter and thinner sleeping pad than bigger folks. And if your sleeping style would make the great sequel to the Exorcist, you might want to take a bit wider pad to ensure that you don’t roll away in the dead of the night.

Some manufacturers sell the same pad in different sizes and always give the measurements so that it is pretty easy to get what you need. At least make sure that the pad is a bit taller and wider than you are.

Comfort level

Comfort is very subjective and depends on both the sleeper and the terrain where you want to sleep. Usually the need for comfort increases the older you get. Moreover, your sleeping style and possible back and hip problems affect your sleeping pad selection.

Where you place your bed has a huge impact on comfort. Soft moss, heather, and other plush vegetation plus dry soft snow make even a thin pad quite comfortable. And if you place the pad on rocky ground or concrete, you need a lot thicker one for the same effect. The best sleeping pad for side sleepers is thicker than the one for people that sleep on their back. When you sleep on your back, your weight is distributed on a wider area, and you can manage with a thinner sleeping mat.

Savotta FDF Sleeping Pad spread out under a camouflage-patterned tarp in a forest.

When the ground is hard, the foam sleeping pad isn't the most comfortable option but it does its job.

When selecting the sleeping pad, the most important features affecting comfort are the thickness and sleeping pad type. The thicker the pad, the more comfortable it is. And inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable than the foam ones.

When you try out a sleeping pad, do it in the position you actually sleep in. And try to test it for a bit longer time plus twist and turn a few times to see how its starts to feel after a while.

Due to a bit too active life, I have pretty severe back and hip problems nowadays. It is basically impossible to have a fully comfortable bed even at home. However, I can manage a couple of nights quite nicely with the combo of a thin foam pad and a 5 cm (2") inflatable one. On longer trips, I switch to a 9 cm (3.5") inflatable one.

Weight and packability

This is absolutely essential for folks who move a lot and like it ultralight. Thin and narrow inflatable pad packs into the smallest space. You can fit it in the side pouch of the backpack and it won’t weigh much either. The thick and wide pads you usually need to pack inside the main compartment or outside.

Next to each other lot more packable inflatable Snugpack BDO Air Mat and Savotta FDF foam pad

On the left, inflatable Snugpack BDO Air Mat and on the right Savotta FDF foam sleeping pad.

The foam pads, especially the ones that don’t have a cover, are very light but they take a lot more space. You usually have to pack them outside the pack. The exception is the BW sleeping mat, which is folded into a rectangular plate that then slides inside the BW pack.

If you move a lot on foot, and the weather is pretty warm, an ultralight pad is a solid choice. In case you have a canoe, you can fit more stuff and increase your comfort level. When the weather becomes colder, you need more insulation, which will then take more space.

Two soldiers in a forest, the leftmost has Savotta FDF Sleeping pad tied outside the backpack

The foam sleeping pad usually needs to be attached outside the backpack.

How noisy the sleeping mat is

This isn’t vital for regular hikers but if you use the sleeping pad for military stuff or plan to lie on it when photographing animals or hunting, it becomes quite essential.

An animal hide is probably the quietest sleeping pad but the foam pads and non-insulated inflatable ones are also quite silent. The loudest are the inflatable winter sleeping pads that have some sort of a modern insulation. When testing the sleeping pads, you will also experience the noise level when twisting and turning.

How slippery the sleeping pad is

Too smooth and slippery sleeping pad is not pleasant to sleep on especially if the terrain is sloped. You tend to slide downward if the ground isn’t flat (and it often isn’t). This won’t make sleeping impossible but on a less slippery surface it is less annoying. Ridges, ribs, and other texturing helps a lot.

Sleeping pad price

The price of the sleeping pads varies from something like ten bucks to a couple of hundred. The price depends on many things, such as materials, insulation, thickness, and the sleeping pad type. You usually get more with more money. So, you shouldn’t just look for the best budget sleeping pad, instead you should first consider what you need and then pick the suitably priced pad from the options that have the features you need.

Smooth foam mats are the cheapest. Get a military surplus sleeping pad of this type and it is even cheaper. The price goes up with the thickness. The ones with air pockets and cover fabric are also somewhat more expensive but we are still way below a hundred bucks.

The cheapest inflatable ones are less than fifty quid but if you want more insulation, more durable or ultralight materials, the price starts creeping upward. The best insulated sleeping pad of the inflatable type is usually the most expensive option. If you want to do winter hiking but have a limited budget, a more affordable option is to put two pads on top of each other.

Final words

Luckily, choosing the sleeping pad isn’t rocket science. Figuring out a few essential criteria and personal preferences, you weed out a whole bunch of options. Then it is a lot easier to find sleeping pad reviews online. Furthermore, we are happy to answer any questions you might have on the subject.

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