Tips for Choosing a Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads are one of the most important, but also most overlooked pieces of camping gear. Other than your sleeping bag, your pad has the most impact on the quality and warmth of your sleep. But there are so many pads on the market, touting difference high tech features and designs. It’s overwhelming. Don’t worry though, we’ve broken it down in this comprehensive guide on how to choose the best sleeping pad for you.

There are three main styles of sleeping pads: foam, air, and self-inflating. They each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, so which style you choose will be influenced by what you plan on using it for.

There’s one important term to keep in mind when shopping for a sleeping pad: “R Value.” R Value is a measure of how well a pad insulates you from the cold ground. The higher the number, the better of an insulator the pad will be. For people only camping in the warm summer months, an R Value of 1 or 2 will be fine. For anyone camping through the spring and fall, you want at least an R of 3 or 4. And for anyone winter camping, an R Value of 4 and up is the best call. In general, sleeping pads get heavier and more expensive as the R Value increases.

It’s possible to increase your R value by stacking pads. For instance, an R3 pad on top of an R1 pad will be equivalent to an R4 pad. The downside is that carrying an R1 and an R3 pad is generally heavier than just carrying a nice R4 pad. So for most people, it’s worth getting a pad with an R value that’s just a little higher than what they plan on using it for, just in case they end up sleeping in an unseasonably cold night.

Foam

Foam sleeping pads are the most affordable and durable options out there. They’re cheap, and they last forever. These pads are just sheets of closed-cell foam that you either unfold or unroll to use. 

The biggest downside to these pads is their size. They really don’t pack down that small and are best carried outside of your pack. In addition, they don’t provide as much insulation as air or self-inflating models. 

Foam sleeping pads are best for people who are looking to save money, who don’t want to worry about popping their expensive pad, and who are primarily sleeping on the pad in the warmer months. If that’s you, grab a foam pad!

Foam pads are also a great addition to an air or self-inflating pad in some situations. In cold weather, or on very rough ground, a foam pad adds insulation and also protects your inflatable pad from punctures.

Air

Air pads are the lightest and pack the smallest of all the sleeping pads. These sleeping pads act as a mini air mattress. You can inflate them either with your mouth, or a small pump and their insulated chambers keep you comfortable and warm. Air pads are the way to go for anyone looking for the most comfort and warmth, without taking up much room in your pack. 

The downside is that air pads are less durable, they’re susceptible to punctures, either from sharp gear in the tent, or sharp rocks under them. So you need to be a little more careful. However, if you do puncture an air pad, it’s not the end of the world. Manufacturers like Thermarest include patch kits, so it’s easy to fix small holes and keep using the pad. 

The other downside of air pads is that they’re more expensive than foam pads. That’s because they’re more complex to build, and they keep you much warmer. For most serious backpackers and campers though, an air pad is the way to go.

Self-Inflating

Self-inflating pads are sort of a hybrid of air and foam pads. They feature a valve like an air pad, but are full of special foam. When you unroll a self-inflating pad and open the valve, it allows the foam to expand and fill with air without you having to blow into it. You then can close the valve and sleep on it.

Self-inflating pads are a compromise that work very well for a lot of people. They’re much more durable than air pads, but not quite as durable as a foam pad. However, they pack down smaller than a foam pad, but not as small as an air pad. And they usually cost somewhere in the middle between a cheap foam pad and an expensive air pad. So if you’re looking for a pad that’s really versatile, without shelling out too much money, a self-inflating pad may be the way to go.

It’s worth shopping around and comparing options to get a sleeping pad that strikes the right balance of price, size, and warmth for you.

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