Great sleep in the backcountry can be surprisingly tough to come by. You’d think after a long day of hiking, most backpackers would be tired enough to pass out face first in their rehydrated mashed potatoes. But many hikers struggle with getting good sleep in the wilderness, even when their bodies are completely exhausted.
That’s one of the reasons why packing a top-notch sleeping pad is so important. Sleeping pads provide the comfort your body needs for getting a good night's rest. But there’s more to it than just comfort. Sleeping pads are also critical for keeping your body warm. They help insulate you from the cold ground, which makes them very important for safety as well.
CRITICAL SLEEPING PAD CONSIDERATIONS
BEST - It’s important to remember that what’s “best” for us, might not necessarily be best for you. We work very hard to detail the strengths and weaknesses of every item we review with the ultimate goal of putting the decision making power in your hands. In the end there’s rarely one clear “best” choice, but hopefully we can help you find equipment that will work well for you.
PRICE - Good sleeping pads come in a wide range of prices. You can get a cheap foam pad for around $20 or purchase a top-tier air pad for closer to $200. The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a good pad. That said, many backpackers (us included) are willing to spend a bit more for a high-quality pad they plan on putting to good use.
WEIGHT - Your sleeping pad will be one of the four heaviest items in your pack (shelter, backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad). So this is a great place to save weight. The lighter your backpack, the more comfortable your hiking trips will be. All of the pads we recommend are light enough to take on a thru-hike or a casual weekend trek.
WARMTH - Your sleeping pad will help keep you warm at night when the temperature drops. The R-value of a sleeping pad measures how well it will insulate your body from the cold ground. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will be. In general, sleeping pads with R-values of 0-2 will only be good for warm weather trips. R-values of 2-4 are good for most 3-season backpacking conditions. R-values of 4-6 are good when the temperature drops around or below freezing. You’ll likely want a pad (or combine a foam and air pad) with 5+ R-value if you’re winter backpacking and you’ll be sleeping on snow. It’s also important to note that, just like with sleeping bags, this is not an exact science. If you’re a cold sleeper, you’ll want a pad with a higher R-value.
AIR PADS vs FOAM PADS - The two main types of sleeping pads are air pads and foam pads. Both types can be very light and comfortable. Foam pads are more affordable, quicker to set up, and can be used for multiple purposes - like extra support for a frameless backpack or a seat around camp. The main downsides with foam pads are that they’re bulkier to pack and they compress over time, so they’ll need to be replaced every so often. Air pads are more expensive, but most backpackers find them to be much more comfortable than foam pads. The main downside with air pads is that they can puncture in the field, so you’ll always want to bring a repair kit.
NOISE - One of the most common complaints among first-time air pad users is the crinkly or squeaky noises they make. This can be especially bothersome to light sleepers who tend to shift around throughout the night. Some pads make slightly less noise than others, but none of them will be quiet like your mattress at home. Pad noises do tend to die down over time, so don’t worry too much when it’s straight out of the box.
REPAIR KIT - If you decide to take an air pad into the wilderness, make sure to pack a small repair kit. Sharp objects (rocks, sticks, cacti, etc.) can puncture air pads, so always look over your sleeping area before setting up camp. If your pad springs a leak and you don’t have way to fix it, you’re going to be one unhappy camper. Almost all the air pads listed below come with a repair kit, but we always pack tenacious tape just in case.
LENGTH - Your hips and shoulders are the biggest pressure points for sleeping pads, so it’s important to use a pad that will give you comfort in those areas. Ultralight backpackers sometimes use short, torso-length pads and let their legs hang off the end to save weight. Most casual backpackers (and even most thru-hikers nowadays) prefer the comfort of full-length pads that cushion their heels and keep their feet warm.
WIDTH - Choosing the right width for your sleeping pad is a critically important decision that will largely depend on your sleeping style. Side sleepers are often fine with standard width pads, and back sleepers tend to prefer a bit more width to keep their arms from sliding off, but the final decision really comes down to personal preference. Almost all the pads we list below come in a wide size option. Some manufacturers make wide pads with regular lengths, but many only offer a size that is both wide and long. The additional weight of a wide/regular pad compared to a wide/long pad is usually only an ounce or two.
SHAPE - Most backpackers choose mummy sleeping pads, which save weight by cutting out rarely used corner sections of the mattress. Some sleepers get better rest on fully rectangular pads, so if that’s you, the extra couple of ounces will be well worth it. The most common rectangular pad users are back sleepers that like to spread their legs apart while sleeping.
THICKNESS - Sometimes thicker pads are more comfortable, but that's not always the case. You'll want a pad thick enough to adjust its firmness without bottoming out, but not so thick it feels like a pool float. Structure is important in a sleeping pad, and every pad we recommend below is thick enough to be very comfortable while keeping its shape.
PACKED SIZE - Having a highly packable sleeping pad is a nice benefit, and most air pads pack down very small these days. If you choose a bulky sleeping pad, you may have to strap it to the outside of your bag. That’s not a big deal for foam pad users, but leaving an air pad exposed to punctures on the outside of your pack is a recipe for disaster. All the air pads we recommend are highly packable and will easily stow inside your backpack.
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