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Sleep Pad Basics

When looking for a sleeping pad there are some key factors to consider: comfort, weight, insulating value (aka r-value), durability, bulk, and price.  All of these considerations will vary depending on how its going to be used.  If you're using it for backpacking, you want something that provides comfort, insulation value, lightweight, and isn't bulky.  If you're staying at a campground, then you want something this very comfortable.  For minimalists and long-distance hikers the lightest pad possible overrides all other concerns.

Most people will think a pad ability to cushion you from the hardness of the ground is its most important attribute.  If you're backpacking in a cold environment, the pad's ability to insulate your body from cold surfaces thus blocking conductive heat loss becomes its most critical benefit.  A sleeping bag works by capturing the air warmed by your body, but without a pad to buffer you from contact with the cold ground the heat-trapping loft of your bag will be depleted beneath you.

  • Length: Shoulders and hips need to fit on a pad. Long (72"+) pads will insulate legs and feet.
  • R-value: Insulation is measured according to its capacity to resist (that's the "R") heat flow. The higher a pad's value, the better you can expect it to insulate you from cold surfaces.
  • Width: Nearly every pad offers the standard width of 20". If you tend to roll around a lot, you may want a width of 25" or 30". Tapered designs reduce volume and pack smaller.
  • Women's pads: These pads are shorter, with added insulation at the hips and feet, where women need it most.

Sleeping Pad Types
  • Air Mattresses: Utilizes air for comfort and are much thicker than foam pads. They're designed to provide the comfort of a real bed, and can generally utilize regular bed sheets.
    • Pros: Ideal for car or boat camping.  Extremely comfortable. Easy and quick to inflate with a pump.
    • Cons: Relatively heavy and bulky. Pump required for proper inflation. No insulation; for mild climates only.
  • Air Pads: Utilizes air for comfort and must be manually inflated. Some models integrate foam, fill or reflective materials to increase your warmth.
    • Pros: Comfortable and lightweight. Fine for backpacking or camping in warm conditions; insulated models can be used year-round.
    • Cons: Can puncture (field repairs are not difficult). Non-insulated models offer poor insulation due to free circulation of air inside.
  • Foam Pads: These backpacking pads feature dense foam with tiny closed air cells.
    • Pros: Lightweight; inexpensive; durable; excellent insulation. Won't absorb water.
    • Cons: Less comfortable. Relatively stiff, so they tend to be bulky.
  • Self-Inflating Pads: A combination of foam insulation and air, pioneered by Therm-a-Rest.
    • Pros: Comfortable; excellent insulation; firmness is adjustable; very compact when rolled up. A popular backpacking choice.
    • Cons: Heavier than simple foam pads and more expensive. Can be punctured, though field repairs are not difficult.