Sleeping pads are the unsung heroes of the camping world. Hiking, fishing, hunting, nearly everything you plan to do in the outdoors requires a clear head and energized body. But getting a terrible night’s sleep will derail your camping trip plans.
The two primary goals of a sleeping pad are to provide comfort and warmth. Sleeping pads come in a variety of thicknesses, materials, sizes, and shapes. What size sleeping pad you should buy depends on the type of camping you will be doing. This includes the weather and your shelter type.
So how do you choose a sleeping pad? To choose a sleeping pad, you must know the average temperatures of your camping location to get the right R-value (insulation), know what type of bedding you will be using to choose the correct shape and know your height to get the correct size. Once you have all of this down, you can choose the right insulation, shape, and size of sleeping pad that you will need.
Sleeping pads are more durable, warmer, and less trampoline-like than common air mattresses. Additionally, you are less likely to experience that crinkly sound and feel. Sleeping pads are also lighter and more compact than lugging a cot. If you plan on spending a night outdoors, it would be wise to invest in a quality sleeping pad.
In this article, we will cover the following topics so you are equipped to make an informed choice about what size sleeping pad you should buy:
Why Do You Need a Sleeping Pad in the First Place?
Many novice campers, and even those that consider themselves experienced, will often overlook a sleeping pad. They will purchase a high-quality sleeping bag and expect it to be enough to provide them with a great night’s sleep. This often leads to cold nights, a sore neck and back, and a restless sleep.
Sleeping pads are meant to provide an insulated barrier between you and the surface you are sleeping on. Whether that be the ground or the bed of a truck. The top two benefits of a sleeping pad are insulation and comfort.
Sleeping pads provide comfort by acting as a buffer between you and the ground or whatever your sleeping surface may be. Campers will usually overlook sleeping pads thinking their sleeping bag will be thick enough, but a sleeping pad will ensure a comfortable and restful night.
Sleeping pads also provide warmth. As they keep you from coming into contact with the cold ground, heat is not drawn away from your body. They provide insulation and are sometimes equipped with reflective fabrics for extra warmth.
Types of Sleeping Pads
There are three types of sleeping pads: self-inflating pads, air pads, and foam pads. All three have pros and cons. Similarly, they all are suited to different outdoor activities and shelter types.
Air pads are sleeping pads that do not contain any foam cell chambers; they are completely inflated with air. Inflation is usually done with your breath or by a hand pump. A few models offer built-in hand pumps for quick inflation.
Air pads are the most compressible and compact type of sleeping pads. They are exceedingly light and when deflated and be rolled up tight. This makes them an optimal choice for those who love to backpack.
Air pads are quite comfortable and provide a great barrier between you and the ground. The firmness of your air pad can be adjusted by adding or releasing air.
Although recently air pads have seen the addition of reflective materials and insulation, they are not the warmest of pads. Most air pads tend to be better for warm weather conditions though there are some specifically for four season use.
Air pads are also susceptible to temperatures in that they constrict. If the outside temperature fluctuates as the evening progresses into night, you may feel as if your air pad is deflating. Another drawback is their ability to be punctured. If you plan to keep your furry friend in the tent, you risk popping your air pad.
Overall, air pads are lightweight and comfortable. The more suited they are to backpacking, the more compressible and lighter they are, the more expensive they tend to be. However, there are many great brands of air pads that don’t have to break the bank.
- Self Inflating Pads
Self-inflating pads are a cross between an air pad and a foam pad. They contain a valve and foam cell chambers. When the valve is opened, it automatically draws in air, hence self-inflating, and expands the foam chambers.
You may have to fully inflate the pad with an additional few breaths. The pad will not self deflate; you must open the valve and slowly compress the pad to force out the air. These pads can be rolled or folded for storage but are not as compact as air pads. Depending on their compressibility, they may be better suited to backpacking or tent or car camping.
Self-inflating pads have the greatest variety of warmth levels, thicknesses, and widths. Usually, the thicker the pad, the warmer and more comfortable. However, there is a trade-off as these thicker pads will also be less flexible and packable.
The foam chambers found within the self-inflating pads keep the pad from fluctuating in firmness as the temperature changes. The cells also make them a bit more sturdy and durable than air pads, but they can still be punctured.
Self-inflating pads are more expensive than air pads or foam pads. Their bulkiness does not make them ideal for backpackers. However, if you are looking for an exceptionally warm and comfortable pad, and compressibility is not a factor you are concerned with, self-inflating pads are a great choice.
Field patch kits are available for air sleeping pads and self-inflating sleeping pads. It should not be too difficult to temporarily fix your sleeping pad if it springs a leak on the trip.
Foam pads are just what they sound like, a pad with foam cells that contain air. These are the most inexpensive option but also the least comfortable.
Foam pads were the first on the market and were widely used for a while. However, they provide less warmth and comfort when compared to their modern siblings, the air pad and self-inflating pad.
Foam pads cannot be punctured or leak air. They are quite durable and will withstand many trips. However, they are rather stiff. The thinner the foam pad, the more flexible, but thinner pads are less comfortable and warm.
What is the R-Value?
Speaking of warmth, sleeping pads are often labeled with an R-value. R-value is the measure of how well the sleeping pad traps heat, or in other words, its insulation rating. The “R” in R-value represents resist, notably the material’s resistance to heat transfer.
A higher R-value means a higher warmth rating, keeping you cozy through the night. A high R-value implies that the sleeping pad is a good insulator and will not transfer your body heat to the ground.
Generally, R values go from a .7 all the way to a 10.0 or greater. The materials used and the design of sleeping pads play a large role in their R-value.
A 0.7 sleeping pad will not have much if any, insulation. An example would be a summer rated air sleeping pad with no foam or reflective fabric. A sleeping pad of this rating would be used predominantly for comfort.
Closed cell foam sleeping pads with little to no insulation generally have low R-values. The cells contain air and no insulation, allowing for heat transfer.
A 10.0 sleeping pad is a winter weight pad. This pad will have lots of insulation, it will be thicker, and it will probably have reflective fabric on the exterior. The insulation may consist of down or polyester fill to provide supreme resistance against your body heat escaping to the ground beneath you.
R-value ratings are typically provided in the following ranges:
- .5 – .7 R-Value: Likely a foam mat, or uninsulated pad used for warmer temperatures and more so for comfort.
- 5 – 2.1 R-Value: From 46 degrees Fahrenheit down to 36, this pad should be adequate.
- 5 – 4.9 R-Value: A sleeping pad with this range is good insulation for 32 degrees (freezing) down to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 9 – 6.4 R-Value: This is a very well insulated sleeping pad, providing resistance transfer at temps of -11 to -18 degrees Fahrenheit.
- 8 – 9.5 R-Value: This is the upper range of insulation, with a resistance value rated for temps around -36 degrees down to -54 for some serious arctic camping.
A three season sleeping pad will have an R-value in the middle of the range. These pads would likely keep you comfortable for most of the year but should be used in conjunction with other warming products during the cold winter months.
It is easy to tailor your sleeping pads R-value to your needs. Combining two or even three sleeping pads will increase your chances of staying comfortable. If you pile sleeping pads on top of one another, make sure they are compressed tightly and do not allow for air circulation between the pads.
Women might have different needs than men concerning sleeping pads, as they lose heat faster. Therefore, some women prefer sleeping pads with a higher R-value. A few sleeping pads are specifically marketed towards women and include added core insulation.
Just because a sleeping pad has a higher R-value does not mean that you will overheat if you are using it in the summer. They are unlike sleeping bag temperature ratings in this aspect. You might feel warm because the pad is insulating you and not allowing heat to escape, but the sleeping pad itself is not warming you.
Try to choose a midrange sleeping pad so you can use it during most seasons. If you need to increase its R-value, it is easier to add a foam mat rather than purchasing a separate high R-value sleeping bag.
For a really in-depth look at R-values, check out our article- Understanding What A Camping Sleeping Pad R-value Means
Sizes of Sleeping Pads
Sleeping pads vary in terms of weight, length, width, and shape. Each sleeping pad type is suited to a particular activity or sleeping arrangement.
Ultralight sleeping pads are available but can be pricey. Air pads are the lightest when considering all three types of sleeping pads. A tapered shape or shorter length sleeping pad will also equate to less weight.
Foam sleeping pads can be bulky and a bit heavier. Self-inflating sleeping pads aren’t necessarily heavy, but it can be difficult to remove all the air and successfully compress them.
The lengths of sleeping pads range from short or ¾ lengths to extra long. The average size is 72 to 78 inches in length and will comfortably fit the size of an adult. Shorter pads are lighter, but your legs or feet may come in contact with the ground.
Your preferred sleeping pad width depends on your sleeping tendencies and the size of your tent or car. The normal width is 20 inches. Extra-wide sleeping pads or couples sized sleeping pads will give you extra room, just make sure you can fit it inside your sleeping space.
Shapes of Sleeping Pads
Sleeping pads can also be either mummy shaped or standard mattress shaped. Mummy shaped pads take up less room and are therefore lighter. However, your feet and legs may fall off the tapered bottom during the night.
Standard mattress shaped sleeping pads are usually a rectangle. They can be narrow or wide depending on your chosen width. If you roll around when you are sleeping, a tapered sleeping pad or a narrow sleeping pad may not be comfortable.
There are many considerations to think about when selecting the weight, length, width, and shape of your sleeping pad.
One of the most important factors is the space in which you are planning to sleep. Large sleeping pads won’t have a problem fitting into a multifamily tent or cabin, but they won’t likely fit into a single person tent.
How to choose a sleeping pad video
Other Factors to Consider
- Construction of the Sleeping Pad
The materials used in the construction of your sleeping pad determines its comfort and warmth. Different materials provide varying levels of insulation and support.
Additionally, some sleeping pads are equipped with ridges referred to as baffles or rails. These ridges can either be in the form of barriers around the edges so you do not roll off, or they can provide head and neck support.
- The Exterior Materials
The surface materials and texture can also influence how warm you stay. Those with reflective fabrics will send heat back towards your body. Some soft and smooth fabrics may be loud or slippery.
- Inflating You Sleeping Pad
Foam cell sleeping pads do not need to be inflated, but air sleeping pads and self-inflating pads will. Air sleeping pads need to be inflated manually, either by your breath or an external or internal hand pump. Self-inflating sleeping pads have valves that do most of the work for you, but you may need to put in a few additional breaths of air.
What Size Sleeping Pad Do I Need?
The second most important factor when determining sleeping pad size is where you plan to use it and how you intend to get it there.
- Car Camping
If you are planning on car camping, selecting a sleeping pad is relatively easy. Since you will not have to carry your sleeping pad into the backcountry, you can select the thickest and warmest pad. In most cases, this will be a self-inflating pad. However, you should be wary of how much space you have in your tent.
- Hiking In or Arriving by water
If you are planning to backpack, canoe, or kayak to your sleeping destination, you should opt for a lightweight self-inflating pad or an air pad. These sleeping pads can be compressed and easily stored in your backpack. When you reach your destination, they can be inflated to provide comfort and warmth.
- Minimalist Camping
Minimalist campers will want to go for the smallest, lightest, and most compressible sleeping pad. This is an ultralight air pad. Ultralight pads are usually more expensive but worth it due to how well they pack.
If you plan to be thru-hiking or camping at many different locations, you will want a durable sleeping pad. This will be a foam sleeping pad. Though not the most comfortable, they can be rolled up and/or folded and carried. They also with withstand wear and tear on the trail.
Warm weather campers will want to select a comfortable but thinner pad. A slim foam pad or an air pad will provide a supportive barrier without all the bulk.
Winter weather campers will want to select a thick and warm pad with a high R-value. Likely a foam pad will not do. However, a foam pad can be used in conjunction with an insulated air pad or self-inflating pad for extra warmth and comfort.
Finding Your Perfect Pad
Sleeping pads are a must-have when you are sleeping anywhere that lacks a traditional mattress. Note the R value but pay close attention to its size and weight. Consider where you will be sleeping and how you plan to get there in order to select the most suitable sleeping pad.
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