How to Choose a Sleeping Pad?

Your budget and intended activities will determine where you buy a sleeping pad. It seems simple enough to throw a sleeping bag in your tent with a sleeping mat, but there are thousands of different kinds, sizes, designs, and constructions to choose from, so choosing the best sleeping pad can be difficult.

Just as you consider how to choose a sleeping pad, consider your requirements when choosing a sleeping pad. Depending on the situation, a long-distance backpacker might use a very lightweight mat, while a cold-sleeping car camper might prioritize warmth over saving weight. No matter what campers intend to use a sleeping pad or mat for, it should be on their list. You can get a good night’s sleep by understanding how to choose a sleeping pad. Here’s our expert advice.

History of Sleeping Pad

Sleeping Pads History
Sleeping Pads History

In comparison to some other outdoor gear, sleeping pads do not have a colorful history. There hasn’t been a momentous event that marks the creation of the first “pad”. Because of this, backpackers like John Muir (yup, those two things were combined) slept on the ground or cut down trees as elevation. It’s still viable, but our forests can’t handle so many backpackers today.

It was then replaced by thin mats, typically made of compressed foam. Backpackers in colder climates could benefit from this small, but effective, upgrade to increase comfort.

Cascade Designs is responsible for the major advancement in sleeping pads. The Therm-a-Rest was the first mattress pad to use air to inflate and insulate. Is the name familiar to you? Therm-a-Rest is now part of the parent company of Cascade Designs, another popular sleeping pad manufacturer.

A patent was granted to Cascade Designs for that original innovation. This company dominated the sleeping pad market until the patent expired, and now every equipment manufacturer seems to have a sleeping pad.

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How Do Sleeping Pad Keep You Warm?

As a backpacker or camper, it’s not necessary to know the scientific answer to this question. You stay warm with sleeping pads because they create a layer between you and the ground. Warm back, cold ground. No matter how cozy your sleeping bag is, lying directly on the ground will cool you down overall, even if you are stuffed in it.

There is some warmth in the pad, but the majority of it is from the air inside. It’s because they have more air than closed-cell foam that air pads provide more warmth. By maintaining the temperature around your body, this layer of air keeps you warm.

In spite of that, air is a good insulator, but too much isn’t. You’ll notice that air mattresses (that are inflated by pumps) can get quite cold. This case is too airy. The sleeping pad R Value is the main way to measure all of this.

What are Sleeping Pad R Values?

Outdoor industry R Values standardize the warmth provided by sleeping pads. Basically, R Values measure how well heat can transfer between hot and cold materials. Many other products, such as home walls, use the R Value to determine their insulation.

Sleeping pads do not have standardized and independent R values (like sleeping bags). Any pad can’t be determined by R Value. Manufacturers use different testing methods. Companies do give R Values to sleeping pads anyway, and they are generally accurate. R values are sometimes printed right on pads’ stuff sacks; in this case, a self-inflating pad no longer manufactured by REI.

An R-Value of 1 to 10 indicates how much warmth the sleeping pad provides, and how cold you can sleep comfortably in. Because decimals are used, R values 3.33 and 3 are actually warmer. Temperature is not associated with these R Values, but they are generally broken down as follows:

Sleeping Pads R-Value

1-1.5 R Value

Insulation isn’t effective. Great for summer nights. Cold nights may make them dangerous, since they suck warmth from you.

2-2.5 R Value

Insulation basics. Warmth is provided, best above 65 degrees, in warm temperatures. Closed-cell foam pads have a high R Value.

3-3.5 R Value

Insulated well. Temperatures can often reach 35-60 degrees, perfect for three-season backpacking and camping. It’s always better to have a higher R Value than 35 degrees, but a lot of air pads and self-inflating pads have an R Value around 35.

4-5 R-Value

Winter-worthy almost, but not quite. For backpackers who run cold and want a three-season pad, pads with an R-Value of 4 to 5 work best.

5-10 R Value

R Values of 5 and above will provide adequate warmth during the winter. Obviously, if you have a cold sleeper, sleep higher. Make sure you get the highest R Value possible if the weather is sub-freezing. R Values above 6 are very rare, unless the pads are heavy duty base camping pads.

Add R Values Together

Add R Values Together Sleeping Pads

Adding two R Values together can increase overall insulation and warmth. Backpackers don’t realize that. The R Values of an air pad and closed-cell foam are usually combined by stacking them.

When deciding between a heavier insulated pad (one with a higher R value) and a lighter insulated pad, this can be helpful. When you don’t need as much insulation as you would like on a summer trip, two pads can provide the same warmth and save you weight.

Types of Sleeping Pad for Camping

Sleeping pads are designed in main construction styles. Their strengths and weaknesses are unique, so you should choose a style according to what you plan on using it for. Since each style has strengths and weaknesses, you need to choose one based on what you plan to do with it.

Air & Mattresses of Sleeping Pad

Sleeping Pads Air
Sleeping Pads Air

All sleeping pads are heavier, but air pads pack the smallest and are the lightest. These pads function as mini air mattresses. If you inflate them by mouth or pump them, they will stay warm and comfortable. People looking for the most comfort and warmth should choose air pads, as they don’t take up much space in their pack.

It has a downside, however, that air pads are less durable because they’re susceptible to puncture, either by sharp gear in the tent or by sharp rocks underneath. Air pads need to be used with greater caution. You won’t end up drowning if you puncture your air pad, however. Many manufacturers provide patch kits for the pad, so it can be repaired and reused again.

The second disadvantage of air pads is their high price. Because they’re more complicated to construct, and they keep you warmer. In most cases, however, there is no alternative to an air pad for backpackers and campers.

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Foam of Sleeping Pad

Sleeping pads made from foam are the most durable and affordable option on the market. Their affordability is matched by the fact that they are also long-lasting. You use these pads simply by unfolding or unrolling the closed-cell foam sheets.

Size is the biggest disadvantage of these pads. This size is not recommended and they should not be carried outside a pack. Additionally, they do not provide as much insulation as air-filled or self-inflated versions.

For people who want to save money, don’t want to worry about snagging their expensive pad, and sleep on it primarily during the warmer months, foam sleeping pads are a smart choice. Then grab yourself a foam pad!

When necessary, foam pads can also be added to air or self-inflating pad. An inflatable pad with a foam pad serves as insulation and protects it from punctures in cold weather, or on very rough terrain.

Self-Inflating of Sleeping Pad

Self-Inflating of Sleeping Pads
Self-Inflating of Sleeping Pads

Air and foam pads are hybrids of self-inflating pads. The valves are similar to air pads, but they contain special foam. A self-inflating pad expands when you open the valve, allowing air to flow in without you having to blow. The pad can then be closed and laid down to sleep on.

The majority of people agree that self-inflating pads are the best compromise. Air pads are a lot less durable than foam ones, but they’re still much more durable than air pads. Nevertheless, they are not as compact as an air pad, but they are certainly smaller than a foam pad. There is usually no difference in price between an affordable foam pad and an expensive air pad when it comes to these pads. Consequently, if you’re trying to find an inflatable pad that’s really versatile, but isn’t too expensive, a self-inflating pad may be one of your best bets.

Sleeping Pad Comfort

Sleeping Pads Comfort

Survival is what drives sleeping pad R Values. Sleeping pads are more concerned with comfort than design. In the wild, you are more worried about having a bad night’s sleep than freezing to death.

One aspect of comfort is warmth. You should get a sleeping bag and pad that can handle the environment you’re in if you run cold.

Warmth is only the beginning of comfort. Backcountry beds are complicated, similar to mattress shopping at home. Below we break down the factors to consider when picking a sleeping pad.

The Shape of Sleeping Pad

Several mats use rectangular profiles, while others have a mummy-shaped profile to reduce weight and pack size without compromising overall comfort. Many tent mats also come in large and/or wide sizes to suit larger users or those looking for an extra level of luxury in a large tent.

Additionally, many mats come in a small or a three-quarter size, developed for petite or ultralight campers to provide warmth. It is possible for some brands to make female-specific sizes that fit their frames better. There are also cases where they are slightly warmer, having a higher R-value (as women typically do not like the cold as men).

Sleeping Pad Width

An average pad measures 20 inches wide. In the case of a large person or someone who tends to roll around a lot, consider a pad with a width of 25 or 30 inches (but be sure your tent will accommodate two wider pads side by side). It is often the case that the “long” version of a pad is wider as well, although there are some styles that are wide yet “regular” in length.

During sleep, larger baffles on the sides can assist in keeping you from rolling off the pad as you turn. It is especially helpful for children who are still developing their motor skills.

Pad Lengths

It is crucial that both shoulders and hips are supported by a pad. These pads are usually 72 inches long and 78 inches long, so they’ll comfortably insulate your legs and feet on chilly fall and winter trips. Shorter or 3/4-length pads (usually 47 or 48 inches) are lighter and take up less space (you can place folded clothing under your legs and feet as insulation).

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Additional Sleeping Pad Considerations

Pad Sleeves:

In some sleeping bags, a pad can be stored in the sleeve. Keeping you and your sleeping bag in place at night. Make sure the pad has enough sleeves.

Hand Pumps:

You can look for a pad with an integrated hand pump and/or bag-style hand pumps that weigh only a couple ounces and roll up small (sold separately).

Patch Kits:

Backpacking patch kits are useful. If they’re sold separately or with the pad, find out. Prepare yourself to repair a puncture in the dark by understanding how to patch one.


Let’s hope we’ve demystified the saturated sleeping pad product market enough to assist you in finding the right one. Whatever your needs are, from the simply lightest and smallest to the pad that expertly balances all the above features, there are many options out there that will make your next adventure memorable.

Hello, my name is James Tinnin and I am an outdoor enthusiast, writer, and avid camper. I have always had a deep appreciation for the great outdoors, and my passion for nature has only grown stronger over the years.