How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking
Updated: Oct 6, 2019
It has been a long day out on the trail. Many miles hiked maybe including a couple of stumbles that left you with a bruised backside. Before the sun gets too low in the sky you find a spot to make camp. The gear gets unpacked and your tent set up. Fluff up the sleeping bag and get your home for the night ready. But most new backpackers don't give a lot of thought to what is under them.
From natives to pioneers, experienced people have long known that laying directly on the ground is neither warm nor comfortable. We have moved on from bearskins and spruce bough beds but the need to both cushion and insulate us from the ground has remained the same.
Unlike car camping, you need to consider the size and weight of your sleeping pad for backpacking. I want all of my gear to fit in my pack or strap neatly on the outside.
When you lay in your sleeping bag you compress the insulation under you making it offer next to no insulation. Since the ground is colder than we are even in summer, we need a thermal barrier that will keep us from losing heat through conduction.
And in most cases, we need some form of cushion from the hardness of the ground to get a good night sleep. How much cushioning you will need varies depending on your tolerance and how hard the ground is. A thin pad can be comfortable on a bed of pine needles but torture on exposed Canadian Shield granite.
Types of Sleeping Pads
Modern sleeping pads come in three main types: Closed Cell Foam, Self-Inflating, and Inflatable.
Closed Cell Foam Pads
Closed-cell foam is non-absorbent with a relatively firm cushion. The better quality pads are stamped with a texture to increase both cushion and thermal efficiency. Since they don't hold air they can't leak.
Foam pads such as the Thermarest Z-lite are light, inexpensive and very durable.
You can get versions that roll up or to save space models that fold up are also available. With a thickness of .75-1 inch, they don’t offer a lot of cushioning but if you like a very firm mattress they can work well.
Due to the limited compressibility, they will need to strap it to the outside of your pack but since you don't need to worry about leaking air the extra wear and tear isn't much of a concern.
You can also bring them along in the winter to increase the insulation of another pad to make it warm enough for winter.
These pads are open-celled foam encased in an airproof shell. When you unroll the pad you just open the valve and the foam will expand to inflate itself. You may need to add a breath or two to get it to a firmness you are happy with. Then close the valve so the air stays in. These give more cushion than closed-cell foam and can have enough insulation for winter.
The self-inflating pad is a good balance between weight, warmth, cushion, and price.
Thermarest offers the most options in self-inflating pads. For backpacking, the Thermarest Prolite Plus is a great option with 1.5 inches of cushion and enough insulation for three-season use.
As the name implies, inflatable pads need to be blown up. This can be with your mouth or with a compact pump. Most inflatable pads have some form of insulation.
Inflatable pads offer the most cushion of all the backpacking sleeping pads with models up 3 inches thick. This style also has options with the most insulation.
The Thermarest Neo Air X-Lite is the gold standard in ultralight inflatable sleeping pads. The regular length weighs 12 oz and packs down to the size of a Nalgene water bottle. It is 2.5 inches thick with an R-value of 3.2 in the men's model and 3.9 in the women's making it the best combo of the cushion and warmth. All of this comes at the price of around $200. This is really a case of you get what you pay for.
How well a sleeping pad will insulate you from the ground is measured in R-Value. Until recently there wasn't a standard in how this was measured but following the standardization of how sleeping bags are rated companies have worked together to agree on a testing protocol. This is good for the consumer as we will be able to compare similar products and see how they stack up against each other.
R-Value requirements for each season
This will be a rough guideline as there is a lot of variability in how warm people sleep.
Summer 1.5 or higher
Three Season 3 or higher
Winter 5 or higher
How much cushion a sleeping pad offers will be a combination of how thick it is and how firm. This is where inflatable pads shine as they are the thickest and firmness is adjustable by adding or letting out some air.
Sleeping pads that would be an appropriate size and weight for backpacking vary in thickness from .75 inches for a closed-cell foam pad to 3 inches in a luxury inflatable pad.
As to how much padding you need for a good night sleep will vary based on a few factors:
If you sleep on your back you often can get away with less cushion compared to side sleepers who need more cushion under the hips.
If you choose a sleeping pad with less cushion then you have to be more discerning in campsite selection. You will need to find areas with the softer ground to sleep on. Sand also makes a great cushion.
In rocky and rooty terrain thicker is better as it isolates you from the irregularities of the ground. If you use a thinner pad look for the flattest spot with the least irregularities to make camp on.
If like me you've led a rough and tumble life then you will benefit from the thicker cushioned sleeping pads. If you have back or hip pain the extra padding can help improve comfort.
On the other hand, if you are young and healthy then you may do just fine with minimal padding.
Generally, as we get older we need more cushion.
This will be partly dictated by how big you are and how you sleep.
Like sleeping bags, men's and women's lengths are available in sleeping pads as well.
Men's regular is 6 feet and long is 6'6". Women's regular is 5'6" and long is 6 feet long.
Backpacking sleeping pads come in two standard widths: 20 and 25 inches
As a side sleeper, I can get away with a pad a little shorter than I am tall since my legs are bent when I sleep. I'm 5'8" and use a pad that is 5'6" long. As I sleep on my side I also find a 20-inch wide pad comfortable whereas if I slept on my back my shoulders would be hanging off the sides.
Back or Restless Sleepers
Since we are generally wider across the shoulders than we are thick front to back, if you sleep on you back it will support you better if the pad is the wider 25-inch models.
If you roll around a lot a wider pad can keep you from sliding off your sleeping pad in the middle of the night as well.
Backpacking is all about carrying your home on your back so weight matters. You definitely want your sleeping pad to be under 1.5 pounds.
If you are aiming to have the lightest sleeping pad then consider the Thermarest Uber Lite which is just a little more than half a pound. It isn't as insulated as the X-lite model but has enough warmth for summer use.
For those who are comfortable with a closed-cell foam pad then you can modify a Thermarest Z-lite pad by shortening it only cover from your knees to shoulders. You can put your empty pack or spare clothing under your lower legs for a bit of insulation from the ground. Depending on your height, this modification can leave you with a sleeping pad that is just over half a pound as well.
Sleeping Pads for Thru-Hiking
Based on personal experience and surveys of thru-hikers, the two most popular sleeping pads are the Thermarest Z-lite and X-lite. As someone who uses both of them, I can attest to the overall function and lightweight.
Weights are similar but the X-lite is four times as expensive for three times the cushion. It all comes down to how much comfort you need for a good nights sleep.
Recommended Sleeping Pads
Light and Cheap - Thermarest Z-Lite folding foam pad
Lightish, Comfyish, and Affordable - Thermarest Evolite Self-Inflating Pad
Premium Performance - Thermarest X-lite Inflatable Pad
Cold Weather Performance - Thermarest X-therm Inflatable Pad
Sleeping Pad Accessories
For all but the closed-cell foam pads, you need to bring a patch kit with you. If you spring a leak, not only do you lose your cushion you also lose most of your insulation. Most of the sleeping pads come with patch kit but always make sure you pack it as well as some Tenacious Tape for various camp repairs.
While you can blow up your inflatable sleeping pads, some type of pump such as the pump sack can make it a little easier. Using a pump also helps keep moisture build in the pad from your breath to a minimum.
If you like to backpack with your significant other but don't like how your sleeping pads slide apart when you try to snuggle then you can get straps than connect your pads. This will keep them from sliding apart.
Sleeping pads are one of the most important pieces of camp gear for a night of good sleep. Especially when the conditions start to turn cold, the warmth from the ground can be the difference between restful sleep and being miserable.
Having used a lot of different models over the years I've settled on the Thermarest Neo Air series for the best combination of low weight, cushion, and warmth. And as long as you aren't jumping on them like a trampoline they hold up to backcountry use very well.
When shopping for a sleeping pad go into an outdoor store and try them out. If it is good on a concrete floor then it will probably be pretty good when you are out on the trail.
And if you can't find a comfortable sleeping pad then it might be time to try hammock camping.
Cover Photo Credit: Catharine Gerhard