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How to Choose Camping Sleeping Pads & Camping Mattresses

Sleeping pads, AKA camping mattresses, are one of the most important, but also most overlooked pieces of camping gear. Other than your sleeping bag, your pad has the most impact on the quality and warmth of your sleep. A good pad will be practically invisible, if you’re not noticing it, it’s probably doing its job right. But the wrong sleeping pad will undermine the integrity of your whole sleep system and make spending a comfortable night out near impossible. Add that to the fact that there are so many pads on the market, touting different high tech features and designs that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. However, with this guide, we’ve broken down the styles, features, temperature ratings, and relative strengths and weaknesses of each type of sleeping pad. So if you just know you need a sleeping pad but aren’t sure what specifically you’re looking for, we’ll break it down for you.

Types of Sleeping Pads for Camping

There are three main styles of sleeping pad construction: foam, air, and self-inflating. They each have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, so which style you choose will be influenced by what you plan on using it for. We’ll break down each style below.

Foam Sleeping Pads

Foam sleeping pads are the most affordable and durable options out there. They’re cheap, and they last forever. These pads are just sheets of closed-cell foam that you either unfold or unroll to use.

The biggest downside to these pads is their size. They really don’t pack down that small and are best carried outside of your pack. In addition, they don’t provide as much insulation as air or self-inflating models.

Foam sleeping pads are best for people who are looking to save money, who don’t want to worry about popping their expensive pad, and who are primarily sleeping on the pad in the warmer months. If that’s you, grab a foam pad!

Foam pads are also a great addition to an air or self-inflating pad in some situations. In cold weather, or on very rough ground, a foam pad adds insulation and also protects your inflatable pad from punctures.

Air Sleeping Pads & Mattresses

Air pads are the lightest and pack the smallest of all the sleeping pads. These sleeping pads act as a mini air mattress. You can inflate them either with your mouth, or a small pump and their insulated chambers keep you comfortable and warm. Air pads are the way to go for anyone looking for the most comfort and warmth, without taking up much room in your pack.

The downside is that air pads are less durable, they’re susceptible to punctures, either from sharp gear in the tent, or sharp rocks under them. So you need to be a little more careful. However, if you do puncture an air pad, it’s not the end of the world. Manufacturers like Thermarest include patch kits, so it’s easy to fix small holes and keep using the pad.

The other downside of air pads is that they’re more expensive than foam pads. That’s because they’re more complex to build, and they keep you much warmer. For most serious backpackers and campers though, an air pad is the way to go.

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads

Self-inflating pads are sort of a hybrid of air and foam pads. They feature a valve like an air pad, but are full of special foam. When you unroll a self-inflating pad and open the valve, it allows the foam to expand and fill with air without you having to blow into it. You then can close the valve and sleep on it.

Self-inflating pads are a compromise that work very well for a lot of people. They’re much more durable than air pads, but not quite as durable as a foam pad. However, they pack down smaller than a foam pad, but not as small as an air pad. And they usually cost somewhere in the middle between a cheap foam pad and an expensive air pad. So if you’re looking for a pad that’s really versatile, without shelling out too much money, a self-inflating pad may be the way to go.

What is R Value? How does R Value Measure the Warmth of a Sleeping Pad?

There’s one really important term to keep in mind when shopping for a sleeping pad: “R Value.” R Value is a measure of how well a pad insulates you from the cold ground. The higher the number, the better of an insulator the pad will be. For people only camping in the warm summer months, an R Value of 1 or 2 will be fine. For anyone camping through the spring and fall, you want at least an R of 3 or 4. And for anyone winter camping, an R Value of 4 and up is the best call. In general, sleeping pads get heavier and more expensive as the R Value increases.

It’s possible to increase your R value by stacking pads. For instance, an R3 pad on top of an R1 pad will be equivalent to an R4 pad. The downside is that carrying an R1 and an R3 pad is generally heavier than just carrying a nice R4 pad. So for most people, it’s worth getting a pad with an R value that’s just a little higher than what they plan on using it for, just in case they end up sleeping in an unseasonably cold night.

How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

So, there’s a lot of information up there, and things like the style of sleeping pad and R Value are important, how do they actually apply to the way you're going to be camping? We broke down a couple common scenarios and needs below to help you choose a camping mattress. 

I Want the Most Affordable or Cheapest Sleeping Pad

We’ve all been there, it’s hard to make a big purchase for something you’re not sure you’re going to use all that much. Luckily, a foam sleeping pad is a great investment. They’re very affordable, and even if you get really into camping and backpacking, it’s still great to have one. They’re so durable they last forever, and it’s really nice to always have a backup foam pad in case your other pad gets a leak, or you need to stack pads for cold weather. If you don’t have a bunch of money to spend, grab a foam sleeping pad.

I Want the Best Sleeping Pad for Car Camping

For folks planning on not carrying their sleeping pads in a pack ever, weight really doesn’t matter. So look for a self-inflating pad with a high R value. They’re not light, they don’t pack down small, but that doesn’t matter, they’re very comfortable, easy to set up, and warm. Self-inflating pads are perfect for car campers. Folks that will mostly be car camping can look for oversized sleeping pads two, like long or tall sleeping pads, and ones that are double-wide.

I Want the Best Sleeping Pad for Some Backpacking, but Weight Isn't My # 1 Concern

For those just dipping their toes into backpacking, there are a few options. Either a foam pad, or a self-inflating pad is a good call here. If you’re not planning on doing a bunch of big trips, the weight and space savings of an inflatable pad don’t outweigh the cost and decreased durability. So it’s worth dealing with a slightly bigger and heavier foam or self-inflating pad.

I Want the Best Sleeping Pad for Lightweight, Long-Distance Backpacking

If you want to go backpack 300 miles, an inflatable pad is your best choice. Every ounce you can save out of your pack weight will pay itself off mile by mile. Go with a light inflatable pad for a good night’s sleep.

I’m Hard on my Gear, I Want a Durable Sleeping Pad

We all have that friend who just wears their stuff out faster than the rest of us. His puffy is full of holes, or her boots are always falling apart. If that sounds like you, get a foam pad. It’s near impossible to break them, and while self-inflating and air pads are pretty durable, they have their limits. It’s better to carry a big foam pad on your pack than to pop your nice air pad the first night of a week-long trip.

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