Are Sleeping Pads Necessary
As you can see, sleeping pads are almost always necessary. Sleeping pads not only provide a cushioned sleeping surface to keep you comfortable, but they also provide critical insulation from cold ground temperatures. Now that we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at the main types of sleeping pads, talk about sizing, and demystify all this R-Value business.
This is the classic backpacking roll you’ll find tied to your dad’s backpack in that grainy picture you saw from the ‘70s. Technology hasn’t changed too much since then, but that’s because of another dad tip: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Inflatable pads are lightweight and packable, making them the ideal sleeping pad for ultralight backpacking and thru-hiking. While some of them can take a bit of effort to inflate, shaving ounces is important if you plan on hiking long distances over multiple days in the backcountry.
Self-Inflating pads are filled with open-cell foam that expands when the valve is opened. All they need is a couple of extra puffs from your lungs to finish 'em off. They're generally more comfortable and insulating than air pads and more compact than closed-cell foam pads.
These are really just jumbo-sized inflatable pads, but they deserve their own category. They can range anywhere from 4 to 20 or more inches thick, making them a super comfortable option for car camping, glamping, festivals, and RV’ing.
Length: Standard length pads are typically 72 inches long and long pads are around 78 inches. Those looking to save weight without sacrificing critical insulation may consider a "short" or "3/4" length pad. This will save you precious ounces and prove to your backpacking brethren how serious you are about going ultralight.
Width: Most regular sized sleeping pads have a standard width of 20 inches. Some models are offered in a wide version to give you a little extra room if you have broad shoulders or tend to wiggle around at night. Double wide options are also available if you’d rather share a single pad with your camping partner. If you’re sharing sleeping space with other campers, just make sure your pad will fit side by side with other pads in the floor area of your tent.
Storage: Inflatable pads pack down small enough to fit inside your bag and include a stuff sack for storage. On the other hand, foam pads tend to be much bulkier and may require you to attach them to the outside of your pack. Some backpack models will include pad straps on the bottom or attachment loops on the top lid to make this easier. If you’re car camping, none of this matters too much and you should have already skipped ahead.
What the Heck is R-Value?
The R-Value of a sleeping pad is a measure of thermal resistance that, quite simply, gives you a better idea of how warm the pad should be through the night. The higher the R-value in a pad, the higher the resistance to heat flow and the warmer the pad will keep you. For summer camping, an R-value less than 2.0 works just fine, while winter camping requires a 5.0 or higher. There are a number of factors that determine what the actual R-value will be once you're on the trail. If using an inflatable pad, keep in mind that if you should fill it with air at or near capacity to reach the manufacturer provided R-value. Also, side sleepers will compress the pad with their hips and lower the R-value slightly in those areas. Know your body. If you're a cold sleeper, there's nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution.
What Else Do I Need to Know?
Insulation: Other than pad thickness, inflation level, and sleeping position, insulation or the lack thereof can affect R-value. Insulated pads or mats will feature a layer of synthetic or goose down insulation for greater heat-trapping prowess and thus, a nice hefty boost to the R-value.
Mountaineering & Winter Camping: Sleeping in the winter or at high altitude will require some serious insulation from the cold ground. Look for pads with high R-values. The air between you and the ground in an inflatable pad will only get you so far, so find a pad with a layer of synthetic or down insulation sandwiched in the middle. In the dead of winter, many will carry an additional foam pad to supplement the warmth of an inflatable pad.
Cots: Cots are great for those who spend extended time in the outdoors with a more permanent setup. They’re super comfortable and keep you up off the ground, well above all the rocks, snow, bugs, and the rest of life’s problems. Today’s generation of cots are lightweight and surprisingly packable, and many of them provide ample space underneath for gear storage.
Hammock Pads: The hammocking craze is alive and well. So many folks are asking “what type of sleeping pad is best for a hammock?” Well, some hammock campers do like to use sleeping pads in their hammocks for the added comfort and insulation, so it’s a good question to ask. There are hammock-specific pads that are shaped to sit securely inside a hammock, and there are even adapter kits that can position traditional sleeping pads in a hammock more comfortably.
Side Sleepers: Sleeping styles and comfort levels vary from person to person, but lots of people end up rolling around on their side throughout the night. It’s quite common and typically results in a pressure point at the hips. To cushion the hips and alleviate discomfort, I recommend a sleeping pad with at least 3 inches of thickness for side sleepers.
Yoga Mats: “Can’t I just sleep on my yoga mat when I go camping?” Sure you can. But it will provide little to no cushioning and fail to provide insulation from the cold ground. They’re also heavier and bulkier than a camping sleeping pad. So, if a yoga mat is all you have at your disposal and you’re not ready to invest in a basic camping pad, you’d better hope it’s really warm out and that you’re not a side sleeper.