Getting a great sleep is of paramount importance to your backpacking trip. While you may be able to function properly after one restless night in the wild, imagine that happening day after day and potentially week after week. Therefore, what you decide to sleep on at night when camping out becomes a very important choice indeed.
So, do you need a sleeping pad for backpacking? It is highly recommended to take a sleeping pad with you on your backpacking trip. Not only do they give extra comfort for when you are curled up at night, they also provide insulation from the ground. If the temperatures are cold, you will quickly discover how little insulation your sleeping bag provides when compressed by your own body weight. Your choice of sleeping pad will depend on the length of your trip, the climate you are backpacking in and how much weight you are willing to carry.
Beyond your sleeping pad, here’s some more tips for a good nights sleep and some product recommendations…
Tips for sleeping comfortably while backpacking
Choose the right type of sleeping pad – There are three types of sleeping pad: air pads, self-inflating pads and closed cell foam pads. For backpacking I would recommend taking with you an air pad, or a self-inflating air pad. They are comfortable, lightweight and compact, so they do not take up a lot of space in your pack. Head down to the local store and try before you buy.
Those heading off on a thru hike should consider purchasing a lightweight foam pad. Although they are not as comfortable as the air pads, they are more durable. You do not want to wake up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere with a burst seam that is irreparable.
Have a warm enough sleeping bag – There is almost nothing worse than struggling your way through a night, unable to sleep as you shiver against the cold. It is something like torture. Conversely, do not take a sleeping bag rated for 10 degrees on a warm, summer hike.
Take with you a good quality sleeping bag that is rated for the temperatures you will be likely to face on the trail. And make sure the sleeping bag is a good fit for you as well. Once again; try before you buy! Do not be afraid to wriggle around on the shop floor for a proper dummy run.
Be wise when pitching your tent – It may sound obvious, but your bed is flat, so you want the floor of your tent to be flat too. If not, you will find yourself in a night-long battle to stay in the same position. Do not pitch your tent where water may be likely to flow. It may not be flowing when you set up camp, but try to imagine what would happen after a downpour in the middle of the night.
Sleeping pad vs air mattress for backpacking
The sleeping pad is definitely the way to go for backpacking. They are slim, compact and lightweight, and are getting better and better every year as new technologies are released. Some pads even weigh in as light as 9 oz and squash down to smaller than one liter once all the air has been expelled.
Air mattresses are great for camping, but a more suited to car camping. They are larger and can be more comfortable than sleeping pads, but they are also heavier and are a difficult thing for a backpacker to justify taking with them.
They also require a lot of air to fill them up. This means that unless you want a light head every night blowing the thing up, then you will also need to carry a pump with you. A lot of sleeping pads are self-inflating, and may just require a little manual top up to get your desired firmness.
Other pads such as the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus (featured below) come with weightless pump sacks, which means you can inflate your pad in a couple of easy, painless breaths.
What does “R value” mean?
Some manufacturers will provide a temperature rating for their sleeping pads, while others will go with something called R value, which is a unit of measurement used for insulation. The higher the R value, the better insulated your sleeping pad, and therefore the warmer it will be.
For a basic roundup, a pad with an R value of 1 will be useful only for a summer foray into the wild. R2 sees the start of your three-season pads, while you will probably want something higher than 3.5 if you are heading out in winter. If you are backpacking in bitterly cold locations, then look for an R value of greater than 5.
Here’s our top 4 recommended sleeping pads for backpacking:
1. Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Insulated (the most comfortable)
The clue is in the name, because this is a seriously comfortable sleeping pad from Sea to Summit. It is designed with air sprung cells that expand to 2.5 inches, so it feels as though you are sleeping on a normal, comfortable bed. It is a great choice for the side sleepers out there, as your hip bone will not penetrate through to the ground.
I love the pump sack that comes with it, making inflation incredibly quick and easy. Another fantastic feature is the dual layer design, which means you must inflate both sides of the pad. What this means for you, is that in case of a puncture, you will not find yourself on the floor in the middle of the night, as the other chamber will remain air-tight.
R Value: 5.0
Pro: So comfortable and wide that you will think you are in a bed
Con: Expensive and a little heavier than the others in this list.
More details: seatosummitusa.com
2. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm (the warmest)
Weighing in at only 15 oz, you will not find a lighter sleeping pad with such a high R value. It is durable, packs down to a nice, easy to manage size, and is another sleeping pad that expands to 2.5 inches, making it another comfortable choice. It is a little narrower than the Sea to Summit pad above, so if you are a restless sleeper, you may be better off with the wider option.
R Value: 5.7
Pro: Ridiculously good warmth to weight ratio
Con: The valve is small and needs an update – takes a long time to deflate.
More details: thermarest.com
3. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite (the ultralight)
This is the lighter, slightly less durable version of the Xtherm, but it weighs in at an ultralight 12 oz, and takes up even less space than its bigger brother. It is by no means the lightest of the light – some pads do dip well below the 10 oz mark – but for its durability and insulation properties, you will not find a better pad in this weight range.
The best thing about this three-season pad is that you will not be sacrificing any comfort either, as it still inflates to a thickness of 2.5 inches and is every bit as luxurious as the Xtherm. It is still quite a narrow pad though, so once again the larger people out there may appreciate the extra width of the Comfort Plus a little more than this pad.
R Value: 3.2
Pro: Light and packable
Con: A bit of edge collapse does occur
More details: thermarest.com
4. Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Insulated (budget friendly)
Packing plenty of bang for your buck, this lightweight (16 oz) sleeping pad does not sacrifice any comfort at all. It inflates to a whopping thickness of 4.5 inches and features larger outer chambers that help to keep you in the middle of the pad (like a baby in a crib). It comes in a range of different sizes (prices increase with size), and has a quilted top so it feels comfortable on the skin.
R Value: 3.0
Pro: It is a budget friendly option (can be found for less than $100 if you shop around) that does not interfere with comfort
Con: A little less durable than other sleeping pads on this list.
More details: bigagnes.com
Can a yoga mat be used as a sleeping pad? Yoga mats make poor substitutes for sleeping pads. They provide far less insulation than a pad specifically designed for sleeping, so in cooler weather the cold is going to seep through and ruin your sleep. They are harder and not as comfortable, and to make matters worse, they are bulkier and heavier as well.
This is not ideal if you are going to be carrying all your own gear on your back. They also tend to be made from rubber, which provides excellent traction for doing yoga poses, but will not provide any comfort for sleeping.
Do sleeping pads go inside sleeping bags? Sleeping pads are designed to go underneath your sleeping bag, not inside it. However, I do know a few oddballs that sleep with a streamline sleeping pad inside their bags, but for a normal person this simply will not work.
Your sleeping bag must be roomy enough to accommodate both yourself and the pad, and you should be someone that sleeps mainly on their back without too much movement at night. If you toss and turn like I do, you may well wake up to find yourself on the tent floor with your sleeping pad above you.
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As a travel writer and photographer, Gordon spent the better part of 2018 visiting 13 different countries as far apart as Chile, Morocco and Vietnam. He is in New Zealand in 2019, writing a third travel book, while exploring pretty much anything that forms a bump on the Earth’s surface.