A sleeping pad is often an afterthought after selecting a tent and sleeping bag. Sleeping pads are a very important component and they provide (1) comfort, (2) insulation, and (3) moisture protection. Sleeping pads are available in three major types:
- Foam pads are very light, normally bulky, can offer a decent R-value, and are typically not as comfortable as other pads. They are often used because of their low cost and light weight.
- Self-Inflating pads have an foam insulation layer that normally adds bulk and increases the R-value. Open the air valve(s) and the foam pushes the outer layers apart which draws in air. These pads nearly inflate themselves and you can blow more air for added firmness.
- Air Mattresses require inflation. Backpacking air pads are normally very small and light. Some are insulated for greater comfort and these will weigh more. Inflating an air mattress can be a bit of a challenge if you are extremely tired or at high altitude. Some air mattresses include integrated pumps to make them easier to inflate. Some have a foam area that draws in air and you have to give the pad “CPR” to inflate it. Others have motorized pump that require batteries or an outlet.
Sleeping pads increase comfort. Some might take pride in being extra tough and “roughing it” when outdoors. However, top mental and physical performance the next day requires a good night’s sleep. Do not underestimate the value of comfort and the effect it can have on your ability to sleep.
Insulation is a huge factor when sleeping. Cold draws heat in much the same way as a vacuum draws air. Heat transfers from a warm object to a cold object. You are the warm object and the ground is the cold object. Warmth move from you into the ground unless there an insulator blocks the heat transfer. A sleeping pad can insulate you from the ground, block that heat transfer, and protect you and your sleeping bag from ground moisture. The R-value gives the insulating value of the pad. Zero means the pad has no insulating value and a rating of 5 or more provides a serious level of insulation. Ground moisture can be detrimental to sleeping bag insulation. A down filled bag can lose all of its insulating ability if wet. Bags with synthetic insulation will lose some (but normally not all) of their insulating value. Moisture protection can be critical depending on the insulation in your sleeping bag.
Assess Your Needs
Carefully assess your needs when selecting a sleeping pad. Are you backpacking and need something very lightweight? Are you car camping and size and weight are not as much of a factor? Are you riding a motorcycle with very limited space? Is it extremely cold and you need maximum insulation? You may also select multiple types of pads for different uses. I have a smaller and lighter pad for backpacking and a much thicker and heavier pad for car camping. Make an honest assessment of your needs before selecting a sleeping pad. One pad will not work for all situations.
Choosing a Sleeping Pad
Choosing a sleeping pad is probably more difficult than choosing a sleeping bag. There are multiple factors to consider when selecting a sleeping pad including:
- Comfort: How comfortable do you want to be? Typically more comfort means larger size or greater weight. Do NOT underestimate the value of comfort. If you have a very light pad but cannot sleep well then you will have a much harder time the next day.
- Weight: If you want something light then you normally have to sacrifice comfort and/or R-Value.
- R-Value: Higher R-Value usually means more weight and more bulk.
- Size: Smaller size normally means lower R-value and less comfort. With large size you can get better R-Value and more comfort but also higher weight.
- Cost: Normally, the more you pay the less you get, meaning, the products that are smaller, lighter, and have decent R-Value will normally be expensive.
You can choose three of these five features. Everyone would like a sleeping pad that is comfortable, lightweight, small, has a high R-Value, and is reasonably priced. That will not happen. You will have to compromise. Less comfort usually means smaller size and lower weight. Very comfortable usually means (1) heavier, (2) not as heavy but lower R-value, or (3) good comfort and high R-value but very high price. You must balance your needs and get a sleeping pad that is the best compromise. I recommend choosing one that is reasonably comfortable, reasonably light, and has a decent R-value.
If you are stuck overnight and do not have your gear then you will have to make do with available material. First build a shelter to help protect you from the elements. You will also want to insulate yourself from the ground. Remember that heat moves from warm object (you) to cold object (the ground). Dry leaves, a blanket of pine needles and/or very small branches, and other material will help insulate you from the cold ground. These type of survival skills are beyond the scope of this website but if you want some seriously good details check The Survival Handbook. This book has a TON of useful information about almost every conceivable survival topic.