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You’ve just finished telling some hilarious stories around the campfire or along the water’s edge, and it is time to hit the sack.
Crawling into your tent after dark is difficult enough, but imagine once you get settled in you feel nothing but rocks and cold ground beneath your sleeping bag.
Every camper’s dream, right?
(If you agree, consider therapy because those conditions are downright terrible)
But that is the reality of camping without a sleeping pad. No comfort. No insulation from the cold air emanating from the earth on a dark night.
Sleeping pads help make sure you stay comfortable and warm during your camping trip by allowing your sleeping bag to work to its fullest temperature rating potential.
Is a sleeping pad needed for camping?
Yes, having a sleeping pad is crucial to sleeping well while camping. Not only does it provide a comfortable surface to sleep on, but sleeping pads also serve as an insulating barrier between your body and the cold ground.
Without one, the cold, hard ground will suck the heat away from your body. This heat loss will keep you uncomfortably shivering throughout the night. A sleeping pad also prevents you from feeling every rock and root in the ground while you try to sleep.
The one instance where you could get away without a sleeping pad is if you are car camping and using a cot. Assuming it isn’t below freezing, you could do well without a sleeping pad.
Types of sleeping pads
The most common type of sleeping pad you will see is an inflatable pad. These sleeping pads are manually inflated and deflated through a valve. This is either done by blowing into the valve or using a pump bag/inflation sack.
One great thing about inflatable pads is that you can customize the softness to your liking. If you blow more air into it, the firmer it gets and vice versa. Having the ability to tailor the amount of air in the pad is a huge plus when backpacking and staying on different terrain each night.
Another plus with inflatable sleep pads is their packability. Most pack down to roughly the size of a standard Nalgene water bottle, meaning it can easily fit into your backpack.
Closed-cell foam pads
If simple is your style, a closed-cell foam pad is right up your alley.
Think old-school backpacking with canvas bags and leather boots. The technology has advanced but the simple, yet effective foam pad remains. Many modern models have a shiny, reflective side designed specifically to maximize insulation.
Along with the simple design and easy setup, foam pads deliver a durable product at a cost-effective price.
You do not need to worry about punctures ruining a good night’s sleep like with an inflatable version. There are few sounds worse than waking up to your inflatable sleep pad deflating because you forgot to clear out all of the sticks underneath your tent.
You can also become the proud owner of a closed-cell foam pad for 2-3 times lower cost than another type of sleeping pad.
Self-inflating pads use open-cell foam that fills with air and expands when the valve is opened. You may need to add a couple lung fulls of air to it, depending on your firmness preference, but most of the work is done for you.
Self-inflating sleeping pads are for the camper who prioritizes convenience above all else. You can finish setting up camp or change into some comfortable camp clothes while your sleep pad inflates. (though it only takes seconds for it to inflate)
Not all is glitter and gold with this style of sleeping pad. They are a bit bulky and weigh more than any of the other options, making them inconvenient to take backpacking.
Different sizes of sleeping pads
Short sleeping pads (sometimes seen as small or three-quarter pads) are most commonly used by ultralight backpackers as a way to save a few ounces. Generally, you have your torso and core on the pad, with your feet on the ground or propped up on your pack or a cloths-filled stuff sack.
On average, short sleeping pads run 48″-50″ long and 20″ wide.
A bit awkward at first, but you do not lose body heat as much through your legs, making it a viable technique if you are backpacking in warm conditions.
For traditional car camping, there is no worry about saving a few ounces, so if you are using a short pad then, you may want to reconsider some life choices…
Good old-fashioned standard length. You’ll never go wrong with the ole’ reliable.
Running 72″ long and 20″ wide, this length pad accommodates the majority of campers and backpackers.
This is my go-to for backpacking because weight can be shaved elsewhere if 4-5 ounces extra is a dealbreaker. (I enjoy the comfort of being able to fit my entire body on the sleeping pad)
For the taller, larger campers. A little bit longer and a bit wider than the standard length.
Coming in (on average) at 77″ long and 25″ wide, you get a bit more space to sleep comfortably (hopefully not toss and turn) on.
I like this size for car camping trips where weight and size are not big deals. I would recommend only using it for backpacking if you really need the extra length/width. Many backpacking tents are not much longer than 76″, meaning the sleeping pad would be crammed inside.
Some sleeping pad models will come in regular length, but a wider width.
These come in around 72″ long and 25″ wide.
This is a size that would work for backpacking if you want a little bit more room to sprawl out without needing to worry about running out of room lengthwise. Being able to curl up in your sleeping bag and spread out a bit is super nice on cool nights.
What in the heck is an R-value?
The R-value is the measure of the thermal resistance of a material. The higher the number, the better at insulating it is. As it pertains to sleeping pads, this means a higher number is better at keeping you warm at night.
For three-season camping, the range you are looking for is between 3.0-5.0. Sleeping pads in this range help you retain enough heat to stay warm in your sleeping bag without being too warm.
Winter camping requires an R-value above 5.0, ideally closer to 7.0-8+. This usually requires having a thicker air pad.
Anything less than a 3.0 R-value is really only adequate for warm-weather camping. (unless you want to haul around multiple sleeping bags and clothing layers)
Yes, assuming you want to be able to sleep comfortably. A sleeping pad provides comfort and insulation from the cold ground.
The R-value tells you how well the sleeping pad insulates you from the cool ground you are sleeping on. A higher R-value indicates that the pad will insulate you better from the cold.
Any type of air pad just needs to be inflated, while a foam pad just has to be folded out. Simply place your sleeping bag on top of the sleeping pad and fall asleep peacefully.
A sleeping pad is part of the “Big Four” of backpacking gear. (tent, pack, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad)
It is the most overlooked of the four. (likely because sleeping bags and tents take all the glamor) Inflatable air pads just are not “sexy” when compared to something like an ultralight tent.
Make no mistake though, sleeping pads are just as important as the rest of your gear. You can have a sleeping bag rated for 0 degrees Fahrenheit, but without an adequate sleeping pad, kiss your chances of a restful night goodbye.
Don’t let the cold, hard ground stand in the way of you and a great outdoor adventure!