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Like many great rivalries, there exists the classic, old-school side and the cool, modern new-school.
In the world of sleeping pads, this rivalry is foam vs inflatable sleeping pads.
The classic foam pad that you unroll each night and strap to the top of your pack each morning. Versus the compact inflatable pad that you blow up each night and deflate each morning before rolling it up into your backpack.
Both are good options as a backpacking sleeping pad. But they each do different things well and have different drawbacks. Using the wrong one can ruin any trip, leaving you groggy and tired each day.
Foam sleeping pads
The classic foam sleeping pad is instantly recognizable and is synonymous with camping and backpacking. Known for being lightweight, durable, and affordable, closed-cell foam pads are popular among backpackers. Just because they are popular, though, does that make them the right choice for you?
To start, what are closed-cell foam pads?
Closed-cell foam sleeping pads usually range between 0.5″ and 1.0″ thick, and provide backpackers with a lightweight, durable sleeping pad. These foam pads roll up or fold up and are commonly stored on the outside of a hiker’s backpack.
Most popular foam pads nowadays have a dimpled surface that creates pockets that can trap hot air leaving your body. This helps create a layer of warmer air between your body and the ground. Additionally, many pads have a metallic, thermal reflective material on one side. This material reflects warm air back toward your body and cold air back toward the ground.
One great thing about foam pads is their ease of setup. Simply unroll or unfold it and presto! you have your sleeping pad. Even after a long day of hiking, you can (probably) muster the 5 seconds of effort to lay out your sleeping pad.
Inflatable sleeping pads require dozens of deep breaths and exhales to blow up. (good luck when the air is already thin up in the mountains)
Another big upside to foam pads is their affordability. Inflatable pads usually range between $100-$300+! A closed-cell foam pad will cost you a fraction of that. You’d be hard-pressed to find one close to $100.
This makes it a bit more palatable if you lose or ruin one; a replacement isn’t going to cost an arm and leg.
One other great part about a foam pad is its durability. Unlike an inflatable pad, you won’t have to worry that every rock or root under your tent may mean the end of your cozy bed. These pads are made from dense foam, and it would take a lot to damage one badly enough that it couldn’t be used.
Foam pads are no longer the standard bearers of the sleeping pad world, so obviously there must be some drawbacks, right?
There are indeed.
The first major downside is comfort level. Think about rolling out a glorified yoga mat on your bedroom floor each night. Now imagine having a nice air mattress to sleep on instead. Not as appealing as a real mattress, sure, but compared to that yoga mat?
Some people are more immune to the lack of comfort a basic foam pad provides. Generally, I am not one of those people. I have used a foam sleeping pad (and very well may in the future as well), but the truth remains that they just are not as comfortable as an inflatable sleeping pad.
The other big knock against closed-cell foam pads is their lack of R-Value. Most foam pads hover around the 2.0 mark, and that puts a limit on the conditions in which you can use them. They are relegated to warm-weather camping for most of us.
Another issue with closed-cell pads is their packability. Inflatable pads can be rolled up into a small cylinder and stored almost anywhere in your backpack. Whereas, a foam pad is much bigger and can only be stored on the outside of your pack.
The storage aspect isn’t as big of a drawback as the first two. I love utilizing outside storage pockets and straps when it makes sense. If you normally store your bear canister on the outside of your pack, though, this is when it can become a much bigger issue.
Inflatable sleeping pads
Move over foam sleeping pad; enter the superior inflatable sleeping pad!
It is superior, right?
Well…..it depends on how you are using it, and who you ask.
To start, what is an inflatable sleeping pad?
Most inflatable sleeping pads are made from a fabric (nylon, polyester, etc.) that has been coated with polyurethane to provide waterproofing. They will have a valve to allow air in and out; they can be inflated either by exhaling deep breaths into the valve or by using a pump sack. Pumps sacks take all the hard (and dizzying) work out the inflation process. They simply attach to the valve and you open the sack to fill it with air before rolling it down into the sleeping pad.
There are various shapes, thicknesses, and widths, so you will be guaranteed to find one that fits your needs.
Tons of options
If you are switching to an inflatable sleeping pad for the first time, one of the first things you will notice is the comfort. Simply, sleeping on 3 inches of air cushioning is just more comfortable than 1/2 an inch of foam. Inflatable pads also contour around objects underneath the tent better than foam. If you set up your tent over an unavoidable tree root, you will feel that more with a foam sleeping pad versus an inflatable pad.
Often overlooked, the packability of an inflatable pad compared to a foam one is night and day. The packed size of an inflatable pad is about the size of a standard Nalgene water bottle, easily stored inside your backpack. Whereas, a foam pad has to be stored on the outside of your pack, potentially throwing off your balance along the trail.
Unlike foam pads, inflatable sleeping pads come in a large variety of sizes, shapes, and thicknesses. There are long models, wide models, tapered/mummy-shaped models, and more! If you need a thick, warm, and wide sleeping pad, you can find plenty of options. Likewise if saving weight is your only goal. A foam pad can be cut down or trimmed to a different shape, but that takes extra work and cannot be undone.
Take time to inflate
Pricier than foam pads
Chance of popping
When you frame inflatable pads as the newer, superior type of sleeping pad it can be easy to think that there are no drawbacks. But this is not true.
With a foam sleeping pad, all you have to do is unroll/unfold it and you are good to go. Inflatable pads require time to inflate, either by mouth or pump sack. Either way, a few minutes at the end of a day of tough hiking can feel like an eternity when all you want to do is lie down and sleep.
Inflatable sleeping pads simply cost more than a basic foam sleeping pad. Sometimes as much as 3,4, or even 5+ times the price. If you are trying backpacking for the first time, it makes a lot of sense to start with a foam pad before investing in something more expensive.
One thing you only have to worry about with inflatable pads is the risk of them popping or ripping. The sound of air leaving your pad is always a sad sound. Usually, it is when you start deflating it in the morning and it is time to get out of the warm, cozy confines of your sleeping bag and tent. But, worse is when you hear that sound in the middle of the night, without you touching the valve.
Dual sleeping pad system
Is it crazy to use two sleeping pads?
Not at all. There are actually times when it is the best thing to do.
When using two pads makes sense
Using two pads, one foam and one inflatable, makes sense when cold weather camping.
You place a foam sleeping pad on the floor of your tent and then place an inflatable one on top of the foam. There is one clear benefit to doing this and that is WARMTH.
Since R-Values add up cumulatively, you will get the combined R-Value of the two pads. So during those trips into the high mountains or in the winter, you can actually stay warm at night.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both types of pads. Inflatable pads provide more comfort and take up less space in your pack. While foam pads are quicker to set up and cost less than inflatable ones.
Yes. Using both types of sleeping pads is common during cold weather or winter camping.
Yes, inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable than closed-cell foam pads. Imagine sleeping on an air mattress versus a yoga mat.
Both closed-cell foam sleeping pads and inflatable pads provide an upgrade from sleeping on the ground while you camp.
As for which is better? The answer is a bit subjective and depends on what you prioritize.
Are you the type of can sleep on any surface at any time and prioritize quick setup or affordability? A foam pad may make more sense for you.
Rather, if you cannot imagine compromising any comfort, no matter the cost. Or if you need to maximize all of the space in your pack. An inflatable sleeping pad is likely the option for you.
No two hikers are the same, nor are any two hikes. Whichever sleeping pad you prefer, get out there and put it to good use!