A sleeping pad is an essential piece of gear for every backpacker – it’s even considered part of your ‘big 3’ pieces of backpacking gear. Your big 3 include your pack, tent, and sleeping system, which of course includes a sleeping pad.
Finding a sleeping pad you love is crucial to a great night’s sleep while camping and backpacking. In this post, we’ll go over everything you need to know before shopping for a sleeping pad, what kinds of sleeping pads are out there and share some of the top rated sleeping pads for backpackers.
This post may contain affiliate affiliate links for your convenience, see my full disclosure for more info.
What To Know Before Buying A Sleeping Pad
What is R-value?
Sleeping pads aren’t just for padded comfort, they’re also meant to help keep you warm and prevent all your body heat from being sucked into the cold ground. Remember conduction from science class? In a nutshell, it’s the process of losing heat through physical contact with another object or body.
That is where r-value comes in. R-value measures the sleeping pad’s (or any other material’s) ability to resist heat flowing through it. In other words, it’s an indicator of how well the sleeping pad will insulate your body heat from seeping into the ground.
You’ll find r-values on sleeping pads typically range from about 2 to 5.5. The higher the r-value, the warmer it will be able to keep you at night, or the more ‘insulating’ it will be.
Think about the weather and night time temperatures you typically camp in before shopping for a sleeping pad, so you can be sure to get one with an appropriate r-value rating.
If you’ll only be camping in warm climates, think lows in the 40’s or 50’s, you can probably get away with a sleeping with an r-value of 2 or less. If you’ll be sleeping in areas with lows in the 30’s, consider pads with an r-value between 2-4. If you’ll be in even colder areas where night time temps might be in the 20’s, look for sleeping pads with r-values between 4-5.5. If you’ll be straight up winter camping in extreme conditions, think single digits or below zero, you’ll probably want the warmest pad you can find, 5.5 or above.
One last tip about r-value, if you typically find yourself cold throughout the night while camping or backpacking, err on the side of a slightly higher r-value than you think you’ll need. If you always find yourself sweating and warm in the night, you might be able to get away with a slightly lower r-value than you’d think.
Types of sleeping pads
Inflatable air pads: Air pads are usually light weight and significantly more compact when packed then foam pads. Most hikers also find them more comfortable because they’re like having a mini air mattress in your tent that you can even adjust the firmness on.
Some down sides to inflatable sleeping pads though are that they’re usually more expensive, especially the lighter and more compact they get, and if they get a hole or puncture, you’re screwed. Just kidding! You really should carry a small patch kit though in case you do start to lose air while out on the trail.
Self-inflating pads: These are a combination of open-cell foam and air that automatically ‘inflate’ the foam cells when the valve is open. These are typically more expensive than closed-cell foam pads and are usually heavier than both closed-cell and inflatable pads. But they typically have higher r-values and are great for car camping.
Closed-cell foam pads: Foam pads can also be very lightweight, but are not compact at all and take up quite a bit of space. They’re also usually much cheaper than inflatable pads, so if you’re just starting out and don’t want to spend $100-200+ on a sleeping pad, you can find a foam pad for less than $50.
While not as comfortable as inflatable pads, foam pads are much more durable and you don’t need to worry about them getting holes or tears.
Best Ultralight Sleeping Pads
In general, the lighter and more compact a sleeping pad is, the more expensive it will be (just like every other piece of backpacking gear.) Personally, I do think it’s totally worth it to save up and spring for a good quality, ultralight sleeping pad.
Here are some of our favorite ultralight sleeping pads for backpacking at 16 ounces or less:
Best Sleeping Pads For Side Sleepers
Ooooooh the million dollar question of side sleepers everywhere – how the heck can I sleep on the ground comfortably without pain points on my hips and shoulders?
While they probably won’t be as comfortable as your mattress at home, here are some of the best sleeping pad options for side sleepers:
Best Budget Sleeping Pads
They may be a little heavier or a bit more bulky than other options out there, but they’ll do the trick if you’re on a tight budget.
Here are our top picks for sleeping pads under $100:
Best Sleeping Pads For Hammock Camping
Hammock users have their own unique set of needs in a sleeping pad or sleep system. Even though you’re not sleeping on the hard ground, you still need something to insulate you from the cool night air, whether that’s a sleeping pad or an underquilt.
Here are some of our favorite sleeping pads for hammock camping:
Best Sleeping Pads For Car Camping
One of the greatest joys of car camping is that weight and space are rarely an issue and you can afford to make comfort a number one priority.
Here are our top picks for sleeping pads for car campers:
Best Sleeping Pads For Couples
If you’ll be camping or backpacking with your partner a lot, it may be worth investing in a double sleeping pad. I know first hand how annoying it can be to try to sleep cuddled up with your partner if your pads are different sizes or thicknesses, and especially how unfair it is if their sleeping pad is bigger than yours, then they automatically win more precious tent space than you.
This can all be solved by using a two person sleeping pad, here are some of our top picks:
Let us know your best or worst sleeping pad you’ve used on a backpacking trip in the comments below!