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Published Dec. 24, 2021

To anyone who has never camped or backpacked before, sleeping pads may appear as just a small mattress used for comfort. This is one of the roles they play, but the primary purpose is to insulate you from the ground. Our bodies create heat to keep us warm and functioning, but that heat is constantly transferring from us to the air and things we touch. 

Staying warm is about reducing the amount of heat that is transferred as much as possible. When you lay directly on the ground, or with a very thin barrier like your sleeping bag, then your entire body is transferring heat to the earth. Bare dirt and rock are huge heat sponges that suck the heat from you like a vacuum. Take it from me, selecting a quality sleeping pad could mean the difference between a restful or a restless slumber. 

The importance of sleeping pads may not seem apparent to many, but it’s something I learned the hard way. In late 2006, I was a brand new Marine going through training at the School of Infantry in Camp Pendleton. For the majority of the three-month training, we were out in the field and slept under the stars. Each evening, set up our sleeping gear in formation and when we woke up, we were expected to pack away everything in just a few minutes. 

To save time in the morning, I skipped rolling out my Improved Sleeping Mat (ISO-mat) and instead just slept on the ground. I thought I was smarter than everyone because I didn’t have to roll up and pack up my ISO mat. But I also woke up cold everyone morning.  Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at how long it took me to realize why I was so uncomfortable.

Some brand names, like Therm-a-Rest, are synonymous with the products they make. You just can’t have a conversation about sleeping pads without this brand coming into play. This is why it’s not surprising that the NeoAir Xlite sleeping pad is our top pick.

Like most sleeping pads, the NeoAir Xlite features a tapered profile that pairs nicely with mummy-shaped bags. If you’re an all-weather camper then the 4.2 R-value will be a real asset. Thanks to the wing lock valve both inflation and deflation are easy-peasy.

What makes this pad so great at insulation is the air channels that run the full width of the pad using a Triangular Core Matrix design. This is partly because the pad is pretty thick, 2.5 inches thick when fully inflated. Aside from keeping you warm, the thickness helps to offer excellent comfort.

The NeoAir Xlite is offered in four sizes to fit all bodies and while it’s versatile in size, it’s only offered in the Lemon Curry Yellow coloring. Its superior performance is really surprising when you find out that the heaviest pad is the regular wide at 17 ounces.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Therm-a-Rest
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 4.2
  • Size:
  • Small: 20 x 47 inches
  • Regular: 20 x 72 inches
  • Regular wide: 25 x 72 inches
  • Large: 25 x 77 inches
PROS

High R-value

Thick padding

Ultralightweight

Customizable inflation for comfort

CONS

Repair kit required for emergencies

Higher-end of reasonable pricing

A far cry from the rollable foam sleeping pad I refused to use back in SOI, the Nemo Switchback is a great example of the research put into sleeping pads. It is a closed-cell foam pad that folds up, much like an accordion, and uses dimples to insulate and cradle your body.

Instead of traditional foam pads that are just singular pieces of thick foam that you roll up, this pad has been molded to offer better performance at the ultralight weight of 16 ounces. It’s ideal for backpacking and through-hiking.

Nemo offers the Switchback in one color, something that resembles safety orange. Obnoxious as it may be, it will stand out against earth tones and come in handy if you need to signal for help in the event of a wilderness emergency.

The Switchback is available in a short and regular version. The small version is about 20 inches shorter, which is ideal for youth but also some diehard ultralight hikers use it to save four ounces. Both are just 0.9 inches thick, which is one reason why it only has an R-value of two.

The Switchback foam sleeping pad is a great spring and summer option, but it can also be used to supplement air core or open cell foam pads to bump their R-value.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Nemo
  • Type: Closed cell foam
  • R-value: 2.0
  • Sizes:
  • Regular: 20 x 72 inches
  • Small: 20 x 51 inches
PROS

Bargain pricing

Durable

Ultralightweight

Can be paired with other pads

CONS

Low R-value

Larger to stow

Not as comfortable as other styles

Editor’s Choice

There is a certain status that comes with products that are good enough for the military. So much so that companies of all industries will find a way to work “military-grade” into their marketing campaign. I’ve yet to see Therm-a-Rest do that, which is surprising since their Z Lite SOL is the same pad the Marine Corps now uses (however, the new one doesn’t look much different from the old one).

The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pad uses dimples to cradle your body for comfort and create air pockets to help insulate you from the ground. Diehard ultralighter hikers will love that the Z Lite weighs only 14 ounces (regular) and 10 ounces (small), which is 0.5 ounces less than the Switchback.

The R-value is the same at 2.0, which makes this ideal for summer/spring usage or for supplementing other sleeping pads in colder weather. That is surprising since the pad is only 0.75 inches thick, making it 0.15 inches thinner than the Switchback. Given the selection for military use and the more impressive specs, this is my top pick when it comes to closed-cell foam pads.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Therm-a-Rest
  • Type: Closed cell foam
  • R-value: 2.0
  • Sizes:
  • Regular: 20 x 72 inches
  • Small: 20 x 52 inches
PROS

Incredibly durable

Ultralightweight

Reasonably priced

Can be paired with other pads

CONS

Low R-value

Larger stowing size

Not as comfortable as other styles

Going on a backpacking adventure with a friend, partner, or spouse can be an epic experience. One of the advantages of hiking with someone else is that you could share the load of what is needed on the trip. If you’re not opposed to snuggles, then a large sleeping pad like the Big Agnes SLX would allow one person to carry more food or supplies instead of their own pad. The tapered pad is 50 inches at its widest point and 78 inches long, which should fit most two-person tent floors.

If you’re worried about the extra weight of two people being too much for this pad you can rest easy. It is 3.5 inches thick when fully inflated to ensure you’re both fully supported and insulated. Inside the pad’s air chambers has been given an antimicrobial treatment to prevent the growth of microorganisms. Despite the larger size, the SLX only weighs slightly more than two individual pads at 2.6 pounds. It even rolls up to a 6-inch by 11-inch carrying size that fits within the included carrying bag.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Big Agnes
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 3.2
  • Size: 50 x 78 inches
PROS

Large enough for two people

Medium R-value

Lightweight

Should fit two-person tents

CONS

Heavier option

Too big for one-person tents

High price point

Best Ultralight Sleeping Pad

Avid, dare I say obsessed, backpackers and through-hikers tend to focus on the weight of their gear. They want the strongest, toughest, sharpest, most versatile pieces of equipment that they can get at micros on the gram. I’ve even heard of some who will cut their closed-cell foam pads to a three-quarter length just to save a few ounces. That’s not necessary with the Nemo Tensor which is a full-size air-core sleeping pad that weighs only 19 ounces. If you’re not impressed by that, then the 3.5 R-value should. This is a three-season sleeping pad that weighs about as much as a bottle of water.

As of now the Tensor is only offered in a vibrant yellow color but has five different sizes and two shapes. The largest size is the long wide (rectangular) at 76 inches by 25 inches, while the smallest size is the short mummy at 48 inches by 20 inches (mummy is only available in regular and short). It is three inches thick giving plenty of customizable support. As a bonus there is a pump sack included helping speed up the camp setup process. It all packs away nicely to be about the size of a standard Nalgene bottle.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Nemo
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 3.5
  • Sizes:
  • Short mummy: 20 x 48 inches
  • Regular mummy: 20 x 72 inches
  • Regular: 20 x 72 inches
  • Regular wide: 25×72 inches
  • Long wide: 25×76 inches
PROS

Ultralightweight

Medium R-value

Many sizes

Thicker support

CONS

High price point

Air core requires carrying repair kits

There are a couple of factors to staying warm while camping in cold weather aside from your sleeping pad. Your sleeping bag, clothing, and even the ground you lay on will play a huge factor in how warm you stay. So while the sleeping pad isn’t the only factor, selecting a sleeping pad with an R-value above 4.5 will give you a great advantage. This ultralight sleeping pad by Gear Doctors boasts a 5.2 R-value, which in theory ought to keep you warm at temperatures below freezing.

This mummy-shaped pad is 72 inches long by 23 inches wide, at its widest point, and is 3.2 inches thick. That’s a pretty standard size that works for most hikers. It utilizes side-to-side air channels to keep you off the cold hard ground. This pad also packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle and weighs only 17 ounces. For a reasonable price, there’s even a pump sack included so you can save your lungs while setting it up. If it sounds too good to be true, then the Hassle-Free Lifetime Replacement warranty ought to impress you. This would be a great year-round option for those who aren’t afraid of a little weather.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Gear Doctors
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 5.2
  • Size: 23 x 72 inches
PROS

Very High R-value

Ultralightweight

Lifetime Replacement warranty

Reasonable pricing

CONS

Only one size is available

Air core requires carrying repair kits

Best for Summer

Air core sleeping pads generally are more comfortable to sleep on, but that generally means more insulation. Fairweather hikers and campers have had to sweat their hineys off during the summer and spring if they didn’t want to suffer on a closed-cell foam sleeping pad. This is where the Klymit Static V2 would come in handy. It has a surprisingly low R-value of 1.3 (less than the Switchback and Z Lite). Yet, it is an air-core sleeping pad that offers all the comfort of the higher-rated pads on our list.

This is a truly unique pad that features V-shaped channels for comfort and support, and side rails to help keep restless sleepers on the pad. There is a sheet that you can purchase separately to add durability and hide how busy this pad looks. It is offered only in the rectangular 72 inches by 23 inches sizing and green/gray color theme. The lower R-value is explained by the fact that this pad is only two inches thick. That being said, this full-sized pad only weighs 16.6 ounces that pack down into a 3-inch by 8-inch stuff sack. So ultralighter hikers have another full-size option at bargain pricing.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Klymit
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 1.3
  • Size: 23 x 72 inches
PROS

Ultralightweight

Packs down small

Unique design for increased support

Bargain pricing

CONS

Low R-value

Durability may be less than competitors

Best For Side Sleepers

As someone who used to only sleep on their side, I totally get how hard it can be to find a comfortable sleeping pad. When we sleep on our backs or stomachs, our body weight is evenly distributed throughout the mat. Side sleepers don’t have that advantage instead the bodyweight is pinpointed to the shoulders and hips. This redirection of the body weight can cause sleeping pads to sag down to the ground, reducing insulation capabilities and increasing discomfort and soreness come morning.

Sea to Summit may be known more for its water-tight bags and cases, but the Ether Light XT sleeping pad is worth your time. Like its competitors, the Ether Light XT is offered in four sizes and two shapes. The tapered regular is 72 inches by 21.5 inches (at the widest point) sleeping pad that is compatible with most mummy bags. It packs down into 4.5 inches by 9.5 inches stuff sack, which also doubles as a mattress pump. The whole kit weighs just above 19 ounces, still a great ultralight weight. What sets this pad apart from the rest is that it is four inches thick. This extra thickness means there is more air when inflated to support a side sleeper’s uneven body weight. Despite the extra thickness, this pad only sports a 3.2 R-value.

Product Specs
  • Brand: Sea to Summit
  • Type: Air core
  • R-value: 3.2
  • Sizes:
  • Small mummy: 21.5 x 66 inches
  • Regular mummy: 21.5 x 72 inches
  • Regular: 25 x 72 inches
  • Large mummy: 25 x 78 inches
PROS

Extra Thick

Ultralightweight

Compact carrying size

Multiple sizes and shapes

CONS

Lower R-value than expected

Air core requires carrying a repair kit

Best Self-inflating Sleeping Pad

You may be wondering why there haven’t been any other self-inflating sleeping pads on this list. That’s because they’re generally heavier than air core sleeping pads and they just can’t get the same R-value without getting even heavier. That being said, it boils down to personal preference and the pad in question. For example, I carried a sleeping pad like this Prolite during my last few years in the military and loved it.

Unlike other open-cell foam pads, the Prolite only weighs in at 18 ounces. That’s only four ounces heavier than the Z Lite. It’s sized the same as most pads at 72 inches by 20 inches but is only one inch thick. Thanks to the wing lock valve, packing it down is simple and it measures 11 inches by 5.8 inches when done. This pad was selected because it competes with all the other pads on this list in every category, except R-value. At 2.4 this pad isn’t suitable for extreme or cold weather. It outperforms the Switchback and Z Lite in this category though, which is why I’d recommend it as an alternative for those pads (including as a supplementary pad for air cores).

Product Specs
  • Brand: Therm-a-Rest
  • Type: Open cell foam
  • R-value: 2.4
  • Size:
  • Small: 20 x 47 inches
  • Regular: 20 x 72 inches
  • Large: 25 x 77 inches
PROS

Ultralightweight

Compact carrying size

Can be paired with other pads

Easier to inflate

CONS

Low R-value

Thinner pad

Why you should trust us

I’m a seasoned adventurer. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I spent much of my childhood camping, hiking, and backpacking. In 2006, I joined the Marine Corps as an infantryman, where those activities became part of my job. My ability as an outdoorsman was really put to the test during my 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. I spent my days patrolling remote areas of Helmand Province and nights sleeping outside in the cool open air. 

Since leaving the military in 2011, I’ve had escapades in several parts of the U.S., including a 2014 solo trip across the state of Nevada with my dog. Throughout my journeys, I’ve built friendships with other adventurers. We routinely swap stories and experiences to learn and advance our skills. I use each excursion as a chance to apply what I already know and learn more. 

Types of backpacking sleeping pads

More often than not, sleeping pads are designed for specific purposes like weather conditions and environments. For instance, one pad might be great to use in the summer, but terrible in winter. They also have advantages and disadvantages for sleeping positions. 

Closed-cell foam

Closed-cell foam is a dense sheet of foam where each bubble is separated by thin-pliable walls. An easier way to visualize it is to say it’s like the ISO-mat you’re issued in boot camp (or a yoga mat). 

Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are lightweight, durable, and offer consistent insulation in all weather conditions, but they’re also not as comfortable or supportive as other options. Nonetheless, many outdoorsmen use them in addition to a primary sleeping pad. 

Open-cell foam

Open-cell foam is when more than half of the cells are open, which makes it softer and more breathable than closed-cell foam. It feels almost like packing insulation. As a sleeping pad, they’re also referred to as self-inflating sleeping pads. 

Where the name “self-inflating” comes from is when you roll them up, it pushes the air out, so when you unroll them and open a valve, they expand on their own. But to maximize comfort and capabilities, you still need to blow in a few breaths. While they’re bulkier than other options, they are very comfortable, warm, and durable. They’re a solid utilitarian choice. 

Air pad

An air pad is like an air mattress in that it’s inflatable and the primary insulation is air, but they’re usually tailored for individual use and specific temperature conditions. You can find air pad designs for warm, cool, cold, and extremely cold conditions. 

Air pads are widely considered to be the most comfortable and the most packable of the three pads, but they’re also the most fragile. They can be punctured and hold water, which will eventually result in bacteria or mold growth. 

Key features of backpacking sleeping pads 

R-value

R-value is a measurement of insulation, or how well the object resists heat loss. Sleeping pads with a high R-value are warmer. Yet another way to say it is higher R-value sleeping pads are better for colder temperatures. R-value is probably the most important feature of any sleeping pad. 

Sleeping pads with R-values of 2.0 or lower are suitable for summer and maybe spring seasons. Pads with ratings of 2.1-3.5 are appropriate for summer, spring, and fall. These are commonly referred to as three-season pads. Any pad rated 3.5 or higher is meant for cold weather. However, 4.5 and above is ideal for snowy and frozen terrain. Just don’t forget that you can supplement your air core pad with a closed- or open-cell foam pad. 

Additionally, the outdoor gear industry adopted ASTM F3340-18 in 2020 as the universal standard for testing R-values. Before this, each manufacturer used one of several different test methods, which didn’t offer a fair comparison of R-values. Any pad that has undergone this ASTM test can be fairly compared with any other pad having gone through the same test. 

Size and shape

The standard size for sleeping pads is 20-inches wide and 72-inches long, but you can find them shorter, longer, and wider. Ideally, you’d want one big enough to support your body not just comfort, but for warmth because if you’re feet dangle off, they’ll probably get cold. 

Sleeping pads come in two common shapes: rectangular and tapered. When it comes to performance, there’s not much of a difference between them except that a tapered pad will weigh a few ounces less because it uses less material. 

Additionally, if you plan to use a tapered sleeping bag – the one that makes you look like a mummy – you’ll want to use a tapered pad. Sleeping systems usually have straps or pockets so you don’t fall off while you sleep, but they’re only effective when they fit. 

Air Valve

The air valve is particular to both air core and open-cell foam pads. It’s where air enters when you inflate the pad and exits when you deflate the pad. They can be as simple as the rubber valves you’ll find on pool floaties or more technical and made of hard plastic. 

The most important thing to consider when you’re shopping is ease of use. Some are easy to inflate, but difficult to deflate or vice versa. If you’re using it in cold weather, you’ll want to know how easy it is to use while wearing gloves or with limited dexterity. 

There are also multiple ways to inflate a sleeping pad. They range from simply blowing it up with your mouth to using a manual or electronic pump. Nonetheless, you’ll definitely want to test it out before you buy it. 

Benefits of backpacking sleeping pads

Warmth

Let’s get real, the most important benefit of a sleeping pad is that it can help keep you warm at night. This may not matter in warmer climates, but when it is cold outside and you’re days into a several-week-long trip it sure does. Keeping warm isn’t just about comfort. The cold can prevent our bodies from healing themselves while out backpacking. Older hikers can attest to that. 

Hypothermia is technically anytime our body temperature drops below 95 degrees. When that happens our bodies begin to battle the drop in temperature. It can’t heal and repair hiking soreness while simultaneously staving off freezing. Our bodies will prioritize heat loss in the hopes of surviving the experience. Staying warm at night will allow your body to heal, repair, and recover so that you can abuse it again the next day. 

Comfort

As a young buck, I never paid much attention to the whole comfort factor. That might be why my body is so beat up, which is how I’ve come to realize how nice it is to be comfortable while sleeping in the wilderness. There is something about laying down after a long hard day of hiking and climbing to feel weightless. It is a strange feeling that changes everything, kind of like putting on a dry pair of socks after getting your feet drenched or a shower after a week without one. That weightless feeling can be more invigorating than anything else. 

Those of us with neck, back, or joint issues can appreciate that special cradled feeling. As you get older, or just more injured, the angles your body rests in begin to weigh more on recovery. A kink in the neck, tight back, aching knee, or any number of issues could make a backpacking trip much less enjoyable. Feeling comfortable throughout the night without the risk of aggravating past injuries will make the excursion a whole lot more memorable. 

Seating

Thinking outside the box goes a long way in life, especially when out in the wilderness with nothing but your gear. Sleeping pads make great seat cushions for whenever you need to rest your rump without going to bed. Playing that game of cribbage, sharing stories, or sitting down to eat is another opportunity to use your sleeping pad. If you’re sitting on the bare earth, that’s like sleeping on the bare earth. Heat can sap away from you while you’re trying to relax. All you need to do is fold up your mat into the right shape and voila! It’s now a seating pad that allows you to take a break without suffering. 

Pricing considerations for backpacking sleeping pads

Bargain

The old adage of “you get what you pay for” really does apply for backpacking sleeping pads at less than $50. While the bargain pricing category doesn’t necessarily mean that the pad will be garbage, it’s a good indicator. Even those with the best quality in this category will have performances that pale in comparison to higher-priced options. Pads in this category will be below $50 and they’ll do the trick in a pinch, but won’t be ideal for extended multi-day usage. 

Mid-range

Between $50 and $200 is the price we wish we could pay for the nice stuff. Sleeping pads that are reasonably priced can be found between $50 and $200 and will be made of higher quality materials than those at bargain pricing. This results in better performances and a wider range of usage. You can easily find a great pad in this category for whatever you’re doing. 

Premium

Outdoor adventure gear is expensive! You look at a sleeping pad and wonder how it can cost so much. That’s because this gear is designed to save your life in the worst-case scenario. This is why some of the sleeping pads can cost more than your monthly Prius payment. Unless you’re an outdoor professional, hermit, or obsessed outdoor enthusiast there isn’t much reason for you to purchase something in this category. Sleeping pads in this price range are over $200 and are meant for the most extreme circumstances. 

How we chose our top picks

There is a myriad of options on the market, so the sleeping pads we selected had to meet specific performance criteria. To ensure the sleeping pads were compatible with backpacking, we chose trim and lightweight options and largely avoided bulky and heavy pads. Since insulation is a big factor, each pad had to have a verifiable R-value (not all manufacturers test their products). Pricing had to be realistic as well, so we avoided extravagantly priced options because the amount of research that goes into the development of highly capable sleeping pads is intense. And of course, the sleeping pads had to be durable so that you’re investing your money wisely. 

FAQs on backpacking sleeping pads

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q. What is R-value?

A: The R-value is short for “resistance value” and refers to the pad’s ability to resist heat transference. High R-value sleeping pads are better for cold weather while lower R-value pads are better for warmer temperatures.

Q. What is a good weight for a backpacking sleeping pad?

A: The answer to this question truly depends on what you intend to do. For those looking to through-hike or do multi-day backpacking excursions, you’ll want an ultralight pad weighing one pound or less. If you’re only going on a one or two-day trip then you would probably be fine with something under five pounds. Anything over five pounds would be best for car camping or other uses that don’t require you to carry the pad. 

Q. Can I use more than one sleeping pad? 

A: Yes, but I don’t encourage more than two. The best way to do this would be to use a closed-cell foam pad as the base and place an open-cell foam or air core pad on top. This is a great way to amplify the R-values, especially on frozen terrain.

Q. How to store a sleeping pad?

A: For closed-cell foam pads, they are easily rolled or folded up and can be stored naked or in a case. Open-cell foam pads can be rolled up as well but for long-term storage, it is a good idea to keep it semi-inflated so the foam doesn’t stay compressed. Air core pads can be simply stored in their carrying case after deflating and rolling them up.

Q. How do I choose the right size and shape sleeping pad?

A: Ultimately the size of the pad will be determined by your height as you should be able to lay on the pad without your feet or head touching the ground. The shape is trickier only in the sense that it is a personal preference. The shape doesn’t matter unless you plan to put your pad inside of your sleeping bag.

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Scott Whisler is a Marine Corps veteran and family man. He’s an avid student of philosophy who strives for self-growth and challenge, both found in his outdoor adventures. As a new Okie, his focus is on exploring the South Central region. His lifetime goal is to have excursions in all of the National Parks.

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