Having a good night in the mountains is paramount: so you can recover from the efforts of the day and be in shape for the day ahead of you.
It is therefore imperative to take the time to choose your backpacking sleeping pad, a primary element because it brings you comfort and insulation.
We often think that just having a good sleeping bag ensures a good night in the mountains.
It is not true. To spend a good night, you need both a good sleeping bag AND also a good mattress that will ensure you both comfort and especially insulation.
Comparison Table of the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads
Last update on 2023-09-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
What is the use of a backpacking sleeping pad when hiking?
- Comfort is the first thing you think of, of course. Beyond compensating for the vagaries of the field (rocks, holes, roots), it will allow you to sleep comfortably in all positions (we think particularly of the position “lying on the side” which is hardly sustainable without having regular arm numbness).
- Insulation: sleeping pads will isolate your body from a ground that is often cold and prevent direct contact. The sleeping pads operate in the same way as layers of clothing. They trap an air mass between your body and the cold ground. This layer of air becomes an insulating barrier (in reality this air is caught in a multitude of cavities in the pad, minimizing the transfer of heat away from your body).
The different types of backpacking sleeping pads
1- Closed cells “foam” pads
These basic hiking mats are made of dense foam filled with tiny cells of air. It is the ancestor of sleeping pads but it still has a lot of advantages. This type of pad folds or rolls depending on the model.
“Pads for low budgets: not much comfort and bulky”
Their main weaknesses are their bulk and the little comfort offered. However, for small budgets or occasional use, they are clearly the best solution.
- Low price
- Very sturdy
- Proper insulation
- Very little comfort (the position “lying on the side” is difficult.)
- Voluminous (for those that can be folded) to very voluminous (for those that are rolled).
2- Self-inflating sleeping pads
Launched initially by the brand Therm-a-Rest ®, these pads combine insulation foam and cells which are filled with air automatically by opening a valve (hence the name of self-inflating). You will only have to complete the inflation with the mouth to get more or less firmness.
“Good intermediary use with decent comfort and insulation”
These pads are generally less thick, between 0.8 in to 1.5 in (2 to 4 cm), and thus provide less comfort compared to the inflatable pads, often between 2 in to 3 in (5 to 8 cm).
The side against the ground is generally strong enough to withstand the rigors of the field.
For the side which is in contact with your body, choose a mattress with a pleasant coating to the touch and avoid the slippery coating (nothing is more unpleasant to have the feeling of sliding on your mattress all night long).
- Good insulation
- A little cumbersome
- Weigh more important than inflatable pads
- Quite fragile
3- Inflatable sleeping pads
These pads are inflated directly with the mouth (and yes, if you are hiking, it will be necessary to keep a little breath to inflate your pad in the evening).
Long reserved for traditional camping, these pads are currently being established on the outdoor gear market thanks in particular to light to ultra-lightweight products (less than 400 grams).
They are starting to supplant the self-inflating pads because they are lighter, much less bulky, and much more comfortable.
Some models also go further in the insulation with synthetic micro-fibers or even down linings.
“The very best: very compact, highly insulating and comfortable. But pay attention to price!”
These sleeping pads are generally quite thick, between 2 in and 4 in (5 to 10 cm), and offer excellent comfort (in particular the “lying on the side” position).
Speaking of weight, the more lightweight the pad is, the more expensive. Weights vary between 0.88 lbs to more than 2.20 lbs (400g to 1 kg).
The main disadvantage of these mattresses is their fragility. A simple thorn can make your inflatable pad unusable.
- Very comfortable
- Very little bulk (slips easily in the backpack)
- Very lightweight (for the more expensive models)
- Very insulating material (especially the most expensive models)
- High price
Some pads come also in a “short” model or 3/4, approximately 4 ft (1.20m). These sizes are very useful in mountaineering or on an expedition to save weight.
Choose a hiking sleeping pad adapted to your needs
With so many choices, it is often difficult to choose your future sleeping pad (according to the types of pad, the weight, the price, etc.). The choice will naturally depend on your intended use.
1- Hiking with porterage (mechanical or animal porterage)
Choose comfort with self-inflating and thick enough pads. Do not go for the lighter models (and therefore the most expensive), because the matter of weight is secondary in this type of hiking.
2- Occasional hiker
The inflatable or auto-inflatable pads are quite expensive and even very expensive for some. For an occasional hike, a basic foam pad will do the job.
Your nights will be a little more “difficult” but that is also the joy of sleeping outdoors in the mountain.
3- Regular Hikers / Hiking from base camp
Are you looking for a compromise between space and comfort? Then choose an inflatable or a self-inflating model.
The prices are higher than a traditional foam pad, but the investment is really worth it. Your sleep will really be more comfortable.
4- Long distance hiking and/or ultra-light:
Are you looking for the lightest possible hiking pad? Three options are available:
- A basic foam pad
- A very light inflatable model
- A self-inflating model on a 3/4 format, to save even more in weight and volume.
5- Winter hiking and expeditions
Winter bivouac requires more insulation. The ideal is to have a protective layer like a foam pad on top of which we add an inflatable pad.
Or else you could opt for the latest generation of inflatable pads with a high insulation index but with a much higher price.
Be careful to choose a model that is solid, because if the pad gives up on you at the beginning of the expedition, the situation may be difficult to manage.
Questions to ask yourself
The variety of hiking sleeping pads is so great that it is absolutely necessary to make a wise choice according to some questions you need to ask yourself.
This will allow you to know:
- On what thickness of pads you feel comfortable (if you have a light body type, a thickness of 2-3 cm can you be sufficient).
- What is the width that suits you better (the shoulders and the hips must not come out from the pad)?
- What is the optimal length (a little more than your size, a ¾ pad)?
- How to inflate and deflate your hiking pad and its footprint.
Also, look in detail at the “R-value”: the higher the value, the more the pad will isolate you from the ground. The R values are indicated on the product technical sheets.
They range from 1.0 (insulation low) to 9.5 (very good insulation).
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