How to choose the best sleeping pad for backpacking and the best lightweight options on the market

Since I first started backpacking about 10 years ago, I’ve only owned one sleeping pad. The Therm-a-Rest ProLite. When I purchased it, I was just getting into camping and I went solely on the salesman’s recommendation. Luckily it was a good one. It was one of the lightest sleeping pads on the market at the time, and over the course of a decade, that thing has never sprung a leak.

Recently however, I’ve grown tired of my sleeping pad taking up so much space in my bag.  Since my original investment, sleeping pads have come a long way. Now they are lighter and much more compact than ever before, and that includes the newest version of the Therm-a-Rest ProLite.

When I first started shopping for the latest and the greatest sleeping pad, I became overwhelmed with the number options. In the specs, I also kept coming across something called an “R-value,” which I had never heard of before, and I presume I’m not the only one. So I did a bunch of research on how to choose the best sleeping pad for backpacking and wanted to share with you what I learned, along with a list of some of the most popular lightweight sleeping pads on the market.

How to Choose the Best Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

These are a list of factors to consider when choosing a new sleeping pad:

Foam pads vs Inflatable pads

There are two basic types of sleeping pads. The first is a closed-cell foam pad. These are the cheapest and most durable pads available, but they tend to be less comfortable. Their stiff shape also means you don’t have the ability to pack them down, and most people end up carrying them on the outside of their pack. thermarest_z-lite_3_sol

Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol

The other option is an inflatable sleeping pad. These can either be self-inflating or manually inflated by blowing air into them. These provide more cushion than a foam-pad, but are less durable since they are prone to puncture. This means you have to be very careful when using an inflatable sleeping pad directly on the ground in order to avoid leaks. Inflatable sleeping pads are significantly more comfortable than the foam pads, and in many cases the difference in weight is negligible.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker Sleeping Pad


Insulation: The R-Value

The R-value is an indicator of insulation. R values range from 1.0 on the low end to 10 on the high end, and the higher the R-value the more heat the pad is going to retain. Most sleeping pads intended for backpacking have R-values around 2.0-5.0.

The first thing you’ll want to think about is the type of climate you’ll be using your sleeping pad in. If you are a fair weather backpacker and will be spending most nights in warm summer temperatures, then you can get away with a lower R value. On the other hand, if you are doing winter or snow camping, then you will want something with an R-value closer to 5. Pads with R-values higher than 5 are heavier and generally intended for car camping.

Weight

Weight is an important factor to consider for all of your gear, and sleeping pads are no exception. Closed cell foam pads are the lightest and generally weigh in at less than a pound.

The lightest inflatable sleeping pads are comparable in weight to the foam pads. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is pretty much the lightest option available at 12 ounces. Depending on how plush you want to go, a reasonable weight range for an inflatable pad is 10 ounces up to 2 pounds. And while not always the case, there tends to be a tradeoff between weight and durability with inflatable sleeping pads. If you choose one of the utlralight inflatable options, you need to treat it with caution and try to avoid using it directly on the ground.

Thickness

Pads vary anywhere from two to four inches thick, and a thicker pad is going to offer additional comfort if you are a side sleeper. The downside of a thicker pad is that they take longer to inflate by mouth. If you a back sleeper and tend to stay put throughout the night, then you might be ok with a thinner pad.

Length and Width

In order to cut down on weight, sleeping pads are getting smaller and smaller. In fact, some sleeping pads now come in 3/4 length meaning the bottom of your legs and feet will be hanging off. Many also have a tapered design where the head and foot are narrower than the rest of the pad. While it varies across brands, a regular sized sleeping pad is approximately 72 inches long by 20 inches wide, and most brands make their sleeping pads in multiple sizes to accommodate those who are taller or have broad shoulders.

Packed Size

This is one area where sleeping pads have made some serious advancements. Some sleeping pads these days are just slightly larger than a Nalgene bottle when packed down, meaning they take up way less space in your bag than they used to. For backpacking, you’ll want something that packs down to about 4-5.5 inches by 8-11 inches.

Other Features

One way valves: Many of the newest sleeping pads, like the Big Agnes Insulated Double Z, have one-way valves. That means when you are blowing them up, the air can’t come back out of the valve, making it easier to blow up.  Then when you want to deflate it, there is a separate valve that you open where the air escapes from.

Self-inflating: There are a few pads on the market that are self-inflating. My Therm-a-Rest ProLite is one of them. If you choose to buy a self-inflating pad, you should be prepared that after some use, the pad might not self-inflate like it used to. At that point, you will end up blowing it up with your mouth just like the rest, but the self-inflation is a nice feature while it lasts.

Recommendations: The Best Sleeping Pads for Backpacking

Ok. So now that I’ve covered the different factors that you need to weigh when you choose the best sleeping pad for your backpacking excursions, I’m going to give you some options. The five sleeping pads in the chart below are some of the best available. They are all lightweight and compact with an adequate R-value for three season camping. I’ve organized them from left to right in terms of increasing weight.

All of the specs listed are for the “regular” sized version of each sleeping pad. If you need a longer or wider pad, the R-value and thickness will stay the same but the packed size, weight, and price will be different from what is listed here. Click on any of the images below to learn more about the pads.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X Lite

REI Flash Insulated Air

Big Agnes Q-Core SL

Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated Big Agnes Insulated Double Z
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad REI Flash Insulated Air Sleeping Pad Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 3.51.26 PM Sea-to-Summit-UltraLight-Insulated-Sleeping-Pad Big Agnes Insulated Double Z Sleeping Pad
R-value 3.2 3.2 4.5 3.3 4.5
Weight 12 oz 16 oz 17 oz 19 oz 21 oz
Thickness 2.5 in 2.5 in 3.5 2 in 4 in
Packed Size 4 x 9 in 4 x 10 in 3.5 x 9 4 x 9 in 5 x 8 in
Notes The lightest inflatable pad on the market Lightweight, inexpensive, one-way valve Thick, lightweight One way valve, won Backpacker Magazine’s 2015 Award Very plush, one-way valve, priced well
Price $160 $100 $160 $130 $110

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