How to Choose the Best Sleeping Pad for Backpacking
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
One way valves: Many of the newest sleeping pads, like the Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated Sleeping Pad, 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, here are my favorite pads to pack for a night under the stars. All of the pads below are lightweight and compact with an adequate R-value for three season camping. 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.
Best Lightweight Sleeping Pad
Weight: 12 ounces
Thickness: 2.5 inches
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is pretty impressive. It packs down to the size of just a one liter water bottle. It’s definitely a winner in our book.
Weight: 15 ounces
Thickness: 2 inches
The REI Flash Insulated Sleeping Pad comes in four sizes to ensure a perfect night’s sleep under the stairs. Coming in right at $100, the REI Flash is a great all-around backpacking sleeping pad.
Thickest Sleeping Pad
Weight: 13.5 ounces
Thickness: 3 inches
R-Value: Not Available (Nemo does not give R-values.)
Three inches of comfort under the stars sounds incredible right? The NEMO Tensor also comes in an insulated version if you are looking for a pad for colder weather camping.
Easiest to Use Sleeping Pad
Weight: 16 ounces
Thickness: 1 inch
We love this pad for its ease. The Therm-A-Rest ProLite Sleeping Pad is self-inflating and comes in four sizes for the perfect fit.
FOLLOW MY CAMPING ESSENTIALS PINTEREST BOARD FOR MORE OF MY FAVORITE GEAR.