The Many Types of Sleeping Pads

The purpose of a sleeping pad is critical yet simple: to keep yourself off the ground for cushioning so that you’re not sleeping on a cold, hard surface, but more importantly, to act as an insulating barrier between you and the ground. Pads essentially trap and hold a layer of non-circulating air, also known as dead air, between the cold ground and your body. Insulation occurs as your body gradually warms this layer of dead air. As with tents and sleeping bags, there are plenty of choices out there, and this post will briefly explain the types and differences of each.

Self-Inflating Open-Cell Foam

Sleeping pads can range from an inexpensive foam pad you would roll up, to a more compact and lightweight self-inflating model. A basic foam pad is often covered in a nylon or polyester sleeve, and you can roll them up and secure them with a strap. Self-inflating pads use a valve, to inflate and deflate. All you have to do is open the valve and the pad expands as it sucks in the air. You can also blow a few breaths of air into the valve to get the pad as firm as you like it. The thicker the pad is, the more warmth and comfort the pad will provide. Greater thickness may mean more comfort but also means you’ll be carrying more weight.

Closed-Cell Foam

Closed-cell foam pads do not self inflate, as they feature dense foam, filled with tiny closed air cells. They are not as thick as open-cell foam pads and weigh less. Unlike open-cell, closed-cell foam pads do not need a stuff sack since the material cannot puncture. A closed-cell pad is often the lightest to carry, though they are not the most comfortable. Additionally, closed-cell pads, though they are light to carry, are bulky and are often carried on the outside of a pack.

Backpacking Air Pads

Air pads rely on air chambers for cushioning, with some models combining insulating fill or body-reflective materials to enhance warmth. They are inflated manually with an external stuff sack pump or a little breath work on your part. A backpacking air pad is lighter than most self-inflating pads. They are also more compact to pack. For colder weather, you will want to pay attention to the R rating on an air pad. R ratings give you an idea of the insulative protection from cold the pad will provide. For winter and cold weather use, you will want a pad R rated to at least 3 or higher. Air-mattresses are the closest you can get to bringing your own bed with you to camp. Thicker than any foam pad, they can be inflated manually with a hand pump, while other models feature integrated, battery-operated or electric pumps. You would not want to backpack with an air mattress or air bed. If you are going to a music festival, or planning to car camp, you can make a nice bedroom out of your tent, with one of these air mattresses.

Car Camping Air Mattresses

Selecting the right pad for you depends, as always, on the type of activity you plan to do. With the exception of air mattresses, all pads can be used for either backpacking or car camping, as they come in a variety of widths and sizes. Since weight and space are the two biggest considerations when backpacking, choose a pad that is no more than 1.5 inches in thickness, 72 inches in length and 20 inches in width. That tends to be the standard size for backpacking, as it is just enough to provide comfort with minimal weight. If packing light, pads that are 48 inches long work best. However, if backpacking during the colder and winter months, a full-length pad at seventy-two inches is always recommended, to ensure adequate warmth and insulation.

There are no limits with car-camping, so feel free to choose any luxury pad that is two, three or even four inches thick. The standard size for a luxury pad tends to be 25 inches wide and 77 inches long, thus providing the ultimate in comfort and space.


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  • den

    beware nice fat air mattresses, even the flock covered versions…in cold weather they are freezing under you…you NEED a big thick blanket or insulating layer on top of the mattress

  • txcamper

    I live in Texas where every plant has a thorn or burr of some sort. An air mattress or pad of any kind has never even survived the first night of a camping trip for me.

  • Cajun_Joe

    I’ve found putting a cheap emergency blanket between the floor of the tent/ground and the air mattress in cold weather is a poor man’s version of a NeoAir. I own the NeoAir and wish I had known this earlier. (Not a knock on the NeoAir, it’s quite warm!!!)