If you’re going camping or thru hiking for the first time, you might be surprised at the amount of thought and consideration you’re going to have to put into picking a sleeping pad – at least, if your goal is to get a proper night’s sleep when you’re in the outdoors without a comfy bed or couch to snooze in. Whether you pick a foam pad or an inflatable type, the kind of outdoor activity you have planned, how much baggage you’re carrying, the kind of terrain and weather you’re going to be experiencing, all weigh into the decision of picking the right sleeping pad for the outdoors.
Which is why we’re going to get right into the details of what to keep in mind when you’re shopping for one.
Broadly, sleeping pads can be broken down into foam pads and air pads, and both have their respective sets of pros. Offering better insulation than air pads, and also devoid of the risk of getting punctured and the hassle of carrying and using repair kits, closed-cell foam pads are better suited for colder weather camping trips, especially if you’re going to be sleeping on uneven and rocky terrain, and can be folded up and used as seats outdoors. Leaning more on the inexpensive side, foam pads are lightweight to carry around, although they are bulky – you’ll have to take into consideration how much baggage you’re going to be carrying with you.
If a foam pad becomes too bulky for you to carry, and you’re not travelling through rough terrain or in cold weather, you can opt for an inflatable air-filled option instead. Naturally, such options are prone to getting punctured and come with the extra hassle of needing to be inflated every time you need to use them, but they save a ton of space when you’re on an extended trip and need to be carrying all your supplies and equipment with you. Many brands also include a repair kit and air pump with the air pad, so everything you need is provided for. As we’ve mentioned, they’re not great on insulation, but can offer some degree of warmth using pockets of trapped air. Inflatable sleeping pads also offer greater structural stability thanks to these air-filled chambers.
If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, and have the budget for it, you can opt for a self-inflating pad, which is structured out of foam (and sometimes down or other insulating material) which expands and pulls in air when it’s unrolled and the air-valve is open. This makes it both capable of keeping the chill of the cold ground seeping in through your pad and leaving you shivering and unable to sleep, while still compact and space-saving to carry when you’re on the go. You’re also saved from the hassle of having to manually inflate the pad every time you need to use it. The downside, though, is that you’ll have to be mindful not to let the fabric or foam components get damp (unless they’re water-proof), and be wary of terrain where the pad may get punctured.
We spoke about insulation quite a bit in the previous section, but staying warm outdoors, especially when you’re sleeping, is an important consideration, with the R-value of a sleeping pad letting you know how well it’ll perform in insulating you from the pervasive chill of the ground you’re sleeping on. R-values of 0 to 2 indicate a sleeping pad better used in warmer conditions, 2 to 4 for slightly cooler weather, and 4 to 6 for areas where temperatures may dip to or below freezing levels. If you’re going hiking or camping in the snow and across winter landscapes, you’ll need a sleeping pad of R-values above 5.
Length and Width
If you’re going to be comfortable sleeping outdoors, you’re going to have to look beyond simple standard sized sleeping pads. Individuals with wide shoulders and/or wide girths, and those who tend to sleep on their backs, are going to need wider sleeping pads – the pad has to be wide enough to let you rest both your arms by your side without them trailing on the cold ground. For individuals who prefer to sleep on their sides, narrower and standard width sleeping pads might suffice. Most brands tend to have multiple width options available for you to select from, so take into account your frame and build before picking one, especially if you’re making your purchase online.
Length is also a critical option to consider, since your posture while sleeping is directly correlated to alleviating and avoiding problems like neck and shoulder cramps and sore backs and hips. For adequate support and the proper alignment of your body as you sleep, you need an appropriate long pad to support your shoulders and hips.
The ideal sleeping pad should have dimensions that let you lay your frame back without any part of your body hanging off the edge exposed to the cool of the ground, designed with features like side rails to center you on the pad or mattress.
Another factor that plays into appropriate and healthy posture is the density or thickness of your sleeping pad. If you’re sleeping on rough terrain, the pad definitely has to be thick enough to protect you from getting poked in the back all night as you try to sleep. The quality of the sleeping pad also plays into this – if you’re going for a foam sleeping pad, it has to have the structural integrity not to bottom out, but rather mold to the natural curvature of your body and provide adequate support without losing shape. For inflatable options, make sure you pick one of a rugged material unlikely to tear, rip or leak easily, capable of holding air and retaining structural stability throughout several hours of use.
You can find incredibly affordable budget-friendly sleeping pads easily, but remember that as with most consumer goods, price does have a correlation with quality, at least some of the time. Depending on how intense the activity you have planned – how many nights you’re going to be camping out, the type of environment you’re taking on, how frequently you’re planning to go thru hiking, etc. – we’d recommend chipping in a little extra if it ensures getting you a great sleeping pad which won’t fail you when you’re out in the wild, without immediate access to a motel or bed-and-breakfast you can crash at.