Most experienced hikers will agree: the sleeping pad can make or break your stay in the backcountry.
Taking the time to thoroughly research and invest in your sleep system for hiking – be it overnight or multi-week – is guaranteed to improve your experience while backpacking.
Understanding what goes in to choosing the right sleeping pad, however, is sometimes harder than it might at first seem. If you’re new to backpacking sleeping pads then you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to break it down for you and show you what criteria really matter when picking out the best pads. You’ll also find our top picks for each category below.
Let’s get started!
Here’s what this article will cover (click the link to jump to each section):
How to Choose a Sleeping Pad
What follows is exactly what you need to know in order to choose the best possible backpacking sleeping pad for your hiking style:
This one is first and most important for a good reason: not every sleeping pad makes sense for every hiker.
It’s important to be aware of your intended use before purchasing a pad. Ultralight pads need more upkeep and careful use. Heavier and robust pads may be better for those who aren’t as gentle or careful with their gear.
Think about how you intend to use the pad before making a decision.
Insulation (R) Value
Every sleeping pad has a specific R-value. R-value is a scientific term which represents a very real and universally used measurement for insulative value in any material.
When considering R-value, the higher the number, the more insulation a pad will offer. What does that mean in practical terms? It means that colder weather merits the use of a pad with higher R-value.
R-values from 2-3 are usually fine for warmer 3 season use. R-values from 3-5+ are generally cold shoulder season and winter pads.
Air or Foam?
Here are the benefits of each:
- Dirt cheap
- Generally very insulation
- Easy to repair
- Extremely durable
- Smallest packed size
- Can achieve significantly higher loft (I.E. comfort)
- Top performers are lighter, smaller, and more comfortable than foam pads
If you need a little more comfort to get a good nights sleep in the backcountry then investing in a higher loft air pad might be your best bet. Many sing the praises of switching to using these thick (2-3″) pads.
I personally fell in love with the 2.5″ loft of my NeoAir xLite and sleep like a baby on it every time. The extra loft helps keep your hips and shoulders from digging in if you’re a side sleeper.
How well does the pad pack down?
If you don’t plan on carrying the pad outside of your pack then you’re going to need a pad that can pack down well. Watch some review videos and read results from other hikers if you’re not sure whether the pad you’re considering will pack down small enough.
If you’re looking for the absolute smallest packed size, you’ll want to use a 3/4 length air pad.
Weight is always a factor when choosing backpacking gear. Depending on your hiking style, you’ll already have some idea of how important saving ounces is to you. We’ll recommend certain pads later for the lighter hikers.
When it comes to weight, the statistics are a bit skewed across the board. Depending on what you’re looking for, you may find that foam or air sleeping pads are lighter. Just remember to consider weight before purchasing a pad.
Best Ultralight Sleeping Pads
R Value: 3.2
Packed Size: 9″ x 4″
The Them-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite (I know, it’s a mouthful) gets our #1 pick due to incredible comfort, amazing packed size, and ultra light weight. Sure, there are lighter options out there but we feel the balance between weight, comfort, and value cannot be beat in this class.
With 2.5″ of loft the Xlite is perfect for side sleepers. Internal baffling systems give the pad a robust 3.2 R-Value.
Drawbacks? This pad is pricy and the reflective coated inner baffles are quite noisy when you toss and turn on the pad.
R Value: Undisclosed
Packed Size: Undisclosed
Gossamer Gear has been making ultralight focused backpacking gear for years. This Thinlight pad is only 1/8″ thick and is meant as a summer pad or a 4-season addition to an air mattress such as the NeoAir Xlite.
If you pair it with a GG backpack you can even use the pad as a makeshift frame to lighten your load even more. This pad make the cut because it’s one of the only closed cell foam pads in its thickness class. These ultra-thin pads are the perfect solution for rounding out many lightweight sleeping systems.
R Value: 2.7
Packed Size: 20″ x 4″ x 5.5″
Cascade Designs stands behind their product with a great industry reputation and fool proof customer service. The z Lite sleeping pad has been around for years and it’s hard to find a pad that has a longer lifespan.
With 3/4″ of thickness, the egg-crate foam is lofty enough for a restful sleep. When packed, the pad folds into a compact rectangle. You’ll want to carry this pad on the outside of your pack because, unfortunately, it doesn’t pack down small enough to justify being inside the bag.
You’ll see these pads all over the trail and they have earned their place with durable and thoughtful design.
Best Winter Sleeping Pads
R Value: 5.7
Packed Size: 11″ x 4.5″
There’s a reason Therm-a-Rest keeps coming up on our list – they make some great products.
With the #1 spot in 4 season air pads, the Therm-a-Rest Xtherm earns its place with a fiery hot 5.7 R-Value. An incredibly small packed size for the warmth and comfort offered by this pad adds to the value. You’ll be hard pressed to find a small, lighter, or cheaper 4 season solution which boasts comparable specs.
Even in the coldest climates, adding a small closed cell foam pad under this air mattress will easily cover frigid camping conditions.
R Value: 5.8
Packed Size: Unknown
Big Agnes has been producing well-loved gear for years and their warmest air pad has the specs to prove it.
With more than enough insulation to take care of those cold 4-season nights the Double Stuffed Double Z will keep you snoozing happily in the depth of those cold winter nights. Again, we recommend a closed cell foam pad under your air mattress for the depths of winter.
If you’re looking for a pad which can give the Xtherm a run for its money at a slightly lower cost, then you’ve got your pad right here. Oh, did we mention that this pad is a beefy 4″ thick???
R Value: 5.9
Packed Size: Unknown
This air mattress is stuffed with down insulation and strikes a strange balance between air pad and foam mat. You’ll definitely want to take this pad on the coldest trips and bring along a pack which can handle the bulk of the pad as it certainly won’t compress down as well as some of the lower R-Value pads we’ve reviewed.
Best Weekend Sleeping Pads
R Value: 2.2
Packed Size: 12″ x 6″
Pushing the upper limits of size and weight for a reasonable backpacking sleeping pad, this 3″ thick super-quick inflating mattress might be a good solution for those who are just starting out backpacking.
A low insulation value means the NeoAir Camper SV a warm 3-season or summer only pad. Built in side rails are nothing new in the sleeping pad industry but you’ll find that they help to keep the sleeper centered on the pad while sleeping. Maybe an ideal feature for the restless sleeper who tosses and turns often.
R Value: Unknown
Packed Size: 8″ x 11″
Tipping the scales at nearly 4 pounds of sleeping pad bulk, this megalith of a pad is going to take huge amounts of backpack space and weigh heavy on the shoulders when carried. The upside of this huge pad? It’s 50″ wide and made to accommodate 2 hikers sleeping side by side. Perfect for couples on an overnight.
Rated to be comfortable below freezing (although an R-Value is not forthcoming from the manufacturer) you’ll stay quite warm while snuggled next to someone.
Pair this with a double-wide backpacking quilt for winter temps to achieve cuddling nirvana in the backcountry.
R Value: Unknown
Packed Size: 6″ x 3″
Why is this ultralight pad on the weekend camping list? Because we highly recommend taking it on a short trip before committing to a longer excursion.
The skeleton frame pad of the Klymit Inertia design doesn’t fit everyone and user reviews are highly mixed. Back sleepers only on this unconventional pad. The open center not only has no padding, but no insulation from the ground either. You’ll get cold and sore quick if you’re not a back sleeper.
Due to the light weight, low price, and potential uses of this unusual pad, we think it’s worth trying for back sleepers looking to lighten the load.