How to Choose A Sleeping Pad for Camping and Backpacking

When it comes to a sleeping pad for backpacking, there are a lot of options! This post will break down the different types of sleeping pads, the pros and cons of each, what an r-value is, and other things to consider when choosing a backpacking sleeping pad! By the end of this post, you’ll be prepared to choose the perfect sleeping pad for backpacking.

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Amanda holding 3 sleeping pads

Sleeping Pad Basics

What is the purpose of a sleeping pad?

A sleeping pad has two functions – to provide cushion from the ground and to provide insulation.

Since sleeping pads for backpacking and camping can be expensive, it’s important to make an informed decision because it’s probably a piece of gear that you won’t want to replace often.

What is the Sleeping Pad R-value?

As I mentioned above, one of the main functions of a sleeping pad is to provide insulation. At night, you’ll lose body heat to the ground. The sleeping pad insulation will help prevent that from happening.

Sleeping pads come with an R-value that measures the sleeping pads’ capacity to resist heat flow.

The higher the R-value, the better the pad will insulate you from the ground and the warmer you’ll be.

Most companies will list an R-value or a temperature range on their product page. Since women tend to sleep colder, some companies even make women-specific pads that have a little more insulation.

What’s a good R-value for backpacking and camping?

The R-value range you can expect to see for most backpacking sleeping pads is about 1-6. For car camping sleeping pads, you can see R-values much higher. See more below for the differences between car camping and backpacking sleeping pads.

For me, anything with a rating of 3-4 is a good mid-level sleeping pad that works well in the range of temperatures that I encounter in the Spring, Summer, and Fall when I’m backpacking.

On the other hand, the sleeping pad I use when I go car camping has an R-value of 8.1!

Keep in mind, I tend to be a colder-than-average sleeper, and other things like your sleeping bag, tent, and clothing will make a difference in your warmth at night too!

Difference between car camping and backpacking sleeping pads?

Throughout this post, I’ll talk about car camping and backpacking sleeping pads as if they’re different. You can use the same sleeping pad for both, but I choose to use two different sleeping pads.

When I say ‘car camping’ I’m talking about the type of camping where you are near a vehicle and driving right up to a campsite. In this case, the weight and size of your sleeping pad don’t matter as much as they would if you’re backpacking.

When I’m backpacking, I’m loading up my backpack with all the gear I’ll need to survive out in the backcountry. In that case, the size and weight of my sleeping pad really do matter!

I’ll talk more below about the specific sleeping pads that I use, but for now, keep these differences in mind as we talk about the different types of sleeping pads.

Types of Sleeping Pads

There are 3 types of sleeping pads – air pads, foam pads, and self-inflating pads. Here are the pros and cons of each:

1. Air Pads

As the name implies, the air pads fill with air. They’re a really popular choice for backpacking because they’re lightweight, comfortable and compact.

It usually takes just a couple of minutes to blow them up, and most come with a lightweight external bag to make it even easier.

Nowadays, air pads contain insulation or reflective material to increase warmth.

Some of the downsides to air pads are that they can get punctured or ripped easily. However, it’s very easy to patch that out in the field, but you do need to know how to do it prior to your trip.

RELATED >> How to Repair a Sleeping Pad in the Backcountry

Another con to air pads is that they’re expensive. With most backpacking gear, the lighter and more compact something is, the more expensive it gets.

I use an air pad for all my backpacking trips. I have the Big Agnes Q-core SLX and I love it.

It’s lightweight, compact, and comfortable! I’ve been using it for years and still haven’t found anything better. It’s one of the thicker pads on the market, making it great for side sleepers.

2. Foam Pads

Another type of sleeping pad is a foam pad. These pads are made of dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells. They’re usually rolled up or folded like an accordion (Z-shape).

These are lightweight, durable, and much cheaper than the air pads. You don’t need to worry about punctures or rips, and you don’t need to blow them up.

The cons are that they’re bulky, and you’ll most likely have to carry it on the outside of your pack. They also tend to be a lot less comfortable.

3. Self-Inflating Pads

Self-inflating pads are a combination of air and foam pads. You just open the valve and air fills the pad automatically. You also have the option to blow it up further (which I always found to be necessary).

They’re comfortable and offer really good insulation. They’re also a little more durable than air pads, however, they’re still susceptible to punctures, and a repair kit should be carried.

The cons of self-inflating pads are that they’re heavier than air pads and more expensive than foam pads. They really are a hybrid of the two types mentioned above.

What to Consider When Choosing a Sleeping Pad

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you’re choosing a sleeping pad:

  • When and where will I be using this sleeping pad?
  • What features do I value most? Warmth? Weight? Durability? Size? Comfort? Price?

Sleeping Pads for Car Camping

For car camping, I’m driving right up to my campsite and all my gear is stored in my car. In this case, I’m not that concerned about weight or size. I’m really going to prioritize comfort and warmth here.

I also tend to car camp more often than backpacking and in colder months of the year. With all this in mind, I have the Exped MegaMat and honestly, it’s SO comfortable.

Truly, it might be more comfortable than my bed at home and it has an R-value of 8.1, so it’s very insulating helping to keep me warm at night. Trust me on this one, the Exped MegaMat sleeping pad is a game-changer when camping!

Since the Exped is heavier and bulkier, it’s not something I would take on a backpacking trip.

Sleeping Pads for Backpacking

I go backpacking mostly in the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The temperatures I encounter vary greatly, especially between the desert and mountains here in Utah.

I’m also a cold sleeper, so the things that are most important for me are insulation and weight. I want something that’s going to be insulating enough, but also lightweight because I’m backpacking!

That’s how I landed on the Big Agnes Q-core SLX and it’s an awesome backpacking sleeping pad. Of course, I can also use this sleeping pad for car camping.

Here are some other examples to help you decide on a sleeping pad:

  • Do you value low prices the most? Then a foam pad is probably the way to go.
  • Do you value comfort the most? Then an air pad or self-inflating pad is probably the best.
  • Do you want it to be lightweight and compact? Then an air pad is your best option.
  • Do you value warmth the most? Then focus your search on sleeping pads with a higher R-value.

Below is a video explaining everything you need to know about sleeping pads for backpacking when weight and size are important considerations:

How To Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

Other sleeping pad features to consider:

The last thing I want to mention is the sleeping pad size.

Most sleeping pads come in a few different lengths and widths, so the best thing to do is try a few out. It’s nice that there are so many options for all body types!

For example, I’m a little taller than the average female, so the women’s specific pads are usually too short for me.

So that’s it for how to choose a sleeping pad for camping or backpacking!

I hope you feel a little more confident when making a purchase. If you have any additional questions, just ask me in the comments below.

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