You don’t have to sleep in a bed to feel comfy while backpacking or camping. A sleeping pad will offer a great mattress alternative to make sleeping on the trail more bearable.
Camping mattresses, as many outdoor adventurers call them, provide extra padding, warmth, and comfort, making nights under the stars more pleasant. You need a good slumber for you to be able to handle the activities of the following day and if you are camping or backpacking in the rain, good luck with keeping out of the wet ground and cold temperatures without a sleeping pad.
But sleeping pads come in different sizes, shapes, and types, and selecting the one that best suits your needs can be a hard task. So we have put together a simple guide on how to choose a sleeping pad to make the process less daunting. If you prefer fanciness to ruggedness, this information is all you need to stay out of the cold, hard ground.
Sleeping Pad Types
Once you have decided that you need to include a pad in your camping checklist, it’s time to find out the different types available in the market.
1. Manually Inflated (Air Pads)
These are lighter, warmer, and more durable, which makes them the go-to option for many outdoor lovers. And just as the name suggests, you will need to pump air into them yourself with your breath. Normally it takes 5 minutes or less to get the thing fully inflated. However, some models come with a built-in pump to simplify the process.
Most manually inflated sleeping pads are designed for camping or backpacking in warm weather but some contain additional insulation to make them suitable for use in all weather. To adjust the firmness of the pad, just lay on it and release a small quantity of air from the valve.
One major disadvantage of manually inflated sleeping pads is that they are expensive. The more compact and lighter the pad is, the more bucks you got to cough. That’s not all. These kinds of sleeping pads can be ripped or punctured especially if you are camping or backpacking with a dog, cat, or any other clawed pet. However, they can be repaired easily on the trail.
Important tip: Just like all the other inflatables, manually inflated sleeping pads tend to lose air when the surrounding temperature changes. So you may want to keep checking the pad and pumping or releasing air accordingly.
As a cousin to manually inflated sleeping pads, these are designed with high-end foam technology that rolls and packs tightly for portability, expands easily to keep you well insulated, and offers a comfortable sleep.
The way a self-inflating sleeping pad works is that when the valve is opened, air flows in and fills all the spaces inside the foam to get the pad inflated. If you are one of those guys who like extra firmness, you can blow some more air into the sleeping pad.
Self-inflating pads are regarded as a viable option for hiking, backpacking, mountain climbing, and any other outdoor activity. If you love cold weather adventures too, this is the kind of pad you should consider when preparing for a winter camping trip. And unlike their manually inflated cousins, a self-inflating sleeping pad doesn’t lose air at night so it could be the best option when camping with kids.
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However, self-inflating pads are heavier and less compact than manually inflated pads and less durable than closed-cell foam pads.
3. Closed Cell Foam
Another popular model of sleeping pads but unlike manually inflated, this one doesn’t require any inflation. Closed-cell foam pads are less complex, lighter than their self-inflating counterparts, and longer-lasting. If you have space in your backpack, these can be stashed in there easily.
But remember this; the fact that they are lighter and smaller means that you will be less insulated hence less comfortable. And since they are designed for backpackers who want to save some space, these sleeping pads aren’t too thick, thus they will not provide as much support as manually inflated and self-inflating pads.
As we have already mentioned, sleeping pads not only make you feel comfortable when you sleep but also retain heat to keep you warm throughout the night. As such, investing in a pad that is well insulated is important.
How to choose a sleeping pad will also depend on the type of weather you expect to encounter. Keep in mind that even in hot weather, the ground gets cold at night and so you will need to place a well-insulated pad underneath your sleeping bag to keep you protected from the chilly, cold, and damp gravel beneath you.
The warmth generated by a sleeping pad is denoted by R, which is the resistance of the pad’s material to heat loss. Typically, the higher the value of R, the higher the resistance, and the warmer you will feel.
Resistance values range from 1 to 10, with 1 being the least insulated and 10 being the most insulated. If you are backpacking or camping in summer, a sleeping pad whose R-value is less than 3 would be the best option. For the cold season, get something whose value is 3.5 or higher.
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Shapes And Sizes
Different sleeping pads come in different shapes and sizes to cater to various needs. In most cases, sleeping pads are sized in centimeters, inches, or both, so it is pretty easy to know what size is best for you depending on your height.
To be on the safe side, select a pad that is a few centimeters longer than you are. This will ensure that your feet do not touch the ground and conduct heat from your body while you sleep. Some outdoor enthusiasts, who don’t have enough room in their backpacks, often opt for a smaller sleeping pad, then put dirty clothes beneath their legs. Well, this optimizes packability and weight but robs them of a little bit of luxury.
Apart from length, the shape and width of your pad is also something to consider. Most sleeping pads come in a mummy shape with a width of 20 inches. For an average-sized backpacker, this will provide the required comfort.
Those who have a larger body frame or need a little more space, however, can get something wider. A rectangular-shaped pad could be a good choice to go for.
Selecting a sleeping pad with the right length and shape is essential but prioritizing your needs is equally important. When making a purchase, we advise that you think about the characteristics that really matter to you.
If you are planning to use your pad on a hiking or backpacking trip, you may want to think about how far you plan to walk. Since you will be carrying the pack on your shoulders, definitely, getting something that is light enough will be the best option, as you want to keep the weight of the bag reduced as much as possible.
However, in most cases, lighter sleeping pads will have a higher price tag, but they offer great comfort in the end. So if you are looking for something that balances weight, warmth, and comfort excellently, you will have to dig your pocket deeper than when eyeing something that is not very light or warm.
A lighter pad will enable you to pack your backpack the right way, as it will leave enough room for the rest of your outdoor gear. It will also reduce the overall weight of the pack so you will not lag on the trail.
Where are you planning to go on your camping trip? What season of the year is it? How you answer these questions, can help you determine the best sleeping pad for the day.
If you are backpacking on rough or wet terrain, you want something thick enough and properly insulated to protect you from the rugged and chilly ground. Manually insulated and self-insulating pads may not be the best pick for deep in the woods where there are piles of grass clumps and pinecones, as these can easily get punctured. Foam pads may be a better choice for such areas. Well, they may not be as comfortable as the inflatables but you surely will not return home with a pierced sleeping pad.
In cold weather, keeping warm is the number one reason for packing a sleeping pad. But how to choose a sleeping pad based on warmth can be tricky if you don’t know what other camping gear and gadgets you should bring along to stay warm and alive.
First, think about the kind of tent you are going to use. One that can withstand very cold weather will be ideal for this trip. Next, get a winter sleeping bag, and lastly, add a thick enough sleeping pad to the setup.
Many campers end up getting sick due to spending cold nights in the backcountry. Funny enough 90% of these blame their sleeping bags for the misfortune when in the real sense their pad was the problem. Of course, you need a good bag to stay warm but no one should deceive you that your sleeping pad is not just as essential; the ground can drain heat from your body much quicker than the air moving above you.
Additionally, think about the surface on which you will be sleeping. Is it covered with ice, dirt, or rocks? If you regularly camp in cold weather, you should get a pad with an R-value closer to 10.
4. Sleeping Position
Back sleepers enjoy more warmth from their pads than side sleepers do. When you sleep on your back, you increase the R-value of your sleeping pad making this gear more effective. The only problem with side sleeping is that you compress the pad more on the hip area reducing the R-value around this region. You can solve this problem by inflating your sleeping pad more.
Basically, the more air you add to the pad, the warmer it gets. But this means that the pad will also get firmer and a fully inflated sleeping pad is obviously not the most comfortable thing to sleep on.
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Sleeping in the woods is a personal experience. Only you really know how much comfort you need to have a pleasant night.
If you have been wondering how to choose a sleeping pad that meets your comfort level, think about your trip in general. Know what weather you are likely to encounter, how much weight you want to carry, and what surface you will be sleeping on.
Manually inflated and self-inflating pads will be ideal for backpacking and winter camping because they are lightweight and provide enough comfort. For rough grounds where pads can easily get ripped, consider closed-cell foam pads.
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