How To Find the Type of Sleeping Pad You Need

camping sunset

You’ve got your sleeping bag and your tent, you’re ready for a camping trip––right? Well…almost. There’s one more component to add to your camping sleep system. You’ll need to choose the right sleeping pad

To help you stay warm and comfortable while camping, we’re going to break down everything you need to know about sleeping pads. First, we’ll start with what a sleeping pad is, and what it does. Then we’ll look at the three different types and which kind of camping each is best suited for.

Do You Really Need a Sleeping Pad?

Sleeping pad
Image from Gander

If you’re new to camping you may not have heard of a sleeping pad or sleeping mat. It’s easy to assume all you need is a tent and a sleeping bag.

The problem is placing your sleeping bag directly on the ground inside your tent will likely lead to a horrible night’s sleep. Your sleeping bag alone won’t provide enough cushion and comfort. And, more importantly, it won’t provide enough insulation to prevent losing your warmth to the cold ground. 

As you sleep, the cold ground will basically suck out your warmth, leaving you cold and awake. 

Enter the sleeping pad. Your sleeping pad goes underneath your sleeping bag providing you a cushioned, comfortable surface as well as insulation from the cold ground. 

Sleeping pads are rated with an R-value. This R-value tells you how resistant it is to heat transfer. Take a look at the R-value and think about what kind of temperature you’ll be camping in. This will help you decide which R-value you need to keep all your warmth.

Sleeping pad R-values range from 1 to 11, with the warmest being 11. As a general rule of thumb 0-1 is good for summer camping, 2-4 is good for fall and spring,  and 5+ is good for winter camping.

Woman looking at the night sky while camping in the snow covered mountains in Swedish Lapland (Nallo).
Image from Getty

Keep in mind that early fall and late spring are a little warmer and you can get away with the lower end of the 2-4 range, and the opposite is true for early spring and late fall. If you’re a woman or sleep a bit cold, you’ll typically want to add 1 to the R-values above.

A few sleeping pads you’ll find won’t have an R-value rating. Beginning in 2020, R-Values will be standardized, making shopping easier for you.

While shopping you’ll find there are 3 different kinds of sleeping pads. All provide insulation and comfort.

The 3 Types of Sleeping Pads

Image By Emma Smith from Unsplash

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads

self-inflating sleeping bag
Image from Gander

A self-inflating sleeping pad is one of the most comfortable types. This kind of pad folds down but puffs up into a cushiony sleeping surface as it unfurls, and most have a valve that helps them inflate.

Not only are these very comfortable, but their thickness makes them great insulators. Most of them can be further adjusted to your desired firmness by blowing in additional air. 

The comfort comes at a cost in weight, however. Due to their heavier weight, these are ideal for car campers. Those of you who will be backpacking or even thru-hiking, will, in many cases, prefer something a little lighter. 

No matter the case, be sure you have a patch kit, as these can tear. Especially if you’re camping with kids and pets.

You’ll find self-inflating pads that work for both rectangular and mummy-style sleeping bags. If you tend to get cold while you sleep, be sure to pick one up with a higher R-value or pick up the women’s version of the pad you like. 

Air Sleeping Pads

Air Sleeping pad

Air sleeping pads are the most popular choice among backpackers. If your camping trip consists of hiking or paddling into your campsite, this is the type of sleeping pad for you. 

Air sleeping pads fold down small enough to fit inside of your backpack and are also lightweight. To use an air pad, you’ll unfold the pad and then blow it.

Pro Tip: Avoid mold building up inside your air pad by blowing it up with a small hand pump or stuff sack pump. 

While not as bulky as a self-inflating pad, you will give up a little bit of insulating power and a little bit of comfort. Still, air pads can be very comfortable, and you can find some warm enough to be suitable for winter camping trips. 

If you’re a minimalist when it comes to packing camping gear, you might also like these even if you’re car camping. Because these are inflatable, you will want to pack a patch kit, as these too can tear. 

And remember, if you tend to get cold at night, check out the higher R-values or a women’s version. The women’s version of most sleeping pads, like sleeping bags, will be warmer at the feet and torso.

Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads

Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are a great option for anyone looking for a value-based option. These are less expensive when compared to air and self-inflating sleeping pads. 

Closed-cell foam pads will work for car campers but are very popular with thru-hikers. These don’t fold down small enough to fit in your pack, so why are they so popular with thru-hikers? The answer is durability. These do not tear like air and self-inflating pads. They can be strapped to the outside of your pack.

For those of you who are car camping,  you don’t need to worry about carrying the sleeping pad, so you might be a fan of the durability and price point.

As a car camper, you might want to double up for extra comfort by picking up one of these and using it along with one of the other types of pads. 

No matter what type of camping you enjoy, remember to pick up a sleeping pad to stay warm and comfortable.

Check out all of the sleeping pads by checking out Gander’s inventory.


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