Gear Explained: Sleeping Pads

I’ve seen people underestimate the importance of a sleeping pad. They never repeated that mistake. . .

|| So. . . what is a sleeping PAD? ||

The rarely mentioned sidekick of a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad is a crucial part of every backpacker’s gear list. Without it you will certainly have a cold bottom all night long.

While a sleeping bag creates an insulating layer of air between you and the outside environment, a sleeping pad insulates your body from the cold, hard ground. Without a sleeping pad, your sleeping bag is of little use, no matter the temperature rating (the ground is a surprisingly stealthy thief of body heat).

There are two main types of sleeping pads: Closed-Cell Foam and Inflatable.

|| The meaning of “R-value” ||

In a nutshell, the “R-value” of a sleeping pad is a measure of its thermal resistance. Sleeping pads with higher R-values will retain their insulating properties more effectively in colder temperatures than sleeping pads with lower R-values. An average R-value for a sleeping pad is around 2.5, which will perform reasonably well in “3-season” conditions. According to Therm-a-Rest, “you can generally draw the line between 3-season and winter mattresses at an approximate R-value of 3.0”

For science nerds, like myself, here is a more detailed explanation of “R-value”:

“The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance, or the ability of heat to transfer from hot to cold. . . [T]he higher the R-value, the more a material prevents heat transfer. R-value depends on materials’ resistance to heat conduction, as well as the thickness and any heat losses due to convection and radiative heat transfer. . . R is expressed as the thickness of the material normalized to the thermal conductivity, and under uniform conditions it is the ratio of the temperature difference across an insulator. . . R=deltaT/Qa (where deltaT is the change in temperature and Qa is the Heat Flux Density).”

|| Closed Cell Foam Sleeping Pads ||

Similar in appearance to a yoga mat, closed cell foam sleeping pads are inexpensive and durable options for backpackers. They often are the choice of PCT and AT thru-hikers for their easy setup after a long day of hiking. Just plop it down on the ground and start counting sheep.

Benefits of Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads

  • Closed-cell foam pads are generally very inexpensive. You can probably find one at Walmart for around $5.
  • Durability. It’s foam, it can take a beating.
  • Fast-setup time in camp. Just throw this down and voila, bedtime. Zzzzzz. . .
  • For the most part, closed-cell foam pads are lightweight. Again, it’s foam.

Drawbacks of Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads

  • Closed-cell foam pads are usually very thin, and will not provide much “cushion.” For this reason, they are widely considered as uncomfortable (this is a personal opinion).
  • Closed-cell foam pads are generally bulky. They take up a lot of space, even if outside of your pack.

Some Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads I Like

  • Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite (REI, $35-45)
    • R-value: 2.6
    • Weight (regular): 14 oz
  • Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest (REI, $20-40)
    • R-value: 2.8
    • Weight (regular): 14 oz
  • Ozark Trail Sleeping Pad (Walmart, $6.97)
    • R-value: unknown
    • Weight (regular): 14 oz

|| Inflatable Sleeping Pads ||

If you are looking for a little dose of luxury and comfort while on the trail, an inflatable sleeping pad is for you (and for me). Inflatable sleeping pads are basically a mini-mattress. There are a wide range of inflatable pads, which range in price, comfort, weight, insulating factor, etc.

Inflatable sleeping pads operate in a very similar manner to sleeping bags. As you inflate the pad with air, you are creating a barrier between you and the ground, similar to the air barrier in the sleeping bag between you and the outside environment. As you lay down on the pad, and as heat permeates through your sleeping bag, the sleeping pad reflects the radiation given off by your body, leaving you nice and toasty warm.

Benefits of Inflatable Sleeping Pads

  • Comfort. In general, inflatable sleeping pads will provide a thicker cushion from the ground, making your night a bit easier.
  • Warmth. Depending upon the “R-value” of the sleeping pad, inflatable sleeping pads can be significantly warmer than closed-cell foam.
  • Excellent for traveling. As a college student on a budget, I can bring my sleeping pad along and crash on a friend’s floor, while still getting a good night’s sleep.

Drawbacks of Inflatable Sleeping Pads

  • Generally more expensive. Closed-cell foam pads normally max out at around $50, while inflatable sleeping pads often range around $100 (and can get as high as $200+).
  • Require careful maintenance. Inflatable sleeping pads generally have a limited lifetime warranty of 1 year. After this one year, manufacturers do not guarantee the product against damage. If not properly cared for, inflatable sleeping pads can easily pop or develop small holes. Often times, near the end of an inflatable sleeping pad’s life, the seams of the pad will begin to leak.
  • Require setup time. After a day of hiking you will have to self-inflate the sleeping pad, which can be a nuisance. (In my opinion, however, a gentle night’s rest on a comfortable bed of air makes up for the extra minute or two required to inflate the pad)

Some Inflatable Sleeping Pads I Like

  • Therm-a-Rest ProLite (REI, $80-110)
    • R-value: 2.4
    • Weight (regular): 16 oz
    • Pad thickness: 1 inch
  • Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite (REI, $130-200)
    • R-value: 3.2
    • Weight (regular): 12 oz
    • Pad thickness: 2.5 inches
  • REI Co-Op Trekker (REI, $70-80)
    • R-value: 5.6
    • Weight (regular): 40 oz
    • Pad thickness: 1.75 inches

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