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Sleeping Pad Reviews

June 11, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Sleeping Pads Review

There is hardly anything that is more of a game changer on a backpacking trip than a good night’s sleep. And there’s no greater factor to a good night’s sleep than the perfect sleeping pad. I have several sleeping pads. It’s not because I need several sleeping pads. It’s because I’ve been on a quest to find one that works for me on the trail.

I’ve been reading about pads and sleeping systems – that’s good. I’ve even tried some out in a store – that’s better. But the real test only comes in a tent at the end of a long day on the trail. I need to experience how I feel after a night’s sleep. It seems to be the only true evaluation.

Everything about a good night’s sleep is individualistic. Some people can sleep on the ground with little padding. That’s not me. I need something to separate me from the ground I’ve been pounding with my feet all day. Maybe I’m too domesticated; certainly I’m not young anymore; but there’s no denying it: I need a comfortable place to rest my bones.

There are several key factors I’ve toiled over these past couple years that seem to matter most when selecting a pad. Here they are in no particular order:

Type: foam, self-inflating, and air

Set-up: how much work is involved with making my bed?

Pack-up: will this take me 30 seconds or 10 minutes to get the pad back in/on my pack?

Durability: does this thing leak or does it easily wear out?

Weight: spanning from several pounds to several ounces

Bulk: some are too big to fit in a pack and some are the size of a water bottle that can easily fit in a pack

Size: the need here is more about how big a person is and how they sleep. Side-sleepers can mostly do with narrow sizes. Back or front sleepers need wide sizes. Tall people may need long sizes. But some people choose just a torso length to reduce weight.

Ground contact: Do my bones touch the ground?

Price: ranging $30-$300

Insulation value (R-value): How much of the cold ground do I feel? (Winter sleeping is a whole different category - I'll only refer to 3-season options here)

In this article I’ll run through a few types of pads that I own. There are dozens of other models to choose from, and the ones I've purchased aren't necessarily the top picks. I’ll offer some pros and cons regarding each type (self-inflating, foam, and air) to mull over. At the end of this I won’t tell you what the perfect pad is for you – because I don’t know what you would define as comfortable, but you should have a clue as to what might be worth checking out for yourself.

Self-Inflating

My first pad was a self-inflating pad. Ingenious idea: a pad that inflates itself. It’s actually open-cell foam that is sealed in an outer casing, letting air in and out through a valve. Think of a foam seat that expands when a person isn’t sitting on it; control air leaving and entering the foam through a valve and you have a self-inflating sleeping pad.

At the time I bought it I was thinking more about sleeping comfort than anything. I did give a little thought to bulk and weight, but I was only doing short distance backpacking and so weight and bulk didn’t matter much. This is different than long distance backpacking. We can tolerate some discomfort from carrying weight and bulk for a short time. But heavy weight for a long period isn’t just uncomfortable; it can be downright painful and could actually cause long-term issues for knees, back, or ankles. The pad is bulky and heavy. Today, it’s a pad I would use if I didn’t have to carry it anywhere – like car camping. It’s just a monster. 

Pros. Easy setup. Relatively inexpensive. High R-value. High durability.

Cons. Longer pack-up. Bulky. 4-5 times heavier than air mattresses. Medium ground contact.

However, to be more fair to this type, if I were going to recommend a self-inflating pad today for lightweight backpacking I might choose something like the Therm-A-Rest ProLite. It's very reasonable in price, weight, R-value, and quality. 

Foam

I bought a foam pad as an experiment. They aren’t very comfortable for an old guy who sleeps on his side. For me it’s not much different than sleeping directly on the ground. But if I used it as an insulation layer under an inexpensive air mattress it could give me increased R-value, protect my air mattress from punctures, and give me added comfort. It seemed worthy of an experiment. So I strapped one of my air mattresses to the foam pad – nice… really nice. But the deal breaker was that it doubled the weight of my sleeping system. The pad below is a Therm-a-Rest Z-lite Sol; it's 14oz - ultralight - but, it's bulky. So, maybe on short trips or in car-camping situation I would use this, but not without an additional mattress.

Pros: Light weight. Easy setup. Easy pack-up. Inexpensive. Highly durable.

Cons: Bulky. Lower R-value. Excessive ground contact.

Air mattress.

There are all kinds of air mattresses. I own three. It seems that the industry has been focusing on air mattress engineering more so than any other types. The pros and cons here are wide ranging. I can buy an air mattress that has a high or low R-value. I can buy one that is ultra-lightweight or relatively heavy. I can buy thick or thin. There are all sorts of design patterns that claim benefits.

I have found that comfort in an air mattress is more about design than anything else. However, know that thicker does not mean more comfort or greater R-value. I’ll give you a couple examples of how these pads can vary. Bottom line: you just need to spend a few nights on one before determining what’s right for you.

Thick. I have a 4” insulated mattress that looks hefty and almost too luxurious for a backwoods adventure. It’s a Big Agnes Double Z, 25” x 72”. I like this mattress for its comfort. Some have complained that it sleeps cool; I did not find that to be true.  It does tend to leak more than other air mattresses I have and it is significantly heavier (26.5 oz), as might be expected from a thicker structure. They no longer carry this model, but they do carry a similar model: Big Agnes Insulated Double ZZ Air Mattress.

Thin. I was first leery of this 2.5” mattress. Can 2.5” of lift really be comfortable? It’s a Massdrop X Klymit Ultralight V, 20x72” It has a very unique design pattern that I thought might compensate for its lack of lift. It did indeed surprise me with its comfort and insulation value (4.4r). The design pattern caused me to search a bit to find the right spot to lay on my side without discomfort, but after I found the spot it was very nice. It is very quick to set up and pack up. It also has a very small pack size. This will be a great backup or even primary pad for my long hikes. It weighs 18.4 oz.

Thinner. Here’s another one that is even thinner - 2” thick. It’s a Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated mattress, 20x72”. The design pattern is what you might find in a mattress on your bed at home – and so follows its comfort; it’s the most comfortable pad I own. And it is ultra-lightweight; 17 oz. It’s not the lightest in my collection - but it is my lightest air mattress. The bonus here is that the stuff sack it comes in is also a pumpsack (a pad inflator). With air mattresses, the moist air from our breath tends to cause mold and deterioration on the inside over a period of time. Inflators keep that to a minimum, increasing longevity. When I add the weight of an inflator to any other ultralight air mattress on the market, this setup is very competitive. So, for me this mattress has become my primary for long hikes.

Sidenote: Some of the Therm-a-Rest evangelists out there may wonder why the NeoAir XLite isn’t on my list. It weighs in at an impressive 12 oz for the 20x72” size, has a decent 3.2 R-rating, and has a 2.5” lift. This pad is absolutely a great option. I just don’t have it in my inventory. What turned me off from the purchase is the claims of it being noisy, slippery, and some complained about the durability. I can’t confirm or deny any of these claims but it was enough for me to investigate other options. Several of my hiking friends like this mattress a whole lot and I’ve read many good reviews. So, judge for yourself.

There you have it – a review of my sleeping pad inventory. If you don’t already have your favorite sleeping pad figured out, I hope this helps you along the way. Happy, comfortable trails!


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