Backpackers have more options for ultralight sleeping pads in 2016 than ever before. There are dozens of different backpacking pad sizes, shapes, and types of construction, ranging from dirt-simple foam pads to lush inflatable cushions four-inches thick. How do you choose the best backpacking sleeping pad for 2016 and beyond?
The answer gets easy once you understand the basic types of backpacking sleeping pads, their sizes, weight, and how much they cost.
Types of Backpacking Sleeping Pads
There are three basic types of backpacking pads — foam pads, self-inflating pads, and air pads.
All backpacking sleeping pads are designed to keep your body from contacting the ground, which is usually cold, as well as cushion your body from rocks or roots. The most important factors for most backpackers are weight, cost, and comfort.
Backpacking Foam Pads
Foam pads are dirt-simple — they are thin, lightweight, super durable, shed water, and are inexpensive. Because they don’t compress, they are relatively bulky. You roll them up and usually attach them to the bottom outside portion of your backpack. I usually pack a short foam pad with me (in addition to an air pad) because a foam pad is so easy to use as an ultralight seat, either folded up on a rock or laid out on the ground with some sort of backrest. Keeps your legs and butt from getting wet or dirty, and because it won’t “pop,” I can throw it down on sharp rocks and never worry. Sleeping on a backpacking foam pad, though, isn’t that great. If there is a bump underneath your foam pad while sleeping, you’ll always know that bump is there.
Get a foam pad if you’re on the tightest budget . . . or you expect to be camping out in a very thorny area.
Backpacking Self-Inflating Pads
Therm-a-Rest took the backpacking world by storm years ago by creating an open-cell foam insulating material inside of an inflatable pad. The foam crushes down to pack tightly for travel, but when the sleeping pad is opened up inside a tent, for example, the foam will push up and suck air into the pad. Add a few puffs of air and you can firm up the pad to your own personal liking. These pads are about 1-to-2 inches thick. Because of the interior open-celled foam, they offer a bit more insulation from the ground for cold-weather backpacking than typical non-insulated air backpacking pads.
Self-Inflating backpacking sleeping pads are usually heavier than closed-cell foam backpacking pads, but they are much more comfortable. In addition, if you end up with a small hole or depression under your sleeping spot that you didn’t see when you pitched your tent, you can throw a t-shirt into the depression and add some air pressure to your self-inflating pad . . . to create a sort of bridge effect to even out your bed. Less expensive self-inflating pads are heavier and bulky — you roll them up like foam pads — but the more expensive models are surprisingly foldable and packable into spaces smaller than a football.
Get a self-inflating pad if you want a durable air pad that is quiet to roll around on or want the ability to really crank up the firmness level.
Backpacking Air Pads
Air Pads bring a whole new level of comfort to backpacking. They are usually two-to-four inches thick and resemble the vinyl inflatable air mattresses people bring to the beach. Air pads for backpacking, though, are much higher quality and are manufactured from ultralight materials. Plus, air pads are amazing to sleep on. Big guys should error toward wider air pads, though, because the thicker ones can feel “tippy” for guys with wide shoulders and their arms will hang off the edges. Tip: Use a t-shirt to level ground under your air pad or roll some stuff sacks or a jacket under the edges to combat any lean or tip you encounter in your tent.
The downside to backpacking air pads is the cost — super-thick, big-name brands can easily rocket past $100. While you can buy insulated air pads for cold-weather camping, it increases their weight and cost. Most air pads tend to make a crinkly noise or sometimes a squeaking sort of noise when you roll around on them. If you move a lot when you sleep — or have sensitive sleepers as backpacking buddies — you might be better off with a self-inflating pad. In addition, air pads are utterly worthless if you poke a hole in one, but you can usually repair holes on the trail with the repair kits that come with them.
Length, Width, and Weight for Backpacking Pads
In this day and age, don’t buy any backpacking sleeping pad that weighs more than 2 pounds. Seriously. Look for something 16-to-24 ounces, which is 1-to-1.5 pounds. As for length, consider your height. If you’re a tall guy, get the long versions so your feet don’t hang off the edge. (Of course, I know one 6’3″ guy who uses a super light, ultra-short backpacking pad — which lets his lower legs rest on the ground inside his sleeping bag. The weight savings are worth it to him, but for most people, the best backpacking sleeping pad is a full-length backpacking sleeping pad.)
Most pads are 20 inches wide. Big guys should consider getting the 24-inch wide models — I think it’s worth the extra weight and cost. In fact, I think a more restful night in the backcountry is worth at least 8 extra ounces.
The Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads 2016
Is there truly a best backpacking sleeping pad? If cost isn’t a factor, the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Insulated Mat is very compelling. It weighs 25 ounces in a 21.5″ x 72″ size with a 2.5-inch thick cushion of air. Sure, that’s a bit heavier than ultralight options, but it’s also insulated — and comes with two separate layers you can inflate to different pressures. For instance, you can crank up the pressure in the bottom layer to give you support over uneven ground but keep the upper layer softer. For a similar feel, Sea to Summit’s UltraLight Insulated Mat and Comfort Light Mat forego the dual layers in favor of lighter construction.
Of course, is it really the best if it’s out of your budget? What if you could buy two backpacking air pads for the price of one bigger-name brand air pad? The Klymit Static V is offering the best bang for your sleeping pad buck that I’ve ever seen. Consider the specs: 23 inches wide by 72 inches long by 2.5 inches thick with a weight of 18.1 ounces . . . and a price that flirts around $50. For around $60, you can opt for the new Static V2, which ships free from Amazon. It boasts the same size specs in an even lighter package — 16.33 ounces.
If you really want a wild-but-surprisingly comfortable super ultra-light backpacking pad, check out our Klymit Intertia X Frame review. At 9.5 ounces, the Inertia X Frame is an amazing feat of engineering. It’s best for serious ultralight backpackers, though.
There are several other easy-to-recommend backpacking sleeping pad options for you. Here’s a roundup of some of the best backpacking sleeping pads, each of which has a great balance of durability, weight, quality, and cost:
Best Backpacking Air Pads 2016:
- Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Sleeping Mat — Sea to Summit actually offers a line of three similar inflatable pads that come in a range of sizes with insulation. The Sea to Summit claim to fame is individual air cells that evenly distribute weight and conform to your body. The regular size UltraLight Insulated Mat weighs 16.9 ounces; the Comfort Light Insulated Mat is 20.5 ounces; while the sweet dual-layer Comfort Plus Insulated Mat comes in at 25.5 ounces. You can’t go wrong with this series of sleeping pads. [Check pricing at REI . . . or at Amazon . . . or at Backcountry.com with free 2-day shipping.]
- Therm-a-Rest Neo Air Xtherm — Extra warm layers of heat reflective material result in an ultra-light package and a whopping 5.7 R value. The Regular is 20″ x 72″ x 2.5″ at just 15 ounces. The insulation and light weight make this a fantastic all-around backpacking pad. [Check pricing at REI . . . or at Amazon . . . or at Backcountry.com with free 2-day shipping.]
- Klymit Static V2 — Easily the best value in an air pad available now, especially given its large size: 23″ x 72″ x 2.5″. It weights less than 17 ounces and can usually be found for about $60. [Also available direct from Klymit.]
Best Backpacking Self-Inflatable Pads 2016:
- Therm-a-Rest ProLite Sleeping Pad — this is the lightest self-inflating mattress Therm-a-Rest makes, it packs well, and it’s available in several sizes — the regular weighs 16 ounces at 20″ x 72″ x 1″.
- REI AirRail 1.5 Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad — big and wide with air rails to help keep you from sliding off your pad while sleeping, up to 25″ x 78″ x 1.5″ at just shy of 2 pounds (31 ounces).
- Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Sleeping Pad — This excellent entry-level pad includes a thermal foam core for warmth and decent durability and mix of sizes at reasonable prices. The 20″ x 72″ x 1″ weighs 22 ounces.
Best Backpacking Foam Pads 2016:
- Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite SOL Sleeping Pad — the aluminized surface reflects heat, increasing warmth, folds into a nifty rectangle, and weights just 14 ounces at 20″ x 72″ x .75″.
- Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Sleeping Pad — aluminized surface, rolls up, available in large that weighs 19 ounces at 24″ x 77″ x .625″ for around $20. (And remember, a shorty version of this backpacking pad makes a versatile seat cushion that will keep your backside dry.)
Bonus: More Great Backpacking Sleeping Pads
We want to say again that there are many great backpacking sleeping pads available these days — and puzzling out the “best” comes down to a lot of personal preferences and budget. Generally, though, we recommend that you invest in a good pad from a reputable manufacturer. We didn’t mention these backpacking pads and/or manufacturers above, but they’re also excellent: