How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

A selection of backpacking sleeping pads on a wooden surface, showing inflatable, closed-cell foam, and self-inflating pads

Backpackers face unique challenges when choosing a sleeping pad to go under their sleeping bag. Like everyone else, they seek comfort and insulation. Unlike car-, horse- and campground-based situations, however, backpackers must balance these factors while considering how much weight and bulk is realistic to carry on overnight or extended outings.

The technology of sleeping pads has advanced substantially from the early days. There are currently three distinct choices:

Inflatable Pads

Two views of Big Agnes inflatable sleeping pad on wooden surface

The basicsInflatable pads superficially resemble the floats that we use to relax on pools and lakes in the summer months. Inflatable pads must be filled using your breath or a pump system. You can use a battery pump, but some companies have created innovative pump system for backpackers. These can be foot pumps integrated into the pad itself or a separately-purchased modified stuff sack. These types of systems save you time and breath without adding much weight or bulk.

Inflatable pads use air to cushion and insulate your body. The air trapped inside the pad is an excellent insulator, but many pads also employ insulating or heat-reflective materials to increase pads’ effectiveness in cold weather.

Inflatable pads are popular with backpackers, who value the low weight and compressible nature of these pads. Inflatable pads provide lightweight, comforting loft for side-sleepers while still offering unrivaled packability.

Something to keep in mind is that warm air from your lungs can condense as the air cools at night, causing the pad to deflate slightly. Also, the moisture from your breath can increase the risk of mold in warm conditions or freezing in cold weather. These problems can be solved by the use of a pump system.  Some innovative inflatable pads even have built-in pumps.

Punctures – Like any inflatable object, inflatable pads risk puncture by sharp rocks, dog’s claws or sticks. Thankfully, inflatable pads are easy to fix and often include repair kits.

Packability – Because these pads have no rigid structure, they can be deflated and packed into the smallest volume of any type of pad.

Cost – These pads tend to be intermediate in cost between self-inflating pads and closed cell foam pads. Note that prices can vary greatly between “barebones” uninsulated inflatable pads and those that incorporate technological advancements in lightweight insulations, heat-reflective barriers, and face fabrics 

Self-inflating Pads

The basicsSelf-inflating pads use a combination of air and open cell foam to cushion and insulate your body. They also require air for inflation, but they are designed to do much of that inflation themselves. Opening a valve ‘activates’ the pad and it slowly begins to draw air inside. Given sufficient time, these pads may self-inflate completely, requiring no more than a few breaths to top them off. 

Kelty self-inflating backpacking sleeping pad

They are intermediate in durability between the other types (more so than air-filled pads but less than the storied indestructible nature of closed cell foam pads). 

Punctures – Like any inflatable object, self-inflating pads risk puncture by sharp rocks, dog’s claws or sticks, but, unlike fully inflatable pads, you still retain some measure of cushioning from the foam should a puncture occur. These pads often include repair kits and can be patched relatively easily in the field.

Packability – Self-inflating pads can be deflated and rolled or folded but due to the open-cell foam inside they are heavier and less packable than inflatable pads.  The more foam and insulation, the less packable the self-inflating pad.

Cost – These pads are generally the most expensive of the three types of pad, though cost varies dramatically depending on the thickness of the foam and the amount of insulation.

Closed Cell Foam Pads

Closed-cell foam backpacking sleeping pad, shown closeup and rolled

The basics – Closed-cell foam is a lightweight, solid substance. Unlike air-filled pads or pads filled with open cell foam, these pads rely on the solid characteristics of the foam to provide cushion and insulation.

Closed cell foam is resilient, versatile, lightweight, and an excellent insulator. The low weight makes these pads popular with backpackers. Some people use these pads as their sole sleeping pad while others take them along for use as a supplement, slipping the low-profile closed cell pads under their air-filled pads for extra insulation and cushioning. Additionally, the indestructible nature of the foam means that a pad can often be cut to any size to save weight and bulk or for use as a seat or sitting pad in wet conditions.

Punctures – Closed cell foam cannot be punctured and is resistant to other kinds of damage such as tearing. These pads are frequently seen attached to the outside of packs because the foam is impervious to wetness (does not absorb moisture).

Packability – Depending on the specific design, these pads can usually be rolled or folded but due to the density of the foam they cannot be compressed. For their size, they tend to be the bulkiest type of sleeping pad.

Cost – These are the least expensive type of sleeping pads.

Additional Features

Length and width –Pads are often available in extra-long, standard and short lengths, as well as in different shapes (mummy, semi-rectangular and rectangular). Extra-large and double-wide pads are even available. A wider or longer pad is more comfortable but weighs more. 

R-value  Some manufacturers rate the insulating ability of their pads using an R-value, while  others simply designate certain pads as cold-weather compatible. Basically, a higher R-value means that a pad is more insulated, which means that you will feel warmer.

The construction of the pad contributes to its R-value. While it might be tempting to say that a thicker pad is warmer than a thin one, the advancing technology means that a high-tech thin pad might offer an R-value that is higher than an older, thicker pad.

Thickness – The thickness of pad is related to its padding and comfort as well as its insulting ability. 

Women-Specific Design Women-specific pads are usually shorter, and, in many cases, the construction of the pad is designed to offer more structural support and/or bolstered insulation in strategic areas to provide female backpackers with optimal comfort and warmth.

The Trade Off

As with so many items of backpacking gear, the choice of sleeping pad is ultimately a balance of personal preference and packability.

For instance, in situations where weight and bulk matter less (such as car camping or horse packing), we’d all be sleeping on the plushest, warmest, most comfortable pads.

Backpackers however, must balance comfort with weight and bulk. Each person must make a decision based on a number of considerations:

  1. How do you sleep?
    • Do you get cold easily?
    • Do you move around a lot?
  2. Under what temperature conditions will you be using the pad?
    • Are you sleeping on green grass or snow?
  3. In what environments will you be camping?
    • Are you lying on sharp rocks or hardpan or soft meadows?
  4. How much padding do you personally need to be comfortable? 
    • Do you have back issues?
    • Do you have a difficult time getting comfy?

The Takeaway

Inflatable, self-inflating and closed cell foam sleeping pad packed to smallest sizes

There is no single answer for every backpacker in every situation. The choice of sleeping pads lies on a spectrum, depending on how you choose to prioritize factors like insulation, padding, durability and weight.

Some people find a less padded and less insulating pad acceptable if it shaves packed weight or takes up less space in his or her pack. Others are willing to haul extra ounces for a warmer or more comfortable pad. A single pad may not satisfy your needs if you backpack in all 4 seasons. In that case, choose a different pad for the different conditions you encounter.



Questions? Talk to a gear specialist.