Choosing the right Sleeping Pad

Your sleeping pad or mat can be the difference between a bad night’s sleep and a great night’s sleep.  But it is not as easy as grabbing the first pad you see. Navigating the range of brands and models can be confusing so what do you need to know before selecting a sleeping mat?

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The basics

Sleeping mats/pads come in three main types:

  • Foam
  • Self inflating
  • Blow up (inflating pad)

Foam pads are cheaper and usually bulkier but much more durable than mats that rely on inflation. Foam pads were the mainstay of the camping industry for many years before the modern pads came on to the market. Many long-distance thru-hikers will use this type of pad because of the exceptional durability. During exceptionally cold conditions these pads can be used in tandem with another pad to reduce heat loss due to very cold ground or snow. One of the best foam style pads is the Therm-a-rest Z Lite Sol.

Therm-a-rest Z-Lite Sol is considered the industry standard in this type of mat

The second type of sleeping mat is the self-inflating mat. These were the next evolutionary step on from the foam style pads. They consist of a membrane with a foam core that self inflates when the valve is opened. They provide a higher degree of comfort than the foam style pads and are almost as durable. They are also tend to be heavier than the other two types of pads. A good example here is the Therm-a-rest Prolite pad.

Therm-a-rest Prolite pad

The third and last type of sleeping pad is the inflatable mat and we are not talking about a lilo here. These mats are now very high tech and win-out in the areas of warmth, comfort and reduced weight. The one drawback tends to be durability so a ground sheet is always a good option and you should ensure to set them up on an area that isn’t likely to result in a puncture. However if well cared for, these mats will last for long periods.

Therm-a-rest used to be the only option in this category but now products from companies like Sea to Summit, Exped, Klymit and a number of others are all readily available in Australia. A number of lesser-known brands that are harder to source are also available. Popular examples in this category is the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite, Thermarest Xtherm, and the Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated.

Having been around long enough to go from a foam pad, to a self-inflating pad, to a blow up style mat, I can personally attest to the huge difference between the three types.

Therm-a-rest Neo Air XLite

Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Sleeping Mat

What the @&%# is R-value?

Sleeping pads perform two main functions. The first is comfort with the second is to help keep you warm which may surprise many new, and not so new hikers. If you lay on the bare earth, unless it is really hot the ground will absorb much of your body heat so in the cooler months of the year you’re going to get cold unless you have an insulating layer to minimise heat loss.

A term you will often hear bandied around when buying a sleeping mat is R-value. But what is it and why should you care. The R-value that you will see attached to a sleeping mat concerns the insulating benefit of the mat. The higher the R-value, the more insulating benefit you’ll receive. So an R-value of 2 will reduce heat loss twice as well as an R-value of 1. An R-value of 3, will reduce heat loss three times better than an R-value of 1. Simple… right?

The term R-value has been around for years but at least as far as sleeping mats were concerned it wasn’t a compulsory standard and many manufactures estimated the R-value of their mats rather than using a rigorous testing regime.

In 2016 a group of industry leaders in the USA began working on creating a standard methodology to measure and rate the insulation properties of sleeping pads/mats. This new ASTM standard allows consumers to easily compare mats, at least from a warmth perspective; its about comparing ‘apples with apples’ so to speak.

The level of warmth you need from your sleeping mat is going to depend on the time of the year you will be camping. As a general guide Therm-a-rest recommend the following:

  • Summer: R1 to R2.1
  • Spring or Autumn: R2.1 to R3.3
  • Winter:  R3.3 to R5.0 (with the R5.0 being ideal for snow conditions)

A good quality-sleeping mat has a big impact on your comfort and warmth particularly in colder conditions. Most of us will spend a huge amount of time choosing a sleeping bag and then stint when it comes to purchasing a sleeping mat. However, industry recommendations are that to get the maximum performance out out a sleeping bag, you need to have a mat that has an R-value of around 4.0. Surprise, surprise many high end mats have an R-value of 3.8 and this is no accident.

What does our community say?

During June and July 2019 we ran a facebook poll and in one of the biggest responses we have had to a survey of this type, here is what our community had to say in regard sleeping mats. We will update this each year as brands, models and technology changes.

What percentage of survey respondents camp overnight – occasionally, regularly or never

This response was a bit of a surprise. I expected a lot more back sleepers than we ended up with. In fact there was only around 2% of our respondents that were back sleepers. Most of our respondents were side sleepers or restless sleepers that moved throughout the night

Reasons for mat selection. This was a close one with comfort, warmth and packed size being the big winners

Type of sleeping mats preferred by our respondents. The inflatable sleeping mat was first choice with self inflating mats coming second. While I expected the foam mats to come third, the very small number did surprise me

Brand of mat: Therm-a-rest and Sea to Summit are the dominant brands here with both being widely available worldwide

What's new in sleeping pads?

Over the years we have tested many sleeping pads and mats but new models and new technology is coming to the market all the time. Here are the results of our latest test comparisons:

  1. Therm-a-rest NeoAir UberLite
    • The lightest and possibly the smallest (when packed) full sized inflatable mat on the market weighing in at 250 grams
    • A warmer season mat
    • R-value 2
  2. Sea To Summit Ether Light XT Insulated
    • This is one very luxurious mat and weighs in at only 425 grams
    • I flip like a pancake rather than rolling over but have never bottomed out on this 10 com deep mat
    • A year round mat for most hikers
    • R-value 3.8
  3. Therm-a-rest XLite
    • Packs very small and only weighs 350 grams
    • A year round mat for most hikers
    • R-value 3.8
  4. Sea to Summit Ultra Light Insulated Women’s Mat
    • Designed for women but great for anyone wanting a bit of extra width at the hips
    • Relatively small packed size and weighs only 450 grams
    • A year round mat for most hikers
    • R-value 3.8

Therm-a-rest UberLite Sleeping Mat

Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Sleeping Mat

Therm-a-rest Neo Air XLite

Sea to Summit Ultra Light Insulated Women’s Mat

Final thoughts

For me the perfect sleeping mat would be one that costs very little, weighs almost nothing, has an R-value of 3.8+, is very durable, is really comfortable, and packs down to the size of a tennis ball! I’m sure many would agree.

Unfortunately my ‘perfect’ mat doesn’t exist (at least at the movement). You only have to look at where sleeping mats have come from and where they are now yo appreciate the possibilities! In all honesty I think we may well see this theoretical sleeping mat come into existence in the next 10-20 years. Now given that this ‘prefect’ mat doesn’t exist as yet, your choice of mat will need to meet most of your individual needs. In choosing a new sleeping mat there are a number of criteria to consider but of these two are key.

The first is comfort. This doesn’t necessarily mean that a mat needs to be the biggest or the softest; choose one that suits your own personal requirements. Determining the comfit level is up to you. As a side sleeper (mainly) I need a highly cushioned mat.

The second criteria is warmth. A mat must meet your thermal needs. Again this is going to be an individual thing and for most hikers an R-value of around the 3.8 mark will carry you through just about any hike that you want to undertake. If you aren’t a wintertime hiker, you will get away with less. If you are into snow camping then you will need more.

Other criteria such as length, width, packed size, price and durability will all come into your selection. But this is one of those key items where spending a few extra dollars can make a huge difference to your enjoyment and after all that’s what it is all about!

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