If you’ve ever managed to forget your sleeping pad on a camping trip, then you will know first hand just how essential it is to have protection from the cold ground.
Even the best sleeping bag can be rendered useless without a mat beneath you, and the dreamlike promise of a cozy, well-earned slumber can quickly turn into a thing of nightmares. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the comfort levels that a good sleeping pad provides.
So if you already have a great sleeping pad for camping, then make sure you don’t forget it! And if you’ve not got one yet, then, as with every bit of outdoor gear, a little knowledge on what to look for in the best sleeping pads and what’s available will go a long way.
Some of the best sleeping pads available are outlined later in the article.
- How to Choose the Best sleeping pads for backpacking and camping
- All-rounder sleeping pads
- Best value sleeping pads
- Warmest sleeping pads
- Lightest sleeping pad
How to Choose the Best sleeping pads for backpacking and camping
Pad types and cost
With a vast array of different sleeping pads on the market, you can expect to pay anything from $20 to $250 for a new camping mat. Of course, selecting the best sleeping pad for the money for your wilderness Dreamtime isn’t as straightforward as going for what fits within your budget.
So here’s a breakdown of the main types of sleeping pad to choose from. Once you have a good idea of which is for you, you can then narrow your search slightly:
Closed-cell foam (CCF) sleeping mat
Closed-cell foam mats are the least expensive type of sleeping mat available and the best sleeping pad for the money. Their unrivaled durability means that they can endure use in a variety of backcountry scenarios, often doubling as extra support for frameless backpacks, amongst other things.
They are also super lightweight, and at less than ½ an inch thick, CCF mats rely on tiny air pockets within the foam for insulation.
Cons: Not very comfortable and can be bulky
Self-inflating sleeping mat
You won’t feel like you’re floating on clouds when curled up on a self-inflating sleeping pad, but they are considerably more pleasant to spend your zzz’s on than a CCF pad.
The pads are made up of a sponge-like foam that is sandwiched between two pieces of fabric, and a couple of breaths is all that’s needed to fully inflate them, providing a stable and sturdy place to lay your weary head.
Most are warm enough for 3 season camping, they inflate easily, and to top it off, they won’t break the bank.
Cons: Can be a little on the heavy and bulky side
Air construction sleeping pad
Air construction mats are relatively new on the sleeping pad scene and are taking the camping world by storm. And with good reason; they provide excellent levels of comfort and warmth, without compromising weight and pack downsize, and are considered the best sleeping pad for side sleepers.
In fact, some models are amongst the smallest and lightest pads available full stop. They owe their warmth to internal synthetic material, goose down, or baffled structures that provide good insulation and stability to what otherwise might be mistaken for something the kids would take to the pool.
Too good to be true? Well yes, unfortunately; this innovative new design will leave a large hole in your pocket. They can also puncture easily, making them the least durable of all the sleeping pad types.
Cons: Takes longer to inflate than others, expensive, and can puncture easily
Having a comfortable sleeping pad is a pretty major factor when deciding which pad to choose, but if the insulation isn’t up to scratch, all that luxury won’t count for much it’s no fun shivering your way through the night.
Getting the right balance is, of course, the best option if you want to sleep like a baby. However, having your cake and eating it often comes at a price.
The insulation level of every sleeping pad is rated by an R-Value (a measure of the resistance of an insulating material to heat flow). The higher the number, the greater the level of insulation.
Sleeping pad R-Value:
- 0-1 – only really suitable for warm summer conditions, when the ground doesn’t lose too much heat at night.
- 1-3 – this will suit the needs of most campers for 3-season backpacking and wilderness sleeping.
- 3-5 – great for winter camping and sleeping out in sub-zero temperatures.
- 5+ – a must for camping on snow.
As mentioned, the different pad types provide varying levels of comfort, so it’s important to understand your personal comfort requirements before you make the investment.
Hardy, ‘sleep through anything’ types will probably be fine snoozing on a no-frills CCF mat, but they can be pretty uncomfortable for those that favor sleeping on their sides.
However, Princess and the Pea slumberers will definitely prefer an air construction sleeping pad, whose coziness will have you yearning for more nights out in the wild just to get a great night’s sleep.
Another key consideration to factor in when choosing the best sleeping pad for camping is the pad’s ability to withstand the rough and tough of backcountry life.
CCF mats will endure pretty much anything you will throw at them, and are a great option for sleeping directly on rough ground, using as a seat around the campfire, or doubling as your climbing rope mat at the crag. Where they lack in comfort, they certainly make up for in versatility and robustness.
Air construction pads, on the other hand, need to be looked after and shouldn’t be carried without a repair kit, which comes with the mats.
Self-inflating sleeping pads generally stand up to a bit more battering than air pads, and you can place more confidence in their ability to not puncture when used directly on the ground. That said, they’re not bulletproof, so it’s always a good idea to carry a repair kit on extended trips.
Weight and size
As with most backpacking items, the smaller and lighter they are the better. But as we know, both of these things don’t always equate to products that suit your personal needs.
Whilst having something super light will make your packing and carrying much easier, if you end up having a bad night’s sleep due to the lack of insulation provided by your overly light pad, you’re better off taking the hit of a heavier mat for a good and restorative snooze.
Thankfully, some of the best sleeping pads for ultralight backpacking out there that are inconceivably tiny without compromising luxury and warmth.
They usually carry a hefty price tag, that although can be an instant turnoff, is worth considering if you value your sleep. A couple of things to consider that can influence the weight and size of a sleeping pad are:
- Length – to cut down on some weight without losing comfort or warmth, opt for a ¾ length mat that provides insulation to the key areas of your body but leaves your feet hanging over the bottom. Many backpackers put their bags under their feet to compensate.
- Tapering – many new lightweight mat designs have saved weight by replacing the traditional rectangular shape with a more tapered ‘mummy’ style.
For winter camping you will need all the insulation you can get, so it is best to stick with a full-length rectangular design and even go for something wider than average if possible.
With all of that in mind, here’s the lowdown on 8 of the best sleeping mats for backpacking in 2020 that cover a range of budgets, camping styles, and preferences:
All-rounder sleeping pads
Eco-conscious: Contains TPU fabric, recycled polyester, and eco-friendly Primaloft insulation
If you want to sleep green in the great outdoors then take a look at Performance 7 from Vaude. With a 2.7 R-Value rating and a minimum temperature limit of -3.5 degrees C, this inflating camping pad is designed for three-season camping.
The pad is an impressive 7cm thick and filled with recycled polyester and Primaloft Black Insulation Eco. The outer fabric is made from a hard-wearing 20D TPU fabric which is environmentally preferable to PVC.
The curved ends help to save weight and, at 410g, Performance 7 is both light and compact enough for backpacking trips. This rugged camping pad also comes with an emergency repair kit and bag.
It’s available in two lengths and Vaude offers a four-season version of this pad with a 4.7 R-Value, the Performance Winter 7.
Although a very strong contender for the all-rounder award, the Big Agnes falls short on weight and price compared with the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite.
However, at an inch thicker, you can be sure that the internal, heat-reflective polyurethane coating will be sealing in plenty of warmth on those chilly nights.
Like the site, it is a little on the narrow side, but has the added benefit of a rectangular design to make up for it, and is surprisingly stable for a pad of this depth making it a hot competitor as the best sleeping pad for side sleepers.
The Q-Core is a good compromise if you require more warmth than the XLite but don’t want to take the financial hit of the XTherm.
The Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite really has got it all: super lightweight, a pack down the volume that competes with your water bottle, and comfort levels to rival your bed at home.
An extra $70 will get you the very similar but much warmer XTherm, or opt for the Speedvalve convenience of the XLite Max SV new on the scene for 2016. All Therm-A-Rest sleeping pads, come with a Lifetime Warranty which is another very appealing feature of these great pads.
Despite the slightly narrow sizing and usual repair kit requirement of an air construction sleeping pad, the Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Xlite is an excellent choice for backcountry minimalist and luxury car camper alike and wins our All-Rounder Award without question.
This new addition to the Q-Core range from Big Agnes is lighter, packs down smaller, and is easier to use than the older version.
And although the Q-Core SL is a very hot contender as an all-round great sleeping pad, it’s hard not to love this new and better version: the Q-Core SLX.
Somehow Big Agnes have shaved 100g off the weight of the SL whilst increasing the tear resistance of the nylon rip-stop fabric by 25%. They have also greatly improved the valve system which now has two separate valves for inflation and deflation.
When inflating through the one-way valve, you can take a break without the whole thing deflating!
The synthetic insulation provides warmth down to 15ºF (-9ºC), which equates to an R-Value of around 4.5. This makes the SLX a more compact option than the XTherm for backpacking in winter conditions, which also provides a thicker and larger area to get snoozing on.
Best value sleeping pads
This CCF accordion-style sleeping mat is the cheapest option in this review and the best sleeping pad for the money. Although very thin and light, the heat-trapping dimples and ThermaCapture™ coating helps trap radiant heat, which increases the overall warmth of the mat by 20% so no need to worry about the chill.
It’s also super durable and robust, being as comfortable lying around camp as tucked up in your tent. However, its comfort levels stop there, making it a poor choice for side sleepers and lovers of luxury.
The other main disadvantage is packed downsize. With a pack volume of 12L, you’ll be limited to securing the mat to the outside of your pack; OK in dry conditions, but can be problematic in the wet.
This is a good value sleeping pad and the best-closed cell foam sleeping pad for fast and light thru-hikers, who will most likely be too tired to need a bed of feathers to aid their sleep.
It is also a good option for campers with canine companions the rugged nature of the mat is much more able to deal with dog claws than an expensive air construction mattress.
Not the lightest pad in this review, but a really excellent value option that provides super cozy comfort levels without compromising too much on weight.
The WaveCore structure uses a single layer of horizontal wave baffles, that doubles the warmth of an uninsulated air mattress without the added bulk, leaving you with a very respectable pack volume of the only 2L.
Warm enough for most 3 season camping trips and much more durable than an air mattress, the Venture WV really comes into its own during multiple nights of camping in the same spot, where comfort shares the spotlight with good insulation levels.
The rectangle shape offers more space than tapered designs, and Therm-A-Rest has even added a luxurious polyester coating for against the skin comfort.
If it’s a ‘one pad fits all’ deal you are after, that is one of the best sleeping pads for car camping as well as backcountry ramblings, then you can’t go wrong with this tried and trusted Thermarest favorite that won’t break the bank. Winner of our Best Value Award.
Warmest sleeping pads
As one of the warmest pads on the market, the Exped DownMat is THE pad for serious winter expeditions, providing comfort and insulation at temperatures as low as -36.4F.
The 3.5 inches of 700 fill power goose down insulation, ensures a luxurious sleep whatever the temperature.
But at over 1.1kg, the mere mortal winter explorer might find it better suited to multiple days at base camp rather than on the move winter expeditions.
Either way, the XP9 LW (long and wide) is the best sleeping pad for big guys that will keep even the largest of snow sleepers happy, comfortable, and very warm.
Lightest sleeping pad
The Air Sprung cells of this super small and lightweight Sea to Summit sleeping pad, provide a greater degree of support and stability than the tube cell equivalents.
And the single layer of divided chambers create dimples that mimic those of a bed mattress, molding to your body for optimal comfort. You won’t get a much lighter air construction pad that packs this small without compromising on comfort.
With a slightly more competitive price tag than the NeoAir XLite, the Ultralight is one of the best sleeping pads for hiking fast and light. However, its low R-value means all that Air Sprung comfort counts for nothing except in the most clement summer conditions.
Once again, a repair kit is a must and although it is compatible with a Sea to Summit Air Chair, care must be taken to avoid punctures. Another great little accessory available is a Coupler Kit that keeps your partner’s mat cozy and close for camping cuddles!