When you’re camping, a good sleeping bag alone doesn’t guarantee a good night’s sleep. During the night, the insulation between your body and the ground will compress and result in you sleeping directly on the cold, hard ground. Sleeping pads solve this problem by providing insulation from the ground temperature and a comfortable and supportive surface to sleep on.
To compare the warmth of sleeping pads, we use R-values, which are FTC-regulated measurements of a material’s thermal resistance, borrowed from the construction industry. For a pad, they typically range from 1 to 10 with 10 being excellent for use in winter temperatures and 1 more suited to hot summer nights.
A pad’s R-value is almost entirely based on the material inside, which are either down, closed-cell foam, self-inflating, open-cell foam, and plain, old air. If the forecast is extra frigid, it’s common to put a closed-cell foam pad under another pad, effectively doubling up the insulation power of the pads.
The other main factor in picking a sleeping pad is comfort. Very rarely will you bed down on a soft layer of pine boughs, and if your camping experiences are anything like mine, you’ll undoubtedly wind up sleeping on a combination of hard rocks and tree roots. By getting you up off of the ground and providing a soft, uniform sleeping surface, you’ll get a much better night of sleep.
The comfort comes from a combination of the material used (inflatable pads can have their softness adjusted by adding or removing air) and thickness of the pad. The sizing of sleeping pads also contributes to their comfort, as some sleeping pads come in as many as four different sizes. Large (also called wide by some companies) pads offer a few extra inches of length and width; women’s pads are typically a few inches shorter and have slightly higher R-values; and small pads are typically sized to run from the head to the knees, meaning you’ll want to stick your feet in an emptied-out backpack for warmth. I’d recommend avoiding small sleeping pads unless you need your gear to be ultralight for extreme objectives.
Here, we outline a few favorites and the camping conditions in which they’re likely to serve you best.