Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads – How to Choose

The best backpacking sleeping pads
Our two backpacking sleeping pads. The grey one is old gear and not recommended, but it is lighter and smaller then the one Jennifer had prior to getting her new Sea to Summit one.

Having one of the best backpacking sleeping pads is crucial to getting a good night’s rest after a long day of beautiful backcountry exploration. The idea of a sleeping pad seems very simple. The goal is to lift the body evenly off the ground, making a hard, rough, and uneven surface soft and comfortable enough to sleep on. However, one of the most overlooked values of the best backpacking sleeping pads is that it creates a barrier between your sleeping bag and the cold earth.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify the best backpacking sleeping pads in this article as essential but also give it a rating. Obviously you need a sleeping pad to go backpacking so it is an essential piece of gear. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. If taken care of properly, a quality sleeping pad can last you a lifetime. There is usually a build quality, comfort, weight, and insulation value tradeoff with cheaper sleeping pads. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all backpacking gear in one place.

Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads

  • Classification: Essential Gear
  • B-Rating: Prioritize weight savings and design on a quality product if you can.

Types of Sleeping Pads

There are basically two types of sleeping pads. Although each type has a multitude of designs to try and keep you comfortable and warm on the trail. The first is the foam pad which many people swear-by for their comfort and warmth. But the trade-off is that they are bulky. This is why most people who carry them strap them to the bottom of their backpacks. However, they can sway around below the pack creating an annoyance when hiking. The second type is the inflatable sleeping pad which is what we have always used. They are lighter and pack down much smaller, making them very portable and ideal for backpacking.

Inflatable Pad

Dual Valve
The Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated sleeping pad has a dual valve that allows it to be easily inflated and quickly deflated.

Inflatable pads come in numerous variations. The best backpacking sleeping pads are engineered so that the inflatable cells within the pad keep you lifted off the ground evenly while minimizing weight, maximizing reflective heat/insolation, and reducing the ability for bacteria to buildup inside the pad. There are self-inflating pads and ones that come with bags that work like pumps as well as the old fashion one you inflate with your lungs.

Thickness and Support

The best backpacking sleeping pad
Jennifer loves her Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated sleeping pad. It has a 3.5R value that helps her stay warm on the trail.

Many sleeping pad manufacturers will boast about the thickness of their pad, but evenly dispersed support is more important. If your body is supported evenly then the thickness is less important. Even support is achieved either with a tight tube-like design known as baffles or by a sprung-cell design. The tube designs can get quiet engineered with some designed cells along the edges of the pad slanting inwards to keep your body in the center of the pad. I prefer the cell design as it has been my experience that the number of smaller cells do a better job of supporting the body evenly, especially when sleeping on my side.

R-Value

While sleeping bags are the most obvious source of heat when camping, a quality sleeping pad can make a world of difference in staying warm on cold nights. Sleeping pads don’t keep in the heat but rather insulate you from the cold ground and reflect your body heat back into your sleeping bag. Sleeping pads are rated with an R-value from 0-6. The higher the number the warmer your night’s sleep will be. For three-season camping, an R-value of 3 is usually sufficient unless you are sleeping on a glacier. In the past, the R-value has not had a standardized rating protocol but in January 2020 the ASTM F3340-18 system was introduced. This protocol dictates how mats should be tested to receive there standardized R-value. If you want to compare mats from different manufacturers check to see if there R-value is ASTM F3340-18, otherwise, the R-value is mostly subjective.

Quality vs. Price

Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Pad Pump Sack
The built in pump sack on the Sea to Summit system helps to keep moister from building up inside the pad. It also keep you from hyperventilating when inflating it.

Good sleeping pads are surprisingly pricey and contentious pieces of gear in the backpacking community. Probably more so than any other piece of backpacking gear, people have their opinions about the best sleeping pad and they often own it. Some of this I think is derived from the fact that the advantages of a quality pad over an entry-level pad aren’t obvious unlike tents and sleeping bags. This being the case, the sleeping pad is often one of the last upgrades people make and the difference is often astonishing.

Sea to Summit Ultralight

For my money, I like the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Sleeping Pad (16.9oz, 3.1R). I think the smaller cell design allows for better support throughout the night. It is also slightly wider and quieter than the competition. The women’s version is even warmer with a 3.5R value. The Sea to Summit also comes with a pump sack making the pad easier to inflate at the end of a long hike. I also really like the dual design valve that allows the user to easily inflate the pad without losing any pressure between breaths. The dual valve also allows the pad to be deflated instantaneously.

Alternative Sleeping Pads

If you really need a warmer and lighter pad or prefer the baffled tube design then go with the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite (12.3oz, 4.2R). The NeoAir XLite has been a go-to pad for ultralight backpackers for years. If money is more of a concern you will have to trade R-value for weight or vise versa. What will be right for you, will depend on if you intend to camp in colder weather or not? If not, then get a lightweight nock off on Amazon with a 1 to 2 R-value like this Sleepingo (14.5oz, 2.1R).

Choosing the Best Backpacking Sleeping Pad

Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads
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The best backpacking sleeping pads are an essential part of a good quality sleep system when camping in the backcountry. They are engineered to give you the best quality sleep even on the coldest nights. Which will be best for you will depend greatly on the temperatures that you expect to camp in as well as your budget.

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