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  • Writer's pictureGood Team at Switchbackr

How to Choose a Sleeping Pad in 2021

My first time backpacking was memorable for a lot of reasons. Proudly, I carried my z-lite at the base of my pack, so excited for the deep night sleep that awaited me. I didn’t sleep more than an hour that night, and it wasn’t for lack of exhaustion. I tossed and turned and woke up with a body full of aches. Looking back, I realized that I did not have the right pad for me.

Two girls in Yosemite with backpacks.
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano.

Finding the right pad is essential for an enjoyable backpacking or camping trip. Some people (like me), love maximum comfort when camping, so the pads I choose are generally heavier and bulkier than other people I go with. Others love the simplicity and lightness of something like the z-lite, an accordion style, thin pad. Choosing a pad comes down to comfort preference and what you are using it for, but there are some key factors to consider.

There are three types of pads: air pads, which are inflatable and comfortable; self-inflating pads, which are a combination of air and open-cell foam insulation; and closed-cell foam pads, which are simplest and least comfortable. Generally, inflating sleeping pads are going to be more expensive and less durable, but a lot more comfortable and easier to pack away in your bag. Closed-cell foam pads aren’t known for their comfort, but are a lot more affordable and weigh almost nothing. Here’s a good moment to consider what’s most important to you–comfort, price or weight?

Left to right, air pad, foam pad, self-inflating pad.

Another important thing to consider is the warmth, or r-value, of the pad. The r-value is basically a way to measure how well an object resists heat transfer. A higher r-value means a better insulated pad, and warmer nights sleep. Personally, I get very cold in the backcountry, so I almost always sleep with a closed-cell foam pad on the ground, then my air pad on top. This technique is commonly used for winter camping, particularly in snowy areas. Doing something like this will combine the r-value of the pads, and therefore, make you warmer.

The shape of a sleeping pad should also have an influence on your decision. If somewhere cold, you want to keep all of your limbs on your pad, as anything touching the ground will make you colder. It’s great to find a sleeping pad fits your full body when extended. Same goes for width–the general width of a sleeping pad is about 20 inches. If you roll around a lot in your sleep, or are a wider person, it might be smart to consider finding a 25 or 30 inch wide pad.

Sleeping on rock with trees in the back
Photo courtesy of Marina Neal. Cowboy Camping on top of El Capitan

However, if you are backpacking in warmer climates and your main concern is your pack’s weight, you might consider a “short” version of a pad, which is generally the size of your torso. Getting a kids length pad or ¾ length is a great way to save money and weight!

One final thing to note when choosing a pad, is what your sleeping bag is rated. If you are using a higher rated bag, you may want a pad with more insulation and vice versa. There are two types of sleeping bags: down and synthetic. Down sleeping bags will be a lighter and pack down a lot smaller, they’re great for cold and dry conditions. However, down bags generally are more expensive and don’t perform well when wet.

person backpacking near ocean
Photo courtesy of Alexa Romano.

Synthetic is a more affordable option than down, and a lot more water resistant. However, it is heavier than down bags and bulkier too. Another important thing to note is that down bags last longer, they maintain their insulation power in and out of a stuff sack. Synthetic bags are less durable, and don’t do well in stuff sacks for long periods of time. Finally, for both down and synthetic, note that the temperature degree rating on bags are usually absolute minimums. Try to stay in temperatures at least 5 degrees higher than what your bag is rated for, if you want to stay warm. All in all, both bags are a great choice, it just depends what you plan to do with them.

Feel free to reach out to anyone at Switchbackr with more questions about finding a pad. Good pads can be expensive new, so if you are open to a good, slightly used sleeping pad, Switchbackr is a great place to look. Choose wisely, be comfortable and send those peaks!

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