How to Choose a Camping Sleeping Pad For Your Camping or Backpacking Trip


February 22, 2022


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Camping sleeping pad

Most campers know how important it is to choose a good sleeping bag and will do plenty of research before picking the right one. But the truth is, your camping sleeping pad is just as important as your bag when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. Your pad will play a key role in preserving your body heat, shielding you from the cold ground and cushioning you against lumps and bumps. Bruno Clavette, advisor at our Lachenaie branch and our resident expert when it comes to all things camping, is here to help you make the best decision.

You may think that, as comfortable sleeping pads go, the thicker the better. The reality is a bit more complicated and there are lots of factors that can help you narrow down your search, such as:

In the meantime, have a look at all the camping sleeping pad options available to start figuring out which one is best for you, from self-inflating pads and air mattresses to foam sleeping pads.

Camping sleeping pads Air mattresses Self-inflating pads Foam sleeping pads

Check out our Camping Guide to learn even more tips and advice on this activity, which is just as enjoyable to do with others or alone in the four corners of the country.

The types of camping sleeping pads available

When we think about camping, many of us will flash back to the family camping trip, those big inflatable mattresses we all had to pitch in to blow into and waking up on the ground after a night of gradual deflating. No more! Technology has come to the rescue of the outdoors community and manufacturers now offer several types of sleeping pads.

Inflatable sleeping pads (or air pads)

Inflatable sleeping pad

These inflatable pads, as the name indicates, fill up with air to both protect you from the cold ground and offer a degree of comfort and cushioning. They range from ultralight and compact models produced by brands such as Big Agnes, and Sea to Summit and aimed at avid backpackers trying to reduce the weight of their packs, to thick and comfortable ones used for glamping. Inflatable sleeping pads tend to cost a bit more and come in a variety of options that can be used for camping in a car, in a tent, in the backcountry or for backpacking trips.

Inflating your air pad can be done using a pump, which is often stored in a small pouch attached to the bag to prevent you from forgetting it at home, or a pumpbag. Think of the latter as a set of bagpipes: as you press on it, the expelled air goes into your mat to inflate it. Bruno’s pro tip? Use your pumpbag to store your gear when not in use!

But why go through all this trouble rather than simply blowing into your mat? Your breath contains moisture, which can stay trapped inside your sleeping pad, introducing bacteria or even mold. Which you most definitely don’t want to sleep on.

Self-inflating sleeping pads

Self-inflating sleeping pad

Similar to inflatable pads, self-inflating sleeping pads are made using foam that simply fills up with air and expands once the valve is opened. Fairly comfortable, reasonably compact and often more durable than air pads, they are great for car camping, tent stays in the backcountry or backpacking trips. Self-inflating sleeping pads are usually not the kind of ultralight products that avid backpackers are looking for, but they can be a more budget conscious option for casual campers. It’s worth noting that a pattern can be weaved into the pad, which reduces weight as foam tends to be heavier than air. Thermarest, Nemo and Sea to Summit offer a wide range of options for campers.

Foam pads

Foam pad

Foam pads are usually a more basic option. They are lightweight and inexpensive but much less comfortable. They can be folded or rolled up, and double up as a camp seat. Thermarest, amongst others, offers light and durable closed-cell pads which work well for hikers and backpackers alike.

Foam sleeping pads are a great addition to a thru hiker’s gear list as they cannot be punctured and often last longer than their inflatable counterparts. They can also be used as a second pad for winter camping, adding to your mat’s warmth rating. As they are not filled with air, foam pads are great for stopping the humidity from reaching you while you sleep.

Pads thickness

According to Bruno, thick doesn’t necessarily mean more comfortable. But it’s worth remembering that the further you are off the ground, the less the cold (and humidity) will reach you. The thickness of most sleeping pads ranges between 0.75” to 4” (1.9 cm to 10.2 cm). Anything above 4” (10.2 cm) isn’t generally designed for camping. “Just remember that comfort is a relative notion as some people will be fine with 1” (2.5 cm), while others will require 4” (10.2 cm) to have a good night,” adds Bruno. So selecting the right thickness will be a balancing act between what feels comfortable to you and the weight you can afford to carry. Find out how much room you have in your backpack, then come test sleeping pads in store to find out what feels comfortable enough for you to get a good night’s sleep.

Warmth and insulation: what can your camping sleeping pad do for you?

Manufacturers use a variety of techniques and materials to improve camping sleeping pads insulation levels, such as weaving patterns into pad (thus trapping warm air) or adding a layer of reflective material to direct body heat back towards you.

When it comes to staying warm at night, most people assume that their sleeping bags will do the bulk of the work. However, the weight of your body will squash the bag’s insulation that’s underneath you and render it useless; an insulated pad will stop the cold from the ground from reaching you.

Your bag and pad need to work together to keep you warm and comfortable at night. If your sleeping pad isn’t up to par, you may find that it affects your sleeping bag’s comfort rating.

Most companies use the ‘R-value’ to rate their pads, which makes it easier to compare products. Pad models will typically range between an R-value of 1 and 6. In short, the higher the rating, the better your sleeping pad will protect you against cold surfaces. Here is a quick guide.

Camping season Recommended R-value rating
Summer 1 to 3
3 seasons (including fall camping) 3 to 4
Winter 4 to 6

If hesitating between ratings, remember that a foam sleeping pad can be added to your main pad to protect you against the cold. Or have a look at our blog article on how to select a winter camping mat.

Picking the right size and shape

Campers can choose between a mummy (tapered) shape, which is less bulky for space constrained backpackers) or rectangular. Most sleeping pad sizes are fairly standard i.e., 5’6” and 5’10” (167.6 cm and 177.8 cm) for women, 6’ and 6’6” for men, although they can come in extra-long, extra-wide or two-person options. Unlike sleeping bags, you don’t need to add length to a sleeping pad unless you already know that you move a lot in your sleep. Just bear in mind that your camping sleeping pad will need to fit inside your tent, so do take those dimensions into account before going for a longer or wider model.

Pumps, repair kits, material, and everything else in between


If you land on an inflatable sleeping pad as your final choice, make sure you add your pump or pumpbag to your camping gear list.

Repair kit

This is essential for both inflatable and self-inflating sleeping pads. But in addition to taking it along with you, make sure you know how to use it before setting off.


It’s worth noting that some mats can be on the slippery side. If you move a lot during your sleep, look for a more textured material to keep you firmly in place.

Washing your sleeping pad

Caring for your pad is quite easy. After use, wipe it down with a damp cloth and let it fully dry before putting it away. Ideally, store self-inflating and inflatable pads unrolled with the valve open.

Pro tips

  • When shopping for your sleeping pad, pay attention to the noise it makes when you move. Some make a crinkly sound that could quickly annoy your tent partners
  • Some brands, including Sea to Summit, now use flat valves, which won’t poke you while sleeping or be accidentally opened
  • Other models also add an antimicrobial treatment to prevent mold and bacteria from growing inside the pad

You now have all the information you need to have the best night’s sleep, no matter where your camping trip takes you.

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