How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

No matter what style of sleeping bag you choose, its effectiveness will be much improved by using it with a pad. Pads not only cushion your body against rocks, twigs, pine cones, and other debris, they provide a moisture and temperature barrier underneath your sleeping bag. Since your body weight will compress the down or synthetic fibers beneath you, they won’t have much insulation ability, so without a pad, you’ll lose body heat out of the bottom of your sleeping bag.

Pads may be made out of flat neoprene, which is black closed-cell foam, or a lightweight ridgid foam with added thickness at various pressure points, such as hips and shoulders. These pads come in 3/4 length (about 48 in.) or full length (about 60 in.), and are durable, low-cost, and lightweight solutions to staying warm. Also, they work well as chairs throughout the day, or whenever you do not want to sit on the hard ground.

sleeping pad How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking

To save weight, some backpackers prefer the 48 in. length pad, even if they’re over 6 feet tall. They place their backpack under the end of their sleeping bags to insulate their feet, which do not require as much padding.

For those of us who do not mind carrying an extra pound or two if it means sleeping in a more comfortable bed, Cascade Designs manufactures self-inflating Thermarest mattresses. These provide lightweight support and warmth, and because the air in the foam creates another “dead air” space for insulation, they are ideal for staying warm even while snow camping.

The mattresses come in 40 or 60 inches lengths, and are made of open-cell foam rubber, surrounded by a tough nylon exterior shell. You open and close a valve to allow air in (to inflate for use) or let it out (to deflate for packing). The main drawbacks to inflatable pads are punctures and leaks. The manufacturer makes a simple patch kit, but the tricky part is finding the hole that is causing the leak.

If you decide to use a Thermarest, watch out for cactus spines in the desert, and in the mountains, beware of rocks, twigs or sharp sticks. Because of this relative fragility, when used by themselves, they are not as durable as the foam and neoprene pads for sitting on in your campsite.

Good ground insulation is as important as your sleeping bag.

This company also manufacturers a cover to turn their inflatable mattress into a chair. The cover protects the mattress against abrasions and punctures, and can be easily converted back into a mattress when you’re ready to go to sleep.

Some manufacturers are now making pad/sleeping bag combinations that work together to form a complete “sleeping unit.” Cascade Designs manufactures a “Therm-a-Nest” sleep system that combines their mattresses and sleeping bags. They also use recycled polyester fill in some of their models.

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