How to Choose a Sleeping Pad

Ah, the sleeping pad. A vital piece of gear in regards to camping and hiking, sleeping pads contribute to a comfortable night of snoozing in two very important ways. They not only provide extra padding (duh), they also offer (usually) much-needed insulation from the cold, hard ground.

Sleeping pads come in a variety of styles and sizes, so choosing the best one for you obviously means considering where you intend to use it among other things.

Weather Conditions

We’ve talked about it before, most air mattresses are best for warm weather camping, while air and self-inflating pads do well in colder conditions.

Types of Sleeping Pads

Foam pads are durable yet inexpensive, and the most basic of such options. Usually stiff and a bit bulky despite being lightweight, foam pads are created out of dense foam with closed air cells. Because they’re so darn stiff you might not find one comfortable unless you enjoy hard mattresses, but know they’re quite waterproof. Their stiffness does come in handy in the event of injury, however, as they may be used to create a splint.

Air pads are lightweight, comfortable, and frequently designed with foam and insulated fill. You must inflate them manually, which leaves them susceptible to rips and punctures. Considered best for warm weather camping and backpacking, they are also heavier than foam pads.

Air mattresses use–surprise–air for cushioning, and are pretty much the air-filled version of a typical mattress. They easily accommodate sheets and other standard bedding, and fit well in the back of most cars and truck beds in addition to tents. However, air mattresses are surprisingly heavy when at full capacity, and bulky. They’re also at risk of puncture, and don’t do much in terms of insulation. Use a pump to save yourself from hours of grief, and stick to utilizing air mattresses in warm conditions only.

Length and Width

Before randomly selecting a sleeping pad, it’s important to make sure it’s long and wide enough for you. Long pads are about 72 inches in length, though some reach 78 inches. If camping during cold weather, a longer option is highly necessary as you want to ensure your entire body fits on it. Shorter pads are 48 inches in length, so if you’re average or below average in height you can probably use a short one effectively. In terms of width, 20 inches is the standard, however ones to accommodate bigger individuals are available. Another reason to select a wider pad, such as one that’s 25 to 30 inches, is if you tend to roll around a lot. It’s also important to think about how large your tent is and how many other people will be sleeping in it before you buy.

Girl sitting in yellow sleeping bag on a cliff in mountains at sunrise

Be Prepared

Another very important factor to consider when purchasing a sleeping pad is how you plan to use it. If you camp and hike no matter what the weather or the season, you may want to invest in more than one pad. If you stick mainly to one type of camping or hiking, or don’t do it that often, one is probably enough.

If you love, love, love camping via boat and car, feel free to pick the pad that appeals to you and your sleeping preferences. Air mattresses are the typical favorite, however you may prefer a self-inflating or foam option. These mattresses also do well during hunting expeditions.

Winter camping obviously means as much insulation as possible, so be sure to use the right tent and sleeping bag in addition to a sleeping pad. Self-inflating pads work well in terms of both comfort and insulation, but it’s a good idea to have a non-inflating backup in case of puncture. You don’t want to wake up freezing and stiff at 4 in the morning because your sleeping pad deflated.

Planning a bare-bones hiking/backpacking excursion? Then you’ll need a lightweight pad that won’t weigh your pack down, especially if said pack also houses a sleeping bag. Self-inflating options are usually best, as air pads are too heavy to carry on long treks. A self-inflating option is still heavier than a foam pad, so keep this in mind when browsing possibilities. Air mattresses are too cumbersome to deal with, and foam pads aren’t always easy to roll up. If you do find a foam pad that rolls up well, feel free to use it for your next backpacking trip.

Find the best camping sleeping pad for your next outdoor adventure

If You Can Only Buy One

If you only have the budget for one sleeping pad, make it one you can use for all seasons. Air mattresses are clearly out unless you have a serious, portable heater on hand or are willing to spend big dollars on a getting a sleeping pad like the Therm-a-Rest Neo-Air Xtherm Sleeping Pad. This pad is an air mattress but because of the way it is built, it absorbs your body’s heat allowing it to heat up the air inside the pad and reflect the warmth back at you. But for in general, we highly recommend keeping it simple and consider a less-bulky foam pad or a self-inflating option. For boy scouts, the perfect pad for any campout are these closed cell Stansport Back Packing Pads.


Remember to think critically about what kind of sleeper you are and what type of padding you enjoy in addition to where you’re going and what you’re doing with your sleeping pad. Do you prefer sleeping on harder surfaces? Do you toss and turn? Do you get excessively warm while snoozing, or wake up from the cold frequently? Is all the extra cushioning you can find incredibly essential?

Sleeping pads are great things to have, and very necessary if you’re an avid backpacker and enjoy sleeping out in the open (and by “open,” we mean “tent” or “bivy”). Do a little research about where you’re going and what type of conditions you’ll be in before making your purchase, and if unsure go with an affordable product with the best reviews as your first option. You can always upgrade to a better possibility, or perhaps use them together.