How To Choose The Best Sleeping Pad For Camping

How To Choose The Best Sleeping Pad For Camping

All types of camping require a large amount of gear, with some more dependent on your preferences and camping location than others.

Sleeping pads aren’t as exciting as tents, grills, and even sleeping bags, but they are every bit as essential when desiring a fun and accommodating outdoor experience.

Part of the casual outdoor experience is the goal of remaining comfortable while still enjoying all that the outdoors has to offer.

Quality sleep is important whether you’re in a plush hotel, or staying in a tent in Yosemite National Park. Without good sleep, you’ll be tired and sluggish the next day, and perhaps even nursing a backache.

Couple by the fire on a camping trip

No, you can’t lug your bedroom’s mattress with you on your camping trip, but you can have the next best thing with a properly selected sleeping pad. Camping sleeping pads offer an effective approach for providing yourself and fellow campers with great sleep in a comfortable setting.

You may initially think that all sleeping pads are basically the same, and can be used for all types of camping, but that’s not the case.

As with other camping gear, you need to match your items with your environment, preferences, and overall camping type. The same is true with sleeping pads. Choose the wrong one, and you may be in for a rough trip.

So how do you choose the right camping sleeping pad? To answer that, first we need to go into what a sleeping pad actually is, what it isn’t, and the different types that are available. By the end of reading this, you’ll be informed enough to make a wise buying decision.

What Are Sleeping Pads?

In terms of camping gear, a sleeping pad is anything designed for camping that is intended to be used under your sleeping bag, or pallette setup.

It acts as a sort of mattress, providing cushioning, stability, and usually heat retention as well, although some warm weather pads are made to be cooler.

Two Kamui sleeping pads

These pads are available in a wide variety of types, shapes, and textures, and each offers varying degrees of comfort and mobility. They can range anywhere from lightweight and thin, to heavy and bulky.

Sleeping pads are designed to function as both a cushion and as support for your body and sleeping bag, resulting in much more ideal sleeping conditions when lying on the ground.

Types Of Sleeping Pads

Although sleeping pads vary greatly depending on the actual product, they can usually be broken down into three distinct categories, each with their own characteristics, functions, and uses.

Air Pads

These sleeping pads sort of resemble pool rafts, and need to be filled with air before being used. This can be done with your own breath, or by using a hand pump that is either included, or purchased separately.

Air pads can be very comfortable depending on the model, and they are rather simple to use, despite being the only type that requires some additional setup. These pads are very lightweight, and can often be compacted down to a very small size when being stored or carried.

While air pads are generally cooler than other sleeping pad types, they can usually accommodate extra materials for added insulation when needed. They are also easily adjustable, allowing users to choose their ideal level of firmness.

Woman rolling foam sleeping pad

Some of the more common disadvantages of air pads involve being fragile in some conditions, and the tendency to be a bit loud when moving around on one.

Foam Pads

Foam pads are exactly as the name implies. Made from any density of foam, these pads offer varying degrees of cushioning and support, and can be quite different from one another. Foam pads can be thick, thin, smooth, and textured, depending on the model.

While they may seem rather simple, some foam pads are specifically engineered to offer added levels of heat retention in cold conditions, while others can be designed to deflect heat away in warmer climates.

A common characteristic is that foam pads are incredibly lightweight, and can easily be transported on the outside of a backpack.

Although foam pads are light and durable, they are still the least comfortable of the three main types. Some campers and backpackers still prefer them however, and many often choose to layer a foam pad under another sleeping pad for added cushioning and stability.

Self-Inflating Pads

Self-inflating pads are a meshing of air pads and foam pads. As you might expect, they inflate on their own, without the need of any auxiliary air. Simply open the valve, and the pad automatically inflates to full level.

Kamui self inflating pad valve detail

The combination of foam and air results in the most comfortable feel out of the three main pad types, and the most stability as well. Self-inflating pads are usually very insulated, making them good for cooler climates, although they are perfectly fine for summer camping as well.

Self-inflating pads are also very durable, and can withstand most scrapes and pokes. Depending on the model, some pads can be joined with similar models, creating a larger sleeping surface.

The only real downside to self-inflating pads is their overall size and weight. They tend to be heavier than foam and air pads, and are not as easily compatible. For casual campers this isn’t really an issue, but backpackers may have problems trying to fit the pad in with the rest of their gear.

Notable Characteristics

While sleeping pads do vary depending on the type and particular model, there are some characteristics that you can use to better determine the right one for you.


Sleeping pads are lightweight by default, but some much more than others. Ultralight backpacking sleeping pads are often thin, and can weigh as little as ½ a pound. Camping sleeping pads that are much thicker and more geared for comfort over mobility usually weigh around 4-5 lbs. It’s best to keep things under 4 lbs if possible.

Length And Width

You’re obviously going to want to choose a sleeping pad that can accommodate your body type and size. Backpacking sleeping pads will usually have a smaller size that tapers down towards the legs to save weight and packing room.

Kamui sleeping pad characteristics

Air pads and self-inflating pads are almost always shaped like a rectangle, with a consistent size throughout.


A common rating listed on sleeping pads, R-value refers to the pad’s abilities to resist heat flow. The higher the R-value, the better the pad is at insulating. A value of 5 is considered to be in the middle, while 3 is better for hotter climates. R-values over 7 are suitable for very cold camping.


Some sleeping pads opt for a smoother surface texture, while others may incorporate grooves and other features that help with alignment. It’s also common to see sleeping pads that have built-in “rails” on the side to keep you from rolling off, while others may have a built-in pillow area.

Determining Your Best Sleeping Pad Type

Now that you know about all of the different types and characteristics of camping sleeping pads, listed below are the most ideal types to use for certain types of camping.


When backpacking, you have to carry a large amount of gear, which means that everything needs to be as compact and light as possible. While foam pads are almost always the lighter option, many of them are difficult to break down to a smaller size.

Guy inflating air sleeping pad in the woods

Air pads are often only a small bit heavier, and able to compact down to the size of a mini-basketball. This makes them the best option for both ordinary backpacking and ultralight backpacking.

There are some self-inflating pads that are made for backpacking, but these are usually expensive, and difficult to find, making air pads the most popular choice.

  • Verdict: Air Pad

Winter Camping

Winter camping is dependent upon gear that is optimized for combatting cold temperatures, both during the day and at night. Getting proper sleep in a safe manner is of the utmost importance, making your sleeping gear setup crucial.

Ordinary air pads are almost always best for milder temperatures, as they lack a high R-value. Self-inflating pads are going to be your best option, as they have a better amount of insulation. If you really want to have a warm sleep setup, a foam pad under the self-inflating pad can provide even more comfort and heat.

  • Verdict: Self-Inflating Pad + Foam Pad

Car Camping

Car camping refers to what’s likely the most popular type of camping in existence. With car camping, you drive directly to your campsite, where you can then unload and setup, or take a short walk to your camping area. This allows for much more camping gear being brought along.

Father and son sitting on Kamui sleeping pad

Because of this, self-inflating sleeping pads are the best choice. These pads are usually a little bulkier and heavier than other pads when stored, but since you are unloading right by your campsite, this isn’t an issue.

Self-inflating pads are the closest you can get to a true mattress experience when staying outdoors, so you should take advantage when you can. They can often be made into a double sleeping pad for couples and families as well, making them an even more ideal choice.

  • Verdict: Self-Inflating Pad


By now you should see that camping sleeping pads are quite different from each other, and each has its own uses that are more inclined for certain conditions and camping types.

By choosing the correct sleeping pad, you can ensure that your camping experience is as comfortable as it can be, each and every time.

Be sure to consider the type of camping you engage in most before purchasing, and always check the sizing to make sure it’s a proper fit. Happy camping!

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