Father and son camping

Choosing the Right Sleeping Pad for Camping Comfort

Nothing ruins a camping trip like a bad night’s sleep — and it’s not always the bag that causes the problem. The type of sleeping pad you use can affect your comfort and warmth, both critical for a long, refreshing and restful night. Here’s a brief overview of what you need to consider when selecting the right pad for your campsite sleeping comfort.

Sleeping pads are designed to cushion you from the hardness and irregularities of the surface upon which you lie. The pad should also provide you with insulating qualities even when that surface is cold. It should also be separated from the ground by a waterproof layer to prevent moisture from ultimately seeping into your sleeping bag.

Depending upon the level of camping you like to do — minimalist backpacker to ‘kitchen sink’ car camper — the weight and compactness of your pad may be important, too. Lastly, most preferences/options come at a price: lightness and more warmth pushes up the price on most all the different pad types.

            Types Of Camping Pads

  • Basic air mattress with oral/pump inflating chambers/tubes throughout the mattress
  • Self-inflating mattresses, typically filled with foam
  • Closed-cell mattresses made of denser, waffle-surfaced, non-inflating foam
  • Composite air mattresses incorporating natural/synthetic down; expandable foam within the chambers/tubes

Within those options are degrees of cushioning, most of which is a function of the diameter of the tubes, thickness and density of the insulating material, and how much it compresses when filled to your own comfort level. That efficiency is even dependent upon whether you’re a back or side sleeper. The latter puts more weight in the shoulder/hip area while the former typically requires a wider bag.

Some pads have grooves between the tubes/baffles that are so deep they can depress the pad to the point that your bag can come in contact with the ground — thus increasing the loss of heat through conduction.

Here’s a bit more on that. Heat moves from warmer to colder so if you, as the generator of heat, are sleeping on cold ground, the heat you are generating is being slowly transferred out of your body by conduction with the surface of the colder ground — and doing so much faster than heat loss by cold air (called convection). Your sleeping bag works to keep that heat-to-air loss to a minimum, and a well-insulating sleeping pad works to slow down the process of the cold ground robbing you of your body heat. [NOTE: Sleeping on snow is actually much warmer than rock because of the minute air spaces between the ice crystals.]

One of the problems with an air mattress is that the air inside eventually cools and if it’s a high-sided mattress, the air can cool down the warmer air inside the tubes along those exposed surfaces, too.

A solution to this is to use an air or foam mattress for its comfort and cushioning effect on top of a closed-cell pad.  I’ve found that putting my self-inflating pad inside an old rectangular sleeping bag and using that combination for a sleeping platform works well in most cooler conditions.

Sleeping pads come with an R-value, too. The higher the number, the higher the insulation — and the higher its capacity to resist heat flow. Typically, a summer or three season pad should have an average R-value of 3 while a winter pad should be at least 5. With two lower R-value pads, you can combine them, thus providing you with additional warmth presuming you have the proper all-season/winter sleeping bag as well.

A good ground cloth, particularly an “emergency” blanket type — or better yet, the old-fashioned “Space Blanket” made with ripstop nylon offers heat reflecting options. Draped over a pile of leaves or grass, these “blankets” can help you create a cushy, warm make-shift sleeping platform.

To briefly recap, here are a few pros/cons about each type of pad:


Air Mattress

PRO: comfortable, most compact, lightweight, adjust firmness by increasing/decreasing air; some add interior foam or “down” for added insulation,

CON: The lighter and/or more compact, the more costly, can puncture.

Self-Inflating Pads

PRO: comfortable, compact, good insulating capabilities, durable covering, easy field repair;

CON: heavier than air mattress, more expensive

Closed-cell Pads

PRO:   lightweight, good insulation, won’t puncture, most versatile

CON:  least comfortable, firm, stiff, bulky.


Having the proper sleeping pad is just one facet of getting a good sleep during the colder months of tent camping. The quality of your sleeping bag, what you wear and even the moisture generated by your breath all affect how well you sleep through the cold night. Sweet warm dreams — be safe, stay warm and have fun out there!










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