Sleeping on the ground without any cushion sucks. If you’ve never tried it, it’s probably worse than you think.
Warmth is another major problem because the ground sucks heat away from you. Sleeping bags aren’t much help in the area between your body and the ground because, since you’re laying on it and compressing the bag with your body weight, there’s no air left in that part of the bag — so it’s not able to insulate you well from the ground.
Modern tech is pretty great, so sleeping pads are surprisingly cheap, comfortable, insulative, compact, and lightweight. Yay, our spines thank you, REI designers!
But there’s a bummer of a tradeoff: the most compact models — which are obviously preferred for go-bags and can often be stored inside the bag — are inflatable and thus not something you’d want to depend on in an emergency. Foam models are durable, but take more room and almost always need to be carried on the outside of a backpack. Which is still very reasonable and what most experts do.
So the vast majority of people should buy a closed-cell pad. You can get crafty and cut it down (since it’s just foam!) to customize it for your body, which could make it even easier to pack. Some people cut off the pad from below the knees, for example, since your knees are the lowest point that needs real cushioning.
- Two types: closed-cell (foam) and inflatable.
- Inflatables are generally considered to be more comfortable.
- But inflatables become useless quickly if you get holes in them. For example, embers drifting over from a fire keeping you warm while you sleep, burning a pinhole.
- Foam pads are generally lighter. The plastic on inflatables has to be thick, and there’s the plastic valves/caps, so the weight adds up.
- Closed-cell sleeping pads typically weigh around 14 ounces. Inflatable pads start around 1 pound, 11 ounces and run all the way up to 6 pounds depending on the R-value and thickness.
- Inflatables can pack down to about half the size of a foam pad, to the point you can store them inside a pack. Foam pads are almost always strapped outside.
- Some people carry both inflatable and foam pads. When deployed, the bottom layer is always the foam one.
- R-value is the measure of how effectively a pad insulates you from the ground. 0-2 is fine for warm weather, 2-4 for most temperatures, and 5+ for freezing conditions.
- Smooth (ish) closed-cell pads are easier to clean, but may not be the most comfortable. The “peaks and valleys” patterns create more cushion.
- Bonus: spare foam has many uses, such as improvised splints.
Best for most:
Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad
The Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad has the highest R-value out of the closed-cell contenders we’ve reviewed. This tough pad rolls up and is available in three sizes. Depending on the size you pick, this pad will cost between $20 and $30, which is very reasonable considering the lifetime warranty and known brand name.
Cold weather pick:
Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp Sleeping Pad
For extreme cold weather, experts recommend an R-value above 5.5. The Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp Sleeping Pad has an R-value of 6 and features a 2-inch pad that will provide a nice cushion. This pad is self-inflating and features the Therm-a-Rest WingLock valve, making inflation and deflation quick and easy. These pads are available in regular, large and extra-large, ranging from $80 to $130 depending on which size is purchased. Of all the inflatable pads we looked these pads were reasonably priced, user friendly, relatively lightweight, and had an R-value rated for extremely cold weather.
Although not currently top picks, these models are worth a look if you want more shopping options:
Closed-cell foam pads:
- Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad (R-value 2.2)
- NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad (R-value 2)
- Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Sleeping Pad (R-value 2.1)
- Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol Sleeping Pad (R-value 2.0)
Inflatable sleeping pads:
- Exped MegaMat 10 Sleeping Pad (R-value 8.1)
- REI Co-op Camp Bed Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad (R-value 7.6)
- REI Co-op Flash Thermal Sleeping Pad (R-value 4.7)
- REI Co-op Trailbreak Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad (R-value 5.1)
- Therm-a-Rest MondoKing 3D Sleeping Pad (R-value 7)
- Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro Sleeping Pad (R-value 4.4)
- Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Sleeping Pad (R-value 3.1)
Types of sleeping pads: closed-cell vs. inflatable
Closed-cell pads are firm pads made from foam. They are the cheapest, the most durable, and typically have an R-value of 2. Closed-cell sleeping pads lack the padding of their inflatable counterparts, making them uncomfortable. They are usually rolled up and carried outside of your go-bag. Closed-cell pads can be repurposed as a sun visor, a cushion, or to fan coals on a fire. These pads can last a long time.
Inflatable pads are much more comfortable than closed-cell pads and are easy to pack up. Inflatable pads have higher R-values so if you have to contend with freezing temperatures, you will need an inflatable pad. Some inflatable sleeping pads will self-inflate, while others will need to be blown up, either from an end user blowing air into the pad with their mouth or with a small hand pump. Inflatable sleeping pads can have an R-value from 2 to 5.5+.
Sleeping pad features
There are several features to consider when choosing a sleeping pad. You want something that is warm, comfortable, and versatile for multiple uses.
R-value: The R-value is a standard measure of insulation. An R-value of 0-2 is fine for warm weather, 2-4 will get you through all but the coldest winters, and 4-6 is suited for freezing temperatures.
Packing style: Closed-cell pads pack up in two ways: they either fold like an accordion or roll up. The latter is preferable, as folds are prone to rips and are thinner and thus less insulative. Inflatable pads will usually roll up or fold into a compression sack.
Cushioning: Warmth and versatility are good, but can you actually sleep on it? Comfort is less of an issue with closed-cell pads, because they’re just not going to be that comfortable, but if you supplement one with a self-inflating pad, you want something that will sleep comfortably.
Weight: If you’re building a sleeping kit for your vehicle, weight doesn’t matter as much, but if you’re buying a pad for your go-bag, weight is critical. A simple closed-cell sleeping pad will weigh around 14 ounces. Inflatable pads start around 1lb 11 ounces and go all the way up to 6 lbs depending on the R value and pad thickness.
Colors: Do you want to be seen or not? If you choose natural colors like olive drab or brown you’ll blend in better in the woods, but many survival experts recommend bright orange to signal for help if needed. You can split the difference by putting an orange sleeping pad in a green rain cover or poncho when not in use.
How do you carry a sleeping pad?
Closed-cell pads are bulky, so they’re best kept strapped to the outside of your bug out bag. Your bag may have built-in straps for this purpose, or you can buy pack straps separately. It’s typically best to hang them from the bottom of the pack.
Secure your pad:
Sea to Summit Hook-Release 3/4" Accessory Straps
Inflatable pads can usually fit in a compression sack, which you can either store inside your pack or attach to the outside. You’ll want to make sure that it’s good and dry first or you run the risk of mold and mildew growing on your pad.
Another idea is to make an old-fashioned cowboy bedroll. You can roll up sleeping pads, bags, tarps, and other things that lay flat and roll up, use straps to hold them together, and hang them from the bottom of your pack.
Sleeping pad maintenance
You need to keep your sleeping pad clean and dry. Body oils can degrade the material and collected moisture can encourage mold and mildew growth.
There isn’t a universal recommendation for how to clean your pad, though you should avoid washing machines and stick to a simple wipe down, rinse, and dry. Nemo Equipment recommends wiping down with mild soap, while Thermarest recommends Formula 409 or BioKleen All-Purpose Cleaner. We also like Krud Kutter, which is a water-based and gentle cleaner and degreaser. It’s always best to check with the manufacturer to see what they recommend.
Hang your pads to let them dry, though keep them out of direct sunlight because that could damage the material. Again, closed-cell foam pad will hold up better than inflatables. For inflatables, be sure to hang them with the valve open and facing down so trapped moisture can drain out.
When it comes to storing your pad, again check with the manufacturer. Self-inflating pads should be stored flat with the valve open. Regular inflatables can be rolled up or put in a stuff sack. You can just keep closed-cell pads rolled up, but it may develop an annoying “memory” where it wants to curl up on you in the field.
Tip: Roll it so that the top of the pad is on the outside, that way it curls toward the ground, where you can keep it flat by laying on it.
If you carry an inflatable pad, be prepared to repair it. There are many such repair kits on the market, but your best bet is to buy the one sold by the pad manufacturer. Keep it in your kit, and ideally, practice with it beforehand so you can more easily make repairs in the field.
Finding leaks in the field is a challenge. If you’re at home, you can air up the pad and put it under water (say, in a bathtub) to create bubbles where the leak is. In the field, inflate the pad, kneel down on it, and “scan” the pad with your face to hear or feel any leaks.
Make your own sleeping pad in the field
One thing experts recommend carrying in your go-bag is at least one large construction-size garbage bag. They’re useful for lots of things, but one thing they’re particularly good at is being used as a makeshift browse bag.
Before the era of commercial sleeping pads, explorers would carry cloth bags with them and fill them with leaves and other soft fillings found in the field. You can do the same with a large garbage bag, but give yourself plenty of time to prepare, because it takes a lot of work to fill a bag. If you have a needle and thread, you can stitch up the sides of a wool blanket or canvas tarp to hold browse in.
If you do not have a bag to fill, pile up whatever you can to act as an insulation layer: leaves, grass, cardboard, etc. As long as it’s soft and relatively dry. You want your browse bag to be about four inches thick when compressed to give yourself sufficient insulation. Pile on materials, smoosh them down, and pack more in until you have the right thickness.