Important Features: Sleeping Pads

Expert reviews say to look for the following in a sleeping pad:

  • For campground use, get the biggest, thickest sleeping pad you can afford. If you're car camping, weight doesn't matter, and even wide, comfortable, 3-inch-thick self-inflating sleeping pads deflate and roll up to a compact size for travel. You might as well be really comfortable so you enjoy the trip.
  • For backpacking, consider weight vs. comfort. This is a matter of personal preference that varies a lot from one person to another. You can always start with the minimum, like a closed-cell sleeping pad, then add another layer or get a thicker sleeping pad if you wake up sore. (Extra closed-cell sleeping pads can be cut up to use for seating, too.)
  • For sleeping comfort in different situations, consider layering pads. You don't have to have just one sleeping pad. A short backpacking pad can be layered on top of a full-length pad for extra cushioning in winter, and a closed-cell sleeping pad can add valuable insulation to another pad. You can layer two full-length backpacking pads together for extra padding when car camping, as well.
  • Some sleeping pads do double duty as frames for ultralight backpacks or for campsite chairs. Many backpackers say the chair frames are worth carrying, for end-of-day comfort after a long day's hike. And when the sleeping pad serves as support and padding for an ultralight backpack, you can save quite a bit of weight.
  • Women's sleeping pads add extra padding and insulation at feet and hips. Some women's pads add more padding in the entire core-body area too. Most women sleep colder than men, so the combination of a women's sleeping pad plus a women's sleeping bag can make for much more restful nights.
  • Make sure the length fits you, your tent and your sleeping bag. This may seem obvious, but it's easy to get carried away and forget about measurements.
  • Short sleeping pads are only for three-season use. In relatively warm weather, you can pad your feet with your backpack or use an even shorter sleeping pad that relies on stuffing a sack with clothing to pad your head. Camping in cold weather requires a full-length sleeping pad, though, for insulation from the ground.
  • Experts don't recommend plain air mattresses without any foam inside. As the air gets colder during the night, these mattresses often deflate until they're not providing enough padding. They also don't offer enough insulation to protect you from the cold ground.
  • Look for non-slip pads. The fabric covers on most sleeping pads now have non-slip qualities built-in or sprayed-on. Others use patterned embossing or ridges and valleys to help you keep from sliding off. (If the sleeping pad you want lacks this feature, you can use a piece of non-slip shelf-covering mesh to accomplish the same thing.)
  • If you opt for a sleeping bag with air tubes, make sure it comes with a repair kit. If not, reviews recommend buying such a kit and making sure to carry it with you.

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