The White Monkey Talks Gear: Sleeping Pads

Jul 10, 2012 by

Everyone who’s not into backpacking, or even those just getting started, think sleeping pads are solely for comfort.

That would be a “no.” In fact, next to your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad is what will help keep you warm on those cold nights – and even cool nights -out in the woods.

In a nutshell, pads serve two purposes: insulating you from the ground, and yes, providing some level of comfort from those rocks.

Why for insulation you ask? I’m glad you did. Primarily, it’s because sleeping bags compress on the bottom when you lay in them – meaning less loft, meaning less warmth. Secondly, it’s to get you off the cold ground, which can seep heat from your body faster than anything.

There are three basic types of pads. The choice is up to your budget, your comfort level and what you’re willing to carry on your back in terms of weight.

I’m not going to get into air mattresses, which are for car camping and when there are too many guests visiting and not enough beds. Plus, there’s no electricity in the woods, so you are out of luck with the hair dryer method and if you try to blow it up, you’ll still be there the next day.

The main three for backpacking are: air pads; self-inflating; and foam pads. There are pros and cons to each.

Air pads: to put it simply, you blow them up and the air inside provides the cushion. You need to get one that’s insulated, otherwise you’re just sleeping on top of cold air and that kind of defeats the purpose when it’s cold outside.

Biggest advantages are being lightweight and pretty comfortable. They also can be rolled up and take very little space. Problems are they can puncture out in the field, and you are then dealing with a worthless piece of material. However, repairs, if it’s nothing major, are pretty easy to do – taping up the hole. But yeah, you’ve got to  find the hole. If the hole is not evident, put it under water and see where the bubbles come out.

And, let’s face it, you need a lot of hot air to blow them up. Cost-wise, air pads are usually in the middle.

Self-inflating: a marriage between air pads and foam pads. Basically, open-cell foam insulation and air. The self-inflating part is a little off; yes, they will inflate some when you open the value, but you probably will need to help out with a few breaths.

Advantages are they are very comfortable (for a sleeping  pad, we’re not talking Tempur-Pedic beds here), provide the best insulation and can compress down and not take up a lot of space. On the down side, they are by far the most expensive, some can weigh a lot and they too can puncture out in the woods. But again, repairs are doable.

Foam pads: think yoga mats or those egg-cartoon looking things. They are a dense closed foam pad with tiny closed air cells.

There are some big advantages: they are very cheap, almost indestructible unless you take a knife to them, and very light weight. On the downside, they are pretty bulky and not exactly the most comfortable. Not really comfortable at all.

Other factors.

The key things to check out are weight, size, thickness and R-value. That last term basically means how “warm” the insulation in the pad is. Keep it simple, the higher the number the more “warmth” so to speak. R-values go from 1.o up to 9.5. The higher the R-value, the thicker it is and the better insulation.

The Writer’s pads vary from 3.8 to  4.9 in terms of R-value, which can handle temps down to the high teens or 20s without any problem The Little Black Dress, on the other hand, has one that’s rated at 8.0. And since she doesn’t backpack but rather car camps, that’s okay. She also always complains about being cold, thus the more insulated pad.

Weight is a consideration. Some foam pads weigh under 10 ounces. Some self-inflating ones, especially those with down insulation like the LBD has, can go upwards of 3 pounds.

If weight is a major consideration, go with a foam pad and even a three-quarter length one at that. You can get one under 7 ounces. But again, you’re giving up comfort for weight.

The Writer’s main backpacking ones come in right under two pounds. And that’s because that is one area – some comfort – that The Writer won’t skimp on.

In other words, he’s willing to carry a little more weight for a little more comfort. And a little more room.

Which brings us to size. Most “regular” pads are 72 inches (six feet) long and 20 inches wide. The Writer is six feet tall. His lightweight pad, which is still heavy at just under two pounds, is 77 inches by 25 inches. Why? He wants the room and that’s one area where he’s willing to carry a little more weight and thus goes with a large size.

He uses a Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus in a large size for his “light” pad. R-value of 3.8; 1.5 inches thick; two ounces shy of two pounds.

His pad for colder weather/more comfort is an Exped SynMat 7 Air Pad with Pump (it’s a built-in pump, not a hair dryer). R-value of 4.9; 2.8 inches thick; two pounds and seven ounces. And yes, again it’s a large at 77.5 inches long and 26 inches wide.

Bottom line, especially for upcoming Scouts:

If they don’t mind sleeping on a harder surface, foam pads are the lightest and most indestructible. They are also the cheapest. They are bulkier and take up more room.

If they’d like a little more comfort, consider one of the self-inflating open cell pads. They pack down much smaller, but you have to be a little more careful with them. They also cost more. But if your Scout doesn’t move around too much, consider getting the regular size.

Until next time – enjoy the hike.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *