I put together this list of the pros and cons of using an inflatable sleeping pad vs foam sleeping pad to help me decide which to pack for my next camping trip. I own both types of pads and have recognized benefits and drawbacks to each. Hopefully, this list helps you decide as it has helped me.
What’s the Difference Between an Inflatable Sleeping Pad and Foam Sleeping Pad?
Inflatable sleeping pads fill with air. You usually just use your breath to fill them up. Some inflatable pads are comparable with air pumps. Foam sleeping pads, on the other hand, are made of closed-cell foam (CCF). They roll or fold up for storage.
Inflatable Sleeping Pad Pros
- Inflatable pads are more comfortable- This is the biggest reason to choose an inflatable pad over a foam pad. Inflatables are thicker. This allows the pad to better support the curves of your body, offering more comfort. Inflatable sleeping pads also allow you to adjust the firmness by adding or removing air. If you prefer a softer mattress, you can simply put less air into your pad.
- Lighter- Whether you’re hiking, traveling, or bicycle touring, you want your gear to be as light as possible. Generally, inflatable pads weigh less than foam pads. The lightest ultralight inflatable pads weigh around 8 ounces or 225 grams. A comparable foam pad generally weighs a couple of ounces more.
- Inflatable pads take up less volume in your pack- Some campers prefer not to strap anything to the outside of their backpack. Most inflatable pads take up about 1 liter of space in your pack. That’s about the size of a Nalgene water bottle. Some are even smaller. This makes inflatable pads ideal for travel where you are limited by the volume of your pack. Foam pads are large. Even a small foam pad takes up about 9 liters of space.
- Inflatable pads are better for side sleepers or those with a bad back- Because they are thicker, inflatable pads provide more support for your hips if you are a side sleeper. If you have a bad back, you can adjust the firmness of the pad to suit your needs.
- Better for warm weather use- To determine the warmth of a sleeping pad, look at the R-value. The larger the R-value, the more insulation the pad provides. Generally, inflatable pads have lower R-values. Because of this, they are better for 3 season or warm weather camping. 4 season varieties are available which use a down filling to increase the R-value. This is important for cold weather camping. For more info on R-values, check out this article from Section Hiker.
- More technically advanced- Outdoor equipment companies release lighter gear each year. Stronger and lighter materials are always in development. Inflatable pads benefit from new technologies.
Inflatable Sleeping Pad Cons
- Punctures- This is, by far, the biggest drawback to inflatable pads. If camp enough, you will get a hole in your pad. Luckily most include a patch kit. Still, waking up on the cold ground in the middle of the night with an empty pad isn’t much fun. Neither is trying to find the hole and apply a patch in the dark. To reduce the risk of puncture, you must clear your campsite of any thorns or sharp objects. You should also use a durable footprint under your tent or bivy.
- More expensive- Decent inflatable sleep pads start around $40 and go up from there. Top of the line ultralight options go for around $200. Basic foam pads start around $10 and top out around $50 for the ultralight options.
- There is a bit of a learning curve to using an inflatable pad- You must learn how to put air in and how to get the air out efficiently. You have to learn the best way to pack it to take up the least amount of space. Mine is a bit of a hassle to roll. You also have to learn how to patch it because you will get a puncture at some point.
- Inflatable sleep pads take more time to set up and take down- You have to blow them up then let the air out and roll them back up. You also have to check your campsite for thorns or sharp sticks which could puncture your pad. This adds a couple of minutes to your routine when setting up camp. With a foam pad, you just unroll it and it’s ready to go.
- You have to be more picky with your campsite selection- You need to avoid any site with thorns, sharp rocks, or anything that could potentially puncture your pad. I usually spend a couple of minutes going over my campsite and clearing any sharp objects away before setting up.
- Less reliable- While using my foam pad, I’m always worried about it failing. While you can repair a puncture, you can’t repair a burst seam. Foam sleeping pads are stone reliable. Even if it gets torn in half, you can still use it.
- Not durable- Even though you will get many good years of use out of a quality inflatable sleeping pad, they just don’t last as long as foam sleeping pads. Eventually, a seam tends to rupture.
- Not Great for cold weather camping- Generally, inflatable sleeping pads don’t provide as much insulation as foam pads. If you wish to use your inflatable pad in the winter, you may need to put it on top of a foam pad or buy a 4 season inflatable pad.
Foam Sleeping Pad Pros
- No punctures- This is the biggest benefit of using a foam pad. You can set up camp on a bed of thorns if you want and not have to worry about punctures. No more searching for thorns on your campsite or waking up on the cold ground because of a puncture.
- Cheaper- Foam pads are much simpler than inflatables. Because of this, they cost less. You can buy a foam sleep pad for around $10. A cheap inflatable pad costs twice that.
- You don’t have to learn any skills to use a foam sleeping pad- You don’t need to learn how to repair a puncture or inflate it. It’s dead simple to set up. Just unroll it and go to sleep.
- You can set up camp faster- You don’t need to spend time blowing up and deflating your pad. Rolling up a foam pad is much faster as well. I’d say using a foam pad saves you around 3-5 minutes per day. It’s less of a hassle as well. I hate folding up my inflatable pad first thing in the morning.
- Better Insulation- The R-value tells you how warm your sleeping pad is. A higher R-value indicates a warmer pad. Generally, foam sleep pads have higher R-values than comparable inflatable pads. Some campers stack two foam pads or stack an inflatable on top of a foam pad if the weather is very cold.
- Foam pads have multiple uses- My favorite is to use it as a chair. You can sit on it while rolled up. This is great for cooking. You can unroll it and sit on it with your back against a tree. This is nice for relaxing in the shade. Some ultralight backpacks have straps on the back so you can use your foam sleep pads as padding.
- Foam pads last longer- After your inflatable pad sustains enough punctures, it’s pretty much dead. You can only patch so many holes. Foam sleep pads seem to last forever. They are incredibly durable.
- More reliable- Even if a bear chews a chunk out of it, you foam sleeping pad will still work. You just never know when an inflatable sleeping pad will fail. A seem could rupture while you’re 100 miles from civilization. If this happens, you’re out of luck. Foam pads give peace of mind.
Foam Sleeping Pad Cons
- Less comfortable- This is the biggest drawback to using a foam pad. Most campers agree that foam pads just don’t offer the same amount of support as inflatable pads. They are thinner and more firm. You can’t adjust the firmness by adding or removing air. For side sleepers or people with bad backs, foam sleeping pads may not be ideal.
- Heavier- Generally speaking, foam sleep pads weigh more than inflatables. The lightest foam pads weight around 10 ounces or 280 grams. You can buy ultralight inflatables that weigh a couple of ounces less than that.
- Foam pads take up more volume in your pack- Some campers don’t like gear hanging outside of their pack. Foam pads just take up too much space to store them inside. Even a small pad takes about 9 liters. That’s just a waste of space. An inflatable pad takes around 1 liter. This is also important if you want to carry your gear on a flight, bus, or train where you are limited by the volume of gear that you can carry.
- Less technically advanced- If you’re the kind of person who likes to have the newest, most advanced gear, foam pads aren’t it. This technology has matured. It’s just a solid piece of foam.
The Third Option: Self Inflating Sleeping Pad
These are kind of a combination of inflatable and foam sleeping pads. After you open the valve, air automatically rushes in and fills the chamber.
- Pros: Self-inflating sleeping pads offer great comfort and insulation. They are also more durable than standard inflatable pads.
- Cons: Self-inflating pads are bulkier than standard inflatables. They also generally cost more. Another problem is the fact that you can still suffer a puncture, even though the pads are more durable.
More Hiking Gear Pros and Cons Analyses from Where The Road Forks
- Bivy Sack Vs. Tent
- Tarp Vs. Tent
- Hammock Vs. Tent
- Poncho Vs. Rain Jacket for Hiking
- Quilt Vs. Sleeping Bag
- Down Vs. Fleece Vs. Wool for Hiking
- Hiking Boots Vs. Trail Runners
A Note About R-Value
The most important function of your sleeping pad is keeping you warm. Not comfort. You lose a significant amount of body heat to the ground if you aren’t properly insulated. Your sleeping bag or quilt does not keep the underside of your body warm because it’s compressed under the weight of your body.
The warmth of a sleeping pad is measured by an R-value or temperature comfort rating. R values range from 1 to about 11. The higher the number, the better the insulation. For 3 season use, an R-value of 3 is sufficient. Some cold sleepers may prefer a pad with an R-value of 4.
For winter camping, you’ll want a sleeping pad designed for 4 season use with an R-value of at least 5-6. These pads often offer down insulation to prevent you from losing too much heat to the ground while you sleep. Some campers stack an inflatable sleeping pad on top of a foam pad for extra insulation in cold weather.
Sleeping Pad Size
Regular sized sleeping pads usually measure 20” wide by 72” long (50.8 X 182.88 cm). Longer pads are available for taller people. These usually measure around 78” (198.12 cm). Extra side pads are also available for larger people. These usually measure 25-30” (63.5-76.2 cm). Before choosing an extra long or wide pad, make sure your shelter can accommodate the extra size.
If you want to cut weight, ¾ length pads are available. These usually measure around 48” long (121.92 cm). These are designed to support only your torso and hips. Many campers use their pack or clothing to support their legs and provide insulation when using a ¾ length sleeping pad.
When packed, the average inflatable sleeping pad takes up around 1 liter of space in your pack. Closed cell foam sleeping pads are significantly larger when packed. Many take up 10-12 liters. Because they are so bulky, most campers choose to strap them to the outside of their pack.
Sleeping Pad Weight
Ultralight pads weigh between 8-14 ounces (about 225-400 grams). Generally speaking, foam and inflatable pads weigh around the same. Foam pads, on average, weigh slightly more than inflatables.
The Best Type of Sleeping Pad for Various Styles of Camping
- Backpacking- For overnight hikes and trips up to a week or so the choice really comes down to personal preference. An inflatable pad is the best choice for most occasional hikers. If you hike frequently, you may prefer a foam pad due to the greater longevity.
Ultralight backpacking- If you’re striving to cut your base weight down to the ultralight level of under 20 pounds, look for a ¾ length ultralight inflatable pad. The lightest pads only weigh 8 ounces (about 226 grams).
- Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking- In this case, weight isn’t as much of a factor because you’ll just be strapping the pad to your bike. Which pad you choose depends on the duration of your tour and style of travel. For expedition tours or tours through developing countries, a foam pad is best because of the durability. For shorter tours or tours through the developed world, an inflatable pad may be preferable due to the increased comfort and lighter weight.
- Thru-Hiking- In this case, durability is the most important factor. When you’re camping for months at a time, foam sleeping pads are preferable. Weight is also important. Consider choosing an ultralight or ¾ pad.
- International Travel- For shorter trips, an inflatable pad is best due to its compact size. Having said that, I often pack my foam pad. If I’m only packing a carry-on sized bag, I’ll sometimes just wait until I arrive at my destination to buy a sleeping pad. Foam pads are available everywhere. They’re also cheaper than paying the checked bag fee. Before I fly home, I’ll just give it to another traveler at the hostel.
- Cold weather camping- In this case, insulation is the most important factor. Look for a pad with an R-value of at least 5. No matter how soft your pad is, you won’t be comfortable if you’re freezing all night. Tip: High R-value pads are often expensive. If you’re on a budget, you can stack 2 foam pads or one foam pad and one inflatable pad for increased insulation.
- Car camping- In this case, weight isn’t a factor. Choose whichever pad you find the most comfortable. I would go with a self-inflating pad or even a thick air mattress.
- Hammock Camping- While hammock camping in warm weather, a sleeping pad is not necessary. When the temperature drops down to around 45° Fahrenheit, you’ll need something to keep the underside of your body warm. The cold air sucks away a lot of heat. Many hammock campers choose a simple foam pad. These can flex to fit the curve of the hammock. Inflatable pads are also an option. Alternately, you could use an underquilt specifically designed for hammock use instead of a pad. For more info on hammock camping, check out my article: Hammock Vs. Tent: My Pros and Cons List.
When deciding between an inflatable sleeping pad vs foam sleeping pad, consider the following factors:
- Comfort- Consider your sleeping habits. Are you a side sleeper or back sleeper? Do you have a bad back? Do you prefer a firm or soft pad?
- Price- Remember, quality gear usually ends up costing less per night in the long run because it lasts longer. If you’re on a tight budget, that’s fine too. Good gear isn’t necessarily expensive. I’m a buy once, cry once kind of guy.
- Where you camp- Do you need a pad designed for winter camping with a high R-value? Are you disperse camping 50 miles in the backcountry or in a campground in the city?
- Weight- Are you an ultralight through hiker, a car camper, or bicycle tourist? Do you want a full pad or ¾ pad?
- How often you camp- Do you camp 10 nights per year or 100 nights per year? If you camp a lot, make sure the pad can handle the frequent use. You don’t want to have to buy new every year.
This ultralight inflatable mattress weighs just 14 ounces and measures just 9 X 4 inches when packed. That’s about the size of a 1-liter water bottle. The pad has an R-value of 3.2 making it ideal for 3 season use. At 2.5 inches thick, this is one of the thickest and most comfortable sleeping pads available.
This ultralight inflatable sleeping pad weighs just 14.5 ounces and rolls up into a bag the size of a water bottle. It features durable 20 denier ripstop nylon construction for puncture resistance and durability. The pad has an R-value of 2.1 making it workable for 3 season use. It inflates with 10-15 breaths.
This ultralight accordion style foam pad weighs just 14 ounces and measures 20 X 5 X 5.5 inches when packed. The pad features a 2 material design. The top is soft for your comfort while the bottom is more dense for added durability and insulation.
In general, I prefer foam sleeping pads over inflatable sleeping pads. The reliability is the biggest factor for me. A foam pad gives me peace of mind. I don’t want to worry about a single thorn ruining my night of sleep. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night on a flat pad.
Time savings is another reason I prefer foam pads. I hate setting up and breaking down camp while I’m tired. It’s just a tedious job that has to be done twice per day. Any piece of gear that makes the process faster and more efficient, I like.
Having said this, there are some occasions where I prefer my inflatable sleeping pad. For example, when I’m going for a short 2-3 day trip I usually pack my inflatable. I can deal with the hassles associated with using it for a few nights in exchange for a better night of sleep. If it fails, it’s not that big of a deal because I’m not too far from home.
Sometimes I want my pack to be as light and compact as possible. For example when I’m going to travel internationally with camping gear. In this case, I prefer my inflatable because it’s just so much smaller.
In the end, the choice between an inflatable sleeping pad vs a foam sleeping pad comes down to personal preference. Plenty of people have through hiked 2000+ mile trails with inflatable pads and slept in comfort every night. If you’re willing to deal with the occasional puncture, you can probably get a better night sleep on an inflatable sleeping pad. If the pad fails, you can always buy a new one in the next town.
On the other hand, plenty of travelers, hikers, bicycle tourists, and campers prefer good ol’ reliable foam sleeping pad. There is something to be said about the reliability of a solid piece of foam. If you can put up with the bulk and an extra ounce or two of weight, a foam pad may be your best option. Some people who prefer a firm mattress even find them more comfortable.
Before making the decision it’s best to try both out and consider your needs for your specific trip. To me, a foam sleeping pad is the best choice most of the time.
Where do you stand on the inflatable sleeping pad vs foam sleeping pad debate? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!
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