When choosing a sleeping pad, the most important decision you’ll have to make is whether to go with an inflatable or closed-cell foam model. This choice depends on the conditions you plan to camp in as well as your personal preference. This guide outlines the pros and cons of using an inflatable vs foam sleeping pad. I’ll cover weight, packed size, comfort, durability, warmth, and much more. I’ll also outline the main differences between inflatable and foam pads and offer some recommendations. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best sleeping pad for your next hiking or camping trip.
What is a Foam Sleeping Pad? (closed-cell foam or CCF)
Foam sleeping pads are made from closed-cell foam (CCF). This is a dense foam that is made from tiny closed pockets that are full of air. These air-filled cells trap body heat to provide insulation. Foam sleeping pads typically have an r-value of 1.5-2.
Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are lightweight. Most weigh around 1 pound (around 450 grams.) They are also bulky. Foam sleeping pads measure around 20” x 6” x 6” when packed. Most models roll up for storage. Some models fold up like an accordion, allowing them to pack down smaller. Most hikers strap their foam sleeping pad to the outside of their pack on the top, side, or front.
Setting up a foam sleeping pad is simple. You just roll it out or unfold it and lay it out in your tent. In terms of comfort, foam pads are generally on the firm side. Most models measure around 0.75″ thick. Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are incredibly durable. You don’t have to worry about punctures or tears. They are also inexpensive. Most models cost $20-$50.
What is an Inflatable Sleeping Pad? (air pad)
Inflatable sleeping pads are a shell of airtight material that you inflate by blowing air into a valve on the side of the pad. You simply blow directly into the valve. Some models offer the option of using a pump.
Most modern inflatable sleeping pads feature either a layer of lightweight insulation, reflective material, or a combination of the two to increase warmth. Inflatable sleeping pads typically have an r-value between 3 and 7.
When deflated, air pads roll up into a small cylinder. Most measure around 1 liter in volume when pack. That’s about the size of a standard 32 oz Nalgene bottle. Most campers store their inflatable sleeping pad inside of their backpack. Inflatable sleeping pads are lightweight. Most weigh 12-16 oz (around 340-450 grams).
Inflatable sleeping pads require some setup. Every night when setting up camp, you must inflate the pad. Most models take 7-14 breaths to fill. In the morning, you must deflate the pad and roll it up.
Durability can also be an issue with inflatable pads because they can be punctured. Most come with a patch kit. Inflatable sleeping pads offer good support and comfort. Most models measure 2-3” thick.
Inflatable Sleeping Pad Pros
- Inflatable sleeping pads more comfortable- When choosing a sleeping pad, comfort should be your first priority. Most campers find inflatable pads to be more comfortable than foam pads because they are thicker. Thicker inflatable pads can provide more cushioning and support for your body. This can reduce pressure on pressure points including your hips, shoulders, and knees. You’re also less likely to bottom out when you move around. This is particularly important for side sleepers, whose bodies make a smaller contact patch with the pad. The extra 1-2” of padding really makes a difference. You can also customize the firmness of inflatable pads by adding or removing air. Some campers find a firmer or softer pad to be more comfortable. When your sleeping pad is comfortable, you’ll get a better night of sleep and wake up feeling more rested.
- Lighter weight- On average, inflatable seeping pads weigh 2-4 ounces (56-114 grams) less than comparable foam sleeping pads. For example, an ultralight inflatable pad weighs around 12-14 ounces (340-400 grams). To compare, a foam pad generally weighs around 14-16 ounces (400-450 grams). Whether you’re hiking, traveling, or bicycle touring, you want your gear to be as light as possible. Carrying lighter gear allows you to travel a bit faster and more efficiently because it takes less energy to move less weight around. It’s also easier to maneuver when you’re carrying less weight.
- Inflatable pads take up less space inside of your pack- Inflatable pads pack down small enough to fit inside of your backpack or into a mesh pocket on the side. For example, an ultralight model rolls into a cylinder that measures about 9″ long by 4″ in diameter. Most inflatable pads take up about 1 liter of space. That’s about the size of a Nalgene water bottle. To compare, foam pads measure about 20″ long by 6″ in diameter when packed. They would take up way too much space if packed inside so you must strap them to the outside. Inflatable pads are ideal for campers who don’t like strapping gear to the outside of their backpack. The small size also makes inflatable sleeping pads perfect for those who fly with their hiking gear. They can easily fit in a carry-on bag.
- Inflatable sleeping pads are warmer- Sleeping pad warmth is measured in R-value. This is a measurement of a material’s resistance to heat flow or thermal conductivity. The higher the R-value, the more insulation the sleeping pad provides. This is possible because air is an excellent thermal insulator. Generally, inflatable pads have a higher R-value than foam pads. For example, an average inflatable pad might have an R-value between 3 and 5. An insulated inflatable sleeping pad might have an R-value as high as 7. To compare, most foam sleeping pads have an R-value between 1 and 2. Because they provide more insulation, inflatable sleeping pads are better for use in cold weather. An inflatable sleeping pad with an R-value of around 3.5 or more will keep the average camper warm during spring, summer, and fall. If you plan to camp during the winter, 4 season inflatable pads are available which use a down filling to increase the R-value to 5+. These are ideal for winter camping when you might be sleeping on snow or in below-freezing temperatures. For more info on R-values, check out this article.
- Inflatable sleeping pads are thicker- An average inflatable pad measures about 2.5” thick. To compare, foam pads are usually less than 1” thick. The extra thickness allows the pad to provide more support for your back, hips, shoulders, and knees. Thicker pads also tend to be warmer because there is more space for insulation and more distance between your body and the cold ground. Air is an excellent insulator. The added thickness also lifts you a bit higher off the ground.
- You can adjust the firmness- Inflatable sleeping pads allow you to adjust the firmness by adding or removing air. If you prefer a firmer pad, you can blow a bit more air. If you prefer a softer pad, you can simply blow less air into your pad. You can dial in your exact desired level of firmness for your personal preference. This allows you to customize your sleep surface, which increases comfort.
- 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 and shoulders if you are a side sleeper. If you have a bad back, you can adjust the firmness of the pad to suit your needs. You may experience less back pain when sleeping on an inflatable pad.
Inflatable Sleeping Pad Cons
- Inflatable sleeping pads can get punctured- If camp enough, you will get a puncture in your pad. This could be caused by a thorn, piece of broken glass, or a sharp stick or rock under your tent. If you camp with your dog, their claw could puncture your pad. I have even heard of pads getting punctured by a thorn stuck in a sock. When your inflatable pad gets punctured, it will deflate. Waking up on the cold ground in the middle of the night with an empty pad isn’t much fun. Luckily, most inflatable sleeping pads include a patch kit. To repair your punctured pad, you’ll have to find the hole, apply the patch, wait for it to dry, then reinflate. It can help to blow some air into the pad then place it in some water to find the hole. Look for air bubbles. As you can imagine, doing this in the middle of the night isn’t much fun. To reduce the risk of puncture, clear your campsite of any thorns or sharp objects. You should also use a durable footprint under your tent. If you’re careful, punctures are rare.
- Inflatable sleeping pads are more expensive- Entry-level inflatable sleep pads start around $50. Premium ultralight inflatable pads cost around $100-$180. To compare, basic foam sleeping pads start around $20. The most popular foam pads cost around $45-$50. On average, inflatable sleeping pads cost about $50 more than foam. Inflatable pads cost more for several reasons. First, they are more complex to make. The seams need to be sewn and sealed airtight. They are also made from more expensive materials including high-tech ultralight fabric and a valve. They also include a patch kit and stuff sack. This all adds to the cost.
- Inflatable sleep pads take more time and effort to set up and take down- First, you have to remove your pad from its stuff sack and roll it out in your tent. Next, you have to blow it up. The average inflatable sleeping pad takes around 15-30 breaths to fill. If you’re exhausted from a long day of hiking, this can take you a few minutes and leave you lightheaded. The next morning, you have to let the air out, roll the pad up, and fit it back into its stuff sack. This is my least favorite part of the process. Setting up and packing down an inflatable sleeping pad adds a couple of minutes to your camping routine. With a foam pad, you just unroll it in your tent and it’s ready to go. There are some options to make the setup process a bit easier. You can use a pump to fill your pad. For example, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Micro Electric Air Pump (#ad) is a good option. It weighs just 2.3 ounces with batteries and can fill a pad in about 3 minutes. Pump sacks are another option. Whichever pump you choose, you’ll want to make sure it is compatible with your sleeping pad’s valve type.
- Mold and bacteria can grow inside of an inflatable sleeping pad- Your breath can introduce moisture into the inside of your pad. Over time, this moisture can build up. Mold spores and bacteria can make their way into your pad and begin growing. This can cause odor. The performance of your pad can also fade. To avoid this, consider using a pump or bag to inflate your pad.
- There is a bit of a learning curve to using an inflatable sleeping pad- You must learn how firm to inflate your pad. You must also learn how to get the air out efficiently. Some pads deflate more easily than others when you open the valve. If you leave some air in your pad, it won’t pack right. You also have to learn the best way to pack the pad to take up the least amount of space in your backpack. Mine is a bit of a hassle to roll. I have to fold it in thirds lengthwise and roll it tightly so it fits in its stuff sack. You also have to learn how to patch your pad because you will get a puncture at some point. You’ll at least want to look at your patch kit and read the instructions so you know what to do if you get a puncture.
- Inflatable pads are less reliable- While using my inflatable pad, there is always the possibility that it will fail you. For example, you can easily get a puncture if you’re not careful about where you set up camp. This can lead to the pad unexpectedly deflating in the middle of the night. Eventually, a seam will burst or the rubberized interior bladder will wear out and start to leak. While you can repair a puncture, you can’t repair a burst seam or worn out pad. You never know when your pad is going to reach the end of its life. An inflatable pad can also suffer a large puncture or tear that can’t be repaired. These reliability issues can be problematic if you’re camping somewhere extremely remote or cold. Imagine your inflatable pad failed while you’re 100 miles from civilization. Foam sleeping pads are stone-reliable.
- You have to be pickier with campsite selection when you use an inflatable pad- You need to avoid any site with thorns, sharp rocks, sharp sticks, or anything that could potentially puncture your pad. I usually spend a minute going over my campsite and clearing any sharp objects away before setting up. If I see thorns, I look for another site.
- Inflatable pads aren’t as durable- A sharp object can easily create a puncture or tear in your pad. To protect your pad, you’ll want to store it inside of your pack. Abrasion can also damage an inflatable sleeping pad over time. You may want to avoid using it directly against the ground. How much durability matters depends on where you camp. If you camp in the desert where thorns and cacti and sharp rocks are common, you have to be incredibly careful. If you camp on soft vegetation, sand, snow, grass, or a cleared campsite, you don’t have to worry as much about durability.
- Some campers find inflatable pads to be uncomfortable- One common complaint bout inflatables is that they can have a wobbly feeling. Particularly when you’re weight is near the edge of the pad. If you accidentally roll off of your pad in the night, you can feel like you’re falling. If you don’t inflate your pad firm enough, you can bottom out. This sometimes happens when you change position. For example, if you roll over and all of your weight is on your hips, your bottom can hit the ground. An extreme temperature change can also change the firmness of the pad. For example, if you blow your pad up during the warm part of the day then go to sleep after it cools off in the evening, the pad will be less firm. This happens because air contracts when it gets cold. You’ll want to check the firmness of your pad before going to sleep.
- Inflatable pads don’t last as long as foam pads- Even though you can get many 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. When this happens, the pad has reached the end of its life. A quality inflatable sleeping pad should last for at least 5 seasons. You might only get a couple of seasons out of a cheap pad. Foam pads, on the other hand, last pretty much indefinitely.
- Inflatable pads can be noisy- When you move around in your sleep, inflatable pads can make a balloon-like noise. Whether or not this happens depends on the pad outer material. This can get annoying if you toss and turn in your sleep. It can also disturb the other campers in your tent.
Foam Sleeping Pad Pros
- No punctures- To me, the biggest benefit of using a foam pad is never having to worry about punctures. You never have to spend time searching for tiny thorns in your campsite. You will never wake up on the cold ground because a puncture deflated your pad in the night. You’ll never have to deal with patches and glue. This brings peace of mind. As an added bonus, not having to worry about punctures allows you to sleep with your pad directly on the ground or you can choose not to use a footprint under your tent.
- Cheaper- You can buy a cheap foam sleeping pad for around $20. Sometimes even less. High-end foam pads cost about $45. To compare, inflatable pads start at around $50 and max out at around $200. You’ll save anywhere from $30 to $100+ by using a foam pad instead of an inflatable. Foam pads are cheaper because they are much simpler to manufacture than inflatables. They are made from a simple rectangular piece of foam that is cut to size. This process involves very little labor. There is no sewing or seam sealing required. The materials are also cheaper. Because of this, foam pads cost less.
- You can set up camp faster and more easily when you use a foam pad- A foam pad takes just seconds to set up and put away. It’s less of a hassle as well. When setting up camp, you simply unstrap your foam pad from your pack and unroll it on the floor of your tent. Rolling up a foam pad in the morning is fast and easy as well. You don’t need to worry about rolling it perfectly because you’re just going to strap it to the outside of your pack. I’d say using a foam pad instead of an inflatable saves you around 2-4 minutes per day. It may not sound like much but during a thru-hike when you’re setting up camp day after day, the time savings adds up. Inflatable pads take more time to set up because they have to be inflated and deflated and carefully rolled up so they fit in their stuff sacks. This can get annoying and tedious.
- You don’t have to learn any skills to use a foam sleeping pad- Foam pads are dead simple to set up. Just unroll it, lay it out flat, and it’s ready to use. In the morning, you simply roll the pad up and strap it to your pack. When you use a foam pad, you don’t need to learn how to repair a puncture. You don’t have to spend time learning how to pack the pad because it’s so simple.
- Foam pads have multiple uses- Your foam sleeping pad can double as a sit pad. Simply unstrap it from your pack and lay it over a tree stump, rock, or on the ground. This is nice when you stop for a snack break. You can also sit on it while it’s rolled up. While at camp, I like to sit with my back against a tree with the pad under me. You won’t want to do this with an inflatable pad because the risk of punctures is too high. You won’t want to blow an inflatable pad up multiple times per day either. Your foam sleeping pad can also double as a frame and padding for your backpack. Some modern ultralight backpacks have straps or pockets on the back panel where you can attach your folded sleeping pad. This can save you a significant amount of weight because you can get away with a more minimalist pack with less padding. For more info, check out this article.
- Foam pads last longer- Foam sleeping pad will last pretty much forever. They don’t really wear out or break. Mold and bacteria isn’t an issue. They are incredibly durable. Inflatable pads, on the other hand, have a limited lifetime. After your inflatable pad sustains enough punctures, it’s will need to be replaced. After all, can only patch so many holes.
- Foam pads are more reliable- A foam sleeping pad will never fail you. Even if it gets torn in half or chewed on by a bear, your foam sleeping pad will still work. A foam pad also won’t unexpectedly wear out mid-hike. You can clearly spot any damage or wear and replace the pad when necessary. You don’t have to worry about punctures or tears. Foam pads work in all environments and conditions. Foam pads give peace of mind.
- Some campers find foam pads to be more comfortable- When sleeping on a foam pad, you won’t bottom out. Foam pads don’t give that wobbly feeling that air pads can. If part of your body slides off of the pad, you won’t feel like you’re falling out of bed because the pad is thinner.
- More campsite options– When you use a foam pad, you can safely camp near thorns, sharp rocks, sticks, etc. You don’t have to be quite as picky about where you camp because you don’t have to worry about punctures.
- You’ll have more space inside of your pack- Foam sleeping pads strap to the outside of your pack because they are too large to store inside. This leaves more space inside of your pack.
- Foam sleeping pads are more durable- Foam pads can survive a lot of abuse. You don’t have to worry about abrasion scratching or tearing your foam pad. You don’t need to worry about sharp objects near your pad. Your dog can walk over your pad without causing damage. This allows you to camp in more rugged environments. For example, you can bring your foam pad to a desert full of cacti and not have to worry about pictures. You can use your foam pad on a rocky cliff without having to worry about it getting torn. You can strap your foam pad to the outside of your pack without having to worry about tree branches or brushing up against it and causing damage. Durability brings peace of mind.
- Foam sleepign pads are quieter- The foam suppresses sound. This is great for those who move around in their sleep. You won’t wake anyone up.
Foam Sleeping Pad Cons
- Foam sleeping pads are less comfortable- Most campers agree that foam pads just don’t offer the same level of comfort as inflatable pads. They are thinner and more firm. You can’t adjust the firmness. They just can’t offer as much cushioning or support. For side sleepers or people with bad backs, foam sleeping pads may not be ideal because they put too much pressure on pressure points like your hips, knees, and shoulders. You may wake up feeling sore or stiff as a result. If you can’t get a good night of sleep, you’ll wake up feeling tired and you won’t enjoy your trip.
- Heavier- Generally speaking, foam sleep pads weigh more than inflatables. An average foam sleeping pad weighs around 14 ounces or 400 grams while an average inflatable sleeping pad weighs 12 ounces or 340 grams. For ultralight hikers, an extra 2 ounces can be significant. Heavier gear can slow you down. It takes more energy to carry a heavier pack around.
- Foam pads are bulky- An average foam sleeping pad measures about 20″ wide by 5.5″ in diameter when rolled up. That’s about 9 liters or 550 cubic inches of volume. If you stored your foam pad inside of your pack, it would take up almost 1/4 of the space. Because foam pads are so large, most hikers strap them to the outside of their pack. This works fine but some hikers don’t like gear hanging outside of their pack for a number of reasons. For example, a bulky foam pad can get in the way when you’re trying to squeeze through tight spaces. Maybe you need to ride in a packed bus to get to your hiking destination. Your pad can get in the way. The size can be an important consideration if you want to carry your gear on a flight, bus, or train. You may be limited by the volume of gear that you can carry. For some hikers, looks are a factor as well. They simply don’t want a bulky sleeping pad strapped to the outside of their pack. Inflatable sleeping pads only take up around 1 liter of space when packed. They can easily fit inside of your backpack.
- Your foam pad can get wet- Because your foam sleeping pad straps to the outside of your pack, it can get wet in the rain, even if you use a pack cover. This water could transfer to your sleeping bag if you can’t get the pad dry before you’re ready to go to bed. It is important to note that closed cell foam sleeping pads don’t absorb water like a sponge. You can simply dry your wet pad off with a towel or piece of clothing.
- Foam sleeping pads aren’t as warm- Foam pads don’t offer quite as much insulation as inflatables. They have a lower R-value. For example, an average foam pad might have an R-value of 2 while a comparable inflatable might have an R-value of 3.5. This means they don’t do as good of a job of resisting heat flow. For this reason, foam pads aren’t ideal for cool weather camping or winter camping. If you expect cold weather, you might want to stack an inflatable pad on top of your foam pad. You can also use two foam pads. To calculate the R-value of two pads, you simply add the R-values up. For example, an inflatable pad with an R-value of 3 on top of a foam pad with an R-value of 2 would give you an R-value of 5. This would provide enough insulation to keep you warm in the winter.
- Foam sleeping pads are thinner- Most foam pads measure .75″-1″ thick. Inflatable pads measure 2″-3″ thick. The thinner foam pad can’t provide quite as much support. Thinner pads also sleep colder because there is less insulation between your body and the ground.
- You can’t adjust the firmness- Foam pads have a fixed firmness. You can’t make any customizations. That said, foam sleeping pads are available in different firmnesses. Some are softer than others. Higher-end models have two layers. The bottom layer is a rugged high-density foam. The top layer is a plusher lower-density foam. This can increase comfort. If you need a very soft pad, you’re better off going with an inflatable.
- Foam pads aren’t ideal for side sleepers or those with a bad back- Foam pads are thinner and more firm than inflatables. They can’t provide quite as much support. For this reason, they aren’t ideal for those with a bad back. Side sleepers might also find foam pads uncomfortable because they put too much pressure on the shoulders and hips.
The Third Option: Self Inflating
These are kind of a combination of inflatable and foam sleeping pads. Self inflating sleeping pads are inflatable pads that are filled with open-cell foam. After you unroll the pad and open the valve, the foam decompresses and expands. This sucks air into the pad. It can take 20-30 minutes for the pad to fully inflate. You might have to blow a couple of puffs of air into the pad as well to achieve the firmness you desire.
Self inflating pads are available in ultralight models that are designed for backpacking. These fold up lengthwise and roll up small enough to fit inside of your pack. Some models just roll up. These bulkier models are better for car camping.
Pros: Self-inflating sleeping pads offer great comfort and insulation. You don’t have to blow them up like inflatable pads. You can adjust the firmness by adding or removing a bit of air. Self inflating pads are also more durable than inflatable pads and more compact than foam pads. They offer a nice compromise.
Cons: Self-inflating pads are heavier than foam pads. They are bulkier than 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. Self-inflating pads also take quite a bit of time to fully inflate on their own. If you’re in a hurry, you’ll have to help them along by blowing some air into the valve.
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
- Down Vs. Fleece Vs. Wool for Hiking
- Hiking Boots Vs. Trail Runners
Sleeping Pad Warmth: Insulation and R-Value
The most important function of your sleeping pad is to keep you warm. Comfort is a secondary function. You’ll lose body heat to the ground and get cold if your pad doesn’t provide sufficient insulation. This is the case because your sleeping bag or quilt can’t keep the underside of your body warm when it is compressed under the weight of your body. Down or synthetic insulation can’t insulate when compressed because there are no air pockets to trap heat. This is why you need to use a sleeping pad.
The warmth of a sleeping pad is indicated by the R-value. R-value measures a sleeping pad’s ability to resist heat flow from one side of the pad to the other. The higher the R-value, the better insulation your sleeping pad will provide from the cold ground. In other words, a pad with a high R-value will prevent your body heat from transferring into the ground. Your body heat will stay closer to your body and you’ll stay warmer as a result. In sleeping pads, R-values range from 1 to about 7. (1 being minimally insulation and 7 being very well insulated.)
In the past, sleeping pad manufacturers performed their own testing to determine R-value. As you could imagine, these measurements were inconsistent. Recently, R-values have been standardized by ATSM International. They created the Active Standard ASTM F3340. This creates a reliable and consistent method of measuring R-values for all sleeping pads. This allows you to directly compare the insulative qualities of different types of sleeping pads and sleeping pads from different manufacturers. The R-value scale is pretty simple. A pad with an R-value of 4 provides twice as much insulation as a pad with an R-value of 2.
For normal 3 season use, an R-value of 3-4 is ideal. Cold sleepers or those who plan to camp in near-freezing temperatures may prefer a pad with an R-value of 4. For warm weather summer camping an R-value of 1-2 is sufficient.
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. When you stack sleeping pads you simply add the R-values to determine the total R-value. For example, an inflatable pad with an R-value of 3 on top of a foam pad with an R-value of 2 gives you a total R-value of 5.
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 thanks to the comfort, light weight, and compact design. If you hike frequently, you may prefer a foam pad due to its greater durability and longevity.
Ultralight backpacking- For minimalist hikers, weight and packed size are the most important factors to consider when choosing a pad. For most, an ultralight inflatable pad will be the best choice. It’s easy to find one that weighs less than a pound these days. If you’re striving to cut your base weight down to the ultralight level of under 20 pounds, consider using a ¾ length ultralight inflatable pad. The lightest 3/4 length pads weigh only 8 ounces (about 226 grams). Most hikers who use a 3/4 length pad place their feet on their pack for insulation when necessary. For more info, check out my complete guide to 3/4 length sleeping pads.
Thru-Hiking- In this case, durability and weight are the most important considerations. When you’re camping for weeks or months at a time, foam sleeping pads are generally your best bet because they are light weight and can stand up to a lot of abuse. Consider using or ¾ foam pad. You can buy a short pad or simply cut your foam pad to size to reduce weight.
Car camping- In this case, weight and packed size aren’t a factor. For car camping, choose whichever pad you find the most comfortable. If you’re on a budget, you can instead go with an inexpensive but bulky pad. Many car campers like to use a thick self inflating sleeping pads because they are comfortable and easy to set up. You could also go with a large inflatable air mattress. The benefit of these is that you can use standard sheets and blankets instead of a sleeping bag. The drawback is that you will need a pump. They are also heavy. Some models aren’t well insulated.
Cold weather or winter camping- In this case, insulation is the most important factor. Look for an insulated inflatable or self inflating sleeping pad with an R-value of at least 5. Sleeping pads that are designed for winter camping often come with a layer of down to increase insulation. If you plan to camp on snow, you might need even more insulation. In this case, you may consider stacking an inflatable sleeping pad on top of a foam pad. To determine the R-value of both pads combines, simply add the R-values. One benefit of this system is that you have a backup. If your inflatable pad fails, you can sleep on the foam pad. You’ll be cold but you’ll probably survive. The foam pad can also protect your inflatable pad from punctures. Of course, the drawback to using two pads is that you’re carrying around extra weight and bulk.
Bicycle Touring and Bikepacking- In this case, weight isn’t as much of a factor because your bike carries the weight. A few extra ounces isn’t a big deal. Packed size may be an important consideration depending on whether you use panniers or bikepacking bags. The best type of pad also depends on the duration of your tour, your style of travel, and your packing style. For expedition tours or tours through developing countries, a foam pad is best because of its durability and reliability. For shorter tours or tours through the developed world, an inflatable pad may be preferable due to the increased comfort and lighter weight.
International Travel- For those who travel with only a carry-on bag, an inflatable pad is probably your best bet due to its compact size. If you’re checking your bag, a foam pad is also an option. 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 cheaply everywhere. Oftentimes it’s cheaper to buy a sleeping pad than to pay a checked bag fee. Before I fly home, I’ll just give it to another traveler at the hostel or leave it for someone else to use.
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.
Things to Consdier When Choosing a Pad
When buying a sleeping pad, you’ll want to consider the following factors:
- Sleeping pad weight- Ultralight sleeping pads that are suitable for backpacking weigh between 14-16 ounces (about 400-450 grams). Foam pads, on average, weigh a couple of ounces more than inflatables. You can cut a bit of weight by choosing a mummy-style pad that tapers toward the head and foot. You can cut even more weight by choosing a 3/4 length pad. These weigh around 8-12 ounces (225-340 grams). You can save about 3-6 oz (85-170 grams) by switching to a 3/4 length pad. If you’re camping with a partner, you can also save a bit of weight by using a two person sleeping pad. These usually weigh 1-2 ounces less than two single sleeping pads.
- Sleeping pad width- Standard-sized sleeping pads measure 20″ wide. If you’re a big person or you want a bit of extra room to move around in the night, you can buy large sized sleeping pads that measure 25-30″ wide. Most ‘long’ sized sleeping pads are also extra wide. Sometimes long pads have a standard width. You’ll want to check before you buy. Double wide sleeping pads are also available. These are designed for two people to sleep together. These typically measure 45-50″ wide. If you plan to use a sleeping pad that is wider than the standard 20″ width, you should measure the inside of your tent to make sure it will fit. For example, if you and your camping partner both use 25″ wide pads, the total width will be 10″ wider than if you had both used standard 20″ wide pads. If your tent is small, they might not fit.
- Sleeping pad length- Standard-sized sleeping pads measure 72″ long. If you’re a taller person, you may consider buying a ‘long’ sized sleeping pad. Long sized pads typically measure 78″ long. Standard and long sized sleeping pads are designed to support and insulate your entire body including your legs, feet, and head. If you want to cut weight and save some space in your pack, ¾ or ‘torso’ length sleeping pads are available. They are typically sold as ‘small’ sized pads. These usually measure around 48” long. These short pads are designed to support only your shoulders to your hips. Many campers use their pack or clothing to support their legs and provide insulation when using a ¾ length sleeping pad. If the pad doesn’t extend under your head, you would need a camping pillow for support.
- Packed size- When packed, the average inflatable sleeping pad takes up around 1 liter of space in your pack. That’s the size of a standard Nalgene bottle. Closed cell foam sleeping pads are significantly larger when packed. Many take up 9-10 liters. Because they are so bulky, most campers choose to strap them to the outside of their pack.
- Inflation- If you’re going with an inflatable pad, you’ll want to think about how you’re going to inflate it. Are you going to blow it up with your breath or use a pump? Using a pump adds a bit of weight but can extend the life of your pad because you’re not introducing bacteria and moisture into the pad with your breath. If you’re going to use a pump, you’ll need to decide whether you want to use a pump sack, an electric pump, or a hand pump. Some pads feature have a built in pump. Sometimes a pump is included with the pad. If you plan to use your breath, look for a pad with a high-volume inflation valve. This allows you to blow air into the pad quickly so you can inflate it more easily with less resistance and with fewer breaths. Some pads also feature multiple air chambers. This way, if one fails, the other will still hold you off the ground. Also, consider how quickly the pad deflates. Some pads feature a separate high-volume deflation valve that allows you to let the air out quickly. This allows you to roll the pad up and pack it away faster.
- Comfort- Consider your sleeping habits. Are you a side sleeper or a back sleeper? Do you have a bad back? Do you prefer a firm or soft sleep surface? For side sleepers, those who prefer to sleep on a soft surface, and those with back problems will generally find inflatable pads to be more comfortable. Those who sleep on their back and those who prefer a more firm sleep surface often prefer foam pads. The majority of campers find inflatable pads to be more comfortable.
- Packing difficulty- Some pads are easier to pack up than others. Foam pads are easier to pack than inflatables. If you’re going with a foam pad, you’ll have to choose between a model that rolls up or a model that folds up like an accordion. In my experience, the accordion models are a bit easier to deal with because they tend to stay folded when they’re not strapped to your pack. If you’re going with an inflatable pad, you’ll want to consider how difficult it is to roll up. Some models fold in half lengthwise once and others fold in half lengthwise twice before they’re rolled. The models that fold in half twice are a bit of a hassle to fold and roll straight.
- Sleeping pad surface- Most mid-range and higher inflatable pads feature a brushed fabric surface. This can prevent you from sliding around. It also makes the pad a bit quieter. Some pads feature a smooth plastic surface. Foam pads can have different textures as well. Some feel smooth and plasticky while others feel more like foam.
- Patch kit- Most inflatable sleeping pads include a patch kit. If you buy a pad that doesn’t include a patch kit, you’ll have to buy one separately. Before you leave home, you’ll want to make sure you know how to use the patch kit in case you suffer a puncture in the middle of the night.
- Price- Your sleeping pad is one of your most important pieces of camping gear. It plays a major role in your comfort and warmth. It’s not something you want to cheap out on. If you’re on a tight budget, you’re better off buying a foam pad. You can buy a decent one for $20. High-end foam pads with two layers of foam, a reflective coating, and a folding design cost around $30-$45. Basic, low-end inflatable pads start at around $30. High-end models with an ultralight design, high-volume valve, and extra insulation cost around $150-$200.
- Sleeping pad and sleeping bag compatibility- Some sleeping bags include built-in straps or a pocket. These are designed to hold your sleeping pad in place so you don’t fall off in the night. These are common on camping quilts. If your sleeping pad has this feature, you’ll want to make sure you choose a sleeping bag that is compatible. Sometimes extra-thick pads don’t fit.
- What weather conditions you camp in- You’ll want to choose a sleeping pad with the proper R-value for the climate you plan to camp in. If you plan to camp only in warm summer weather, any pad will do. An R-value of 1 is sufficient. If you plan to camp during the spring and fall where you may experience temperatures approaching freezing, you’ll want a pad with an R-value of 3-4. If you plan to camp in the winter, at high altitudes, or on snow, you’ll want a cold weather pad with extra insulation. For winter camping, you’ll want a pad with an R-value of at least 5.
- Where you plan to camp- Are you car camping on the edge of a city or disperse camping 50 miles in the backcountry? If you camp in remote regions where you can’t easily access a replacement, you may be better off with a foam pad because they are more durable and reliable. You may also want to consider the surfaces you plan to sleep on. Are you camping in a desert, beach, forest, or grassy field? Some environments, such as deserts, have lots of sharp objects that can puncture an inflatable pad. You’ll want to consider this when choosing a 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. Foam pads typically last longer. High-end inflatables can last many years as well.
Sleeping Pad Recommendations
There are dozens of quality sleeping pads on the market. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the most popular options.
The NeoAir Xlite is pretty much the standard for inflatable sleeping pads. This ultralight pad weighs just 12 ounces and measures just 9″ long by 4.1″ in diameter when packed. At 2.5 inches thick, this is one of the thickest and most comfortable sleeping pads available. The NeoAir Xlite has an R-value of 4.2 making it ideal for 3 season use. This high R-value is achieved with a layer of thermal foam in the pad. The WingLock valve allows you to inflate and deflate the pad quickly. A stuff sack, pump sack, and patch kit are included. This pad is available in small, regular, regular wide, and large sizes.
The Z Lite Sol is a classic closed-cell foam sleeping pad. It weighs just 14 ounces and measures 20″ x 5″ x 5.5″ when packed. With an R-value of 2, the Z Lite Sol provides more insulation than other comparable foam pads. This is possible thanks to a Reflective ThermaCapture and dimpled design that captures radiant heat. The pad also features 2 different layers of foam. The top layer is made from soft foam. This improves comfort. The bottom layer is made from a denser foam. This increases durability and insulation. The pad features an accordion-style fold, making it easy to pack. The Z Lite Sol is available in a small version as well.
This affordable ultralight inflatable sleeping pad weighs just 14.5 ounces and packs down to 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. At 2″ thick, it offers a good amount of support as well. The pad inflates with 10-15 breaths.
This basic foam sleeping pad weighs 1 pound and measures 24″ long and 7″ in diameter when rolled up. It is made from high-density EVA Foam that measures 1/2″ thick. The pad features two straps to hold it closed as well as a carrying strap. This would be a great option for someone who is on a tight budget or just getting into camping. It would also work well for extra insulation and protection under an inflatable pad.
A Note About Sleep Systems
The real-world warmth and comfort of your sleeping pad depend on a number of factors including the humidity, the ground conditions, wind, your shelter, your clothing, and your genetics. Of these variables, you can control your sleep system. This includes your sleeping pad, sleeping bag, clothing, and shelter.
To stay warm, you want to pair an appropriate sleeping pad and sleeping bag for the conditions you expect to encounter. For example, if you sleep in cold weather with a sleeping pad with a low R-value and a temperature-appropriate sleeping bag, you will probably still get cold. The sleeping pad and bag warmth ratings need to match.
It’s important to note that sleeping bag and sleeping pad comfort ratings are based on the expectation that you are wearing long underwear and socks. Sleeping bag temperature ratings assume that you’re using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.5.
The point is that you’ll want to make sure that you use an appropriate sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and clothing for the weather you expect. For example, if you expect the nighttime low to get down to freezing, you’ll want to use a sleeping pad with an R-value between 2 and 3.9+ and a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 20°F or warmer. You’ll also want to wear long underwear and socks to ensure that you stay warm enough.
Who Should Use a Foam Sleeping Pad
Foam sleeping pads are ideal for those who are on a tight budget. Those who don’t like spending time setting up and taking down camp will also appreciate the efficiency of foam pads. They require almost no effort to set up and use. In addition, foam pads work well for camping in rugged environments where sleeping pad damage is a possibility. You don’t have to worry about punctures or tears with a foam pad. Those who sleep on their back and those who prefer a firm sleep surface sometimes find foam pads more comfortable than inflatables. As an added bonus, foam pads can replace a sit pad and backpack support in ultralight frameless packs. This saves weight.
Who Should Use an Inflatable Sleepng Pad
Inflatable sleeping pads are ideal for those who need a softer and more supportive sleep surface. Side sleepers, in particular, tend to find inflatable pads more comfortable because they reduce pressure on the shoulders and hips. Ultralight hikers also prefer inflatable sleeping pads due to their smaller packed size and lighter weight. An inflatable pad can fit inside of your pack. It can also save you a couple of ounces of weight. Those who camp in below-freezing temperatures will also prefer foam pads because they can provide much more insulation. In fact, for cold weather camping, an insulated inflatable pad is pretty much the only option.
In general, I prefer foam sleeping pads over inflatable sleeping pads. 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 and lighter.
In the end, the choice between an inflatable sleeping pad vs a foam sleeping pad comes down to the conditions you camp in, weight requirements, the climate you camp in, as well as personal preference. Plenty of people have thru-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’s 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 pads. 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 to be 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. I also own an inflatable that I use fairly frequently. If you have room in your budget for both, you can pick and choose the ideal pad for each individual trip.
Where do you stand on the inflatable sleeping pad vs foam sleeping pad debate? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments below!