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Sleeping pads are like the hiking boot of your backcountry sleep system. Like a boot, the sleeping pad serves as your main connection to terra firma. Good choices can improve your backcountry experience when you consider these often overlooked, or even disregarded essentials. Poor decisions can taint your adventure by reducing your efficiency or even sapping you of the energy you need for your favorite type of adventure.

Of course, in its most fundamental state, a sleeping pad is intended to help you sleep. Although you might argue that their main purpose is to provide you a comfortable barrier from the rocks and roots in our uneven terrain, the temperature barrier they provide is the main feature that makes sleeping pads one of our most important tools.

The sleeping pad’s primary function is to block the cold air or ground from robbing you of your heat. When you lay in your sleeping bag, you compress the insulation underneath you – which exists to hold your heat. Remember, this insulation does not provide warmth, it stores warmth you generate. If the insulation is compressed, its ability to old heat is greatly reduced, or even negated. With no insulation under you, you’re susceptible to the cold. By creating an appropriate thermal barrier between you and the ground you maintain the original heat-holding characteristics of your sleeping bag. This maintenance of warmth translates to less distraction during the night, which means you’ll be more rested, and sharper when you need that energy most.

We’ve spoken a lot about a pad’s ability to store your heat. Please note there are several pads on the market that intentionally provide NO insulation for the user. These pads are suitable for situations where warmth is less of a factor. Planning a desert trip in Arizona? These uninsulated pads might be perfect for you, but Mountain Chalet recommends insulated pads for most users wanting to hit the mountains from spring to fall. 

Let’s consider the basics of picking a sleeping pad that will suit your specific backcountry needs. There are good reasons they’re called sleeping pads and not waking pads.

Types of Sleeping Pads

There are more styles of sleeping pads available to us than ever before. For clarification, we can break them down into three main categories: closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating pads, and air pads. Within these three main types, you’ll find one that suits your needs (and budget) best, but you’ll have to make some important decisions to narrow your choices. If you consider how you’ll be using it, you’ll be able to decide based on the characteristics most important to you. Some combination of weight, comfort, size and warmth will lead you to your choice.

Around for decades, closed-cell foam pads are steeped in simplicity. At one point considered the industry standard, they are simple and extremely effective, but they leave some things to be desired when considering comfort and compactness. Closed-cell foam is most often less than 3/4″ thick, but has little capacity for compression. Their low price and light weight is their appeal, while their bulk is their challenge. Closed-cell foam pads are a great insurance policy for winter travelers since they don’t need to hold air. In cold conditions, they will often be coupled with an air pad of some sort to combine the best of both worlds – comfort and security.

Pros: extremely lightweight, incredibly durable & low cost

Cons: bulky & less comfortable

In the middle 70s, Self-Inflating Pads took over as the industry standard when a couple of thoughtful Boeing engineers and mountaineers figured out a way to utilize the best benefits of open-cell foam to create a pad that was comfortable, relatively warm, and INFLATED ON ITS OWN while you set up your tent, or fired up your Svea backpacking stove to boil water for dinner.

Open-cell foam is inherently comfortable, but compresses drastically when weighted. By sealing the full perimeter of the open-cell foam pad with the exception of one small valve on the corner, air is held inside the foam to maintain its thermal efficiency. When the valve is open the air comes and goes as it pleases; when the valve is closed, the air is held INSIDE the pad or OUTSIDE of the pad. Doing this makes it possible to compress the pad for travel. When the valve is opened from its compressed state, the foam expands and the air can only enter through the small valve, which enables its ability to SELF-INFLATE. When you close the valve, it hold the air in the pad and makes it adjustable to your preferred firmness. Ingenious, really. Modern-day updates, including memory foam, better valve systems, and improved compressibility, have improved these pads, but they still fall short of air pads when considering weight, bulk and thickness.

Pros: ease of use, relatively comfortable & more durable than air pads

Cons: heavier & bulkier than air pads

In our modern era of backpacking, Air Pads have taken their place as the market standard. As packs, tents, and everything else have gotten lighter, sleeping pads have had to follow suit. Air pads improve on the self-inflating pad by increasing comfort, while reducing weight and bulk. This part of the industry has been re-born with impressive innovation coming from young designers that grew up with a certain acceptable standard, but felt they could up the ante, and so they did.

Air pads are surprisingly similar in looks to something you might find in your backyard pool, or at your favorite beach, but they incorporate synthetic, down, or reflective materials into their chambers to create the most technologically advanced pads available.

Pros: super adjustable comfort, most compact & incredibly light

Cons: expensive, less durable than some, more effort to inflate & sometimes bouncy

Although they require a bit more effort to inflate, air pads fit right into the contemporary world of the lightness of backpacking because an air pad is one of the best ways to reduce your pack weight. Some are inflated with your mouth, just like a balloon. This can be a chore for even the most fit user, especially at 11,000 feet on some mountainside. Innovation met this shortcoming by introducing built-in pumps that add a small amount of weight but reduce effort. A good trade for some, but for those who count grams, it’s an unacceptable option. Most air pads now have an option for a pump sack, which is a special stuff sack that attaches to the valve. This allows you to easily collect air in the sack and transfer it to the pad without the usual head rush that comes with blowing into it.

Big Agnes Pumphouse Stuff Sack

Needless to say, any pad that requires air is susceptible to puncturing, and the newest air pads utilize the most amazing gossamer fabrics in the interest of reducing weight. Traveling the backcountry without a proper repair kit can prove to be an uncomfortable, if not dangerous, choice. Lucky for us, many pads now include a simple backcountry repair kit.

Restorative sleep can be a crucial element to your safety and wellness in the mountains, whether your objective is a lazy mile off the trailhead, or the summit of a 14,000 foot peak. Choosing the right sleeping pad can optimize your potential for a successful adventure by affording you the best possible chance at a restful and rejuvenating night’s sleep.

Come in and discuss your next sleeping pad in more detail with the experts at Mountain Chalet to get the right gear and the know-how to use.

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