By September 1, 2012 Read More →

How to choose a sleeping pad for camping or backpacking

Getting a good night’s sleep in the wilderness depends on a lot of variables. Don’t forget the sleeping pad!

by Leon Pantenburg

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Several years ago, my wife bought me an insulated air mattress for backpacking.  It was the Exped Downmat 7 and cost about $150.  I thought the price exorbitant until the first use.  I was at a January campout in Oregon’s Cascades Mountains, my tent was pitched on ice, and all that was between me and the cold was the tent floor, the downmat and my sleeping bag.  I slept like a baby.

I love sleeping out under the stars. While I will not use my tarp or tent, I won't forgo my Downmat 7!

I love sleeping under the stars, like on this summer backpack trip in Oregon's Ochocco Mountains. While I will sometimes forgo my tarp or tent, I won't leave my Downmat 7 behind! (Scott Langton photo)

A vital part of your wilderness or camping experience is what you sleep on.  Too thin, and your bed is hard and unyielding. An uninsulated standard air mattress can let the cold ground suck the heat right out of you.

Too large, and the sleeping pad becomes difficult to carry and use.

To write this, I got some sleeping pad advice from Bob Patterson, an old friend and camping gear expert. (Check out his creds below!)

“The older one gets the more one gets into comfort,” Patterson said. “I usually use a self-inflating air mattress. It cuts down on the need to call a wrecker to get me out of the bag in the morning!”

According to Patterson, some questions need to be answered before you invest in a sleeping pad. These might include:

What activities will you be doing?  Climbing, canoeing, winter camping, car camping?

What is your main concern?  Comfort, insulation, weight, bulk?

Once you establish your priorities, consider these aspects of buying a pad:

Where will I be using this?  An air mattress that would be very comfortable on a Louisiana summer night will chill you to the bone winter camping in the mountains.  And, a hard, non-yielding pad that insulates well may be like sleeping on a board.

How bulky and heavy is it? Anymore, I go as light as I can when backpacking. That means the lightest, most effective pad.  My Down7 is used in all weather conditions, and it does very well here in Central Oregon.  But it might not be the best choice in hot, desert regions.

Here are some choices, according to Patterson:

The closed cell ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!

The closed cell ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!The closed cell Ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!


Ensulite is light weight and insulates pretty well, but doesn’t roll very small and isn’t that comfortable by itself.  Patterson reports problems with condensation collecting in corrugated and egg crate type of closed cell foam mattresses during winter camping.

Self-inflating mattresses are comfortable and convenient, and roll fairly tightly, but don’t insulate that well, and are kind of heavy.

Stay away from vinyl air mattresses for camping, they are for the pool or lake. Cosmo Air by Nemo is an air mattress that has a built in pump (hence no breath moisture), is light weight, and rolls up to a little larger than the size of a 32oz water bottle. In the end it’s tougher than vinyl, but it’s still an air mattress and costs a whole lot more.

Air mattresses in general have one important built in defect: potential leakage.

“Any mattress that blows up needs a repair kit to accompany it,” Patterson said. ”  An air mattress with a hole isn’t any good.  If you blow up your air mattress by mouth, you can end up with icing problems in cold weather.”

Here is what Patterson uses:

Car camping or in a hunting base camp:  ” I use my self-inflating four-incher when there are no weight or bulk considerations,” he said.  “I hate rolling off, or having my arms fall off, of the side of 20-inch wide mattresses, so mine are 25 or 30 inches wide and full length.  They are a little heavier, but the comfort for a good night’s sleep is worth it. ”

The 1” or 1.5” thick usually provide enough padding for comfort, he added.

“During the (2007) Boundary Waters Canoe Area Honeymoon Lake Fire evacuation, (To read the story, click on Honeymoon Lake evacuation) we ended up sleeping on only our self-inflating pads, on a granite slab by the shore of Lake Superior,” Patterson said. ” They were OK, but that’s probably the extreme test.”

Winter camping in cold weather: “I have used a three-inch thick self-inflating pad, but it’s heavy and bulky,” Patterson said. “It only works when pulling equipment on a sled.”

The best winter system, the one Patterson calls the “best of two worlds”, is a regular one-inch or or 1.5-inch self-inflating mattress coupled with an Ensulite pad on the bottom.

My Downmat 7 has had extensive use and has always worked well. But any air mattress should always have a repair kit with it.

My Downmat 7 is about the size of a loaf of bread, and has had extensive use. Any air mattress should have a repair kit with it.

” In winter, it takes longer for self-inflating mattresses to blow up.  Be careful about topping them off by blowing on the valve in subfreezing temperatures,” Patterson said.  “Breath moisture can result in valve freezing and internal freezing, making them difficult to roll up.  The ice may prevent proper inflation the next time.”

Use these suggestions to decide what is going to work the best for you in your particular circumstances.  No matter what your final sleeping pad choice is, though, make sure it will work for you most of the time.

“My main advice for all gear is: If you can only have one, buy one for the conditions you will use it in 90 percent of the time,” Patterson said.  “An ounce of technique is worth a pound of technology.  Learn and develop techniques to cope with occasional extreme conditions.  If you can afford to get specialized equipment for extremes, go for it.”

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson is a retired firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, and as part of his job, was outdoors in all kinds of weather year-round.  A skilled outdoorsman, Patterson is a regular in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year, and is a former member of the National Ski Patrol.  He does a lot of northern Minnesota COLD camping.

Before he went to work as a firefighter, Bob sold sporting goods and outdoor equipment for several years in Ames, Iowa.  Bob is my former Iowa State University roommate and a long-time family friend.  We have hunted, fished, canoed, backpacked, camped, and climbed together for decades.  Bob’s on my short list of people to hang out with outdoors. Widgets

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