What is A Sleeping Pad and What Types To Pick For Camping

Photo by jalexartis / CC BY

Finding that perfect sleeping pads for the cold nights when you go camping is giving you a headache?

But where to begin when you have so many options to choose from at your disposal. What is the best thing to sleep on while you are out on your favorite outdoor activity?

In this article, you will find some information about what kind of sleeping systems you should pick for your camping sleeping gear. I will talk about the pros and cons of foam pads, self-air inflated mats, sleeping cots and so on.

*This article may contain affiliate links. Please take that into account.

What Is A Sleeping Pad For Camping?

In the camping world, a sleeping pad (also known as sleeping mat) is a simple piece of equipment used to provide additional thermal insulation and cushioning for your back. Most of the time these are used together with a sleeping bag, quilt or over a camping cot.

A sleeping pad is that thing that will separate you from the cold ground and it will prevent you to lose the body heat.

Types Of Sleeping Pads

Sleeping mats for camping come in one of the following three different types: closed-cell foam, air mats, and self-inflating mats. Each style has its own pros and cons and you should pick the one that best suits your kind of camping activity. It is better to pick something that is well made, with quality materials.

1. Foam Pads

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This kind of mat is made from closed-cell foam and it can be used as it is, without the need for inflation. It is lighter and more durable than the air-filled ones because it is manufactured from fewer materials and it is less complex.

  • A foam pad is cheap
  • It has a longer life and you don’t have to worry if it gets punctured or if you spill liquids on it.
  • It is simple to use, you just roll it out and it’s ready to sleep on.
  • Because of its material, it will often be full of puncture holes from sticks, plants, and rocks.
  • It is not that comfortable to sleep on, especially if it’s thin.
  • It will not protect you that well from the cold ground. Thinner means that thermal insulation is not that effective.
  • It is stiff and it has a tendency to be bulky and can just be packed outside of your backpack.
When To Use a Foam Pad?
  • When sleeping on the ground.
  • It is perfect for fast and light hikes that will require camping overnight.
  • Best for winter camping by adding as the second layer of protection below an air pad.

👉 Check this classic foam pad on Amazon. This is a must-have item for every outdoor lover.

2. Manually Inflatable Sleeping Mats

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Manually inflated pads need to be filled with air as they are related to air mattresses. In order to inflate mine, I often use a foot pump or by using my mouth and lungs (this happened on a few occasions when I forgot the pump home).

Update: I found this great mat that has a built-in pump so It will not be necessary to carry an extra foot pump with me.

When To Use An Air-Filled Pad?
  • For car camping.
  • Summer camping with no sleeping bag.
  • Ultralight camping gear that is perfect for hiking and backpacking

3. Self-Inflating

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In a self-inflating mat, foam is packed inside an airtight shell and when a valve is open it will absorb air causing the foam to expand and take the form of a camping pad. Very popular among campers, they are compressible and lightweight making them easier to store and carry.

👉 This an example of a great one that you can find on Amazon at an affordable price. 

  • Very comfortable, like sleeping on your private thin cloud.
  • Very compact, it can easily be packed inside the backpack, safe from rain, heat or anything else that can harm it.
  • Very easy to use, compared to the air-filled mat. You can always forget the air pump at home and spare your lungs any effort.
  • Some air mattresses are down-filled so they are warmer.
  • More expensive than foam pads.
  • It can be punctured easily and you have to bring a repairing kit with you to solve the problem.

For me, the best sleeping system is having a foam pad and an air mat so I get well protected from the cold ground and from moisture. However, sometimes these can get a bit difficult to carry, especially if you plan a hiking trip with no car or other means of transportation.

4. Sleeping Cot

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As you get older sleeping on the ground is very uncomfortable for you so picking up a cot as a sleeping solution when you go camping it seems like a good idea for comfort if the weight is not a problem for you. A sleeping cot is not the same as a sleeping mat but I decided to include it here because it has the same function.

A cot can be placed on any kind of terrain so you don’t need to search for that perfect spot to install your tent on.

Usually, in life, little things matter the most, so having a place where you can sit and put your shoes on is great. Another awesome thing about cots, aside from protecting you from the cold ground is that you can store things under shoes, clothes and other pieces of camping gear.

The only drawback I see choosing a cot is the bulkiness and weight, but if you go camping in your car, that should not be a problem.

👍 After searching a bit on the internet I found this one that is very easy to setup. I want to enjoy the nature not to spend all day setting up my camping site.

What Size Do I Need For My Sleeping Pad?

  • A short length pad (three-quarters) is constructed to protect just your body core. You have to use some other stuff you have around like extra clothing or a backpack under your feet to extend the length of the pad.
  • If you’re above average in height and you don’t want your feet hanging off then pick an extra long pad.
  • If you are traveling with your significant other a double-width pad will provide better thermal insulation than two normal pads placed together.
  • Some backpacking pads become narrower toward the feet in order to make them light and compact, but campers who shift in the night might find this design trick to move off their pad to often.
  • Sturdy pads offer more cushioning but are larger and heavier when packed.

What Does R-Value Mean in Sleeping Pads?

The R-value of a sleeping pad will indicate the material ability to insulate against the heat loss. Higher numbers of R-Value will indicate that the pad will isolate you better from the cold.

If you camp in winter then you should choose a pad with a greater R-value, higher than 4 it will be great.

Care and Repair

When you’re back home after your camping trip,  you should take care of your sleeping pad by cleaning it with a cloth and some soap. Let it dry before you store it for the next adventure.

If you have an air mattress and it got a puncture hole then you can use a field repair kit to patch the surface.

Read: Repair A Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad


I enjoy a lot going out in the nature near a river or a lake, setting up the camp, putting up the tent, taking my fishing gear and staying all day long listening all those calming sounds that the natural environment is providing.

But when the nights come I have to go to sleep so I will be in shape for the morning fishing and it is imperative that I will have a very good sleep.

I am using a classic roll-up foam mat, so nothing fancy here. Over it, I put a self-inflating mat. For me is very important to travel light and be protected from cold, the nights can be extremely chilly when you sleep near a lake.