This guide to how to choose a sleeping pad is intended to help you find the pad that gives you the best experience possible sleeping outside. By understanding your camper profile and the expected climatic conditions of your outing, you can pick the right pad construction and design to serve you best.
If you’re a visual learner and would prefer to skip to the infographic, click here.
Let’s get started:
Your Camper Profile
Nobody knows you quite like you do, so put your introspective hats on and take a look at what kind of adventuring you do. Are you a gram shaving alpinist, thru-hiker, or backpacker? Or is your must have a piece of gear for a trip a properly stocked cooler? Perhaps you are somewhere in between?
We break our pads into three categories that align with three very generalized adventuring styles and their performance demands on gear:
As a rule of thumb Fast & Light pads are the lightest and pack down the smallest, while Camp & Comfort pads are the heaviest and least packable. You guessed it, Trek & Travel sleeping pads are somewhere in between. Further down, when we discuss the technology of our various Therm-a-Rest models, the reasons why pads fall into these categories will become more obvious, but first let’s talk mama nature.
Climatic Conditions For Your Typical Trip
Now that you pondered your camper profile, it’s time to do some research and figure out what to expect from the weather when you go out. You may be taking some vacation days away from your job, but mother nature is still your boss. There are few experiences as demoralizing outside than cold sleepless nights, and frankly, sweating out at night is not much fun either. Achieving thermal efficiency and finding the right temperature is the purpose of your sleep system, and a sleeping pad is critical to achieving that purpose.
A pad insulates you from the ground and reflects your body heat back at you. Some pads are designed to do this better than others, which make some pads great for colder weather and some great for warmer weather. How do you know which is which? Take a look at the R-Value. R-Value is a measure of thermal resistance. Simplistically, a sleeping pad with a higher R-Value will slow the heat leaving your body more, achieving superior insulation.
We developed this graphic to help you visualize which R-Value is appropriate for which temperature range:
I’d like to emphasize that this graphic is intended as a conceptual handrail; you can get down the stairs without it. Many of our customers are satisfied using the NeoAir® XTherm™ year around despite it having a R-Value of 7.2, and being the go to mattress for those adventurers pushing into the world’s coldest climates. We sometimes refer to it as a “winter pad” but also realize our customers live all around the world, including places where winter is delightfully mild and would not necessarily warrant the use of a true cold weather pad. The important thing is to understand your temperature needs in the context of the climate to which you will be exposed.
Bankrolling a sleeping pad quiver can be less than feasible. If you are a year-round adventurer spending nights out at all levels of the thermometer, consider having one dedicated three season pad and using a closed cell pad under it to add extra insulation when the temperature drops.
A popular set up following this model is the NeoAir® XLite™ with an R-Value of 4.2 on top of a Z Lite SOL™, R-Value 2.6. The XLite is already warm enough for winter use for many users, but by putting a Z Lite SOL™ underneath you bump your overall R-Value to 6.8, allowing the sleeper to take on more extreme temperatures.
Sleeping Pad Construction & Design
Now that you have thought about what kind of use you will be putting your pad through, it’s time to decide which model is your best fit. At Therm-a-Rest we manufacture three different classifications of sleeping pads: air pads, self-inflating pads, and closed cell foam pads.
Our NeoAir series is, as the name suggests, exclusively air pads. They feature technology that has allowed us to provide the ultralight customer with a pad that is light, comfortable, and warm. For this reason, many people turn to the NeoAirs in the Fast & Light categories, though certain models are found both in the Trek & Travel and Camp & Comfort collections.
Key technologies to the most of the NeoAir Line are the Triangular Core Matrix™, Wave Core™, and Thermacapture™.
Triangular Core Matrix™
Patented technology that utilizes two stacked layers of triangular baffles to create a stable surface while minimizing heat loss. This technology is a key to the lightest and warmest NeoAirs such as the 8.8oz (250 g) NeoAir® UberLite™, and the aforementioned Xtherm. Though both feature the same core construction they are significantly different in R-Value. The primary reason for this disparity is the use of ThermaCapture™.
Our proprietary reflective coating radiates heat back to your body and prevents heat loss. Combined with Triangular Core Matrix construction, a single ThermaCapture™ layer can boost warmth by up to 50%. These two technologies are responsible for the unmatched warmth to weight ratio of the NeoAir® line.
An alternative to Triangular Core Matrix™, this technology is a single layer of horizontal wave baffles that slows convective heat loss. This core construction can also be integrated with ThermaCapture™ for better R-Value.
If you are a fast and light traveler looking for a pad that keeps weight to a minimum but will keep you comfortable across a range of weather conditions, I recommend a serious look at the NeoAir line.
If you choose an air pad however, make sure you brush up on how to patch one in the field. Due to the ultralight objectives of air pads they often are constructed with thinner, more susceptible materials. As air leaves your pad, so too does the support and insulation.
In order to save time and effort, it is a smart idea to use a tool to aid in inflation. Therm-a-Rest makes pump sacks and a mini pump to resolve this issue. That said, ease of inflation is one of the primary attributes of the next category, self-inflating pads.
Over 40 years ago, Therm-a-Rest invented the first self-inflating pad out of the simple need for more comfort at camp. Our models of self-inflating pads have been mainstays in gear closets for years, and represent some of the most used and trustworthy pads on the market.
Again, we develop these pads to meet the needs of just about every profile adventurer, from the fast and light backpacker to the comfort-oriented car camper. The simplicity of unrolling the mattress, opening the valve, and only adding a few breaths to find the inflated comfort level is appreciated by anybody headed outside. Key technologies in our self-inflating pads include open open cell foam, pressure mapping and StrataCore™.
Open Cell Foam
The cells of this foam type are, you guessed it, open. As a result, when the valve is opened, the cells take on air causing them to expand and inflate the pad. Because they do not trap air, and merely hold it, the air can be pressed and forced out when you break camp. Open cell foam is less dense than its closed cell counterpart, and therefore can pack down smaller. We use thermal foams to deliver a higher R-Value than other closed cell foams in order to boost our warmth-to-weight ratios.
One benefit of open cell foam in sleeping pads is the consistent and durable support it offers as a sleeping surface. We take it a step further by using pressure-sensitive measurements to vary the support in pads that feature this technology to provide intentionally placed support where the body needs it most, allowing you to pare down the core where it doesn’t, thereby saving weight.
StrataCore uses a continuous layer of thermal foam nestled in between alternating ridges of air and foam to achieve category leading warmth-to-weight ratios. Over the years we have developed and tested many different ways of cutting our foam cores to achieve our objectives. Our customers want light, packable pads with useful warmth-to-weight ratios. The earliest self-inflating pads were a simple rectangle of uniform foam sandwiched in between two pieces of fabric. Our latest innovation, StrataCore is featured on our category leading ProLite™ Apex™, which yields the best warmth-to-weight ratio of any self-inflating pad.
For years our self-inflating ProLite™ has been considered an ideal entry-level backpacking pad due to the ease of use and comfort it offers those just getting into the backcountry. While many will opt for an air pad or closed cell foam as they gain more experience and prioritize saving weight, there are still plenty of adventurers that swear by the reliable ease of self-inflating pads.
Those that do so, do it with full realization of the size and weight compromise that foam cores demand. Many open cell foam pads designed for the backcountry are often less thick than air pads to minimize on the pack size. If you identify as a side-sleeper make sure you account for the sleeping pad thickness in your decision. If weight is not an issue, looking at you car campers, check out our thickest and most luxurious pad, the MondoKing™ 3D. It self-inflates and is a veritable delight to sleep on.
Closed Cell Foam
Ever seen that brightly colored accordion foam thing strapped to someone’s backpack on the trail? That is the preeminent closed cell foam pad on the market, the Z Lite. The Z Lite SOL™ features a single ThermaCapture™ surface (the silver side, the top side) to boost warmth while maintaining the lightweight, unbreakable design.
That’s right, unbreakable. That is the real beauty of closed cell foam, it can be torn, compressed, even cut in half and it is still useful. While it doesn’t offer 2.5+ inches of comfort like our NeoAir® line, it can’t be punctured and is an absolute work horse. Which is why professionals and novices alike adventure with the Z Lite SOL.
The Z Lite SOL™, the RidgeRest® Classic, and the RidgeRest® SOLite, comprise our lineup of closed cell foam. The Z Lite is the lightest and most packable, featuring the accordion fold, whereas the RidgeRests roll up. All our closed cell foam pads are designed with heat trapping peaks and valleys to boost insulation while maintaining surface durability.
The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. A lack of it can impair one’s ability to commit information to memory, to concentrate, and contribute to depressive attitudes. The list goes on, but I need not to because it is easy to understand how poor sleep can hinder the critical element of risk management when pursuing outdoor activities. At Therm-a-Rest we take sleep very seriously; we never lose sight of the fact that sleep boosts our customers safety and happiness, things we genuinely care about. For over 40 years, Therm-a-Rest has been the choice for the best night’s sleep under the stars. Our company has been guided by the desire to bring better sleep to those who head outside.
If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a helpful guide: