How To Choose a Sleeping Pad

We believe a comfortable night’s rest makes all the difference in having a great adventure the next day.

And thanks to advanced technology in sleeping pads, there’s no reason to ever sleep uncomfortably in the backcountry again. Choosing the right sleeping pad is a big part of that comfort equation. However, it can be difficult to know what pad is right for you.

So we’ve broken it into a 3-step process that we hope you find helpful.

The video below will take you through a quick primer of different types of pad construction, various insulation materials, and some of the benefits of each so you can choose the sleeping pad best suited for your next adventure.

 

 

 

 

STEP #1

KNOW YOUR ADVENTURE 

Knowing what you need from your pad makes a purchase much easier

The first thing to understand is what activity you’re buying this pad for. And luckily, you probably already know this.

An adventure that is more technical or longer in duration will require a very specific pad. More casual camping adventures will allow you to select a pad with a lot of versatility.

Say you’re about to go on a week-long backpacking trip with some serious elevation gain. Weight and packed space will be precious, and you will want an ultralight, technical air mattress, like Tensor™, or folding closed-cell pad, like Switchback™(2019), in the 1-pound-or-under range.

Maybe you’re planning a canoe trip and know you’ll also go on a few car camping trips this year. You’ll require a less minimalist approach and your options will offer greater versatility. Weight won’t be an issue, so you can choose a thicker, more rugged, self-inflating, open-cell foam pad for a luxury setup that works on many different adventures. Even if space becomes an issue, open-cell foam packs very well. Roamer™ (2019) is a perfect option here.

 


Here’s a quick look at the different categories of pad construction, and the pros and cons of each style.

A detailed image of NEMO’s new Switchback™ illustrates how the peaks and valleys of a nesting node system are able to provide such plushness with very little material.

1. Closed-Cell Foam Pads

This archetypal sleeping pad category offers many benefits. First off, they provide fail-proof durability. They won’t pop, they don’t absorb water, and are super easy to set up. They are ultralight, pack up relatively small, and offer efficient body heat retention. Their simple construction also makes them one of the most affordable options. However, they tend to be much thinner and a bit less comfortable, and definitely do not pack down as small as an air mattress.

2. Air Mattresses

All air pads, technical or camp-style, require external pressure to inflate them — be it with a foot pump, a pump sack, or just by blowing into the pad. A major advantage of this type is the amount of comfort and thickness one gets from such a lightweight, compressible packed size. Drawbacks are that they can be punctured by sharp objects and the amount of air flow inside make them less insulating than other options.

3. Self-inflating Pads

These pads are plush, warm, and convenient. They even self-inflate as the foam expands. And no moisture enters the interior of a pad as they inflate, adding greater longevity. The newer, thicker versions in this category offer the most luxurious, bottomless feel a pad can offer, but also tend to be some of the heaviest and largest packed sizes of all pads. That said, it is hard to beat their comfort while enjoying some sleep in the outdoors.

STEP #2

UNDERSTAND WARMTH & WEIGHT 

For ultralight luxury, a closed-cell foam pad makes a nice base for your air mattress

 

Now that you have a solid grasp of your activity, what benefits your pad will need to deliver, and a bit of pad construction science — you’re probably ready to narrow it down to a pad series or two.

 

Comfort, warmth, convenience, and durabilitY all come at a tradeoff in weight and bulk

 

Light As A Feather

Ultralight pads with greater packability provide a little less warmth and might have to be inflated with breath. But if you are carrying all of your gear on your back, packability is likely your most important consideration. A pad like Tensor™ is going to give you the most warmth and comfort possible for the lightest, smallest packed size.

 

Convenient As The Cloud

Maybe your hiking adventure, and your pack, affords you room for a few extra ounces.  You might want to choose a pad with a foot pump, such as Vector™, for the convenience of saving your breath, especially at elevation. Or maybe add a few ounces in material for the added comfort of a thicker air mattress such as Cosmo™.

 

Plush as a Pillow

Perhaps car camping adventures are your jam. If so, you can choose materials like open-cell foam for extra comfort and warmth and heavier denier polyester fabric for greater durability. And when you’re not camping, your guests will love a pad for the guest room that stores nicely in the closet. When you’re not carrying the weight, there is little to trade off. Or choose the most comfortable slab of open-cell foam, Roamer™(2019) — the ultimate in warmth, plushness, and self-inflating convenience.

STEP #3

CHOOSE SIZE AND INSULATION

 

Your last decisions will be choosing the size you need and if your adventure requires insulation.

Sizing

An average pad is about 6 feet long and 20 inches wide. More technical pads pack down really small, so if you’re under 6 feet tall, a Regular will offer a balance of coverage and packed size. Some brands offer smaller sizes. For example, we have Tensor™ Mummy that tapers to a stop at 48” long for smaller folks or those real minimalists who want to shave off every ounce possible.

If you are taller than 6 feet — or have a wider frame — you’ll need a longer, wider pad. Our backpacking pads, such as Tensor™, Vector™ & Astro™, all come in models that extend to 76 inches long and 25 inches wide. And our camping-focused pads, like Cosmo™ and Roamer™(2019), reach as far as 80 inches long and 30 inches wide. Some of our camping pads can be toggled together to create a queen-sized bed. Or our Cosmo™ Double boasts a sprawling 50 inches of width in a single pad.

At this point it is also important to check what pad sizes are compatible with your specific tent size, which is mostly a consideration for ultralight tents that trim all the extra space. For example, our two-person Hornet Elite fits two twenty-inch wide pads side by side.  If you are planning to incorporate your pad into your sleeping bag with an integrated pad sleeve on the bottom, this should also be a consideration. While some pad sleeves offer flexibility, most work best with a specific size sleeping pad.

Insulation

A pad’s ability to retain warmth really comes down to its construction style, materials it’s made with, and the amount and type of insulation within the pad. As discussed in the first section, the air inside highly packable, inflatable pads is not able to retain warmth as well as the less-packable, open and closed cell foams. That’s the trade-off. But insulating an inflatable pad with lightweight materials goes a long way in boosting warmth retention while allowing it to still remain packable.

1. Metalized Film Insulation

These highly-reflective aluminized films reflect heat radiation efficiently, as they are used in turn out gear for firefighters, space suits, emergency blankets. In our pads, these films are suspended within the baffles of an air pad to silently and efficiently retain and reflect your own body heat back to you. This is the lightest and most technical form of insulation.

Adding minimal weight and zero bulk, this nano-thin material weighs only 13 grams a sheet and makes a significant difference. For example, Tensor™ Insulated leverages 2 sheets of metalized film to bring the minimum temperature rating of Tensor™ from 35 degrees down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Tensor™ Alpine(2019) adds a third layer of film in combination with an intricate welded barrier and gets that minimum temperature rating down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Synthetic Fiber Insulation

Another option is a thin but fluffy layer of synthetic fiber insulation, such as Primaloft, that traps your body heat and retains the warmth within its fibers to create a barrier between you and the cold. Though a bit bulkier and heavier when packed up, it’s a cost-effective and efficient way to insulate a pad and keep you warmer.

3. Open-Cell Foam

One of the warmest but also bulkiest insulation materials are open-cell foams. We use it generously within our luxury camping pads like Roamer™(2019), where weight is not an issue and supreme comfort, plushness, and warmth are the qualities most sought after. Open-cell foam is dense and full of tiny warmth trapping holes that hold heat close to your skin and block cold air from the bottom.

 


 

We hope this helps you choose the right pad for your next adventure. Our series of pads offers something for every unique set of needs, and each has been designed to help you get the most comfortable sleep possible on your next trip out.

If you still have questions about what pad is right for you give us a call and we’ll be glad to help.