Pitch Your Tent: Sleeping Pads

Picking A Sleeping Pad

Have you ever had this experience:

You spent forty-five minutes clearing the ground where you’re tent is going to go. You’ve picked up every stick, pinecone and rock. You’ve even flattened out the little bumps and filled in the little holes. But, then, when you go to bed you could just SWEAR that every item you moved from beneath the tent worked its way back and brought a friend?

That’s where a good sleeping pad can really help you get a good night’s rest!

I know that camping is supposed to have some level of discomfort. That’s why it’s called camping and not sleeping-in-my-own-bed. Or even staying-in-a-hotel. But there’s a big difference between roughing it and so rough you pack up and go home cranky.

Not only does a sleeping pad cushion you from the irregularities in the ground, it can also add another layer of insulation. Sleeping pads insulate by trapping a layer of non-circulating air between your body and the cold ground. Your body warms the layer of trapped air and then it forms an insulating barrier.

Because a sleeping bag’s loft gets compressed from your body weight, it’s important to have a pad to insulate you from the cold that seeps up from the ground. The amount of insulation a sleeping pad offers depends upon how much air it holds inside and how free that air is to circulate.

There are basically 5 choices for what you can put under your sleeping bag:

  • Air Mattresses
  • Cots
  • Closed-Cell Pads
  • Open-Cell Pads
  • Self-Inflating Pads

Air Mattresses

The air mattress has come a long way! They are best suited to car camping in temperate weather since they don’t offer much by way of insulation so they’re not a good choice for camping in cold weather.

Air mattresses come in a variety of sizes.

Advantages – Adjustable, easy to use, inexpensive, very comfortable, can take bed-sized sheets and blankets.

Disadvantages – They can puncture, you have to bring an inflator, not a good insulator, bulky.

Kim’s Experience – I am ALWAYS cold on an air mattress! And, if you are sharing the mattress with another sleeper, you can roll around when they shift position. To me, air mattresses and water beds have a lot in common.


Sleeping on a cot keeps you from actually sleeping on the ground. A cot can be a nice compromise between ‘hotel’ and ‘tent’.

Cots can be very comfortable.

Advantages – Away from irregularities in the ground, no crawling bugs, extra space below the cot for storage.

Disadvantages – bulky, difficult to assemble, can be uncomfortable, might not fit in all tents.

Kim’s Experience – I’m a fan. But, that being said, our tent is designed for cots: there’s plenty of floor space around the cot AND head room above it. I had to still put down a sleeping pad because the cot was very hard. But, there was lots of extra storage space beneath it for duffels, shoes, etc.

Closed-Cell Pads

Closed-cell sleeping pads are made from a durable dense foam material.

Closed cell pads repel water.

Advantages – lightweight, water resistant, good insulators, inexpensive.

Disadvantages – bulky, can be too firm; you might need two.

Kim’s Experience – A closed cell sleeping pad is better than nothing. Mostly I’ve found it just forms a layer OVER any bump in the ground so you still feel it, but not as sharply. I do like the pad because they’re pretty much water-proof. I prefer to keep one cut up in my day-pack and use for an impromptu cushion on a hike than for under the sleeping bag.

Open-Cell Pads

Open-cell sleeping pads are made of a lighter, more fragile foam than a closed-cell pad. The foam is more comparable to a sponge.

Advantages – more comfortable, light weight.

Disadvantages – will absorb water, not a great insulator, bulky.

Kim’s Experience – An open-cell pad can be VERY comfortable but it’s still not my first choice because it absorbs water. That can be everything from sweat to moisture seeping up from the ground to a spilled water bottle. I’d save this for backyard slumber parties.

Self-Inflating Pads

Self-inflating sleeping pads are open-cell foam pads wrapped in air-tight, waterproof nylon shells.

The best of both worlds!

Advantages – water resistant, comfortable, excellent insulation, firmness is adjustable, very compact when rolled up.

Disadvantages – heavier than other types of pads, can get punctures, have a tendency to curl on one end (from being rolled up), might need additional blowing to fully inflate, can be difficult to roll-up at the end of the trip.

Kim’s Experience – This is the best of both worlds. The inflatable sleeping pad has an adjustable firmness to make it more comfortable. What I don’t like is that there’s always one end that just refuses to lay flat– the end that was rolled up first after the last use. I also find that self-inflating pads can be difficult to de-inflate and roll for storage.

Final Thoughts

Before you buy any type of mattress, cot, or pad, make sure that it will fit comfortably in your tent. You will still want room to move around and space for shoes and luggage.

All sleeping pads have different sizes so be sure to purchase one that is both long enough and wide enough for you to sleep comfortably. Nothing is worse that waking up in the middle of the night half-on, half-off the sleeping pad!

You also need to think about how much space you have in your car (or backpack) for a sleeping pad. Some options are bulkier than others. If you can try it out in the store before you buy, I ALWAYS recommend that. Don’t be afraid to look silly if you’re testing out a cot in the aisle of the sporting goods store! You wouldn’t buy a mattress at home without testing it in the store — a cot or sleeping pad would be no different.

(Of course, make sure that you’re allowed to open the package first!)

If you’re sharing a tent space, you might want to consider getting pads that can Velcro together. Otherwise the pads will separate during the night and somebody will end up sleeping on the ground!

If you’re ready to buy, or want more information about your choices, here’s a link to sleeping pads.

Readers Comments:

  • What do you prefer as a sleeping pad?
  • Have you had an horror stories of waking in the middle of the night with a major problem with the sleeping pad?
  • What advice can you give in picking a sleeping pad?
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3 Responses to “Pitch Your Tent: Sleeping Pads”

  • Marc:

    I have two self-inflating pads: one by Big Agnes inflates to around 5 or 6 inches thick for my wife (only used for car camping) and a smaller one by REI that inflates to around 3 inches. I bought this one for backpacking, its lightweight and rolls down to the size of a half a load of bread. I also use it car camping, and find its thick enough that you don’t feel the one rock that you somehow missed, and is now conveniently located right where your hip bone or shoulder need to make contact with the ground! For comfort, I really prefer these to the closed cell pads, like you, I find that they just go over the object, but you still wake up sore.

  • Kim:

    Marc — ESP Boss & I are planning an adventure that will be more like backpacking than car camping so space will be at a premium. What is the brand of sleeping pad that you use for backpacking? I’ll need to do some product research!

  • Michelle:

    I stumbled on your site while looking at camp grounds in Arizona. I just had to chime in on this topic because I don’t have the problem with the rolled up end on my Thermarest… they say in the instructions for this particular pad that you should always store it unrolled/flat with the valve open. I store it under my bed to keep it out of the way and to protect my investment. Those things are expensive but they’re definitely awesome. You might try storing yours flat and see if it makes a difference!

    Thanks for the awesome blog. I’m enjoying reading it very much 🙂

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