A good night’s sleep on a backpacking trip used to be an oxymoron. Without fail, the conversation over coffee in the morning would turn to aching backs from that rock or stick or, heck, even a clump of dirt that managed to poke through your half inch sleeping pad. Well, somebody was listening, because today’s sleeping pads are quite comfortable. And they continue to improve, reducing packed size and weight, while offering greater warmth (note: the pad’s ability to insulate is rated by its R-value—the higher the number the better it insulates). Below are our top picks for 2016, which include the 3 most common types: air pads, self-inflating pads, and closed-cell foam pads. For more information, see our sleeping pad comparison table and buying advice below the picks. For those sleeping close to the car that want more comfort, see our article on the best camping mattresses.
Type: Air pad
Weight: 12 oz.
Fabric bottom: 30D
What we like: Ultralight and comfortable.
What we don’t: 30D bottom is more prone to punctures than many of the pads below.
Women's: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
Therm-a-Rest is synonymous with quality backpacking pads and the NeoAir XLite is their leading lightweight model. The NeoAir line completely changed the sleeping pad landscape with its baffled technology, which retains solid insulating properties and comfort at shockingly light weights. With an R-value of 3.2, the XLite isn’t the most insulated option (look to the XTherm below for that), but it’s still plenty for most three-season backpacking trips and thru-hiking, and the 12-ounce total weight has yet to be matched. More, the XLite packs downs extremely small and takes up very little space in your backpack.
Like all ultralight gear, the XLite isn’t known for its durability. The 30D bottom is among the thinnest on this list and one the reasons why weight is so low (those who worry about popping their pads should consider the XTherm or Trekker below). That said, compared with other ultralight air pads, you hear far fewer issues with punctures or leaks. In addition, the NeoAir pads make a crinkly noise when you move around as a result of the lightweight materials and baffling structure, even after an update that included softer touch fabrics. Some mind it and some don’t, but it certainly hasn’t been a deal breaker from our experiences.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
Fabric bottom: 40D
What we like: Super comfortable.
What we don’t: Heavier than the leading Therm-a-Rest pads.
Best known for waterproof gear and accessories, Australian-based Sea to Summit has made a big splash in the sleeping pad market over the last couple of years. In a crowded field they set themselves apart with an innovative cell design that, simply put, is the most comfortable backpacking pad we’ve slept on. The Comfort Light Insulated is our favorite of the six available versions—you can choose from Ultralight, Comfort Light, and Comfort Plus, all three of which have insulated versions.
At about 21 ounces, you do add some weight with the Comfort Light compared to other pads at or near the top of this list. However, for many weekend backpackers who like a little more plushness, the more than 300 AirSprung Cells provide great cushion. More, the R-value of 4.2 is just about perfect for all types of 3-season backpacking trips. One point of note: in testing the ultralight version of this pad, we did create a small puncture while sleeping on slickrock. The 40D rip-stop nylon is a touch thicker than ultralight pads like the Therm-a-Rest XLite above but still requires a healthy amount of care.
See the Sea to Summit Comfort Lite
Type: Air pad
Weight: 15 oz.
Fabric bottom: 70D
What we like: High R-value for 4-season backpacking.
What we don’t: Pricey and overkill for most conditions.
Weight, insulation and comfort are all best in class with our favorite sleeping pad: the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm. It retains the super lightweight internal baffling design of the entire NeoAir lineup, but adds (literally) a silver lining with their ThermaCapture technology. The lining mimics a built-in emergency blanket by reflecting back your body heat; really impressive insulation (with a winter-ready 5.7 R-value), and very minimal bulk and weight are the end results. Lest we forget, the pad is equally as comfortable as the other NeoAir models, with small and unobtrusive horizontal baffles to sleep on.
So why has it been knocked down to 3rd place? Price for the XTherm is understandably the biggest hurdle for most backpackers, starting at nearly $200 for the regular size. Also, as with the XLite, it makes a light crinkly noise when you turn over at night, particularly when not fully inflated. Outside of those quibbles, the XTherm stands alone for its unique combination of comfort, warmth and weight.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Fabric bottom: 70D
What we like: A great value for a high-end backpacking pad.
What we don’t: Won’t handle cold temperatures well.
Are you sick of the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir line yet? We hope not, because the NeoAir Trekker is one of the best values on this list. Instead of spending $200 for the XTherm or $160 for the XLite, the Trekker is $130 yet retains similar build quality and specs. You get the same 2.5 inches of cushion, a durable 70D nylon bottom (more than the XLite and the same as the XTherm), and total weight comes in at a respectable 18 ounces for a regular. And the rectangular design is more accomodating to active sleepers that are prone to rolling off their pad. For most mild weather backpackers who want comfort but don’t need the lightest of the light, the NeoAir Trekker is a great option. Like other pads in the NeoAir line, you can expect mild crinkly sounds from the lightweight materials and baffling.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker
Type: Air pad
Weight: 15 oz.
R-value: Rated at 15° to 25°F
Fabric bottom: 20D
What we like: Very lightweight but 3-inches thick.
What we don’t: Super thin construction.
For 2016, Nemo made a big leap forward with their Tensor line. Nemo mats were never weight leaders, but they are now: this insulated model is 15 ounces (the mummy version is 14.5 oz.) but still offers a full 3 inches of thickness for a comfortable rest. This is a notable half-inch increase over the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir models above, which should be helpful for side sleepers. And although it’s never been an issue for us, those bothered by the crinkly NeoAirs should be happy with the quiet Nemo construction.
The reason the Tensor hasn’t yet overtaken the NeoAir pads, however, is that durability does fall short. Neither the XLite nor the Tensor are particularly tough, but the Nemo’s 20-denier fabric is more likely to get a puncture (the XLite is 30D), and it’s still the heavier option. But if you value the extra cushion and are gentle on your gear, we think the Nemo Tensor is an excellent lightweight pad and slightly cheaper.
See the Nemo Tensor Insulated
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
Fabric bottom: 40D
What we like: The plushest pad on this list.
What we don’t: Heaviver than comparable Therm-a-Rest pads and still only 40D.
The second Sea to Summit model to make the list is the Comfort Plus non-insulated version. To give you a breakdown of our decision making process: the Comfort Plus is the most plush and comfortable of the Sea to Summit line with a whopping 548 AirSprung Cells. Its 2-layer design (you can tune the firmness of each layer separately) is what sets it apart from the single-layer Comfort lite above. The insulated version of this pad is just too heavy for our tastes at over 25 ounces, and the non-insulated version still has a respectable R-value of 2.5, which is why we give it the nod.
What about the Sea to Summit Ultralight pads? True ounce counters should buy the Therm-a-Rest XLite at 12 ounces and with an R-value of 3.2, which is better in both categories than the Ultralight (12.2 ounces and .7 R-value) and significantly lighter than the Ultralight Insulated (15.5 ounces and 3.3 R-value). It’s also noteworthy that all Sea to Summit mats have the same 40D nylon bottom, so you don’t get any added strength as you move up the line. But we love the extraordinary comfort of these pads, which makes the Comfort Plus a nice choice for backpackers who value a good night’s rest and don’t mind the extra weight.
See the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus
Type: Air pad
Weight: 12.3 oz.
Fabric bottom: 20D
What we like: Fantastic insulation for the weight.
What we don’t: Aggressively tapered design is narrow at the feet.
Across the Exped lineup—from the extreme weather DownMat to the SynMat Hyperlite here—the pads offer outstanding warmth for the weight. For ultralight backpacking, their Synmat Hyperlite comes through with impressive specs: 2.75 inches of thickness, an R-Value of 3.3, and a weight just over 12 ounces. To accomplish this, Exped does taper the foot-end of the pad more than we would prefer, but if you don’t roll around much at night or are out to cut as much weight as possible, it may be worth the compromise.
The well-designed flat valve is one of our favorites, and a nice upgrade over the twist-style valves you find on the Tensor and NeoAir above. It’s easy to use and has a handy one-way flap to keep air from escaping while blowing it up. Unfortunately, there have been some reports of the internal baffles in the pad failing, resulting in the Exped losing its flat profile. This isn’t repairable in the field, so it can be a major problem on a trip. It’s not a widespread issue as far as we can tell, but enough of a concern to hurt the Hyperlite in our rankings.
See the Exped SynMat Hyperlite
Weight: 1 lb. 10 oz.
Fabric bottom: 70D
What we like: Taller baffles on the sides hold you in.
What we don’t: Heavy and too thin for side sleepers.
Women's: REI AirRail 1.5
Another uniquely designed pad that keeps weight and packed size down is the REI AirRail 1.5. While it’s designated as a self-inflating pad, consider it a hybrid, because it’ll require a few breaths to fully inflate the foam-less outer tubes. Those outer tubes sit higher than the middle, discouraging you from wandering off the pad in the middle of the night. The AirRail has a mummy shape, but measures a little wider (23 inches) than standard pads to accommodate the outer baffles, which is enough to keep most arms from sliding off the sides (a problem with narrow ultralight pads). With an R-value of 4.2, it’s a solid 3+season pad. At only 1.5 inches thick, it can’t match the cushion of an air pad – especially for side sleepers, but does pack down impressively small for being a self-inflating foam build. Overall, it’s a decent design that becomes even more appealing considering the price and how many users have given it high marks. The extra weight may well be worth the boost in long-term durability.
See the REI AirRail 1.5
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
Fabric bottom: 30D
What we like: Wide sleeping platform and great price.
What we don’t: Not a standout in any specific category.
Klymit’s radical X Frame pad may have put the company on the map, but their follow-up Insulated Static V Lite is by far their best offering. Whereas the X Frame cuts away excess materials and resembles a skeleton (and offers no insulation from the ground), the Static V Lite is more traditional and comfortable. What we particularly like is the 23-inch width (most regular pads are 20-inches wide). This, combined with raised baffles along the sides, gives the Klymit a stable and roomy sleeping platform that is great for active sleepers.
Outside of the extra space and very competitive price, however, the pad doesn’t stand out. Using 30-denier fabric, we’d expect it to weigh less than 19.6 ounces (the warmer 15-ounce XTherm has the same denier rating), and so you sacrifice durability without the typical reward of weight. That said, it may not win outright in terms of weight-to-warmth against Therm-a-Rest, and it falls short to Sea to Summit in overall comfort, but the wide shape, small packed size, and value are more than enough to get the Static V Lite onto our list.
See the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 8 oz.
Fabric bottom: 70D
What we like: Super-fast inflate/deflate, same comfortable pad.
What we don’t: Added weight makes the valve less appealing.
For 2016, Therm-a-Rest introduced their rapid inflation and deflation SpeedValve technology in 3 pads: their ultralight XLite, luxurious Camper, and middle-of-the-road Trekker. In short, the system works by blowing into a large valve at the head-end of the pad from about 6 inches away. Within 4 to 8 breaths (our performance varied a bit) the pad is filled and you roll up and buckle the closure. It takes a little practice and we recommend perfecting the technique prior to heading out, but it is undoubtedly the fastest method for inflating and deflating a pad on the market (check out our review of the XLite Max SV pad for an in-depth look at the SpeedValve system).
Despite this impressive value technology, in using both the XLite and Trekker SV models we couldn’t get over the simple fact that you’re adding 6 ounces (4 in the case of the XLite) for marginal gains in convenience. To be clear, the Trekker SV remains the same fantastic pad that sits at #4 on our list. Comfort is among the best, and the rectangular shape is great for active sleepers. We just can’t justify the extra ounces (and $20) for the SpeedValve.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker SV
Type: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 4 oz.
R-value: Rated at 35°F
Fabric bottom: 70D
What we like: Great price and packed size for a thick pad.
What we don’t: Uninsulated.
If you only backpack in warm conditions, an uninsulated pad is a great way of saving money and weight. The new Big Agnes Air Core Ultra is an excellent example: for $70 you get 3.5-inches of comfort at a very reasonable 20 ounces. More, the 70-denier fabric is quite a bit tougher than the ultralight pads that dominate our list, so you don’t need to be constantly worried about a puncture (that doesn’t mean it can’t happen, however).
The “Ultra” is the updated version of the popular Air Core series, and features an improved, two-way valve with dedicated openings for inflation and deflation. We still think the vertical baffles are not as comfortable as the NeoAir and Nemo models above, but the extra thick construction is a definite boon for side sleepers. If you’ll be out in cool weather, there is an insulated version of the Air Core Ultra (rated at 15°F), although it tacks on $20 to the bottom line.
See the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra
Type: Closed-cell foam
Weight: 14 oz.
What we like: A great value.
What we don’t: Not nearly as comfortable as inflatable sleeping pads.
For backpackers who prioritize weight and ease of use over comfort, the Z-Lite SOL is an excellent budget option. This closed-cell foam sleeping pad weighs only 14 ounces for the regular, making it one of the lightest pad on this list. It is a three-season pad and won’t provide much warmth in cold conditions, but the SOL version’s silver side does reflect back some body heat. We like how the Z-Lite SOL folds like an accordion, which makes morning packing in the tent a matter of seconds instead of minutes. It’s also nice to use the Sol for sitting during lunch breaks, and the closed-cell is relatively tough and easy to clean. Yes, it’s not nearly the most comfortable on this list, but it’s cheap, dependable, and a great second pad for a winter trip.
See the Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite||$160||Air pad||12 oz.||2.5 in.||3.2||30D||4 x 9 in.|
|Sea to Summit Comfort Lite Insulated||$170||Air pad||1 lb. 5 oz.||2.5 in.||4.2||40D||4.5 x 9 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm||$200||Air pad||15 oz.||2.5 in.||5.7||70D||4 x 9 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker||$130||Air pad||1 lb. 2 oz.||2.5 in.||3.0||70D||4.5 x 9 in.|
|Nemo Tensor Insulated||$150||Air pad||15 oz.||3.0 in.||15-25°F||20D||3.5 x 8 in.|
|Sea to Summit Comfort Plus||$170||Air pad||1 lb. 5 oz.||2.5 in.||2.5||40D||5 x 9 in.|
|Exped SynMat Hyperlite||$169||Air pad||12.3 oz.||2.75 in.||3.3||20D||5 x 9 in.|
|REI Air Rail 1.5||$89||Self-inflating||1 lb. 10 oz.||1.5 in.||4.2||70D||6.5 x 9 in.|
|Klymit Insulated Static V Lite||$95||Air pad||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||2.5 in.||4.4||30D||5 x 8 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Trekker SV||$150||Air pad||1 lb. 8 oz.||2.5 in.||3.0||70D||4 x 9 in.|
|Big Agnes Air Core Ultra||$70||Air pad||1 lb. 4 oz.||3.5 in.||35°F||70D||4 x 7 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL||$45||Foam||14 oz.||0.75 in.||2.6||N/A||5.5 x 20 in.|
- Sleeping Pad Categories
- Thickness and Comfort
- Packed Size
- Sizing and Pad Length
- Durability (Denier)
- Valve Types
- Sleeping Pad Care
Your average sleeping pad search will return three general types: air, self-inflating, and closed-cell foam. Air pads offer unmatched compactness, often rolling down to the same size as a Nalgene bottle. They’re also the lightest option, while at the same time providing unmatched thickness. Bonded insulation or baffling techniques can bring impressive R-value levels, highlighted by the Therm-a-Rest XTherm. The primary downside is a greater puncture risk, and it’s a big consideration. Middle of the night deflations can ruin a trip really fast. Bringing along a patch kit should alleviate most concerns, but it’s still a reason to not buy an air pad.
The self-inflating mattress was a revolutionary idea when the Therm-a-Rest was invented in 1972. By combining open cell foam and a space for the pad to expand and fill with air, it brought convenience, decent durability, and comfort. It’s a testament to that technology that most of today’s self-inflating pads haven’t deviated much. Compared with air pads, self-inflating options are more puncture resistant, and you still have some semblance of padding if it deflates in the middle of the night. Negatives are that the foam brings extra poundage and they don’t pack down as small as an equivalent air pad. Backpacking options are not as thick, leading to complaints from side sleepers.
The old closed-cell foam pads still have a place on this list as a dependable, tried and true option. Yes, they’re the least comfortable option, don’t pack as small, and don’t have the highest R-values, but they also have exactly a zero percent chance of deflating in the middle of the night. And they’re the perfect secondary pads to bring along for winter camping.
Weight is a primary consideration for many backpackers—just look at the quick rise of the ultralight backpacking movement. On this list you’ll find everything from the 12-ounce Exped SynMat Hyperlite to the 26-ounce REI AirRail 1.5. We think that the best backpacking pad options are in the 12 to 18-ounce range, offering cutting-edge materials along with respectable levels of comfort and warmth. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is a fantastic 3-season ultralight pad at just 12 ounces. For a full list of options, see our detailed sleeping pad weight comparison chart.
As with any piece of outdoor gear, the less it weighs the more fragile it will be and the more you’ll pay. It doesn’t make a ton of sense to buy a $200 ultralight sleeping pad if you only plan on using it on a couple of easy weekend trips each summer. And regardless of its weight, make sure to sure to take reasonable care when stowing your pad and setting up camp.
Comfort is relative when sleeping on the ground, and most people who can’t handle a night under the stars don’t backpack or camp at all. Backpacking pads are thinner and less plush than camping mattresses and pads, but the latest outdoor gear technology has made advances in this department. We think Sea to Summit’s new AirSprung cells (2.5-inches thick) make for some of the most comfortable sleeping pads around, although they can’t quite compete with Therm-a-Rest in terms of weight and R-value per ounce.
You may notice a lot of chatter in product comments about being a back sleeper or a side sleeper. Back sleeping more evenly distributes your weight, whereas side sleeping puts a higher percentage of weight around the hips and shoulders. If you are a side sleeper or don’t sleep particularly well in the outdoors, make sure to look for a thick pad like the Nemo Astro Air (4 inches thick) or Big Agnes Q Core SL (3.5 inches thick). If you need serious cushion, consider one of the lighter options on our list of the best camping mattresses and pads.
R-value, in the context of sleeping pads, is a measurement of how well the pad is insulating you from the ground. The higher the number, the more the pad resists the cold air from coming through. Why is this important? Try taking a huge inflatable airbed on a camping trip in the spring and it’ll feel like you’re sleeping on top of an ice rink. All of that cold air moving between you and the ground equals one freezing body. Even a really warm sleeping bag won’t save you because your body is compressing the bag’s insulation.
To combat this, you’ll need a sleeping pad that gives some level of protection. The average 3-season user should get a pad with an R-value of approximately 3. A summer-only backpacker that sticks to warm conditions can get away with less (and if the temperature is warm enough, you can get an uninsulated pad), and a true winter camper will want an R-value that exceeds 5. If you’ll be doing some winter camping, it’s often a good idea to bring a combination of pads, especially if you plan to have one of the pads be the inflatable type. Imagine waking up in the middle of the night on top of snow on essentially a deflated balloon. Bring along a closed-cell foam pad to be safe.
Packed size is a function of the pad type, amount of insulation, and fabric thickness. Uninsulated or lightly insulated air pads are by far and away the most compact. Some even compress to the size of a can of soda, which is a far cry from the foam and self-inflating pads that dominated the market only a decade ago. A quick scan of our comparison table above shows that most air pads, even warm options like the Therm-a-Rest XTherm, pack down small enough to easily fit inside a backpacking pack. The XLite packs down impressively small and easily can be held in one hand.
If you are considering a self-inflating or closed-cell foam pad, packed size can present a problem. A foam option like Therm-a-Rest Z Lite is 20-inches long (most air pads are about 7 to 9 inches), which means you’ll need to strap it to the outside of your pack. For some, this may not be an issue at all, but it’s one of a number of reasons why we find ourselves grabbing our old Z Lites less and less.
Most sleeping pads are unisex and come in a two or three sizes that allow you choose based on your height and comfort preferences. The “regular” pad often is right around 72 inches long, and the “large” often is between 77 and 80 inches long. Occasionally you’ll find a “small” size, and some brands even offer torso pads that are only about 2/3 the length of a regular pad. These aren’t the most comfortable models, but they do allow you to cut significant weight. Because your legs have fewer contact points with the ground, some people don’t mind the short length.
Some sleeping pads also come in a women’s version that looks nearly identical to its unisex counterpart, so what’s the difference? To start, they’ll be shorter than the unisex pad (66 inches vs. 72). They also may offer a little more insulation, making them a great choice for shorter adults who sleep cold.
Fabric thickness is measured in Denier (D), and the lower the number, the thinner the threads. Therefore a lower denier rating generally means the fabric is less durable and more prone to abrasion. Many ultralight outdoor gear items cut weight by using lower denier fabrics.
In terms of backpacking sleeping pads, the options on this list range from 20D to 70D, a very substantial difference. For example, the thinnest pad is the Nemo Tensor Insulated at 20D. Our top pick, the Therm-a-Rest XLite, has a 30D bottom. All of Sea to Summit’s mats are 40D. The Therm-a-Rest XTherm and Trekker models are 70D, as is the REI AirRail. Some pads have a thicker denier fabric on the bottom of the pad for extra protection and a thinner denier fabric on the top (the numbers above all are for the bottom of the mat).
Let us be clear: denier matters and you can feel the difference. So does weight, however, so it’s important to find the right balance for your backpacking style. Ultralight backpackers cut every possible ounce and usually know how to take of their gear (otherwise it would be an extremely expensive hobby). The downside is that lower denier fabrics inherently have shorter lifespans and a higher propensity to have durability issues in the backcountry.
Both air and self-inflating pads utilize a valve, but it’s the air pad market that has seen recent advancements in technology. Traditional sleeping pads open and close by twisting and pushing or pulling a round plastic valve. In general, these work pretty well, and they’re still used on nearly all self-inflating pads and a number of air pads, but there are downsides. For one, the valve works inefficiently because it’s completely open while inflating, which allows some air to escape in-between breaths. Their upright profile also takes up space and can be damaged while moving around.
To address these issues, a number of manufactures including Sea to Summit, Big Agnes and Exped, have turned to flat valves. Beyond the slim profile, they often have dedicated openings for inflating and deflating, and importantly, a flap that keeps air from escaping while blowing into the opening. They’re reliable, efficient, and add very little weight—all excellent characteristics.
Therm-a-Rest went a completely different route in creating their new SpeedValve technology. The SV pads have a distinctive look with a long neck and very large opening at the head-end of the pad. By blowing hard towards the opening from a short distance (about 6 inches away), surrounding air is also pulled in, which means you can inflate these pads in as little as 4 breaths. Admittedly, it does add weight and we’re not totally smitten with the design (you can read our full review of the XLite SV pad here), but for those that prioritize saving their breath after a long day on the trail, it’s a class leader.
If you are like most backpackers, you don’t head out year-round. To store a self-inflating pad in the offseason, make sure to leave it unrolled and the valve(s) open. By doing this you’ll keep the foam in good shape. If it’s stored compressed, the pad will lose its self-inflating nature because the foam will become overly compacted. Having a hard time finding a spot to store the pad? Under a bed or behind a couch are popular options.
Air pad storage and care is a little simpler. Remove all the air from the pad and keep it rolled up in its storage bag to protect it from punctures.
Caring for a closed-cell foam pad. Hmmm. Try to not let your dog eat it, how about that? Okay, there are a few other tips. Don’t leave heavy objects on top of it to avoid undue compressing of the foam, and, if it’s a rollable type, store it unrolled so it doesn’t loose its shape.
Sleeping Mattresses for Camping
Sleeping pads for backpacking are light, pack down small, and are reasonably comfortable. But if you don’t plan on venturing far from the car, we recommend a thicker and more luxurious camping mattress instead. These mats are plush and warm, often layered with extra foam padding. They’re also a whole lot more durable because the manufacturers don’t have to use thin materials as a means to keep weight down. To see our full list of favorites and a breakdown of important features, check out our article on the best camping mattresses and pads.