A good night’s sleep on a backpacking trip used to be a rarity, but today’s sleeping pads are much improved over their predecessors. Comfort is better than ever with advanced baffling and cell designs, weight and packed size continue to drop, and you can get all the insulation and warmth you need for cold weather. Below we break down the top sleeping pads for backpacking of 2021, including leading air, self-inflating, and foam models. With any pad you choose, make sure to take proper care to avoid holes.
Table of Contents
- Our Sleeping Pad Picks
- Sleeping Pad Comparison Table
- Sleeping Pad Buying Advice
Category: Air pad
Weight: 12 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
What we like: Ultralight, comfortable, and well-built.
What we don’t: A little thin and crinkly.
Therm-a-Rest is synonymous with quality backpacking pads, and the NeoAir XLite is their leading lightweight model. For most people and uses, it’s the whole package: the XLite is comfortable with Therm-a-Rest’s signature internal baffling, weighs just 12 ounces, and the R-value of 4.2 is plenty for most 3-season trips (the women's model is even warmer at 5.4). Further, the XLite stuffs downs impressively small and takes up very little space in your pack. It’s true that the NeoAir XTherm below provides more insulation and has thicker fabric on the bottom of the pad, but it’s also 3 ounces heavier and costs a whopping $220.
The entire NeoAir line got a revamp last year, and the most significant change was the new WingLock valve. In a departure from their previous design, the new valve has one-way inflation to improve efficiency, and its plastic “wings” along the side can be twisted open to quickly release air. There’s also an included pump sack, although we found that it offered only mild time savings and can’t match the ease of use of the pump bag that comes with the Nemo Tensor below. Moreover, the XLite’s 30-denier fabric requires care to avoid punctures and its internal baffling means it’s not the quietest on the market (this issue hasn’t been a deal-breaker for us, however). Despite the nitpicks, we consider the XLite the ideal 3-season choice thanks to its excellent mix of weight, comfort, and warmth.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite See the Women's Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
Category: Closed-cell foam
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Thickness: 0.9 in.
What we like: Cheap and will never pop; thicker than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite.
What we don’t: Not nearly as comfortable as inflatable sleeping pads.
We’ll start by saying that the Switchback from Nemo is not the right choice for those looking for a cushy and comfortable sleeping pad. You get a little less than an inch of closed-cell foam, along with a reflective coating designed to capture radiant heat. But we have the Switchback ranked here for two very important reasons: it’s cheap at just $50 for the regular version, and it will never pop. Despite the very thin and simplistic nature of this foam pad, we’ll take it over a $150+ air pad with a hole any day. Plus, it also serves as a great seat around camp, and some comfort seekers or winter explorers will use it beneath their regular air pad for extra cushion and protection.
Compared to the uber-popular and long-standing Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol below, the Switchback wins out in most ways. It’s thicker (0.9 inches compared to 0.75 inches) but packs down to the same size. It’s also a touch more comfortable, although it's a close call between the two. All that said, you will still feel rocks and roots beneath you much more than with the pricier air options above and below, and it won’t keep you insulated from the cold ground outside of the summer months with an R-value of 2.
See the Nemo Switchback
Category: Air pad
Weight: 15 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
What we like: High R-value for 4-season backpacking.
What we don’t: Pricey and overkill for most conditions.
For more warmth and durability than our top pick, the NeoAir XLite, give the NeoAir XTherm a serious look. This pad has the same lightweight internal baffling design of the XLite, but adds a silver lining (literally) with ThermaCapture technology. The build mimics a built-in emergency blanket by reflecting back your body heat, giving the pad a winter-ready R-value of 6.9 with minimal bulk and weight. Lest we forget, the pad is equally as comfortable as the other NeoAir models, with a gradually tapered shape and small, unobtrusive horizontal baffles to sleep on.
Price is the biggest hurdle with the Therm-a-Rest XTherm for most backpackers, with the pad starting at a steep $220 for the regular size (the large is even more at $260). Further, the R-value of 6.9 is nice for the cold but overkill for many 3-season trips. On the other hand, the XTherm has a more durable 70-denier bottom fabric than the XLite at 30D, which is significant. If you need the extra warmth and can afford it, the XTherm is a cold-weather standout for serious adventurers.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 1.3 oz.
Thickness: 4 in.
What we like: Excellent comfort and isolation from the ground with a super-thick build.
What we don’t: Expensive and only moderately insulated.
For side sleepers and those who move around a lot during the night, Sea to Summit’s Ether Light XT Insulated is the ticket. With a whopping 4 inches of cushioning off the ground, the Ether is the thickest sleeping pad on this list while weighing in at a respectable 1 pound 1.3 ounces. Other notable features include the same distinctive and well-padded Air Sprung Cells that were originally introduced on the Comfort Light below, a 3.2 R-value that should suffice for most summer and shoulder-season backpacking trips (you’ll want more warmth if the mercury really drops), and a dual pump/stuff sack for quick and painless inflation. Add it all up, and the Ether is one of the most luxurious pads on the market.
Admittedly, such a thick pad is unnecessary for many backpackers, including those who tend to sleep on their back and smaller human beings in general (we’ve found that the 2.5-in. NeoAirs are sufficient in most instances). In addition, the added cushioning that the Sea to Summit offers comes with a considerable bump in price, making the $180 Ether one of the most expensive pads in its class. For $20 less, check out Big Agnes’ Q-Core Deluxe below, which features a healthy 3.5 inches of cushioning and a higher R-value of 4.3. But all in all, for side sleepers looking to put as much space as possible between your body and the ground, the Ether is hard to beat.
See the Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
Thickness: 1.5 in.
What we like: Self-inflating convenience at a great price.
What we don’t: Thickness, weight, and packed size can’t compete with an air pad.
Air pads dominate the backpacking market, but self-inflating models still have a place due to their convenient set-up, greater durability, and cushy foam padding. Our favorite self-inflating design is Therm-a-Rest’s ProLite Plus, which hits a nice balance of warmth and price. The pad is super easy to use—just unroll it and open the valve to inflate—and its 3.2 R-value and 1.5-inch thickness give you enough warmth and protection for most spring, summer, and fall trips. With a price of $105 for the regular size, we also think the ProLite Plus is a solid deal for weekend warriors.
What are the downsides of the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus? The pad’s packed size and 1-pound-7-ounce weight make it significantly larger and heavier than a comparable air pad. And comfort-minded backpackers and side sleepers might prefer a thicker option (Therm-a-Rest also offers a ProLite Apex that increases thickness to 2 inches for an additional $15). On the other hand, the ProLite is less likely to spring a leak than most air pads with a fairly robust 50-denier fabric on the top and bottom. If you like the security of a self-inflating build, the ProLite is a proven option that won’t break the bank.
See the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus See the Women's ProLite Plus
Category: Air pad
Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz.
Thickness: 3.5 in.
What we like: Maximum comfort for two backpackers.
What we don’t: Heavy and lacking in versatility.
We’ve seen double sleeping pads gain interest in the car camping world, but they shouldn’t be overlooked by backpackers. Instead of two people bringing two separate pads and having a limited surface area to sleep on, the Big Agnes Insulated SLX Tent Floor functions more like a backpacking mattress that is designed to fill out most tents (hence the name). All things considered, it’s a fun option for couples, those bringing a child into the backcountry, and even individuals who want maximum sleeping comfort at the expense of some extra weight and bulk.
To further evaluate this double sleeping pad concept, let’s have a look at the numbers. The Big Agnes SLX Tent Floor is heavy at 2 pounds 11 ounces—the single version in a size regular is 1 pounds 2 ounces, or less than half. In terms of price, the single version is $150, so getting the double is a wash. On the flipside, the Tent Floor version is a whopping 50 inches wide at the head end versus 20 inches for the single pad, so you are getting an extra 10 inches of width there and no gap (the double is tapered and 40 in. at the feet end). And for other options in this category, check out Exped’s SynMat Duo and Klymit’s Double V collection.
See the Big Agnes Insulated SLX Tent Floor
Category: Air pad
Weight: 15 oz.
Thickness: 3 in.
What we like: Very lightweight but a generous 3 inches thick.
What we don’t: Super thin construction and unreliable valve.
The Tensor is an impressive addition to the air pad market, combining a lightweight and packable build with 3 inches of cushion for a comfortable rest. This is a notable half-inch increase over the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite and XTherm above, which is particularly beneficial for side sleepers. Plus, the Tensor's flat valve and included pump sack have proven to be much faster and more convenient to operate than the NeoAir's new WingLock and included pump bag. And although it’s never been an issue for us, those bothered by the crinkly NeoAirs should be happy with the somewhat quieter Nemo construction.
But the Tensor falls short of our top-ranked NeoAir XLite in a few key areas. Neither pad is particularly tough, but the Tensor’s 20-denier fabric is more likely to get a puncture (the XLite is 30D), yet it’s still the heavier option. In addition, the Nemo is slightly less insulative with an R-value of 3.5 (the XLite is 4.2). Finally, although the Nemo’s valve is more user-friendly than Therm-a-Rest’s WingLock, it does have a history of leaking. But if you value the extra cushion and are gentle on your gear, the Nemo Tensor is an excellent lightweight pad and cheaper than a Therm-a-Rest. For those headed to higher elevations, Nemo also makes the Tensor in an Alpine version (R-value: 4.8), which has a tapered mummy shape and costs an additional $65.
See the Nemo Tensor Insulated
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 5.9 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
What we like: Super comfortable.
What we don’t: Heavier than the leading Therm-a-Rest pads.
Best known for waterproof gear and accessories, Australia-based Sea to Summit has made a big splash in the sleeping pad world over the last few years. In a crowded field, the Comfort Light Insulated sets itself apart with an innovative cell design that we’ve found does an excellent job distributing weight and providing the right mix of support and softness. As the name implies, comfort is a priority with a slightly wider shape (21.5 in. maximum compared with 20 in. on most regular-width designs), 3-season-friendly R-value of 3.7, and a high-quality feel to the materials.
At nearly 1 pound 6 ounces, you do add some weight with the Sea to Summit Comfort Light Insulated compared to other pads at or near the top of this list, which also translates to a bit more bulk in your pack. And you’re not adding much in the way of durability either, with a 30D x 40D construction that is rather thin. Finally, the pad is 1.5 inches thinner than the brand’s own Ether XT above, so side sleepers and heavier backpackers will likely prefer that option. That said, the Comfort Light adds a second layer of Air Sprung Cells around the torso, which makes it extremely plush and a great choice for back sleepers.
See the Comfort Light Insulated See the Women's Comfort Light Insulated
Category: Self-inflating/air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
Thickness: 2 in.
What we like: The thickness of an air pad and reliability of a self-inflating model.
What we don’t: Thin 20-denier shell.
Nemo’s Flyer is in a category of its own as a hybrid air/self-inflating pad that brings together the best features of both styles. To create the Flyer, Nemo took the design of a self-inflating pad, trimmed down the amount of open-cell foam by 60 percent, and added insulation and comfort via air-filled baffles. The net result is a mat that’s reasonably light at 1 pound 7 ounces, easy to set up (it's self-inflating), and decently compressible with a stuffed size of 6.5 x 10 inches (for reference, REI’s Flash 3-Season air pad below is 4 x 9.5 in.). And importantly, the Flyer retains the supportive, plush cushioning of a self-inflating pad, which keeps you insulated from the ground even in the event of a leak.
What do you sacrifice with the Nemo Flyer? Sporting a 20-denier shell, the pad is similarly vulnerable to punctures as the brand’s much lighter Tensor, although (as we mentioned above) you’ll at least have a little foam cushioning with the Flyer to keep you protected if the pad gets a hole. It’s also a bit more expensive and no warmer than the Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus above, but the Nemo wins out in thickness (2 in. vs. 1.5 in.) and packed size (6.5 x 10 in. vs. 6.8 x 11 for the Therm-a-Rest). If you prefer a self-inflating build but want to keep things light and compact, we think the Flyer is well worth checking out.
See the Nemo Flyer
Category: Closed-cell foam
Weight: 14 oz.
Thickness: 0.75 in.
What we like: Durable and lightweight.
What we don’t: Nemo Switchback above is thicker and more comfortable.
Therm-a-Rest’s Z Lite Sol is a backpacking classic. This basic 3/4-inch pad features tough closed-cell foam, a reflective coating for a boost in warmth, and a budget-friendly price of $46. Further, the pad folds up accordion-style into a reasonably compact package for storing on the top, side, or bottom of a pack. As with the Nemo Switchback above, the Z Lite is not a leader in terms of comfort, but it’s hard to argue with the dependability of a cheap foam mat.
You’ll see the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol strapped to a surprisingly high number of packs. Ultralighters love the low weight and dependability, budget backpackers love the price, and winter campers use it as a second mat for a boost in warmth. In the end, the Switchback above beats it in comfort with its thicker, more plush design, but the Z Lite is the proven choice that still gets the slight edge in weight (14 oz. vs. 14.5 for the Nemo) and price ($46 vs. $50).
See the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 9 oz.
Thickness: 3.5 in.
What we like: Thick construction and impressive warmth at a reasonable price.
What we don’t: The Ether Light XT above wins out in weight and comfort.
Steamboat Springs-based Big Agnes makes some of our favorite lightweight backpacking gear. And from their wide-ranging sleeping pad line, we like their Insulated Q-Core Deluxe best. Featuring PrimaLoft Silver synthetic insulation and a very thick 3.5-inch construction (its sides are even taller at 4.25 in.), the pad is a strong option for side and active sleepers and in chilly conditions (the R-value is a respectable 4.3). You pay a weight penalty at 1 pound 9 ounces, but the Deluxe is a well-built, comfort-focused design.
In terms of ultra-thick sleeping pads, the Q-Core Deluxe goes head-to-head with the Sea to Summit Ether Light XT above. Compared to the insulated version of the Ether, the Big Agnes is around 8 ounces heavier and half an inch thinner, although you save $20 and get more warmth (the Ether has an R-value of 3.2). But in our opinion, the biggest difference is comfort: the Ether’s cell-like construction is more plush than the Q-Core’s rigid, quilted top. Finally, it’s worth noting that we previously had Big Agnes’ Insulated Q-Core SLX here, which is $10 cheaper and 7 ounces lighter than the Deluxe model but falls noticeably short in warmth and overall build quality (we put a hole in ours after only moderate use).
See the Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core Deluxe
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 5 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
What we like: Good price for a 3-season air pad.
What we don’t: Middling comfort.
For backpackers that only get out a couple times a year, REI’s Stratus Insulated hits a nice combination of price, warmth, and convenience. For $10 less than their lightweight Flash below, you get a slightly higher R-value (3.3 vs. 3.2 for the Flash 3-Season), super fast deflation (thanks to the dedicated valve), and a compact shape that fits easily into a pack. It isn’t as quick to inflate as the Flash—and to be fair, few mats are—but its shell fabric has a sturdier feel, and our Stratus never sprung a leak through multiple seasons of use.
The tradeoff with the Stratus’s budget-friendly price is a noticeable drop comfort. If you’re transitioning from a basic foam pad, the design is certainly more supportive at 2.5 inches thick, but the simple vertical tubes lack the plush feel of our top picks. In addition, REI raised the outer tubes in an effort to keep you from rolling off in the night, but we found them unnecessary and actually negatively impacted comfort. That said, the Stratus is reasonably light at 1 pound 5 ounces, packs smaller than a self-inflating model, and is undoubtedly a good value, which is why it’s earned a spot on our list for 2021.
See the REI Co-op Stratus Insulated
Category: Air pad
Weight: 8.8 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
What we like: Crazy light and surprisingly comfortable.
What we don’t: Limited durability and insulation.
Based off the popular NeoAir series, the aptly named NeoAir UberLite is Therm-a-Rest's lightest creation yet, shaving an impressive 3.2 ounces off our top-rated XLite above. We brought the UberLite on a backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon and it held up nicely: the familiar horizontal baffling makes it just as comfortable as the other NeoAir mats, we didn’t experience any punctures despite sleeping in a floorless Hyperlite shelter, and the tiny stuff sack fit easily into the smallest crevices in our pack.
The NeoAir UberLite has a lot of appeal for those looking to trim their base weight, but, unsurprisingly, it comes with a fair number of compromises. With an R-value of 2.3, the pad was just warm enough for us when temperatures dipped into the mid 40s Fahrenheit, but it likely will be too cold for the shoulder seasons or even summer trips high into the alpine. Further, the 15-denier fabric is even thinner than the XLite’s delicate 30-denier shell and therefore is prone to punctures (you’ll want to make sure to bring your patch kit on every trip). For $10 less, we prefer the XLite’s greater versatility, but for warm-weather adventures when weight is your primary consideration, the UberLite is the pad to get.
See the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 0.9 oz.
Thickness: 2 in.
What we like: Light, packable, and very comfortable for the weight.
What we don’t: Not the best value.
Sharing the cell-like design of their Comfort Light above but in a trimmed-down form is Sea to Summit’s Ultralight Insulated. At just over 1 pound and with an impressively small packed size, the Ultralight is nicely cushioned with 2 inches of thickness, has a respectable R-value of 3.1 for warmth in most 3-season conditions, and boasts the brand’s aforementioned Air Sprung Cells that add noticeable boosts in plushness and all-around comfort. Taken together, the Ultralight strikes us as an impressively well-rounded air pad with no serious concessions.
All that said, we have the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated ranked here because it simply doesn’t stand out from a value perspective. For $40 more, the brand’s Ether Light XT above offers double the padding for only a 0.4-ounce weight penalty. Alternatively, Nemo’s $20-pricier Tensor is an inch thicker and weighs less at 15 ounces, although it’s a step down in durability with a thin, 20-denier fabric (the Ultralight Insulated is 30D x 40D). And REI’s $100 Flash 3-Season below boasts similar specs, including a 2-inch-thick build, 1-pound weight, and 3.2 R-value, although the Ultralight is the more comfortable and reliable option of the two.
See the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated See the Women's Ultralight Insulated
Weight: 1 lb. 13 oz.
Thickness: 3 in.
What we like: Thick and very comfortable.
What we don’t: The heaviest self-inflating design on our list.
Therm-a-Rest’s ProLite Plus above is our favorite self-inflating pad for its combination of warmth and price, but their spendier Trail Pro stands out as a cushier and more luxurious option. Similar to Nemo’s innovative Flyer above, the Trail Pro takes properties from both self-inflating and air pad designs by alternating ridges of foam and air, which nicely balances weight and comfort. You also get a 3-season-ready R-value of 4.4 (for reference, the ProLite Plus is 3.2), as well as an impressively thick and well-padded build (3 in. vs. the ProLite’s 1.5 in.). All in all, from a comfort standpoint, the Trail Pro is a real winner.
The Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro, however, is not without downsides. At 1 pound 13 ounces, it’s the heaviest self-inflating model on our list by a considerable 6 ounces, although it’s also the thickest and warmest. Packed size is another downfall, with the Trail Pro measuring a fairly bulky 8.8 x 11 inches when compressed (the ProLite Plus, by comparison, is 6.8 x 11 in.). But there’s no denying the lavish feel, and the Trail Pro’s added thickness and plushness make it worth considering for comfort-minded backpackers.
See the Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 15.6 oz.
Thickness: 3.5 in.
What we like: The highest R-value backpacking pad on the market.
What we don’t: Heavy and overkill for most conditions.
Most of the sleeping pads on the list are built for 3-season conditions with varying levels of insulation. But for the highest R-value of any backpacking pad, the Exped Downmat XP 9 takes the cake at 7.8. With a unique design that uses 700-fill goose down as insulation, the XP 9 also is a substantial 3.5 inches thick and quite comfortable to sleep on. You can't inflate this pad manually, as the moisture from your breath can damage the down fill, but the included waterproof compression sack doubles as a fully functional pump bag. For 4-season backpacking, base camping, and as an expedition mat, the Exped wins out in warmth.
Our big concern with the Exped DownMat XP 9 is that it’s lacking in practicality, and in particular when compared to the uber-popular Therm-a-Rest XTherm above. In parsing out the differences, the XTherm has an impressive R-value of 6.9, which is ample for most cold weather, and weighs significantly less at just 15 ounces for a regular size (that’s half of the weight of the Exped). It’s true that the DownMat is 1 inch thicker, not as crinkly as the XTherm, and wins out in sleeping comfort, but it’s an unnecessarily heavy and bulky pad for most people to carry in their pack.
See the Exped DownMat XP 9
Weight: 1 lb. 6 oz.
Thickness: 1 in.
What we like: The cheapest self-inflating design on our list by a wide margin.
What we don’t: It’s also the least comfortable.
The seventh and final Therm-a-Rest pad to make our list is also the cheapest: the Trail Scout. For only $55, the Trail Scout undercuts the self-inflating competition above by a considerable $50-$85 and doesn’t sacrifice much in the way of quality. Most notably, you get a respectable R-value of 3.1 (great for most 3-season backpacking), competitive 1-pound-6-ounce weight, and the brand’s WingLock valve described above. For those on a strict budget, there’s a lot to like with the Trail Scout.
What do you compromise by saving with the Therm-a-Rest pad? Comfort is the most obvious concession, with a thin 1-inch build that doesn’t keep you very far off the ground. For side sleepers or those who place a premium on cushioning, we recommend spending up for a thicker model like Therm-a-Rest’s own ProLite Plus or Trail Pro above (even REI’s $100 Flash pad below offers more support with 2 in. of thickness). But for a cushier and warmer alternative to the cheap foam options on our list, the Trail Scout has its place.
See the Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 3.6 oz.
Thickness: 2.5 in.
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 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 a little more traditional and comfortable. We particularly like the 23-inch width (most regular pads are 20 in. wide). Combined with raised baffles along the sides, the Klymit is a stable and roomy sleeping platform that is great for active sleepers.
Outside of the extra space and very competitive price, however, the Insulated Static V Lite doesn’t really stand out. Using 30-denier fabric, we’d expect it to weigh less than 1 pound 3.6 ounces (the warmer 15-oz. XTherm has a higher denier rating on the bottom of the pad), so you sacrifice durability without the typical reward of weight. Its V-like baffles also can’t match the sleeping comfort of the premium options above from Sea to Summit, Therm-a-Rest, Big Agnes, and Nemo, which drops the Klymit towards the bottom of our list. For a cheaper but less insulated option from the brand, check out their Static V2.
See the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb.
Thickness: 2 in.
What we like: Good price, lightweight, and super easy to inflate and deflate.
What we don’t: Only 2 inches thick; prone to leaks.
At $100, REI’s Flash undercuts the competition in price but doesn’t compromise in specs with a 1-pound weight and R-value of 3.2. The pad offers a high level of comfort and an excellent inflation and deflation system with dedicated valves for each. Blowing up the mat takes about eight breaths, and it deflates in just a few seconds—both are much faster at their respective purposes than the current Therm-a-Rest NeoAirs. REI lightly updated the pad to the “3-Season” last year (the old model was called the “Flash Insulated”), with the most important change being more durable welds, which were a weak point of the outgoing model.
In many ways, the REI Flash is a budget alternative to Sea to Summit’s Ultralight Insulated above. Both have cell-like constructions, mummy shapes, and pack down small. The Flash is $40 cheaper and around an ounce lighter, although the Sea to Summit is more comfortable overall. At only 2 inches thick, the Flash isn’t quite cushioned enough for side sleepers, but most back and stomach sleepers should find it plenty supportive. And a final reason we have the Flash ranked here is because many users report leaks developing after only a handful of outings. The current-generation model performed great for us on a trip to Patagonia, but these concerns—along with the Sea to Summit’s better track record—are enough to bump the Flash toward the bottom of our list.
See the REI Co-op Flash 3-Season
Category: Air pad
Weight: 1 lb. 2 oz.
Thickness: 3.25 in.
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 Big Agnes Air Core Ultra is an excellent example: for $60, you get 3.25 inches of comfort at a very reasonable 1 pound 2 ounces. Additionally, the burly 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, featuring 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. It’s worth mentioning that Big Agnes also sells an insulated version of the Air Core Ultra that boosts R-value to 4.5, but its $40 price increase and 4-ounce weight penalty lessen its appeal for summer backpackers.
See the Big Agnes Air Core Ultra
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite||$190||Air pad||12 oz.||2.5 in.||4.2||30D||4 x 9 in.|
|Nemo Switchback||$50||Foam||14.5 oz.||0.9 in.||2.0||N/A||5 x 20 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm||$220||Air pad||15 oz.||2.5 in||6.9||70D||4 x 9 in.|
|Sea to Summit Ether Light XT||$180||Air pad||1 lb. 1.3 oz.||4 in.||3.2||30Dx40D||4.5 x 9.5 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus||$105||Self-inflating||1 lb. 7 oz.||1.5 in.||3.2||50D||6.8 x 11 in.|
|Big Agnes SLX Tent Floor||$300||Air pad||2 lb. 11 oz.||3.5 in.||3.2||Unavail.||6 x 11 in.|
|Nemo Tensor Insulated||$160||Air pad||15 oz.||3 in.||3.5||20D||3 x 8 in.|
|Sea to Summit Comfort Light||$170||Air pad||1 lb. 5.9 oz.||2.5 in.||3.7||30Dx40D||4.5 x 9.5 in.|
|Nemo Flyer||$120||Self-inflating/air||1 lb. 7 oz.||2 in.||3.3||20D||6.5 x 10in.|
|Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL||$46||Foam||14 oz.||0.75 in.||2.0||N/A||5.5 x 20 in.|
|Big Agnes Q-Core Deluxe||$160||Air pad||1 lb. 9 oz.||3.5 in.||4.3||Unavail.||5 x 8.5 in.|
|REI Co-op Stratus Insulated||$90||Air pad||1 lb. 5 oz.||2.5 in.||3.3||Unavail.||5.3 x 7 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite||$200||Air pad||8.8 oz.||2.5 in.||2.3||15D||3.5 x 6 in.|
|Sea to Summit UL Insulated||$140||Air pad||1 lb. 0.9 oz.||2 in.||3.1||30Dx40D||4 x 9 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest Trail Pro||$130||Self-inflating||1 lb. 13 oz.||3 in.||4.4||50D||8.8 x 11 in.|
|Exped DownMat XP 9||$249||Air pad||1 lb. 15.6 oz.||3.5 in.||7.8||75D||6.3 x 9.4 in.|
|Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout||$55||Self-inflating||1 lb. 6 oz.||1 in.||3.1||Unavail.||6.25 x 11 in.|
|Klymit Insulated Static V Lite||$100||Air pad||1 lb. 3.6 oz.||2.5 in.||4.4||30D||5 x 8 in.|
|REI Co-op Flash 3-Season||$100||Air pad||1 lb.||2 in.||3.2||30D||4 x 9.5 in.|
|Big Agnes Air Core Ultra||$60||Air pad||1 lb. 2 oz.||3.25 in.||1.4||70D||4 x 7 in.|
- Sleeping Pad Categories
- Thickness and Comfort
- Sleeping Pad R-Value: How Much Do You Need?
- Packed Size
- Sleeping Pad Dimensions and Shape
- Women's-Specific Sleeping Pads
- Durability (Denier)
- Inflation and Deflation: Valve Types
- Pump Sacks
- Sleeping Pad Care
- Sleeping Mattresses for Camping
Backpacking sleeping pads fall into three general categories: 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 warmth, highlighted by the Therm-a-Rest XTherm with an R-value of 6.9. 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 the biggest 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 also often not as thick (exceptions include Sea to Summit's SI line), 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. Designs like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite and Nemo Switchback are staples for long-distance trekkers and thru-hikers due to their versatile and lightweight constructions.
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 8.8-ounce Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite to the 2-pound-11-ounce Big Agnes SLX Tent Floor. 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. And our top pick, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, does just that as a fantastic 3-season ultralight pad at just 12 ounces.
As with any piece of outdoor gear, the less it weighs the more fragile it will be. 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 take reasonable care when setting up camp and stowing your pad (more on this in "Sleeping Pad Care" below).
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 Air Sprung Cells (2 inches thick on their Ultralight Insulated, 2.5 inches on their Comfort Light, and 4 inches on their Ether Light XT Insulated) 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, check out a substantial pad like the Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core Deluxe (3.5 inches thick in the middle and 4.25 along the sides) or Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated (4 inches thick). If you need serious cushion, consider one of the lighter options on our list of the best camping mattresses and pads.
A critical spec in comparing sleeping pads is R-value, or how much insulation a pad provides from the ground. Don’t underestimate R-value: using an uninsulated or too lightly insulated pad even in cool temperatures can make you quite cold throughout the night. And even a warm and thick sleeping bag won’t save you because your body compresses the insulation along the bottom of the bag, thereby letting cold air up and compromising its ability to keep you warm. To combat this from happening, you’ll need a sleeping pad that offers an appropriate level of protection from the cold ground.
In terms of recommended ranges, summer-only backpackers who stick to warm conditions can get away with an R-value of 3 or less. Most 3-season backpackers should get a sleeping pad with an R-value in the range of 3 to 5, and this where a majority of our picks above are rated. Last but not least, winter camping requires an R-value that exceeds 5, with the most popular model being the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm and its R-value of 6.9. If you will be camping on snow, it’s a good idea to bring a combination of pads, especially if one is of the inflatable variety (imagine waking up in the middle of the night on top of snow on essentially a deflated balloon). For this reason, many winter campers bring along a closed-cell foam model like the Nemo Switchback or Z Lite SOL to be safe. For a deeper dive into this topic in general, see our article on Sleeping Pad R-value Explained.
Recommended sleeping pad R-values:
- Summer-only backpacking: 1 to 3
- 3-Season backpacking: 3 to 5
- Winter camping on snow: 5+
The ASTM Standard
All current sleeping pads above are now rated based on a standardized ASTM International test, which was introduced last year. In this process, pads are sandwiched between a hot plate (35 degrees Celsius) on top, which mimics the body, and a cold plate (5 degrees Celsius) underneath, mimicking the ground. Over the course of four hours, testers measure how much energy the top plate uses in order to stay at a consistent 35 degrees. The less energy it takes, the more insulative the pad. The more energy it takes, the less insulative the pad. The net result is more accurate and dependable ratings across the board.
Packed size is a function of the pad type, amount of insulation, and fabric thickness. Uninsulated or lightly insulated air pads are 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. Designs like the XLite pack down impressively small and can be gripped 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 10 inches), which means you’ll need to strap it to the outside of your pack. Self-inflating pads can have similar issues, although modern designs like the Nemo Flyer (6.5 x 10 in.) are reasonably small and should be workable for storing inside most bags. For some, packed size may not be an issue at all, but it’s one of a number of reasons why air pads have become so popular.
Most sleeping pads are unisex and come in two or three sizes that allow you to choose based on your height and comfort preferences. A “regular” pad often is right around 72 inches long and 20 inches wide (at its widest point), and the “large” often is between 77 and 80 inches long and 25 inches wide. In terms of shape, they fall into two basic categories: mummy pads that taper towards the feet to cut weight, and rectangular pads that are more spacious and accommodating for comfort-minded or active sleepers.
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 (and they sometimes throw an extra piece of gear under their feet for cushioning and warmth). On the other end of the spectrum are double pads like the Big Agnes SLX Tent Floor. Measuring 50 inches wide at the top (40 inches at the feet), it takes up nearly the entire tent floor to eliminate any possible gaps. Realistically, a double pad is fairly impractical as it’s heavy and bulky to pack, but it can be a fun option for couples and small families.
Some sleeping pads also come in a women’s version (including our top pick: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite) that looks nearly identical to its unisex counterpart, so what’s the difference? To start, they’ll be shorter than the unisex pad (66 in. vs. 72). They also may offer a little more insulation (the women's XLite has an R-value of 5.4 vs. 4.2 for the unisex version), making them a great choice for all shorter adults who sleep cold. And finally, some models tweak the dimensions and concentration of foam around the hips for greater room and comfort.
The most common measure of durability in the outdoor gear world is denier (D), which measures the thickness of a fabric. The higher the denier, the tougher the material will be. 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 care of their gear (otherwise it would be an extremely expensive hobby, if it isn’t already). The downside is that lower-denier fabrics have shorter lifespans and a higher propensity for durability issues in the backcountry. On our list above, thickness ranges from the 15-denier, 8.8-ounce Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite to the 75-denier (and much heavier) Exped DownMat XP.
Both air and self-inflating sleeping pads utilize a valve to inflate/deflate, and there have been a fair number of changes in the designs over the past few years. Traditional sleeping pads open and close by twisting and pushing or pulling a round plastic valve connected to the side of the mat. These work pretty well in general, and they’re still used on some old and budget-oriented designs, 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. Further, their upright profile takes up space when rolled up, and they are slow to deflate.
To address these issues, a number of manufacturers including Sea to Summit, Nemo, REI, and Big Agnes 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. We've found pads like the REI Flash 3-Season, which has two separate valves for inflating and deflating, to be reliable, efficient (it takes about 10 breaths total to inflate and deflation is almost instantaneous), and add essentially no weight—all excellent characteristics.
Moreover, in spring of 2020, Therm-a-Rest released a new valve called WingLock, which is a twist on the traditional valve type. Their new build allows for one-way inflation—with no air loss between breaths—and twisting the side “wings” quickly release air. In use, we’ve found it’s not as fast as the flat valve competition, but its sturdy build and replaceability (something that’s not typically possible with a flat valve) make it worth the tradeoff in efficiency for high-volume users like thru-hikers.
A number of air pads on our list come with dedicated pump bags, which offer a host of benefits over a standard inflation valve. Most notably, pump sacks allow you to save your breath, cut down on inflation time, and prevent moisture from getting inside your pad (which can lead to mold if not dried out properly or even freeze on particularly cold nights). And in many cases, the pump bag doubles as the pad’s stuff sack, which means you’re not adding any weight by gaining this convenience.
That said, not all pump sacks are created equally, and some designs are much more functional and convenient to use than others. For example, we’ve found that the Nemo Tensor’s Vortex pump sack is incredibly efficient and user-friendly: simply snap the Vortex onto the pad’s flat inflation valve, blow lightly into the open bag, then roll the collar down and push the trapped air into the mat. Sea to Summit includes a similar system with models like their Ether Light XT and Comfort Light Insulated, and we’ve found it takes only around three or four full bags to inflate the pads. On the flipside, Therm-a-Rest’s pump sack is a little less intuitive and takes longer to fill their NeoAir models. To be fair, the differences are fairly minimal, and we always appreciate saving time and breath after a long day on the trail.
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. As for 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 lose its shape.
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.
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