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Apr 27 , 2020

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Sleeping Pad Buyer's Guide

by Frank Ross

So, you've promised the family a camping trip, and now you're sitting with your head in your hands trying to figure out how you are going to survive this experience. Take heart, many fathers have found themselves in a similar situation and survived without a scratch. The first step toward an enjoyable experience for all parties involved is having the right gear.

Lonnie Kastens sets up for a comfortable night's sleep.
Lonnie Kastens sets up for a comfortable
night's sleep.

No camper sets out expecting a plush experience. Well, none that have been camping before. Camping isn't meant to be plush, and those who covet the outdoor experience don't expect otherwise. Still, there's no reason to suffer unnecessarily when you don't have to. A sleeping pad is one of the items that will make an evening's rest more comfortable. Pads serve to cushion the hard surface and insulate the sleeper from cold ground.

When shopping for a sleeping pad, two considerations will have a bearing on your selection: portability and comfort. How you prioritize these two factors will have a major impact on your selection.

In consideration of weight and portability, pads fall into three loose categories: pads that you will carry all the time, some of the time and never.

Self-Inflating pads
Self-inflating pads have a valve that is opened to allow air to rush in and tightened for use. Open cell foam is the component that creates the cushion and auto-fill function. This remarkable foam is easily compressed for travel by opening the valve and rolling it tightly as the air escapes.

Self-inflating pads span the gamut from basic to plush, from ultralight backpacker to car camping models that you wouldn't want to carry very far. A wide selection is available from various manufacturers and each has features that are similar. You'll find models that have attached compression straps, stuff sacks, repair kits and replacement valves, but only Cabela's pads include all of these features with every pad.

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Million-hole, open-cell foam is the ultimate when it comes to self-inflating pads. The increased number of holes means that the pad will compress more and also raise more when the pad is inflated. It also means that you'll have a smaller pad to transport once it is compressed. Cabela's XPG Ultralight pad uses this foam to produce a 1-1/2" inflated thickness for an excellent sleeping surface that is both comfortable and well insulated. And when compressed, you can wrap your hand around it.

Closed-cell foam
If you don't care to take the time to compress the air out of a self-inflating pad, a closed-cell pad would be your best bet. Closed-cell foam pads come in various thicknesses and use eggshell or molded patterns to trap air between your bag and pad for an additional insulating benefit. Naturally, thicker closed-cell pads translate into more comfort and insulation. Closed-cell foam pads take up a little more room when transporting, but when it comes time to break camp you can save a few minutes. These pads usually fold up in accordion fashion.

Pad thickness relates directly to comfort, but also to weight and bulk.
Pad thickness relates directly to comfort,
but also to weight and bulk.

Cold camping
Like the insulation in your house, pads with a greater thickness will do a better job of shielding you from the cold, but the insulation is also dependent upon the amount of air that is trapped as well. A pad of open-cell foam will have much greater insulating benefits compared to a closed-cell foam pad of the same thickness because it traps air that is heated by your body. And you also have the option of down for extreme cold.

Seasonal ratings are listed for each pad, with most carrying the three-season designation. For that fourth season, when really cold outings require additional insulation, goose down is a natural. Pads for extreme cold often feature baffled chambers to minimize cold spots. Down is lightweight, and in extreme cold one of these pads could mean the difference in sleeping and a fitful night of shivering.

Backpackers who carry their pads all of the time want the lightest pad possible, and are willing to sacrifice a little comfort in order to gain an advantage against the total load they have to carry. Size is as important as weight when it comes to backpacking. Backpackers that are totally dedicated to roughing it often settle for a basic pad made of solid closed cell foam that is both small and thin. However, today's modern self-inflating pads are so compact that the alternative seems like a self-inflicted wound. If suffering makes you feel better, have at it. I'll take the comfort of a self-inflating pad.

Slip sliding away
A pad's surface is an important feature to consider. Sleeping bags tend to slip around on a sleeping pad's surface and you can wake in the night to find that your pad has squirted out from under you. While it is difficult to totally solve this problem without physically attaching the bag to the pad, textured, non-slip surfaces minimizes the problem of slippage significantly. The latest innovation, a flocked top surface, works very well.

Pads are available in sizes and thicknesses ranging from compact single models measuring 20"W x 48"L by 1-1/2" thick for backpackers looking for minimum weight but still wanting protection from ground cold, to Double Full size models measuring 54"W x 78" L x 3-1/2" thick for car campers seeking maximum comfort. That's the great thing about camping close to your vehicle. You can bring cots, pads, or even a large air mattress without worrying about the weight or bulk.

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Another unique feature for some pads is the ability to link two or more together. Cabela's Alaskan Guide pads have hook-and-loop strips sewn on the side that enable you to join them together for a wider area of coverage. This is particularly advantageous for bags such as the Adam and Eve that are designed for two people.

Some models of pads are also designed especially for women, with extra insulation in the areas that support the torso and feet.

Sticks and stones
Sleeping on the ground has the potential to damage your pad, especially when you set up camp in the darkness. Stones have a way of making their presence known in the middle of the night, which only means a kink or two when you rise. Sharp sticks or plants with thorns that go unnoticed can puncture a hole in your pad and render it ineffective without that wonderful cushion of air. By taking a repair kit along, you'll at least avoid multiple nights of discomfort and learn to pay more attention to where you lay your head. A pad with durable, abrasion-resistant rip-stop outer shell will go a long way toward avoiding the repair process. This fabric is very resilient and difficult to puncture. While weight may be a factor in your decision, don't cut corners with this component. Heavy in this case can be what leads to a heavenly night's rest.


Cold storage
Another benefit of having a sleeping pad is insulation of cold items and protection of delicate gear while traveling. Frozen game or fish rolled inside a pad will not thaw out for many long hours and things like cameras or lanterns can be protected from damage while traveling to the trail head.

Life is about compromise. You will have to make the decision about how much you want to give up in terms of comfort, to lighten your load, but there is no reason to compromise on quality. If you use a pad often, a few dollars invested in a high-grade pad will pay dividends for many years of nights under the stars.