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 2020, including leading air, self-inflating, and foam models. With any pad, you choose, make sure to take proper care to avoid holes.
Best Ultralight Sleeping Pad for Backpacking
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 12 oz.
- Thickness: 2.5 in.
- R-value: 4.2
- 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 2020 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.
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 $215.
The entire NeoAir line got a revamp for 2020, 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. Despite the nitpicks, we consider the XLite the ideal 3-season choice thanks to its excellent mix of weight, comfort, and warmth.
Best Budget/Foam Sleeping Pad
Nemo Switchback Sleeping Pad
- Category: Closed-cell foam
- Weight: 14.5 oz.
- Thickness: 0.9 in.
- R-value: 2.0
- 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 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.
Best Sleeping Pad for Cold Weather
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 15 oz.
- Thickness: 2.5 in.
- R-value: 6.9
- 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 $215 for the regular size. 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.
Most Comfortable Pad for Side Sleepers
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 1 lb. 1.3 oz.
- Thickness: 4 in.
- R-value: 3.2
- 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, 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-inch NeoAirs are sufficient in most instances, for example.
In addition, the added cushioning that the Sea to Summit offers comes with a considerable bump in price, making the $190 Ether one of the most expensive pads in its class. For $40 less, check out Big Agnes’s Q-Core SLX below, which features a healthy 3.5 inches of cushioning for about an ounce less. But for side sleepers looking to put as much space as possible between your body and the ground, the Ether can’t be beaten.
Best Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad
- Category: Self-inflating
- Weight: 1 lb. 7 oz.
- Thickness: 1.5 in.
- R-value: 3.2
- 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.
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.
Best Double Sleeping Pad for Backpacking
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 2 lbs. 11 oz.
- Thickness: 3.5 in.
- R-value: 3.2
- 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.
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 pound 2 ounces, or less than half.
In terms of price, the single version is $150, so getting the double is a wash. On the flip side, 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 inches at the feet end). And for another option in this category, see the Exped Synmat Duo.
Best of the Rest
Nemo Tensor Insulated
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 15 oz.
- Thickness: 3 in.
- R-value: 3.5
- 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 a 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 the chart-topping 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, 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.
Sea to Summit Comfort Light Insulated
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 1 lb. 5.9 oz.
- Thickness: 2.5 in.
- R-value: 3.7
- 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, a 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.
REI Co-op Flash 3-Season
- Category: Air pad
- Weight: 1 lb.
- Thickness: 2 in.
- R-value: 3.2
- What we like: Good price, lightweight, and super easy to inflate and deflate.
- What we don’t: Only 2 inches thick; unproven durability.
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” for 2020 (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 Comfort Light above. Both have cell-like constructions, mummy shapes, and pack down small. The Flash is $80 cheaper and a significant 5.9 ounces lighter, although we found the Sea to Summit to be 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 supportive and comfortable. Time will tell if the latest version will hold up to extensive use it held up well on a recent trip to Patagonia but all signs are positive that the Flash pad will continue to be a popular choice.
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL
- Category: Closed-cell foam
- Weight: 14 oz.
- Thickness: 0.75 in.
- R-value: 2.0
- 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 $45. 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. Ultralight 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 and price.
Sleeping Pad Categories: Air, Self-Inflating, and Foam
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 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, 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.
Thickness and Comfort
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 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 Q Core SLX or Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated (4 inches thick). If you need a serious cushion, consider one of the lighter options on our list of the best camping mattresses and pads.
Sleeping Pad R-Value: How Much Do You Need?
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.
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. 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 New ASTM Standard
All current sleeping pads above are now rated based on a standardized ATSM International test, which is new for 2020. In this testing, 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.
What does this mean for you? Most notably, R-values are now more accurate and consistent across the board, but you may notice some peculiarities in the listings. In particular, some R-values have jumped, like with the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm from 5.7 to 6.9.
And in certain cases, we’re seeing different R-value listings for the same pad on manufacturer sites versus the retailers, which may be slightly confusing. But as ATSM becomes firmly established this year, things should normalize and be consistent going forward.
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 from 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.
Ultralight air pads have impressively small packed sizes
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, 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.
Sleeping Pad Dimensions and Shape
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, 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 “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.
Women’s-Specific Sleeping Pads
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 in. vs. 72).
They also may offer a little more insulation, 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 the 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. 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 Exped DownMat XP.
Inflation and Deflation: Valve Types
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, for the 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.
Sleeping Pad Care
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 are 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 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.