7 Best Sleeping Pads of 2017
Great sleep in the backcountry can be surprisingly tough to come by. You’d think after a long day of hiking, most backpackers would be tired enough to pass out face first in their rehydrated mashed potatoes. But many hikers struggle with getting good sleep in the wilderness, even when their bodies are completely exhausted.
That’s one of the reasons why packing a top-notch sleeping pad is so important. Sleeping pads provide the comfort your body needs for getting a good night's rest. But there’s more to it than just comfort. Sleeping pads are also critical for keeping your body warm. They help insulate you from the cold ground, which makes them very important for safety as well.
I’ve researched and tested dozens of lightweight sleeping pads to narrow this list down to the very best of the best. I hope this post helps you find the perfect sleeping pad to keep you snoozing soundly in the wilderness for many years to come.
For more of my top gear recommendations, have a look through these popular CleverHiker Gear Guide links:
- CleverHiker Top Gear Picks
- Best Lightweight, Ultralight, & Budget Tents
- Best Backpacks & Stoves
- Best Sleeping Bags & Hammocks
Author: Dave Collins
Last Updated: April 13, 2017
CRITICAL SLEEPING PAD CONSIDERATIONS
BEST - It’s important to remember that what’s “best” for me, might not necessarily be best for you. I work very hard to detail the strengths and weaknesses of every item I review with the ultimate goal of putting the decision making power in your hands. In the end there’s rarely one clear “best” choice, but hopefully I can help you find equipment that will work well for you.
PRICE - Good sleeping pads come in a wide range of prices. You can get a cheap foam pad for around $20 or purchase a top-tier air pad for closer to $200. The bottom line is that you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get a good pad. That said, many backpackers (myself included) are willing to spend more for a high-quality pad they’ll put to good use.
WEIGHT - Your sleeping pad will be one of the four heaviest items you carry in your pack (shelter, backpack, sleeping bag, sleeping pad). So this is a great place to save weight. The lighter your backpack, the more comfortable your hiking trips will be. All of the pads I recommend are light enough to take on a thru-hike or a casual weekend trek.
WARMTH - Your sleeping pad will help keep you warm at night when the temperature drops. The R-value of a sleeping pad measures how well it will insulate your body from the cold ground. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will be. In general, sleeping pads with R-values of 0-2 will only be good for warm weather trips. R-values of 2-4 are good for most 3-season backpacking conditions. R-values of 4-6 are good when the temperature drops around or below freezing. You’ll likely want a pad (or combine a foam and air pad) with 5+ R-value if you’re winter backpacking and you’ll be sleeping on snow. It’s also important to note that, just like with sleeping bags, this is not an exact science. If you’re a cold sleeper, you’ll want a pad with a higher R-value.
AIR PADS vs FOAM PADS - The two main types of sleeping pads are air pads and foam pads. Both types can be very light and comfortable. Foam pads are more affordable, quicker to set up, and can be used for multiple purposes - like extra support for a frameless backpack or a seat around camp. The main downsides with foam pads are that they’re bulkier to pack and they compress over time, so they’ll need to be replaced every so often. Air pads are more expensive, but most backpackers find them to be much more comfortable than foam pads. The main downside with air pads is that they can puncture in the field, so you’ll always want to bring repair tape.
NOISE - One of the most common complaints among first-time air pad users is the crinkly or squeaky noise they make. This can be especially bothersome to light sleepers that tend to shift around throughout the night. Some pads make slightly more or less noise than others, but none of them will be quiet like your mattress at home. In the end, that’s just part of the trade off. Pad noises do tend to die down over time, so don’t worry too much when it’s straight out of the box.
REPAIR KIT - If you decide to take an air pad into the wilderness, make sure to pack a small repair kit. Sharp objects (rocks, sticks, cacti, etc.) can puncture air pads, so always look over your sleeping area before setting up shop. If your pad springs a leak and you don’t have way to fix it, you’re going to be one unhappy camper. Almost all the air pads listed below come with a repair kit, but I always pack tenacious tape as well.
LENGTH - Your hips and shoulders are the biggest pressure points for sleeping pads, so it’s important to use a pad that will give you comfort in those areas. Ultralight backpackers sometimes use short torso-length pads and let their legs hang off the end to save weight on thru-hikes. Most casual backpackers (and even most thru-hikers nowadays) prefer the comfort of full-length pads that cushion their heels and keep their feet warm.
WIDTH - Choosing the right width for your sleeping pad is a critically important decision that will largely depend on your sleeping style. For example, I’m a 6’2,” 170lb side sleeper that prefers standard width pads, but my wife is a 5’8,” 135lb back sleeper that prefers wider pads. Side sleepers often do fine with standard 20” width pads, but back sleepers may prefer a wider pad that keeps their arms from sliding off to the side. Almost all the pads I list below come in a wide size option. Some manufacturers make wide pads with regular lengths, but many only offer a size that is both wide and long. The additional weight of a wide/regular pad compared to a wide/long pad is usually only an ounce or two.
SHAPE - Most backpackers choose mummy sleeping pads, which save weight by cutting out rarely used corner sections of the mattress. Some sleepers get better rest on fully rectangular pads though, and if that’s you, the extra couple of ounces will be well worth it. The most common rectangular pad users are back sleepers that like to have their legs a little spread apart while sleeping.
THICKNESS - Many times, the thicker the pad is the more comfortable it will be. Thicker air pads will give you more flexibility for finding the perfect firmness for your pad without bottoming out. That said, structure is also very important as well. It’s never fun to feel like you’re bouncing around on a pool floatie while trying to sleep. The pads I recommend below are all thick enough to be very comfortable while still holding shape.
PACKED SIZE - Having a highly packable sleeping pad is a nice benefit and most air pads pack down very small these days. If you choose a bulky sleeping pad, you may have to strap it to the outside of your bag. That’s not a big deal for foam pad users, but leaving an air pad exposed to punctures on the outside of your pack is a recipe for disaster. All the air pads I recommend are highly packable and will easily stow inside your backpack.
BUYING ONLINE - Check the seller's return policy before you buy, but you can almost always return an unused sleeping pad within a certain timeframe after purchasing. I recommend buying your top choice, testing it out at home, and returning/exchanging it if it doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve been buying lightweight sleeping pads online for years and I’ve yet to have any problems.
7 BEST SLEEPING PADS OF 2017
CHOSEN FOR: All-around
In my opinion, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is the best all-around 3-season sleeping pad on the market. The XLite has a rare combination of comfort, support, warmth, and weight that make it very tough to beat for lightweight backpacking. Many backpacking experts agree, as the XLite seems to be the consensus favorite. This pad does come at a premium price, but it’s well worth it once put to good use. The main knock on the XLite is that it makes a crinkly sound when you shift around on it (the heat reflective material increases its warmth). I agree that it’s slightly noisier than other pads (see “Noise” section above), but it’s really not that bad. This pad also comes in a slightly warmer and shorter women’s version.
CHOSEN FOR: Ultralight Warmth
The Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm is a warmer version of the XLite pad listed above. So why does it deserve a special spot on this list? It’s just that damn good. Insulation (R-value) is a highly underrated characteristic for sleeping pads. If you’re a cold sleeper or you plan to backpack on chilly shoulder season trips, I’d recommend bumping up to the XTherm. This pad has a preposterous warmth to weight ratio and a more durable bottom layer of fabric, making it clearly one of the best pads on the market. The XTherm has the same slight crinkle sound as the XLite, but again, its considerable strengths outweigh this small downside.
CHOSEN FOR: Comfort
The Sea to Summit UltraLight Insulated Mat presents the best competition to the NeoAir XLite in my opinion, and for some it will likely be a better fit. This mattress is hands down one of the most comfortable pads I’ve ever used. Sea to Summit’s “Air Sprung Cells” may sound like a bunch of nonsense, but the little dimples do a surprisingly good job of mimicking the feel of a normal mattress. Combine that with the fact that it’s cheaper, has a better valve, inflates and deflates quicker, uses slightly thicker fabric, and has a bit more width to keep your arms from sliding off, and now you’ve got a real contender. My chief complaint with the UltraLight is that it bottoms out easier than NeoAir pads, meaning you may touch the ground when sitting up or propping yourself on an elbow. That said, I don’t experience any bottoming out while lying down, so it’s not a dealbreaker for me. This pad also comes in several different styles, including their “comfort” series which has more cushy dimples.
CHOSEN FOR: Value
REI’s new Co-op Flash Insulated Pad is yet another standout piece of REI gear that competes with industry leaders at a more affordable price. If you enjoy the feel of Sea to Summit’s Air Sprung Cells, then you’ll probably like the feel of Flash Pad too (though it’s not quite as comfortable in my opinion). And likewise, the Flash shares the same downside of bottoming out easier than I would prefer, but again it’s not a dealbreaker. The Flash is slightly warmer than Sea to Summit’s Insulated Mat, but it’s not quite as wide around the shoulders. It’s also built with thinner materials, doesn’t come with a repair kit, and has a slight crinkle sound like NeoAir pads. All things considered, this pad is still an excellent value buy for lightweight backpackers.
CHOSEN FOR: Durability
If you’re the type of backpacker that’s tough on gear and can sleep almost anywhere, then the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol might just be your jam. The Z Lite is a lightweight, affordable option that won’t rupture in the field and can serve many uses, like additional support for a frameless backpack or a seat around camp. The Z Lite Sol is surprisingly comfortable for a foam pad, but it’s not nearly as comfortable as the air pads I recommend and prefer. Also, it will compress with a lot of use and eventually need to be replaced. Still, as a multi-use, nearly indestructible budget buy, this pad is a great option.
CHOSEN FOR: Budget
In my opinion, the Klymit Static V is the best budget air pad on the market. It’s built with thicker fabrics than most lightweight pads and it's also three inches wider than the standard pad size. The V-shaped air tubes on this pad are comfortable, but the large spaces between air chambers mean you’re likely to bottom out while shifting around. The biggest downside with the Static V is its very low R-value. With such little insulation, this pad is really only recommended for use in warm weather and I definitely wouldn’t take it on shoulder season trips. Klymit does make insulated versions of this pad, but the increase in cost/weight puts them into closer competition with other pads on this list that I prefer. Still, if you’re on a tight budget and mostly backpack in warm weather, this pad could be an excellent fit.
CHOSEN FOR: Rectangular comfort
The NEMO Tensor Insulated pad is a cushy, slightly quieter, fully rectangular pad that still manages to keep weight to a minimum. Rectangular pads like this can be a great fit for back sleepers that like to keep their feet a bit wider while they snooze. One downside to thick, rectangular pads is they take a bit more time and lung power to blow up. This pad is also built with some of the thinnest fabrics used in air pads, so you’ll want to treat it with care. In addition, there’s no official R-value for the Tensor, so it’s tough to truly know how warm it is compared to the competition. NEMO claims it will work down to 15°F, but that seems like a bold claim to me. I personally would like to see that backed up with some testing. Still, there’s a lot to like about the comfort and design of the Tensor, so it just might be the right fit for you.
The following pads didn’t make my final list, but they’ve got a lot of good things going for them. In this section I’ll try to quickly highlight each pad's main strength and explain why it didn’t make the final cut. And you never know, maybe one of these pads will be the right fit for you.
The Big Agnes Q-Core SLX is a super cushy, fully rectangular, lightweight sleeping pad. Where it differentiates itself from NEMO’s Tensor is its large side tubes that help keep users centered in the middle of the pad. In addition, at 4.25 inches thick, the SLX is a full 1.25 inches thicker than any other pad on this list, but thickness isn’t always a good indicator of comfort in sleeping pads. I personally feel much less stable on the SLX and get a slight pool floatie vibe from it, but that may just be me. If you choose this pad, you’ll likely want to pick up a Pumphouse Ultra for it, because a lot of lung power is required to fill up all that space. Like the Tensor, there’s no official R-value for the Q-Core SLX. Big Agnes claims it will work down to 15°F, but again, I’d like to see some testing to back up that bold claim.
The Exped SynMat HL is one of the only pads in the same weight and warmth class as the NeoAir XLite, and that alone is a huge compliment. It’s main difference is it’s vertical baffle design, which some prefer for keeping centered on the pad. Personally, I'm not a big fan vertical baffle support and I don’t think the SynMat matches the comfort of the XLite, but again, that’s my opinion. The SynMat also starts to look less appealing compared to the XLite once you dig into the details. It’s more expensive, built with thinner materials, has a worse deflation valve, and only comes with a 2-year warranty (compared to Therm-a-Rest’s lifetime limited warranty). It does come with Exped’s popular Schnozzel Pumpbag, which is a nice touch, but probably not quite enough to swing your decision.
If you want an easier way to inflate your pad, consider picking up a pump sack. Pump sacks are essentially stuff sacks with an air nozzle in the bottom. You hook the nozzle up to your pad’s inflation valve, fill the sack with air, and then squeeze the air from the sack into your pad. They make blowing up air pads easy and efficient.
A pump sack can double as a stuff sack, and some of them can be used as a dry bag as well. A dry bag pump sack can be a good place to store your sleeping bag for extra weather protection. Pump sacks are also good for keeping moisture from your breath out of your sleeping pad. That’s especially important during winter trips when moisture from your breath can freeze and reduce the insulation value of your pad.
If you enjoyed this review you'll probably like my other gear lists as well. Here are some popular resources from the CleverHiker Gear Guide.
- CleverHiker Top Gear Picks
- Best Lightweight, Ultralight, & Budget Tents
- Best Backpacks & Stoves
- Best Sleeping Bags & Hammocks
I hope this guide was helpful for finding the best sleeping pad to fit your needs. If you want to provide feedback or recommend an item I missed, please use my contact form to get in touch.
Thanks for reading and happy trails!
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