How to Choose a Camp Mat or Sleeping Pad

Understanding R-value: How to choose a camping mat or sleeping pad.

A camp mat or sleeping pad is primarily designed to do two things – to keep you comfortable and keep you warm.

The first part is easy to understand. The ground is mostly hard and uneven – not an ideal surface on which to get a good night’s sleep. Throwing down a camping mattress or foam sleeping pad can help to even out the bumps and provide a bit of cushioning for your body, making the whole experience of sleeping outdoors a whole lot more enjoyable.

The second part involves something that we don’t always think about, which is that most of the time when you’re sleeping outdoors, more of your body heat is lost to the ground underneath you than the air around you. Depending on the surface you’re sleeping on and how cold it is, you can lose heat to the ground at an alarming rate – that’s why the insulation you get from your sleeping mat is so important. In a lot of cases, you’re retaining more warmth thanks to your camp mat than you are through your sleeping bag, so it’s important to choose the right one.

In this sleeping pad buyer’s guide we’ll take you through the ins and outs of choosing a sleeping bag and what to think about when you do. We’ll look at…

  • Insulation and R-values
  • Types of mattress available
    - Closed Cell Foam Mat
    - Self-Inflating Foam Mat
    - Inflatable Air Mat
    - Camping mattress
  • What to look for in a Sleeping Mat
    - Overall size
    - Packability
    - Inflation method
    - Special features
  • Best sleeping mats for each activity
    - Car camping or leisure camping
    - Lightweight backpacking
    - Winter camping

Okay, now that you know how it all breaks down, let’s get started.

Insulation and R-values

Because insulation and the amount that your sleeping mat can prevent you from losing heat to the ground is so important, it’s one of the main ways in which they are rated. Each pad is given an R-value, which is a rating of how much insulation it provides. The higher the pad’s R-value is, the more insulation it should provide.

Most portable lightweight backpacking models will vary in R-value from around 1.5 to 5.7, while larger and less portable camping mattresses can score well into double figures.

Generally, it’s more difficult (and therefore more expensive) to provide high R-values with low weight and bulk, so be prepared to spend a little more to get the best balance of weight, bulk and insulation.

In cold camping situations or on really conductive surfaces like granite, you need an R-value of over 5. To acheive this level of insulation and higher, it can be necessary to layer two sleeping mats, one on top of the other. If you’re considering this as an option, then simply add the R-value of the two mats together to get an idea of the total score that both will provide when used in combination.

It’s worth remembering though, that true R-values are pretty difficult to calculate, and there’s not much in the way of standardisation across the industry, so it’s best to use the R-value as a guide while seeking out reviews and testimonials to back up any performance claims.

Types of sleeping mats and pads available

Generally, sleeping and camping mats break down into four main categories…

Closed Cell Foam Sleeping Mat or Camping Pad

Closed Cell Foam Mat 

The lightest weight and most basic pads available are made from closed cell foam. They’re pretty tough and durable, but provide pretty low R-values and aren’t nearly as comfortable as other sleeping pads and camping mattresses that are available.

Most of closed cell foam mats will fold away in a z-shaped concertina to form a rectangular brick shape. While very light, they usually don’t pack down as small as other mats, however they can be used as a pretty good seat when you’re not sleeping on them.

Self-Inflating Foam Sleeping Pad or Camping Mat

Self-Inflating Foam Mat

Self-inflating foam mats are fairly lightweight and compact, they provide great insulation and are also very easy to use. You don’t need to blow them up – just open the valve and they’ll suck air in like a sponge over time. Close the valve again and you’re good to go for a good night’s sleep.

While they are fairly light, they’re not the lightest or most packable mats around – the foam filling can add bulk – and they’re definitely less durable than closed cell foam pads.

But, if you’re looking for a cost-effective and comfortable mat with a mid-range level of insulation, self-inflating foam mats can be a great choice.

Air Inflatable Camping Mat or Sleeping Pad 

Inflatable Air Mat

Fully inflatable air mats are currently the biggest growth area in sleeping pad technology. Because they don’t rely on foam to provide insulation, they can provide some of the lowest weight options in incredibly packable sizes.

You’ll need to inflate them fully yourself, using your lungs or a hand pump, and they’ll give usually give you a deep, comfortable air compartment much like a li-lo or pool mattress that’s great for sleeping on. 

Aside from the obvious air pocket underneath you, inflatable air mats will usually use some sort of additional insulation to give best results. Synthetic or down insulation – like you’d get in a sleeping bag or jacket – are often used, but will add bulk and reduce packability. Another option is to use special reflective baffles within the construction of the pad. These will help to reflect your body heat back at you and work just like those silver shiny emergency blankets that you see at large sporting events. Reflective baffles add hardly any bulk, so often provide the most packable finished product.

Camping Mattress

Camping Mattress

Large camping mattresses are another option for those of you who are more interested in car camping and music festivals than lightweight backpacking and touring. Often coming in double sizes, these guys give you the highest R-values and most comfort. Some are self-inflating but most will be air inflatable, often with foot pumps or electric fans to help you inflate them.

They’re both large and heavy, but if size and weight are no object, then a camping mattress could be the way to go.

What to look for in a Sleeping Mat

When you’re choosing a sleeping mat, or wondering how to buy a camp pad, there are a few different elements you should consider, to make sure you make the right choice.

Overall size

It’s important to choose a pad’s size based on how big you are and what you’re going to use it for. 

Most pads are designed to accommodate your whole body without too much space to spare. Often they’ll come in a range of sizes so that you can match them to your height, so make sure to check the manufacturer’s size guide before finalising your decision.

If weight-saving is an absolute priority for you, then you might want to consider a mat that’s cut to the shape of your body – often called coffin shape – or even choose some extreme versions that are designed only to support your torso. If conditions are very cold, however, that might not be such a good idea, as you’ll lose a considerable amount of heat energy to the ground through your legs.

Obviously, if you’re sharing with a friend and want to get really cosy, a nice big double camping mattress could be exactly what you need!

Packability

The mat’s packability will be a combination of the overall volume it packs down to and its weight. Pads that pack down to a small size aren’t always the lightest, and really lightweight closed cell foam pads don’t always pack down small, so there’s usually a balance to be struck between the two.

Inflation method

How you inflate your sleeping mat might be important to you. Of course, if you choose a closed cell foam pad then you don’t need to inflate it at all – just extend the concertina and you’re good to do. But if you do choose one that inflates then you’ve got the option of self-inflating foam-filled, or air inflatable mats. If you really don’t like having to blow a mattress up manually after a long day of exercise then perhaps a self-inflating model is for you, but you could look at getting hold of a hand-pump and still go for the air inflatable.

The choice is yours!

Special features

There are a few other special additional features to some sleeping mats and pads that you might want to consider…

Noise-reducing fabrics

If you’re using an air inflatable mat, then moving around to get a comfortable position can be a noisy affair. This is likely to be fairly annoying for you, but can cause some real problems if you have to share a tent or bothy with your pal. To help minimise these audible annoyances, choose a mattress with a noise-reducing fabric.

Side rails

There’s nothing worse than slipping off your camp pad in the middle of the night, ending up at all sorts of funny angles except in line with the thing like you’re meant to be. Luckily, choosing a sleeping mat with side rails can really help to keep you on the straight and narrow throughout the night.

Sleep systems

Some sleeping mats or pads are compatible with specific sleeping bags and will work together perfectly, with the sleeping mat sliding into a ready-prepared slot within the sleeping bag itself. This is great for keeping everything together, neat, and well insulated.

Best sleeping mats for each activity

There are no hard and fast rules for which type of mat to use for which application – a lot of it comes down to personal preference, providing you’ve got a sufficient R-value to keep you nice and warm. But here are a few suggestions of which types of mat we’d take ourselves.

Car camping or leisure camping

For car camping or leisure camping, where weight and portability isn’t so much of an issue, you will get on fine with a slightly bulkier, slightly heavier, self-inflating foam mat.

They’re great value and versatile enough to use on the odd backpacking trip too. Of course, if you’re looking for ultimate comfort or sharing for two, the full-on camping mattress is exactly what you’re looking for.

Lightweight backpacking

For lightweight backpacking where every ounce counts, you’ll get most warmth per weight from an air inflatable camp mat. The most lightweight options don’t use any synthetic or down filling, but you might want to look at additional insulation if you’re travelling in very cold conditions.

Winter camping

For winter camping then you want to choose the highest possible R-value to give you the most insulation. You could choose a self-inflating foam or air inflatable main mat, depending on how light and packable you need it to be, then layer it with a closed cell foam pad underneath for a high cumulative R-value.

Thinking about Therm-A-Rest?

If you’re thinking about choosing a Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad or camp mat, then check out our Therm-A-Rest Guide for a full list of models along with their size and the R-value that they deliver.

If you have any questions or there’s anything you don’t understand, just give us a shout and we’ll be happy to help. Get in touch with one of the team today.