Do you need a sleeping pad for camping and backpacking?
Camping often requires lightweight gear, and sleeping pads add bulk and weight to your supplies. Therefore, it can be tempting to skip taking one.
It is a good idea to bring a sleeping pad despite the added bulk and price. Sleeping pads add comfort, and they add an extra layer of insulation so you stay warmer. Bringing a sleeping pad is never mandatory, but it’s highly recommended.
In my experience sleeping pads are always worth it—they provide a much better night’s sleep. Let’s explore some of the benefits in more detail.
Is It Worth Bringing a Sleeping Pad For Camping?
Yes, it’s worth bringing a sleeping bag for camping. There are numerous benefits to it that will make your camping trip better. It offers a fantastic, lightweight barrier from the hard, cold ground.
You’ll Be Warmer
Sleeping pads provide insulation, and that’s crucial for getting a good night’s sleep. The pad traps heat from your body and reflects it back onto you rather than letting it leak out through the ground. When sleeping, most body heat disappears through the ground.
The sleeping pad is useful even in spring and summer, though, as temperatures can drop significantly during the night.
Even if the air around you feels relatively warm, the ground will be much cooler—hot air rises, so the chill settles low down and on the ground, where you’re sleeping.
You’ll Be More Comfortable
Staying comfortable is vital while camping. Getting a good night’s sleep will ensure you’re more than ready to tackle any fun outdoor activities you’re planning for the next day. If you’re backpacking, getting a good night’s sleep will prepare you for your journey the next day.
Sleeping pads can add several inches of padding depending on the pad you choose, and even firm and thin sleeping pads are more forgiving than the hard ground. They absorb your movements and provide some light cushioning.
A sleeping bag can add some extra padding, but often, it’s not enough on its own; pairing it with a sleeping pad is best.
You’ll Be Safe From Damp Grounds
As I said earlier, the ground can be cold even when the air feels warm. The ground can also hold moisture.
Your tent and sleeping bag help protect you from the moisture in the ground, but the sleeping pad will provide an extra barrier. This is especially important for campers traveling with an ultra-lightweight tent with a thin sleeping bag.
Is a Sleeping Pad Necessary for Backpacking?
Using a sleeping pad is particularly important while backpacking, as you usually have less gear to keep you warm than you do while camping normally.
A light tent and minimal clothing keep your pack light, but you still need as much protection from the elements as possible. Even a light sleeping pad is better than no sleeping pad.
A sleeping pad should definitely be on your list of backpacking must-haves.
Do You Need a Sleeping Pad With a Sleeping Bag?
Using a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag together is a good idea. Your sleeping bag will seal heat in and reflect it back onto you, but your sleeping pad will do the same thing. It traps any heat that escapes your sleeping bag.
Sleeping pads lose some insulation when you lie down and compress the bottom, and the sleeping pad will help retain the heat you lost.
Sleeping bags also have a flaw where you’ll often feel colder at the bottom, down towards your feet, especially in a rectangular sleeping bag.
You can place a hot water bottle in the bottom of your sleeping bag to help you stay warm, but even that heat will eventually escape. It’ll escape slower if you use a sleeping pad.
Using a mummy sleeping bag will also help you retain heat. Feel free to learn more about mummy vs rectangular sleeping bags—choosing the right bag will make a major difference to your camping trip.
Do You Need a Sleeping Pad With a Bivy?
A bivy is a combination of a tent and a sleeping bag; offers more shelter than a sleeping bag would, but it’s not a long-term replacement for a tent.
Your bivy will usually be very good at keeping heat in, and it’s waterproof, too, but it’s not very cushioned.
While you don’t need a sleeping pad with a bivy, it’ll make your time in the bivy warmer and more comfortable.
Do You Need a Sleeping Pad With a Cot?
Sleeping pads and cots can be used together while camping in cold weather. This will provide the most protection from the cold. The two can also be used separately when camping in spring or summer.
It’s easy to think you don’t need a sleeping pad in a cot, as cots are already one of the most comfortable pieces of sleeping gear for camping.
However, not sleeping directly on the ground won’t stop the ground from impacting your body temperature.
There’s lots of room for cold air to circulate under a cot. You won’t lose heat through the ground as much, but you’ll certainly feel any cold that the ground is radiating.
Placing a foam sleeping pad under your cot is a good idea to separate the cold ground from the gap under the cot.
Using a sleeping pad on your cot is also smart, as cots aren’t usually insulated. The pad is insulated, and it’ll trap your body heat against you.
Do You Need a Sleeping Pad With a Hammock?
You most likely won’t need a sleeping pad with a hammock if the weather is warm, but if there’s any cool breeze at all, then you should use a sleeping pad with the hammock.
You’re sleeping without a tent, so you really should do as much as you can to stay warm. You’re also facing the same dilemma as you are with a sleeping cot: there’s room for cold air to circulate under the hammock.
However, it can be difficult to use a sleeping pad in a hammock, as the pad often slides around while you’re climbing into place. Because of this, it’s usually best if you use your sleeping pad inside of your sleeping bag if you’re using a sleeping pad in a hammock.
Use your best judgment about whether you need a sleeping pad in your hammock, and do whatever makes you the most comfortable.
How to Choose a Sleeping Pad for Backpacking and Walk-In Camping
Choosing a sleeping pad for car camping is easy. You can choose something as thick and heavy as you like. The most important thing to consider for car camping is the temperature rating—there’s advice on that below.
However, for backpacking and walk-in camping, choosing a sleeping pad isn’t so simple. You’ll be carrying your pad for up to 1,000 feet with walk-in camping, and you’ll carry it for days with backpacking. You’ll need to consider weight, thickness, and packed size.
If you’re walking with your sleeping pad it should be light enough to carry comfortably for long periods. If you want the absolute lightest type of sleeping pad, then you’ll want a closed-cell foam pad. They often weigh less than a pound.
This Redcamp pad is a good example of a typical foam pad.
However, these closed-cell foam sleeping pads are often thin, so they don’t offer much insulation. You may want to consider upping the amount of weight you allow so you can get something that’ll keep you warmer.
Ideally, look for something that weighs less than three pounds, and if it weighs less than two then it’s even better. Something at least three inches thick will offer more insulation than a thinner foam pad, too.
This Powerlix sleeping pad hits that middle ground well. It weighs 1.32 pounds, and it’s thicker so therefore more insulated and comfortable than the Redcamp foam pad.
How Thick Should a Sleeping Pad Be?
The average sleeping pad is around 2.5 inches thick, but there are many that are much, much thicker. You want to avoid those thicker sleeping pads if you need to carry your pack, as they’ll add bulk.
The Powerlix pad is 3 inches thick. This is the thickness I recommend sticking with if walking with your pack, as thicker pads are typically too heavy.
For example, a 5-inch sleeping pad like the Hikenture weighs 2 pounds and 7 ounces. It’s not much more than the Powerlix, but it can feel like much more when in an already heavy pack.
However, the Hikenture is a great pad for car camping in warmer weather. You can even select something thicker if you’d like!
Air pads and self-inflating pads fold down the smallest, but closed-cell foam pads roll up into long tube-like shapes.
Self-inflating pads are the heaviest, and some weigh 6 pounds and beyond. Air pads remain lightweight and they can roll up to the size of a water bottle. The Powerlix is 11 inches long and four inches in diameter, and that’s a great, pack-friendly size.
Thicker sleeping pads are generally warmer, but make sure you know your pad’s R-value rating to ensure it truly is warm.
R-value ratings are measured on a scale of 0–6, and anything over 2.5 gives you the most protection from cold.
You can see a full table related to these ratings among these cold weather camping tips.
The Powerlix has an R-value of 1.6. This isn’t bad, and it can protect you from 40°F/4°C temperatures.
However, a higher-rated pad might be better for you, depending on the climate.
This Klymit pad has an R-value of 4.4 and only weighs a pound, but it’s thinner than the Powerlix, so it doesn’t offer as much comfort.
Top Alternatives to Sleeping Pads for Camping
A sleeping pad is never mandatory for camping. Let’s look at some alternatives.
Mattresses fold up much smaller than expected, but they can still be quite heavy and bulky. They’re also not that warm, so they’re best used for car camping in warmer weather.
For warm-weather car camping, an air mattress is the most comfortable piece of sleep gear you’ll come across, but they’re not good for winter months or other forms of camping.
Ait mattresses can also be used for backpacking or walk-in camping if you’re okay with a bulkier and heavier pack.
Cots are fantastic for comfort, and they’re marginally better than air mattresses when it comes to keeping away from the cold. They can be used in all seasons, and there are some very nice cots out there that are highly padded and cozy.
If you’ll be walking with your gear, then ensure you choose a lightweight and compact camping cot like the Marchway. It weighs less than five pounds, and it folds down to 16.9 by 5.5 inches.
You won’t like this alternative if you want to sleep in your tent, but if you want to get closer to nature, then it can be a comfortable alternative to a sleeping pad.
Make sure you suspend your hammock a few inches above the ground, although the closer you are to the ground, the better. There’ll be less room for air to circulate under you.
Using a thicker, insulated hammock is best, too, and make sure it’s strong enough to hold you and your sleeping bag.
This Wise Owl hammock weighs less than 2 pounds, and it can support up to 500 pounds. It’s insulated and sturdy, and this is exactly what you should be looking for.
If you want a more in-depth look at using yoga mats while camping, then read all about it as I answer, can you use a yoga mat as a sleeping pad?
The short answer is yes, you can, but it’s not the best for comfort or insulation
Using a yoga mat will offer you more protection than using nothing at all, though, so it’s good to use in an emergency.
Using a sleeping pad while camping is always going to be a good idea, and I highly recommend you do so, but it’s up to you whether you want to not.
There are always alternatives to consider, and you can skip using a sleeping pad or one of the alternatives completely if you’d like.
In the end, the decision is yours, and you should base it on whether or not you find a sleeping pad necessary and worth the effort.