Sleeping Bag vs Sleeping Pad — Why Both Are Necessary

By Emma
sleeping bag vs sleeping pad

In this article, we will talk about two essential items for camping and backpacking – sleeping bags and sleeping pads.

Are sleeping pads worth it?

Yes, they are.

Imagine this…

A bone-chilling night inside a tent when your sleeping bag isn’t enough to provide the right level of warmth and comfort. You yearn for a bit of extra warmth. 

This is where the sleeping pad comes in. Not only does it add to the comfort factor, but it also adds to the overall insulation that’s essential for keeping you warm.

What is a Sleeping Bag?

A sleeping bag is a bag with an insulated lining in which a person can sleep. Generally, it comes with a zip and a drawstring that allows you to tighten it around your head. The bag can trap the warm air around your body and keep you warm. 

What is a Sleeping Pad?

A sleeping pad is a lightweight pad that can be made from closed cell foam or is filled by air.  The pads offer an additional layer of comfort and insulation from the ground. 

A sleeping bag won’t provide protection from the cold ground. That’s why using a sleeping pad is essential.

Tent Sleeping System: How the Sleeping Bag and Sleeping Pad Work Together

A basic sleeping system inside the tent consists of a sleeping platform and a sleeping bag. The sleeping platform or pad stays between the sleeping bag and the ground to provide additional insulation. 

Also, you can wear heavy clothing inside the bag while sleeping to improve the warmth factor. Actually, sleeping bag temperature ratings are given by considering that the user is wearing a base layer of clothing.

When you sleep directly on the ground, your body will lose heat quickly to the cold ground by conduction. What’s more, your body weight compresses the sleeping bag insulation, bringing you closer to the cold ground. This results in quick heat loss. Using an insulating pad can prevent that.

Moreover, it also offers an extra layer of cushioning and adds to the comfort factor. When you have to pitch your tent on rough, uneven ground, a thick pad can make a big difference.

Note, sleeping bags come with temperature ratings. But the temperature rating of sleeping bags also depends on the R-value or the insulating ability of the sleeping pad used with it. 

The higher the R-value, the higher is the level of overall insulation. Since manufacturers follow a uniform method for designating R-values you can easily compare pads from different brands.

For winter camping, the R-value of the pads should be 4.0 or more. For summer camping, it can be between R1 or R2.

Quite simply, to get the best performance from your sleeping bag, you need to pair it with the right sleeping pad.

Lastly, we suggest that you add a pillow to complete your sleep system. While it doesn’t add to the insulation, a pillow can make a big difference to the overall comfort levels.

When Can You Go Without a Sleeping Bag? 

We wouldn’t suggest hiking in cold temperatures without a sleeping bag. In areas where night temperatures drop to 50 degrees Fahrenheit or below, hypothermia can be a danger.

But for short summer camping trips with hardly any chances of the temperatures dropping, you can leave the sleeping bag behind. In such cases, there are some alternatives you can choose from.

Travel Liners

Liners can be used inside a sleeping bag and also independently. They will help to keep you warm without being heavy. Besides, they are cheap and can be washed easily.

Quilts

Quilts can work well in relatively cold temperatures. Some quilts are shaped like a blanket and are lightweight. Other quilts are shaped like a sleeping bag and designed specifically for backpacking.

Backcountry Bed

These are ultra-comfortable bags that come without zippers and drawstrings. They have a comforter-like closure system and the interiors are spacious enough to offer bed-like comfort.

Blanket and Pillow

This is a great alternative for car camping trips in mild to moderate conditions. Make sure that they offer the right level of insulation and are waterproof.

Of course, there are more options, so feel free to check out our detailed article on Sleeping Bag Alternatives.

When Can You Go Without a Sleeping Pad?

If you are not accustomed to sleeping on the hard ground, a sleeping pad can make a big difference in terms of comfort. That said, whether you need a sleeping pad for a backpacking trip or not, depends on the temperature.

Since sleeping pads don’t offer much airflow, you can avoid them in hot and humid conditions.

Another option is to use air mattresses. But they are bulky and best suited for car camping trips.

The truth is, when it comes to staying warm, there’s no alternative to a sleeping pad with the right R rating. 

How to Choose the Best Sleeping Bag 

Here’s a quick look at the various factors that you need to consider before picking a sleeping bag.

Temperature rating

Without a doubt, this is the most important aspect to consider. Sleeping bags come with a comfort rating and an extreme limit rating. 

Comfort ratings are temperatures in which a bag will keep an average sleeper warm. The limit rating is the lowest temperature at which the bag will keep you warm.

Always choose a bag that has a lower rating than the lowest temperatures you are likely to encounter. If the conditions are warmer, you can open up the bag to feel comfortable.

Insulation Type

Sleeping bags with synthetic insulation are cheaper and can be cleaned easily. 

However, down feathers offer a better warmth-to-weight ratio and keeps you warmer. They can also be packed down to a smaller size. But down absorbs mixture easily and takes longer to dry out. Down bags are also more expensive.

Weight

The weight of a sleeping bag depends on its shape, size, and type of insulation. Mummy sleeping bags with a slim cut are lighter than barrel-shaped or rectangular bags. 

Next, you need to consider the insulation fill weight. The more insulation a bag packs the more warmth it delivers. However, extra insulation will also make the bag heavier.

Fit

Basically, sleeping bags are available in three sizes. 

Standard or unisex sleeping bags are usually designed to fit the shape of a man. Women’s sleeping bags are designed to fit an average-sized woman. 

Beyond that, there are kid’s sleeping bags that are smaller in size.

How to Choose the Best Sleeping Pad 

Time to take a look at a few tips about choosing the best sleeping pad.

The Type of Pad

Sleeping pads can be made from closed-cell foam or inflated by air. There are also self-inflated pads that combine foam and air.

The closed-cell pads are not only cheap but are also close to being indestructible. While they won’t pack down small, the tiny air pockets within the foam provide good insulation. Also, they have no chance of deflating in the middle of the night. 

Air pads are inflated by a foot pump or simply by blowing into it. They are compact, lightweight, and offer a high degree of comfort. 

They can be upto three inches in thickness. With more thickness, you get better insulation. On the downside, they are more expensive and can get easily punctured by sharp edges. 

Self-inflating pads combine air and open-cell foam. Once you open the valve, air rushes in automatically to fill the pad. In most cases, you need to add a few breaths to adjust the firmness. 

These pads combine the best of both worlds and they are more durable than air pads. On the other hand, they are heavier and expensive.

Type of Use

For car camping trips, carrying a thicker and heavier pad isn’t an issue. However, when it comes to multi day backpacking trips you need a lightweight pad that packs down to a small size. 

R-Value

A pad with a higher R-value will help in keeping you warmer. As already mentioned, you need to match the R-value of the pad with the temperature rating of the sleeping bag for the best results.

Size

Most regular size sleeping pads are around six feet in length. So they can easily insulate the body of an average person. If you don’t mind your legs getting cold, a 3/4-length pad is a shorter and lighter option.

AUTHOR

My name is Emma, and I’m a city dweller who jumps on every opportunity to get out and enjoy nature! I’ve gone on a number of car camping and backpacking trips over the past few years. I created this site to inspire others to get outside and to make the process easier for you.