Do You Need A Sleeping Pad For Backpacking?

It wasn’t until I first started backpacking that I did any sort of camping. The outdoor life was unfamiliar to me until I was 33. I had no idea that a sleeping bag alone wasn’t able to keep me warm at night in the wilderness. When someone suggested that I buy a sleeping pad in addition to my sleeping bag I thought they were suggesting a luxury item. Maybe some of them are for luxury and comfort—but I learned that a sleeping bag alone won’t keep me warm at night. Even in the summertime, the ground will suck the body heat right out of you!

Do you need a sleeping pad for backpacking? Yes, most experienced backpackers recommend you pack a sleeping pad with insulation to keep you warm. When you sleep on the earth your body heat will escape into the ground, even during summertime. There are 3 types of pads: foam, air, and self-inflating.

Getting a good night’s rest is really important if you are spending most of your days hiking. Getting poor sleep can affect you mentally, emotionally, and physically. If you become too sleep deprived it can be a miserable experience. Your body may ache, you might be irritable, and in extreme cases of sleep deprivation, you can hallucinate.

Reasons You Should Use A Sleeping Pad For Backpacking

  1. You need a sleeping pad when backpacking because the ground is cold and a sleeping bag by itself will not keep you warm.As I mentioned this is just as true in the summertime as it is in the winter. The R-value of the pad you are using will be based on the climate you are in. No matter what season you are in the ground will get cold at night. Sleeping pads keep you warm by providing insulation.
  2. The National Park Service in the United States recommends it on their packing list.
  3. They add cushion to the hard ground and help promote restful sleep.Some pads provide more insulation while others provide more comfort. This will depend on the type of sleeping pad you have.

Types Of Sleeping Pads For Backpacking

  • Foam Pads
    These are lightweight pads that are extremely durable but not as comfortable as inflatable pads. They will roll up or fold, depending on the pad. They don’t need air (as they are not inflatable) and are ready as-is. They are best for thru-hikers on long backpacking trips that need something that can take a lot of wear and tear—that won’t be at risk for being punctured and deflated.
  • Air Pads
    These pads are usually thick but also lightweight. They roll up easily and take minimal space about the size of a rolled-up newspaper. They need to be inflated which you can do yourself or you can use a pump. Air pads can be on the softer, and for some, more comfortable side since you will be sleeping on air. If punctured by debris or a sharp object the pad won’t hold air and will need to be repaired. Air pads aren’t the best option for longer trips over a few weeks.
  • Self-inflating Pads
    These are foam-based pads with holes: “open-cell foam”. They are basically foam pads with lots of holes and valves in it that let air escape. This comes in handy when you want to roll the pad up. They aren’t as small as air pads.

Each type offers its own advantages and disadvantages. The one you choose really comes down to personal preference. It’s more important that you choose a pad that has a suitable R-value than what type you buy.

Understanding R-Value

Insulating materials, including sleeping pads, are designed to resist heat flow. The higher R-value a material has then the greater insulation it provides. The R-Value of most sleeping pads is at the rate of under 2 to 5.5.

  • For warm climates you don’t need as much insulation. An R-value under two will work just fine for this type of weather. It’d even be ok if you brought an alternative to a sleeping pad with you.
  • For cooler climates you need a moderate level of insulation. Something with an R-Value between 2 and 4 would be ideal.
  • For cold climates you need a sleeping pad with an R-value above 4. you must have enough insulation to keep warm during winter.

What type of sleeping pad should I get for backpacking?

There are 3 things you should consider when choosing which kind of sleeping pad to buy. Depending on your circumstance and preference you will want to look at:

  • The comfortability of the pad. Are you going to be able to get a good night to sleep on it? This will depend on your preference and whether you like a firm mattress or soft mattress. Sleeping pads are good to try out in the store to make this decision.
  • The amount of Insulation the pad provides. Sleeping pads are rated based on how well they resist heat transfer from your body and into the ground. They call this an R-value. The higher the R-value the more insulation it will provide. You generally want to select one based on the temperature and climate of where you will be backpacking.
  • Weight of the pad. This depends on the type of backpacking you plan to do, the length of your trip, and what you are trying to keep your pack under. Sleep pads usually weight from 10 oz /0.6 lbs to 48 oz / 3 lbs.

Can You Use a Sleeping Pad For Year-Round Backpacking?

If you are on a budget and want a pad that you can use year-round then you should get a 3 season sleeping pad. You should buy one that you know will keep you warm in winter. It’s better to use a pad designed for winter in the summer than it is to use a low R-value pad in the winter. Don’t worry too much about getting too hot with it in the summertime. May campers use their winter pad in the summer and it works just fine for them. Manufacturers designate some pads as 3 seasons, so look for that, but anything with an R-value above 3.9 will be ok to use year-round.

Backpacking Sleeping Pad Alternatives

If you don’t want to lug around a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag there are a few other options out there. Be sure to bring something that will be suitable for the climate you are in. Especially if you will be in a colder climate. In that case, you want something that provides a similar amount of insulation as a high R-value pad. If you are set on taking a sleeping bag, and not interested in a sleeping bag alternative, then consider some of these.

  • 2-3 inch multi-purpose foam padding. You can find this at most hardware stores. Custom cut the size that you need. Anything that will provide a good amount of insulation from the ground will work but you should do some testing first.
  • Yoga mat. It will offer some insulation and comfort but this will vary. It should be long enough to cover all of your body. You should test this before bringing it onto a multi-day backpacking trip.
  • Memory foam. Memory foam has an R-value of 3.7 per inch. This would make it a good alternative to a sleeping pad. You could custom cut an old memory foam mattress topper if you have one available. Or buy a used one. It shouldn’t be hard to find.
  • Inflatable Pool Float Device.This is pretty simple. I’m not sure if I’d want to bring one of these with me. If you are out of options then give it a go!
  • Wool Blankets. If you have a queen size wool blanket and a double you can fold them, fit them together, and sleep on top.

Wool Blanket Sleeping Bag Alternative

I’m researching everything I can before I head to Lakeshore Trail, 42-mile backpacking I’m taking in August. I’ve been reading a wilderness survival book: Bush Craft 101 – A Field Guide to the Art of Wilderness Survival. It’s by a bush crafter named Dave Canterbury.

In the very first chapter, he gives instructions on how to put together a sleeping bag alternative that will keep you warm. He says it can be used in winter too as it’s good in “temperatures all the way to freezing.” All that’s required to create this carry option is a tarp, queen-sized 100% wool blanket, and a twin-sized wool blanket.

He gives instructions on how to lay it all out. It’s pretty interesting. He mentions how you can roll spare clothing or other items in with this too. I won’t give the instructions here. You’ll have to check out the book. It looks pretty interesting. If you try it let me know in the comments.

I’ve been doing a lot of learning lately. I hope I’ve been able to share some things in a way that will help you too. Now you know that a sleeping pad for backpacking is a good idea.

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