This article is part of a gear guide series on the “Big Three” heaviest backpacking items. These include your backpack, shelter, and sleep system. Skip to another post:
- 9 Best Lightweight Sleeping Bags for Backpacking
- 10 Best Lightweight Backpacking Tents
- 8 Best Lightweight Backpacking Packs
- 1 Overview
- 2 Top Things to Consider
- 3 Best Lightweight Sleeping Pads
- 3.1 Top Pick
- 3.2 For Cold Sleepers
- 3.3 For Minimalists
- 3.4 For Ultralight Jerks
- 3.5 For Penny Pinchers
- 3.6 More Options
Let’s face it, wilderness backpacking is hard. A lot goes into putting together a successful trip and completing it. You have to plan a route, track the location’s weather, research and acquire the right gear, and train your body to become a hiking machine.
For a lot of people, peak physical conditioning is the hardest thing to achieve. However, even the ones that do can bonk on the trail if they’re not sleeping well.
You might think that you’ll be so exhausted after hiking all day that a good night’s sleep is a given. I am here to tell you that it isn’t.
Unless you’re a jobless hippie that spends most of your time thru-hiking, chances are you sleep in a bed most of the time. Most likely, your body is used to sleeping in a climate-controlled bedroom on a comfortable mattress.
The human body doesn’t respond well to sudden changes in its routine. The backcountry is the opposite of your bedroom. It gets cold outside, the ground is hard, and (much like the air) it’s also cold.
Luckily for coddled creatures like us, there are plenty of sleeping pads that cushion your body and insulate it from the bone chilling earth. If you’re warm and comfortable you’re sure to get deep restorative sleep.
What’s more? The best sleeping pads are compact and lightweight so they don’t take up a lot of room in your pack and they save your back.
Continue reading to learn the top things to consider so you know how to choose the best sleeping pad for you.
Just want to see my favorite ones? Skip ahead to the best lightweight sleeping pads for backpacking.
Top Things to Consider
It doesn’t matter how comfortable a sleeping pad is if it doesn’t insulate your body from the ground. Cold ground is more convective than cold air, which means it transfers the heat away from your body much faster.
Even in the warmest sleeping bags and quilts, your body would get cold sleeping on the ground without a pad.
Sleeping pad manufacturers know the importance of insulation, so they created R-Value to measure it. The higher the value, the better the insulation.
For 3-season backpacking, you want to be in the 2-4 range. If you sleep cold, it might be a good idea to go for an even higher R-Value.
To keep your overall pack weight as low as possible, you’ll want to get a lightweight sleeping pad. However, don’t sacrifice your warmth and comfort to save weight here.
All of the sleeping pads I recommend in this post are around 1 lb or less. You should have no problem finding a lightweight pad that insulates well and sleeps comfortably.
Some sales reps and bloggers might try to downplay the importance of finding a comfortable sleeping pad. Don’t fall into their trap! This is a crucial piece of gear and comfortability should definitely play into your decision.
If you can, visit your favorite outdoor retailer and lay on a few pads. Get a feel for what’s out there and see what you prefer.
Of course, it’s hard to know for sure whether a pad is comfortable without sleeping on it for a few nights. Fortunately, all of the sleeping pad brands I plug in this article have lenient return policies.
See below for more information on how the following companies handle returns:
Has a “Better Sleep Guarantee” that allows you to return your gear within three months with an original receipt.
Has a “100% Satisfaction Guaranteed” policy that allows you to return your gear within one year of purchase.
Used gear must be returned within 30 days of delivery for store credit.
You have 30 days from the date of delivery to return opened or used items for a full refund.
If purchased through the Klymit Web Store, items can be returned within 21 days.
One of the drawbacks to inflatable air mattresses is that they can get punctured or tear. To help with this, most air mattresses come with a repair kit but it can be hard to locate leaks in the field.
To avoid this, you could go with a closed-cell foam pad, but these aren’t as comfortable as air mattresses. They’re also bulkier, and have lower R-Values because they’re thinner. On the plus side, they are great for lounging around on at camp and double as a yoga mat.
If you’re dead set on warmth and comfort as you probably are (and should be), then an air mattress is still your best bet.
To assess durability, look at the denier count. Denier is a measurement of fabric thickness and is indicated by a capital D. The higher the number in front of that D, the thicker the fabric.
When you’re sleeping on the ground, the most significant heat loss occurs from your torso. This is a major factor to think about as you choose your sleeping pad.
Make sure that the pad measures wide enough to accommodate your torso so your core stays warm. Length is less important because your legs don’t give away as much heat.
Due to this, some ultralight backpackers even choose shorter pads to save weight. They figure you can stuff your backpack and spare clothing underneath your legs anyway, if you need insulation there.
As I mentioned before, a sleeping pad isn’t the first place I’d look to shave ounces since they’re already so light anyway. Most likely, you’ll sleep better on a wider pad that is sufficiently long too.
Best Lightweight Sleeping Pads
Below are my recommendations for the best lightweight sleeping pads.
Weight: 12 oz
Fabric: 30D rip HT nylon
Since the 1970s, Therm-a-Rest has been making the best sleeping pads money can buy. The NeoAir XLite ticks all of the boxes for 3-season backpacking. It has a solid R-Value of 3.2, is lightweight at 12 oz, packs down to the size of a Nalgene bottle, and is quite comfortable.
For Cold Sleepers
Weight: 15 oz
Top Fabric: 30D rip HT nylon
Bottom Fabric: 70D nylon
With the NeoAir XTherm, Therm-a-Rest has made “the greatest warmth-to-weight ratio available in any air mattress by far.” Somehow, this sleeping pad only weighs 3 oz more than the XLite, despite being 2.5 ticks higher on the R-Value scale. If you sleep cold, this is the sleeping pad to buy.
R-Value: Unavailable. Rated 20 to 35° F
Weight: 14.5 oz
Fill: Dual-density Axiotomic™ foam
Foam: Hexagonal nesting pattern, closed-cell
Newly released in Spring 2019, the Switchback has a thicker cushion than the Z Lite Sol at 0.9 inches vs. 0.75 inches and only weighs half an ounce more. It costs about the same as the Z Lite Sol which makes it compelling, but the manufacturer doesn’t list its R-Value which is a bit suspect. It’s made from recycled materials.
Weight: 14 oz
Fill: Crosslinked polyethylene
Foam: Molded closed-cell
The Z Lite Sol is my longstanding closed-cell foam pad recommendation. It’s not as comfortable as an inflatable air mattress, but you don’t have to worry about it getting punctured and deflating. At 2.6, the R-Value isn’t the highest but its adequate for 3-season backpacking if you’re hardy.
Note: The Z Lite Sol is different than the Original Z Lite in that it has a reflective side that helps trap heat in.
For Ultralight Jerks
Weight: 8.8 oz
Fabric: 15D rip nylon
New in 2019, the NeoAir UberLite is a miracle of modern science. It weighs just 8.8 oz but still has an R-Value of 2, the minimum for 3-season backpacking. When packed, it takes up less space than a tallboy beer can. Ultralight jerks and gram weenies rejoice!
For Penny Pinchers
Weight: 16.6 oz
Top Fabric: 30D polyester
Bottom Fabric: 75D polyester
Price: < $65
With its Static V2, Klymit remade the well liked Static V to be lighter at 16.6 oz and more compact. Its V-shaped design is a favorite among side sleepers, it inflates faster than the aforementioned Therm-a-Rest pads, and it costs a lot less. The catch? At 1.3, its R-Value is a bit low which makes this a summertime only pad.
Weight: 15 oz
Fabric: 30D ripstop polyester
Weight: 16.9 oz
Fabric: 40D ripstop nylon
R-Value: Unavailable. Rated to 32° F
Weight: 11.9 oz
Fabric: Lightweight double ripstop nylon fabric