10 Best Camping Pads | March 2017
- less expensive than comparable items
- comes with patch kit
- low r-value so not for extreme cold
- packs smaller than a liter bottle
- tapered design saves floor space
- tends to be noisy when moving on it
- fits in its stuff-sack easily
- environmentally conscious company
- durable outer shell
- regular and long options
- insulated version available
- some find it too bouncy
- abrasion-resistant material
- inflates in about 25 breaths
- side rails keep you centered
- appropriate for four-season use
- small size works well for children
- trusted brand in mattresses
- nonslip and quiet materials
- dual oversized air valves
- compression straps included
The Camper and the Pea
Remember The Princess and the Pea? It's that old story about a young princess who's found outside the city during a rainstorm, and is tricked into supporting her claim to royalty by having to sleep on a stack of mattresses with a pea underneath them.
It's a biting commentary about class and sensitivity, and it ought to insult over-sensitive campers to be associated with it.
Pads for sleeping in the open elements have evolved swiftly in the past half century or so, as advancements in materials have increased tensile strength and decreased both size and weight of available mats.
We've certainly come a long way since the 77,000 year old sleeping mats they found in South Africa a few years ago. These were basically the branches of different evergreens laid on the floor of the cave that acted as a kind of mosquito repellent, among other things. Don't let the bedbugs bite, right?
At first glance, it may seem like the purpose of these modern camping pads is to increase the sleeper's comfort against hard surfaces, from the rockiest natural ground to the hardest sheet of ice to the smallest of peas. In truth, sleeping comfort is an oft-cited criticism of a variety of these products, but their reason d'etre is more thermal regulation than imperial comfort.
That said, some of the options above imply that the regulation of a camper's spinal alignment and next-day soreness are becoming as important in the marketplace as not dying of hypothermia.
I guess the reality is that if you're camping in comfortable areas, or even RVing, it isn't likely that you're putting yourself in a position to freeze. So, sure, other comforts might come into question.
This, That, or the Other?
There are certainly as many types of sleeping pads as there are types of campers, and choosing what's right for you will require that you ask yourself some questions.
How do you sleep? Are you a light sleeper, awoken by the subtlest change in temperature or softness beneath you? Maybe you need something rated for superior thermal control, something thicker and cushier.
How much ground are you covering? Planning to hike 30 miles today? You're probably going to want to prioritize packing size and weight over comfort. Let's face it: at the end of a day like that, you'll be able to sleep comfortably standing up, hanging upside down, or even underwater!
Where are you? Headed to Mt. Doom? Or are you RVing to the park down the street? If you know you're going to have ready access to civilization, and your camping style is more for the backyard than the badlands, you might be able to get away with spending a little less on your setup.
A Few Words About R-Rating
No, I'm not invoking the Motion Picture Association of America here. I don't think there's a sleeping pad on the market that's recommended for campers 17 years of age or older unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. I'm talking about insulation, that sweet, fiberglass cotton candy that some of us were shocked to discover as children was neither sweet nor cotton candy, but definitely fiberglass.
The R-rating, or R-value, is a way to measure the effectiveness of a material's insulating properties. That's how well it maintains the temperature difference on either side of the material.
Imagine you're all comfy and cozy in your sleeping bag, with all that body heat melting away the frost from your bones, when–all of a sudden–every bit of that heat dissipates into the cold ground. You see, that old second law in thermodynamics can make cold weather camping all kinds of crummy, as the energy from the hotter areas (a.k.a. where you're desperately trying to sleep) transfers toward the colder areas (a.k.a. all that ridiculous nature out there).
This is where insulation comes in, and the manufacturers of camping pads are always competing for advantages in R-value.
Now, some manufacturers might not be too keen on letting you know what their R-rating is, especially if it doesn't measure up to the competition. Thankfully, that information has been consolidated here, so you don't have to go hunting.
Of course, if you're a camper who only seeks the wild during the more comfortable months of the year, you're probably going to be more concerned with size, weight, and comfort than insulation, but it's good information to have if it tips the scales toward one pad or another.