The Best Sleeping Pads for Every Kind of Camping (2024)


What are these sleeping pads you speak of? When I was young, all hiking was uphill both ways and everyone slept on the ground in sleeping bags with only a half-inch of thin closed-cell foam between us and every pebble. We also filtered our water with our teeth and ate mainly raw meat and foraged ramps. Kids these days.

Still, I suppose there is something to be said for a comfy sleeping pad at the end of a long day on the trail, or even in the campsite next to your car. There are now many ways to make sure no peas (or pebbles) ever disturb your sleep in the outdoors. For years, we’ve been testing sleeping pads of all varieties in all kinds of conditions, and we’re happy to report that in all this time we’ve never had one fail on us. That said, there are some standouts and a few to avoid.

Be sure to read through our other outdoor guides, including the Best Tents, Best Hiking Gear, Best Camp Stoves, and our Camp Cooking guide.

Update July 2024: We’ve added two new Sea to Summit pads, including our new favorite all-around camping and backpacking pad, the Sea to Summit Comfort Plus. We’ve also updated prices and links throughout.

Table of Contents

Power up with unlimited access to WIRED. Get best-in-class reporting that’s too important to ignore for just $2.50 $1 per month for 1 year. Includes unlimited digital access and exclusive subscriber-only content. Subscribe Today.

If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.

The Best Sleeping Pad for Most People

If you’re looking to buy only one sleeping pad and planning to use it in a variety of camp settings, make it the Sea To Summit Comfort Plus SI. There are plusher pads for car camping or base camp (see the MondoKing below) and lighter pads for weeklong backpacking trips (see the Tensor and Ether Light below) but this light, self-inflating pad sets itself apart by being able to gracefully slip between worlds.

At 3 pounds for the rectangular version I tested, it is double the weight of most ultralight backpacking pads but still light in the grand scheme of things (you can save more weight going for the mummy-shaped version, which is 2 pounds and 2 ounces). If you’re trying to get to a sub-10-pound base weight, you could shave 2 pounds and some bulk with a modern pump-to-inflate pad, but you won’t be as warm or comfortable. I tested this pad against the warmest Tensor and Ether Light offerings over three nights at altitude in Colorado, where it got down to 24 degrees, and found the Comfort Plus was significantly toastier. The open-cell interior (let it fluff up for an hour or so, then top it off with a few breaths) was also a much cushier experience. I’m a large-bodied side sleeper and my hips didn’t bottom out. In fact, I found it was about 80 percent as comfy as the MondoKing 3D below. I would happily sleep on this pad for a week of car camping or at a music festival, and it’s the first pad I would grab if I could take only one. —Martin Cizmar

The Best Super-Comfy Car Camping Pad

Therm-a-Rest invented the self-inflating camping mattress. The brand has kept pace in the 50 years since, either innovating or successfully aping every major development in the field. The MondoKing is the most comfortable, deluxe mattress in the line, the flagship for picky car campers and those who are stationary in the backcountry for weeks or months at a time. This burly mat is a full 4 inches thick and weighs 4 pounds. You won’t want to lug it far, but even a large-bodied side sleeper won’t bottom out.

The StrataCore foam inside gives it an R-value of 7, so the claimed comfort is below the temperature at which vodka freezes. (In our nights of testing, WIRED has not independently verified good sleep at –20 degrees Fahrenheit.) It’s also very, very comfortable. Like the Megamat below, it’s 70-denier on the bottom with a stretchy 50-denier top that provides the natural sag of a real mattress. The MondoKing also has a nice firm edge, meaning you never feel like you’re about to roll off. The MondoKing is better than a lot of hotel mattresses and inflates and deflates fast enough that you might just roll it out the next time you find yourself on a lumpy hotel bed. —Martin Cizmar

Other Options

  • Exped MegMat 10 for $180: This is the beefy, ultra-luxury pad that started the trend of huge car camping pads. And for that we thank Exped. The MegaMat remains a great choice and is pretty well equivalent to the MondoKing, though the MondoKing weighs less and packs down smaller. On the other hand, the MegaMat has slightly better insulation and might be a better choice if you sleep cold or are headed out in the shoulder seasons where colder temps are possible.

Best for Couples and Families

We’re big fans of REI’s in-house line, which is sturdy and works well without breaking the bank. On a recent camping trip, every family with kids under 10 had this mattress, including my own. It’s 56 inches wide and 6 inches tall, wide enough to fit Mom and two elementary schoolers and fit inside MSR’s 6-person Habitude tent. (Dad and the dog still had to sleep on the ground.)

It comes with a small stuff sack for easy transport that includes a manual air pump, but the universal nozzle means you can ditch the pump and use a battery-powered one for quick and easy inflating. The welded seams kept the mattress taut and bouncy through three days and nights of kids jumping up and down on it. The surface is soft enough to sleep with your face pressed against it if you slide out of your sleeping bag, and it’s insulated, but with an R-value of 2.6. I definitely needed a quilt under our sleeping bags for 40-degree nights. —Adrienne So

Other Options

  • Kelty’s Kush Queen Airbed for $100: This PVC-free queen-sized airbed from Kelty includes a pump that makes inflating a snap (make sure you charge it before you go), and the 6-inch-thick pad is plenty comfortable. It is not an insulated air mattress like the REI above, so it’s best for warmer months, but it can double as a spare bed at home.

The Best Ultralight Sleeping Pad

When you venture into the backcountry, especially if you’re an ultralight backpacking nerd, every ounce counts. In the case of sleeping pads, there’s always a trade-off. You want the fewest ounces with the most R-value. Nemo Equipment’s new 2024 Tensor-insulated sleeping pads (8/10, WIRED Recommends) have the best R-Value to weight ratio of anything we’ve tested. The Tensor All-Season featured here sports an R-Value of 5.4 and weighs just 18.2 ounces. That alone is impressive, but what I love about the Tensor is that it’s thick, comfortable, and most importantly, dang near silent. I hate that swish of nylon that’s pretty much synonymous with backcountry sleeping. There is hardly any of that with the Tensor, making it well worth the money. The insulation is a double layer of reflective film, with a baffled air chamber design, which helps keep it quiet. The design also helps it roll up into a tiny stuff sack. It’s about the size of a 16-ounce Nalgene bottle. If you want to save a little weight and money, there’s also the Tensor Trail for $190. It weighs just 16 ounces for the regular wide, but the R-Value is quite a bit lower at 2.8.

Other Options

  • NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad for $210: The obvious competitor to the Tensor is Therm-a-Rest’s NeoAir XLite, according to WIRED reviewer Matt Jancer. The Xlite NeoAir might be light in weight but not on warmth. He has used it on icy glaciers without a chill sneaking up on his backside. You have to blow it up manually, but the easy-twist valve makes it simple, and he has been impressed with the durability over five years. No holes or scratches. It has a tendency to slip around, but it’s quiet.
  • Sea to Summit Ultralight for $129: If you are the sort who cuts off your toothbrush handle to save weight, this mat is worth considering. It has an R-value of 1.1, making it a summer-only pad. But it weighs a mere 11 ounces, packs up very small, and is $70 cheaper than the Tensor. If most of your camping is in summer, it’ll do the job. It is a bit louder than the Nemo.

The Best for Backcountry Comfort

If you’re willing to carry a few extra ounces in exchange for some added comfort and a (theoretically) better night’s sleep, the NeoAir Topo is our favorite pad. At 21 ounces, it’s definitely on the heavy side, but it’s also 3 inches thick, and we promise you don’t feel the pebbles, or even small rocks, under this thing. The 2.3 R-value makes it a good choice for three-season camping or backpacking, and I found even the regular to be plenty wide enough. Therm-a-Rest includes a breath-saving pump sack, compact stuff sack, and field repair kit.

Best 4-Season Backcountry Pad

If I were heading out to camp in the snow, this is the pad I would bring. Exped’s Ultra 7R offers (as the name suggests) an R-value of 7 in a pad that weighs under 2 pounds for the wide version. And I do suggest going for the wide version. I found the regular to be a bit on the narrow side, and the weight difference (5 ounces) doesn’t justify the lost sleeping space. I used this pad down to 30 degrees Fahrenheit and was very comfortable (in a 20-degree bag). Exped rates it to –20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Exped’s Schnozzel pump bag ($45) is also excellent and is necessary if you’re camping in the cold, as you don’t want the moisture from your breath inside your mat.

Other Options

  • Nemo Tensor Extreme Conditions ($260): With an R-Value of 8.5 and weight of only 22 ounces for the regular wide version, Nemo’s new Tensor Extreme Conditions pad has the highest warmth-to-weight ratio on the market right now. It uses four layers of foil and offset baffles to achieve that lightest, warmest pad status. It will likely be our top pick for this category in a future update, but at the moment I have not had a chance to finish fully testing it in more extreme low temps. As with the Exped pad above, I suggest going for the wide pad, as the regular is pretty narrow.
  • Ether Light XT Extreme Insulated Air Sleeping Mat for $229: If you’re backpacking in the winter or at high altitude, you’ll welcome the extra warmth of Sea To Summit’s Thermolite-insulated pad. At 1 pound 9 ounces, it’s slightly heavier than the Tensor Extreme, with a slightly lower R-rating of 6.2, but I’ve had it well below freezing while using a 15-degree rated down mummy bag and found it comfortably warm if not nice and toasty. Inflation is a cinch, with the included pump bag at 4 inches thick. I didn’t bottom out while sleeping on my side, unlike with the very similar Tensor Extreme, which I found to be less comfy and a little cooler.—Martin Cizmar

Best Old-School, Closed-Cell Foam Pad

I was sort of kidding in the intro here, but I also was not. This pad was my intro to backcountry sleeping, and I remain a fan (though, technically, mine was a no-name brand). The Z-Lite and its ilk weigh next to nothing (10 ounces for the small), fold up small enough to lash to the outside of any pack, and double as a chair, extra padding on cold nights, table, you name it. I am too old to use just a Z-Lite anymore, but I still have one around on almost every trip I take. Pairing it with the Nemo inflatable above gives me a wide range of sleeping and sitting possibilities for a total weight of under 2 pounds. That means I can carry more steak, and good backcountry food is really the key to everything.

Best Kids Sleeping Pad

Let’s be honest—if your kid is old enough to go backpacking, they’re probably old enough to be fine with an adult-sized sleeping pad that will age with them as they get older. However, in a moment of parental weakness, I bought my children child-sized sleeping pads to match their Kindercone sleeping bags, which have been useful for a surprisingly long time. My daughter is in the third grade and has had hers since kindergarten.

After all, 60 inches is pretty long—that’s almost tall enough for me to use. This one has an R-value of 4.5, and my kids have slept pretty warm on these for a number of years in temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The separate valves for inflation and deflation make it much easier for little kids to not get confused and help set up. Weirdly, these sleeping pads are also much easier to roll up and stuff back into their sack than my own sleeping pad; REI may have secretly done me a solid there. —Adrienne So

Honorable Mentions

The following sleeping pads didn’t impress us like the ones above, but we’ve tested them and still like them enough if none of the others strike your fancy.

Sea to Summit Women’s UltraLight Insulated Air Sleeping Mat for $160: We debated for some time whether women need different sleeping pads. After some long conversations with our female testers, we decided there just isn’t much difference. That said, this is a fine sleeping pad for anyone. It’s very close to the Sea to Summit Ultralight above.

Source link