Get the most from your backcountry sleep system: Find the right sleeping pad

Get the most from your backcountry sleep system: Find the right sleeping pad


When it comes to getting your gear together for a backcountry hunt, tents, sleeping bags, and packs get all the glory. The humble sleeping pad is usually an afterthought, or is even excluded altogether in a show of faux toughness. The reality is, a high-quality sleeping pad is essential for getting the performance you expect from your expensive sleeping bag and tent.

Most people think of a sleeping pad in the context of cushioning. And while it is true that a nice pad will make sleeping on the ground more comfortable, the true value of a pad to a hunter is the insulation it affords. Your body will lose heat into the ground through a process called conduction. This is especially true when the ground is near freezing, or on snow, which is not uncommon during the fall hunting seasons. Insulating yourself from heat conduction into the ground is so important that the temperature rating you agonized over for your expensive sleeping bag assumes you are using a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5.5—nearly as high as you can get (more on R-values in a bit). This means that you will not get the performance from your sleeping bag you expect unless you use it in combination with the proper sleeping pad .

So what’s the deal with R-values?

The R-value, simply put, is a measure of how much insulation a sleeping pad offers. They range from around two to more than 5.5. The higher the number, the more insulation the pad provides. Although the R-value isn’t as convenient a metric as a temperature rating, it actually makes more sense. Sleeping pads provide insulation against conduction into the ground—not the air—and different types of ground conduct heat differently.

Types of sleeping pads

The are three main styles of sleeping pads: air, self-inflating, and foam. Each has advantages and drawbacks.

Air pads like the Nemo Tensor Alpine that I use, in essence, are inflatable pads. They are basically small, high-tech versions of the green, queen-size Coleman inflatable mattresses we used during sleepovers as kids. The biggest advantage to these pads is their packability. Some of these pads pack down smaller than the size of a Nalgene bottle while still providing high levels of insulation and lofty cushioning. However, they have to be inflated manually. Fortunately, companies like Nemo and others have developed inflation sacks that require just a few breaths to inflate the entire pad and take up almost no space. Lastly, these are the most fragile of the three types of pads. Since they have to be inflated, you’ll be back to sleeping on the ground if a hole develops, so bring a repair kit. Still, if space-saving is crucial for you, air pads are the way to go.

Foam pads like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol are exactly what they sound like: thin layers of closed-cell foam that unfold to make a mat. The main benefit to these pads is durability; they are virtually indestructible. They are not glamorous, but they are light and dependable. You will always have the insulation and padding you are expecting, no matter how many sharp rocks or tree roots you have to deal with. On the downside, they are extremely bulky. During the summer, this isn’t such a huge deal since you can use a three-quarter or even half-length pad and still not lose too much heat into the ground. But during the hunting seasons of late fall and early winter, you will need a full-length pad. Fortunately, since they are so durable, you can easily attach these to the outside of your pack without concern for damaging them. If cost and durability are your main concerns, a foam pad may be the right choice for you.

Self-inflating pads like the Therm-a-Rest MondoKing 3D are a hybrid between the two other types. They are made of an expandable, open-celled foam. This enables them to let air in and expand when the valve is open, but the air can be forced out to make the pad more packable. Because these pads combine both air and foam, they can be quite warm and extremely comfortable. That said, they do suffer from the downsides of both other types. They are much bulkier than air pads but are still susceptible to puncture, though less so than air pads. If cushion and comfort are your highest priority, self-inflating pads are a great option.

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