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 is now an array of ways to make sure no peas (or pebbles) ever disturb your sleep in the outdoors. For years, we’ve 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.
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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 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
- 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.
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
- Kelty’s Kush Queen Airbed for $105: 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, 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 Tensor-insulated sleeping pad sports an R-Value of 4.2 and weighs JUST 15.2 ounces. That alone is impressive, but what I love about the Tensor is that it’s thick, comfortable, and most important, 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 in my opinion. The insulation is a 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. There’s also a non-mummy version for $187 if you prefer a little extra space.
- 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 $110: 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 Old-School 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 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.
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 finishing up second 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
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.
REI Helix Insulated Air Sleeping Pad for $160: This REI pad is comparable to the Nemo Tensor above, but it’s noisier and heavier. It’s marginally cheaper, and there’s nothing particularly bad about it, but we think that you should spend the extra $20 and get the Nemo Tensor.
Pads to Avoid
Not every sleeping pad is a winner. We’ve tested and run into issues with the following models.
Exped Flexmat Plus: What if the cheap, light, and indestructible closed-cell foam mats like the iconic Z-Rest and RidgeRest were … giant? It’s a fun idea, but the Exped Flexmat Plus is a noble failure. The problem with this extra-thick, 1.5-inch, closed-cell mat is that, while relatively light, cheap, and indestructible, the foam is hard and spikey. And by “spikey” we mean that it’s literally just spikes that stab you while you sleep. Fans say it requires a break-in period. After six nights on it, reviewer Martin Cizmar begged the dungeon guard for release.