Maybe the perfect sleeping pad set up (at least for me)! Lightweight, comfortable, warm and durable. Read on.
Sleeping pads have undergone lots of changes over the years. Part of it is new technology, part is the search for more comfort as we get older. This is the evolution of my personal pads:
2. section of wool Army Blanket
3. open cell foam pad, 36”, ’72-‘75
3.5. closed cell ensolite pad, 47”, ’73-‘89
4. Thermarest Ultralite, 47”, 19 oz., ’89-‘04
5. Thermarest Prolite 3, 47”, 12 oz., ’04-‘09
6. Thermarest Ridgerest closed cell, 47”, 8 oz., ‘06
7. Thermarest Prolite XS, 36” + 36” Ridgerest, 8.3 + 6.2=14.5 oz., ’09-
8. Thermarest Ridgerest closed cell, 72” for snow trips, 12 oz., ’00-
Pads were not much of an issue in the early days when we mostly camped in warm weather and were tougher, “pad what pad?” Now though, almost all of my trips are in cool to cold weather with night temperatures mostly between freezing and 20 degrees, my bones are getting older and I have become a side sleeper. Getting a comfortable and warm nights sleep is more difficult.
When Thermarest first came out with their inflatable foam pads it seemed like a great answer for comfort and moderate insulation. Having been through a series of their lightest pads, they have performed pretty well with the exception of the occasional leak/hole that leaves one on the cold, hard ground; uncomfortable for sure, dangerous if really cold. Forget carrying the patch kit, it is impossible to find the tiny holes in the field, you have to have a hose or tub of water and then it is difficult (tip- use soapy water, it makes bigger bubbles where the leak is). For a time I even went back to just a Ridgerest closed cell pad to save weight and avoid the deflation issue, it was light but I slept like hell.
Finally on several sub 20 degree trips I took a full length Ridgerest to put under my Thermarest 3/4 inflatable for extra insulation. On some of the hard wooden shelter floors on the AT not only was I warm but extremely comfortable. I began thinking about a combination pad system that would be comfortable, warm, tough (puncture resistant) and light.
Sure a 2.5 inch thick air mattress would be the most comfortable and light but the un-insulated ones are lousy below freezing and not puncture proof by a long shot. If using a torso length pad there is a huge drop off below the knees that some find uncomfortable. There are insulated air mattresses that are warm and for a long time the most widely applauded was the Exped Downmat 7 with a R-value of 5.9 but it comes in at 30 oz. for the 72″ and then the puncture thing and the having to pump them up. I don’t want to have to fiddle with anything in the cold and dark after a long day of walking. (There are of course new entries all the time, see the references at the bottom of the page)
A note on warmth, there has been much discussion on Backpacking Light about the R-value needed to stop heat loss to cold and frozen ground and the thought is an R-value of 5.0 . So that is the number I have been working with to find a combination of pads to put together to have a combined R-value of 5.0-6.0 for the coldest trips and close to 5.0 for the cool season trips.
Two other factors come into play. First, the packs I have now use the sleeping pad as part of the suspension system, and a closed cell pad like a Ridgerest is the best. Second, I have used a Thermarest chair kit for years and need a pad(s) that will work with the chair. That means a pad(s) that is 20 inches wide and at least 36 inches long.
As an aside on the chair thing, don’t start with me about how carrying a chair is unneeded extra weight, maybe for you but not for me. I come from the Colin Fletcher school of reclining with the support of a propped up frame pack and as he said “an internal frame pack makes a scurvy backrest”. In an attempt to save weight I even went for a while without the chair and was consistently uncomfortable in camp, so started carrying it again. Most of my nights are long and cold so I want to sit up, with my legs in the sleeping bag, cooking, reading, taking in the night. I am getting too old to sit cross legged without back support and the trees and rocks are rarely in the right place for me to use.
I finally put it together in 2008 on one of the across Big Bend walks by using a cut down 36″ Ridgerest under my old 47″ Thermarest Prolite 3. We slept on mostly rock surfaces with temperatures down into the 20’s. It was very durable with the closed cell pad on the ground to protect from thorns and rocks and the inflatable pad on top which I could deflate a little and get the hip and shoulder hole effect. It worked perfectly both in my chair kit and as the frame in my Six Moons Designs Starlite pack. The combination (without the chair) weighed only 18 ounces with an R-value of 4.8 and 1.66 inches of padding.
Thermarest finally came out with a 36″ Prolite XS that weighs 8.3 ounces (my scales) which puts the pad combo at just over 14 ounces. All three components together are brilliant- comfortable, warm, tough. Since 2008 I have had no pin hole leaks or deflation issues despite many desert trips. I know of no other pad or pad combination that is this light and gives the warmth, toughness and comfort.
The latest on chair kits: for several years I have used the lighter Thermarest Compack chair (shown below in red) made out of a lighter cordura Silnylon but after returning two of them due to fabric failures around the “hinge” area that holds the stays (this is the same kind of issues that the Big Agnes chairs have as well). I am currently back to using my old Trekker chair (shown above in purple) which has always performed perfectly. The new Compack chair design is also different and does not have a full bottom pocket to hold the pad and it is now an ounce heavier making it only 3 oz. less than my old one. Thermarest has a newer version of the Trekker chair that is more durable and they have dropped it down to 9.5 ounces, this is what I would currently recommend. A light chair should not be so hard to achieve.
Yep it looks short but 36″ is ample room to get my shoulders and hips on, even at 6’1″.
Now when it gets really cold or on snow I will continue to carry a full length Ridgerest and more for full body insulation. For most situations I have always used short pads and just put my pack and spare clothes under my legs and feet. On those trips where the nights will be in the 20’s I found that the SMD packs, which have no padding, leave my feet and heels too unprotected. I started carrying a 10″ X 12″ square of Ridgerest pad (<1 oz.) that I put inside the sleeping bag and it is fabulous, no more cold heels and it stays in the right place all night! I can use it as a sit pad on breaks too.
Obviously there are any number of combinations of closed cell pads and inflatable pads with different lengths, thickness and R-values; to make it easier to choose, here is a chart comparing pads for R-value, thickness and weight, sorted by weight.
This is an exhaustive 2011 inflatable pad review from Backpackinglight including mini reviews of each pad (click on the pad model name in the final table). You will have to be a member to view this article.