Current thoughts on Sleeping Pads

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:

  1. nothing
  2. section of wool Army Blanket
  3. open cell foam pad, 36”, ’72-‘75
  4. closed cell ensolite pad, 47”, ’73-‘89
  5. Thermarest Ultralite, 47”, 19 oz., ’89-‘04
  6. Thermarest Prolite 3, 47”, 12 oz., ’04-‘09
  7. Thermarest Ridgerest closed cell, 47”, 8 oz., ‘06
  8. Thermarest Prolite XS, 36” + 36” Ridgerest, 8.3 + 6.2= 14.5 oz., ’09-
  9. Thermarest Ridgerest  closed cell, 72” for snow trips, 12 oz., ’00-
  10. Nemo Tensor Insulated Short, 48″ + 59″ Gossamer Gear Thinlight 1/8″- 12.2 oz., ’19
  11. Exped Flexmat Plus, 48″ + Thermarest Prolite XS, 36”- 18.7 oz., “20-

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.

This is my old Prolite 3 with seven patches for leaks

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 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, packs I have that use the sleeping pad as part of the suspension system 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.

The latest on chair kits: for several years I used the lighter and no longer available 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 below in purple) which has always performed perfectly.  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.

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 4.5 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.  But see the update below.

This is the new pad and chair combo on solid sandstone!


the new 36″ on top of the old 47″ for comparison

Yep it looks short but 36″ is ample room to get my shoulders and hips on, even at 6’1″.

the new combination


side view for thickness, 1.66 inches


in the new Compack chair kit


in sleeping position with the side straps unclipped

After eleven years of successfully using the pads above but with advancing age and increasingly sore hips and back on long trips I tested out a Nemo Tensor Insulated short with a 1/8″ thinlight pad and Sea To Summit Aeros pillow (due to the increased pad height).  Still totaling 14 oz. with the pillow it is very comfortable and works with the chair kit but the long term durability was the question.  It failed, after 10 nights the Tensor developed a slow leak on a desert trip, even over a 36″ Ridgerest.  I found the leak, once home, and then it developed two more pin hole leaks on the next trip.  The 20D fabric is just too light weight and it might be further stressed using it in the chair kit.

I will also add that people who think they are getting any real insulative value or puncture protection from the 1/8″ thinlight pad are deceiving themselves.

The comfort search goes on.  Now testing a 1.5″ thick and 48″ long Exped Flexmat Plus CCF with the 36″ Prolite XS on top for 2.5″ of comfort.  Only a few trips so far and it may work.  It has increased my pad combo weight to 18.7 ounces and I have to carry the Exped mat on the outside of my pack for most trips which I am not a big fan of.

Now when it gets really cold or on snow I will continue to carry a full length Ridgerest and more for full body insulation with the inflatable on top.  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 frameless packs, which have no padding, leave my feet and heels too unprotected so I will carry 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.

My newest pack, the Kalais, has a padded back panel that helps pad and insulate the feet.  That is frost on a 20 degree night

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, weight, type, etc.  It includes just about all possible pads but the basic idea is a two pad system with a CCF on the bottom is what works best.

This entry was posted in Equipment and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Current thoughts on Sleeping Pads

  1. Pingback: Sleeping Bags and sleep systems through the years | 40 years of walking

  2. Randy Cain says:

    I’m glad I stumbled across this. This pad combination just might be exactly what I’ve been looking for. Just ordered the ProLite XS!! Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  3. Ralph Fehlberg says:

    As a fellow “40 years of walking/started in the 70’s/subscribe to the Colin Fletcher School of Comfort”, I really enjoy your blog. Reference your current sleep system, how are you carrying your dual pads? Can they both fit in the pad pocket of the Starlite/Swift packs, or do you need to carry one in the main pack compartment?
    Thanks for sharing your adventures and ideas!

    • Hi Ralph,
      The 36″ Ridgerest and Prolite pads both fit in the Starlite pocket but in the Swift I just can fit the Ridgerest (folded in thirds) in the Swift pad pocket and I just roll the Prolite up into a something smaller than the size of a water bottle and put in the main compartment. Glad you found my site.

  4. Rudy says:

    Like randy said…
    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  5. doghiker says:

    Enjoying your blog. I’ve followed a similar “journey” through evolving backpacking gear over ~30-35 years, and mostly I’m glad to read that you are still backpacking…hope I, too, can keep it up awhile longer. Backpacking to beautiful locations is one of my motivations to try to stay in shape and keep the (personal) weight down. Agree with you on getting a restful night’s sleep and enjoying a couple of hot meals–worth the minor extra weight for those major benefits. Amazing selection of wonderful ultralight (and ultra$$$) gear out there, but I try not to get too carried away with the “gear head” stuff and remember that what’s really important to me is getting outside, hiking, and views.

  6. Yes, I agree with your point that 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. thanks for sharing this informative post!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s