Sleeping pads are an essential part of your sleep system. Even with the world’s best sleeping bag, having the correct sleeping pad can make or break your sleeping experience. A sleeping pad not only adds some comfort, but it also adds insulation so your back does not freeze when you sleep.
Getting a good night’s sleep on a warm and comfortable surface is crucial if you want to put in long miles every day. Sleeping pads come in a variety of styles, sizes, and weights, so you’ll want to spend some time shopping for the right one. We’ll help you navigate these options so you can find the best sleeping pad to meet your base weight goals.
Before we jump into the different considerations for choosing your mat, here are the 11 best ultralight backpacking sleeping pads available on the market today.
FOAM VS INFLATABLE PADS
INFLATABLE PADS: As the name implies, inflatable pads need to be filled with air before you can sleep on them. They either will self-inflate on their own when you unroll them or you will have to blow air into them manually using good ‘ole lung power. Both require you to open a valve, fill the pad with air, and then close the valve to keep it from leaking.
There are a few important differences between manual and self-inflating pads. The self-inflating pads are easier to use just open the valve and they inflate on their own. They tend to be heavier and bulkier than their manual counterparts.
The manual pads can be squished down to the size of a soda can, but they require a fair amount of lung power to re-inflate. Because you are using your breath to inflate them, they also can mold on the inside.
One option for inflating is a lightweight pump. I never saw anyone using a pump on my thru-hike though, and I would think they are relatively unnecessary. Some pads also now come with a stuff sack that doubles as an inflation device. These inflation sacks are better than using your breath, but it still takes some time and effort to fill the pad with air.
- Compact. A good ultralight pad should be able to roll up and fit inside your hand. This is a huge advantage compared to foam pads – you can store an inflatable pad in a tiny corner of your pack without hardly even noticing.
- Comfortable. The air in inflatable pads elevates you off the ground and provides a nice cushion. For side and stomach sleepers, this can be crucial. Most backpackers find sleeping on an inflatable pad to be substantially more comfortable than a foam pad.
- Punctures. Even inflatable pads can take a decent beating. Mine has lasted several years without a puncture. You will still need to be careful about where you place your pad though. They can pop any moment from a sharp edge, a fire ember, or just heavy wear. This means you will need to repair it, wait for the manufacturer to replace it, or buy a completely new one. When you’re thru-hiking and in the middle of nowhere, the last thing you need to do is deal with a busted sleeping pad.
- Inflation. Some more cushy pads have large air chambers. Without a pump, your lungs will be manually filling up that large chamber. Blowing a lot of breaths (some require 20+ breaths) after a long hike can, and often will, leave you temporarily lightheaded. It also puts moisture inside the pad which can mold over time.
- Noisy (maybe). Some inflatable pads are ‘crinkly’ right out of the package. I know a lot of hikers ship their pads back to the manufacturer because they are “too noisy”. However, just like most new gear, it only needs a Lil’ tender lovin’ to break in. After a few nights, the noise should be gone entirely.
FOAM PADS: Foam pads typically are a rectangular piece of soft foam or padded material, similar to a yoga mat. They are often called “closed-cell pads” because they are made of closed air cells.
They don’t compress very much when you lay on them, but you cannot blow air into the cells to expand them. These pads either roll, collapse, or fold up. Some have grooves, while others use an eggshell design to add comfort. They are very lightweight and long-lasting.
- Fast and Easy. Just throw it down and spread your sleeping bag on top. Super convenient after an exhausting day pushing long miles.
- Indestructible. I love relaxing on foam pads by the fire and not worrying if an ember might fly out and pop it. Same thing for rocky or jagged surfaces. No maintenance whatsoever.
- Multi-Functional. Some ultralight backpacks are designed to have a foam pad slide into their back panel and act as a pack frame. The poles of a pack can add several ounces to your load which can make utilizing a foam pad all the more awesome.
- Cheap. Usually less, if not a lot less, than $50.
- Very Bulky. They often take up too much room to even fit inside your bag. Therefore, most hikers have them tied down outside of their pack – on top or flopping around underneath the bottom. This leaves them exposed to the elements most all of the time… which can be an issue when raining and your pad is not 100% waterproof.
- Uncomfortable (maybe). Some hikers just can’t sleep on them. Despite being super bulky, the foam is usually still very thin and/ or stiff. Some people feel it’s like sleeping on, well… the floor. Others prefer stiff to sleep.
INSULATION: If winter backpacking, keep the R-Values above 3.
Other than comfort, the main purpose of a sleeping pad is to keep you warm. This is super important and something often overlooked. Specifically, your pad should prevent the cold earth from reaching your body. Most inflatable pads have an outer shell as well as a thin internal layer designed to reflect your body heat at you.
“R-Value” measures the level of insulation your pad provides. A higher R-value will keep you warmer and act as a barrier between you and the cold ground. Sleeping directly on the exposed ground will drain away from your precious body heat – like the inverse of a reptile bathing on a hot rock. Aim to keep your pad above a 3 for any level of cold winter sleeping. Anything below a 3 should only be used in warmer weather.
WEIGHT: Your pad should weigh around 1 lb (or less).
The lighter, the better. Know some of the lightest pads on the market have low R values though. If you are winter camping, you might need to get a slightly heavier and warmer pad or subsidize with an extra warm sleeping bag.
Thick material and overly large inflation valves are usually the biggest factors in adding unnecessary weight to your pad. Foam pads have been traditionally viewed as a lighter option than an inflatable. This is not always the case though. In general, the weight of the pad depends on the model and manufacturer.
COMPACTNESS: When packed, it should not be bigger than a 1-liter water bottle.
Some of these can fit inside of a Nalgene bottle. The extra pack space is much appreciated, especially considering some models can take up nearly half of a pack’s volume. If you don’t like the idea of strapping your pad on the outside of your pack, I highly recommend getting a pad that packs down tiny.
LENGTH: Consider “halving it”.
An easy way to shave (quite literally) weight off your sleeping pad is by getting a smaller mat. Most ultralight backpackers get a mat that covers from their heads down to their knees electing to have their feet hang off the end or on top of the actual backpacking bag. I prefer to have my foot elevated on a cushy padded surface that resembles a bed as much as possible.
SHAPE: Consider rounding off the corners.
Rectangular or oval. The extra corners from a rectangular shape can be nice if you roll around around a lot, like to spread your arms around your head and underneath your pillow or like to spread your legs out. Otherwise, the oval shape works just dandy and can save a little weight and space.
EASE OF INFLATION: No huge air chambers.
Some pads are like small air mattresses prioritizing elevated comfort over all else. This is great if you like a huge amount of cushion. However, as mentioned above, getting that large mass of air into the pad’s chamber can be a huge lung-exhausting chore and leave you lightheaded. I vote for a medium amount of air – enough to get you off the ground, but not too much where you feel like you are rolling around on a cloud.
DURABILITY: Choosing the appropriate pad type for your terrain
Durability is critical when you are choosing a pad. Think about the conditions where you will be backpacking. Will it be hard-packed dirt or a shelter floor?
If so, you can choose an inflatable pad and enjoy the comfort of sleeping on air. If your terrain is rocky, rooty, or filled with other sharp objects, then a closed-cell foam pad is a better choice as it can’t be punctured.
THICKNESS: More comfort means additional ounces.
Thickness is one factor that makes a pad comfortable. The thicker the pad, the more cushion it will provide from the hard ground, and the more comfortable it will be.
Remember, a thicker pad will be slightly heavier and will require significantly more breaths to fill it with air. Find that sweet spot between weight, convenience, and comfort.
WIDTH: Must fit in your tent.
Most sleeping pads are 20-inches wide, providing just enough room for a single person. They also are sized to fit comfortably inside an ultralight two-person tent. Some pads are wider, 25-inches, but you should measure your tent to make sure they fit, especially if you are trying to squeeze in two people each night.
- Repair Kit. Handy if you do get a hole. Most inflatable mattresses come with one.
- Pump Sack. If you do go for one of those big, airy pads, these can significantly help save time and lung power. Just one extra thing to carry through.
- Inflation Valve. I prefer the one-handed valves that pop open instead of twist. Some have this button-like one-way deflation option that is super helpful when optimizing the level of desired inflation.
- Rails. Worst case you roll off inside your tent. I find these to be unnecessary entirely.
THE BEST ULTRALIGHT SLEEPING PADS
1. THERM-A-REST: NeoAir Uberlite
- Weight: 8.8 oz
- R-Value: 2.3
- Price: $195
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite is hands down one of the best ultralight backpacking pads on the market. Simply put, this mattress has a superb warmth-to-weight ratio, which makes it the lightest 3 season air mattress available.
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite is 2.5 inches thick with a tapered design to keep weight at a minimum. It packs down to the size of a 1-liter water bottle, so you won’t have any problem stuffing this one into your pack. A soft-touch outer fabric plus a baffled internal structure provides stability, support, and above all, mega comfort for a good night’s sleep.
Not only is it comfortable, but it’s warm enough for summer hiking. The Triangular Core Matrix™ construction uses two stacked layers of triangle-shaped baffles to efficiently trap radiating heat.
A new high-flow WingLock valve and a pump sack make it easier than ever to inflate. If you are looking for a bit more warmth without adding too much weight, take a look at the lightweight Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite sleeping pad or the insulated Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm.
2. SEA TO SUMMIT: UltraLight
- Weight: 13.9 oz
- R-Value: 1.0
- Price: $110
The Sea to Summit Ultralight is surprisingly comfy and super sleek. It’s a personal favorite and my go-to mat. It has won all sorts of awards a few years ago and has become one of the best selling pads on the market. This high-quality sleeping pad comes with air-sprung cells that act like individual mini coils from a bed mattress to evenly distribute weight and mold around the curves of your body.
This design not only provides a great night’s sleep, but it also adds durability that is often lacking in other mats. The Sea to Summit Ultralight is praised far and wide for its quality workmanship.
The Ultralight pad from Sea to Summit ships with a multi-function valve that is unparalleled. Unlike other valves that are all or none, the multi-function valve allows you to adjust the pressure even when you are on the mat.
If the pad is a little too firm., you can easily let out a little air until you hit that comfort spot. Bonus, you don’t have to worry about any internal bacterial growth due to it being treated with an antimicrobial compound on the inside. Our only gripe is the insulation there is none. The Sea to Summit Ultralight is genuinely a warm weather sleeping pad. If you need something warmer, consider going with the insulated version.
3. LIMIT: Static V Lightweight
- Weight: 18.7 oz
- R-Value: 1.3
- Price: $55
Praised as an affordable, lightweight, and inflatable mat, the Static V has become extremely popular. Sure it is a few ounces heavier than others on the list, but it is a fraction of the price. It’s also very durable with a 74D shell that protects it from most ground hazards.
It’s chambered design makes it easy to inflate, requiring only 10-15 breaths to fill it with air.
It is very comfortable to sleep on thanks to its side rails that help keep you centered on the pad. For convenience, the Static V has an adjustable valve for easy airflow control. For its price point, it can’t be beaten. The mat also includes a stuff sack, a patch kit, and a lifetime warranty.
Similar to the Sea to Summit Ultralight, the Static V is not great for cold weather. You’ll be warm and comfortable in the summer months. Once you hit late fall or winter, you’ll need to buy the insulated version.
- Weight: 14.5 oz
- R-Value: 2.0
- Price: $50
The Z Lite Sol from Therm-A-Rest had the corner on the market until Nemo came in with a worthy competitor, the Switchback. Just like the Z Lite Sol, the Nemo Switchback is a closed-cell foam pad. Both fold compactly and have a heat-reflecting film on one side for warmth.
Because they are foam, they are nearly indestructible. What differentiates the two sleeping pads is the depth of their egg crates.
These bigger bumps provide additional airspace to trap warm air. They also make the Switchback thicker than the Z Lite Sol, 0.9-inches for the Nemo, and 0.75 for the Sol, which makes the Switchback more comfortable for sleeping.
The shortcomings for the Switchback are the same as the Sol. At 72-inches long, the Switchback may be too short for someone very tall. Even though it is more comfortable than the Sol, it still is not as plush as the inflatable pads. This extra comfort may not be enough for Side sleepers who often prefer the cushioning of an inflatable pad.
Durability is top-notch as the Switchback is constructed with abrasion-resistant foam. It should last you a lifetime as long as you don’t cut it accidentally or snag it on a sharp branch. Like most foam pads, the Switchback is warm enough for three-season use, but you should pair it with an inflatable mat when the temperatures hover near or below the freezing mark.
5. BIG AGNES: QCore SLX
- Weight: 17 oz
- R-Value: 32°F
- Price: $120
A rectangular and super cushy inflatable sleeping pad, the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX is like sleeping on the air in the backcountry. With 4-inches of thickness, this pad gets the award for providing the most comfortable sleep.
The I-beam channels are designed to contour your body and help you stay on the pad even when you toss and turn. If you’re a side sleeper, this should be at the top of your list. Not only is it puffy, but it also has a quilted top that’s soft on your skin. It’s as close to a warm flannel sheet as you’re going to get while sleeping in the remote woods.
Super lightweight and compact, this sleeping pad is warm enough for three-season backpacking trips. It has a reflective layer that helps keep you warm and an antimicrobial treatment to resist mold on the inside of the pad. It feels durable and should provide years of happy sleeping in the backcountry. Big Agnes also sells an insulated version for those who like to dabble with winter backpacking
Sleeping Pad Care Advice
You can make or break your pad by how you care for it on the trail and at home.
ON THE TRAIL
On the trail, you want to protect your pad as much as you can from punctures or tears. Store the pad inside your pack if you can. If you don’t have the extra space, then place the pad under the brain. If you store the pad inside your pack, keep it away from trekking poles or pocket knives that could damage it.
Some people strap their pads to the bottom of their pack, but that is not an ideal location. When you take off your pack, you often drop it to the ground, and your pad will take the brunt of that impact. If you store your pad at the top of the pack, be careful not to snag it on a tree branch or scrape it against a rock.
When you use your sleeping pad, try to set it up where there are no rocks or roots. When choosing a campsite look for ground that is as flat and smooth as possible. You’ll also want to shake off the pad to remove dirt before packing it away. Be sure to wipe it down if you spill something on it.
Clean the surface of your pad to remove dirt, insect repellent, sap, and other materials that can damage the material. Make sure the pad is dry but don’t place it in direct sunlight as UV light can degrade the material. You also should try to dry the inside of an inflatable pad if you use your breath to fill it with air. Just grab a hairdryer on low and hold it near the inflate valve.
Once your pad is clean and ready for storage, you’ll want to store the pad at ambient temperatures while avoiding the extreme temperatures you’d see in an attic or garage. The inflatable pad should be stored hanging up.
If you must compact it, stuff it into a sack and do not fold it. Repeatedly folding it along the same crease lines can weaken the material along the folds. Closed-cell foam pads can be folded and stored in a closet or under your bed. A self-inflating foam pad should be left semi-inflated with the valve open for air circulation.