Sleeping pads are one of the essentials and must have gears to bring with you when you plan to camp for a night or two on your trail. They offer a layer of protection so your body will not have direct contact with the ground as you lay down to sleep in your tent providing you comfort and warmth. But, choosing what type of sleeping pad to get, whether to go with an inflatable or closed-cell foam model, can be the most important and toughest decision you’ll have to make.
There are a lot of things to consider when deciding which one to choose from, such as the conditions you plan to camp, but still, your personal preference to “which is which” is what really matters. Nevertheless we’ll try to give our insights to each of these two and their differences to help you narrow down your decision on what to choose for your next backpacking trip.
What is an Inflatable Sleeping Pad?
An inflatable sleeping pad is made up of airtight materials that are intended to withstand pressure from your body weight. It is then inflated by blowing air through a valve on either one of the pad's sides. When deflated, air pads can roll up into a small cylinder shape that can be stored inside the backpack. It is also important to mention that sleeping pads are lightweight and typically weigh around 12-16 oz or 340-450 grams.
Modern inflated sleeping pads often include a layer of lightweight insulation, reflective material, or a mix of both to help keep us warm and comfortable. It is common for inflatable sleeping pads to have an r-value of 3 to 7.
The most notable feature here is that inflatable sleeping pads are required to be set up every time before using it and after using it. Most of the sleeping pads take 7-14 breaths to fill. When deflating, just open or loosen the opening of the blow valve and press down the pad to release the air inside then roll it up to be packed or for use later.
Although most of these pads come with a patch kit, durability can sometimes be an issue for there will always be a possibility that these pads can be punctured.
What is a Foam Sleeping Pad?
Before there were inflatable sleeping pads, campers and hikers relied on the classic foam sleeping pad. A foam sleeping pads are pads that are packed with dense foam made from tiny closed pockets that are full of air. These “air-filled” cells provide insulation by trapping and preventing our body heat from escaping and in return making us warm. Made from closed-cell foam (CCF), these pads commonly have an r value ranging from 1.5 to 2.
Although foam cell pads are lightweight in nature, they are a bit bulky. Weighing just around 1 pound or 450 - 460 grams they measure roughly to 20” x 6” x 6” when packed. You can still roll up these pads and some even fold them to better allow it to be packed smaller. They are mostly packed and strapped outside, in front or either side of our backpacks.
The most notable feature of these pads is that they are very simple to use. It doesn’t require much to set up, all you do is just roll it out or unfold it to lay in your tent. Foam sleeping pads are remarkably durable. While its comfort level is not that great, you don’t need to worry about it getting punctured and these pads are not expensive, so it is a great alternative for those who are on a tight budget but still want to explore the outdoors.
What’s the difference?
Obviously, every ounce counts in backpacking, and the good news is that both of these alternatives are lightweight. Though their weights vary a little, a foam sleeping pad should weigh no more than 1 pound, and an inflated sleeping pad should weigh no more than half that. So, if you're planning on going ultralight camping, the inflatable sleeping pad comes out on top.
In spite of the fact that both alternatives are lightweight, there is a noticeable difference in the amount of space they take up when folded or rolled up. Inflatable pads may compress down to the size of a water bottle and fit neatly inside your pack, however foam pads will keep their air-filled foam cells once rolled, so they will need to be strapped outside to your backpack, but this means that you'll have more space in your bag for other items. The only downside of strapping it outside of your backpack is that, even though foam pads are waterproof, they will still need to be cleaned with a towel before they can be used in your tent when it rains. Inflatable pads win once again if you want to keep things simple or are concerned about the weather.
Comfort is definitely a very subjective criteria, so we won’t back a particular horse here so much as present the pros and cons of each. Inflatable pads are thicker and can be a bit more forgiving, especially if you let a little air out, and many people find that more comfortable. However they can also feel a little unstable or wobbly, which you may not like, and if they’re not fully inflated, you might find that when you’re side sleeping, your hip is touching the ground. Ouch.
Foam pads are firmer which means some people might find them less comfortable, while those with back pain tend to prefer them, and of course they’re more stable, but they are also thinner.
The best way to gauge how warm a sleeping pad will be is to check its R-value, which is a system rating warmth from 1-7 and the higher, the warmer. However, inflatable sleeping pads are usually a bit warmer since they trap more air, so for high alpine and cold weather camping, these are the obvious choice, whereas for summer and sea level camping, you can get away with a foam pad.
In Ease of use
In all honesty, if you’re having trouble operating a sleeping pad, you’re probably doing something wrong. That said, inflatable sleeping pads do require you to inflate them each night, which could be an issue if you're asthmatic, and can involve a bit of wrestling in the morning to get them back into their stuff sacks, whereas all that’s required of a foam pad is unrolling it, so they’re definitely lower maintenance.
Naturally, you want your camping gear to last and durability is an area where the more basic foam pad actually comes out on top. There’s not a whole lot that can go wrong with these and even with many years of rough handling, the worst you might see is the odd gouge mark that won’t really affect its performance much, though they can become a bit harder to lay out flat if you store them rolled out, which is annoying. Inflatable sleeping pads, however, are prone to small holes and tears that leak air and the valve can break too. They often come with their own repair kit.
In the Price
Lastly, the difference in price tag might be enough to sway you if you’re still on the fence. Foam pads are very affordable, typically within the $20 - $45 range, so if you’re on a budget, there’s your answer. Inflatable sleeping pads can also be found in that price range, but if you’re looking for a high-end one that features all the pros you’ve read about so far, such as warmth and packability, you’re looking at spending upwards of $150.
So, what is it going to be? Will you pay a little more for the ultralight inflatable sleeping pad that fits in your pack and keeps you warm on cold nights on the ground but may leak air, or will you choose for the reliability of the more basic, budget friendly foam pad and have a little money left over for a nicer sleeping bag? The decision is still up to you.