Believe it or not, outdoor sleeping pads can now be more comfortable than your bed at home. And all that comfort can come in a package smaller than your water bottle. Thanks to new materials and bonding technology, your old Boy Scout sleeping roll is totally obsolete. So what should you buy instead?
I tried 24 of the latest, greatest pads on the market and I think I've discovered the best, whether you're car camping, ultralight backpacking, on a budget, or even sleeping in a snow cave in the dead of winter. Want a good night's sleep in the great outdoors? We're here to make it happen.
Your typical self-inflating pad (top) is nowhere near as thick, supportive or even light as our picks.
The most comfortable portable sleeping experience possible: That's what I wanted for myself. So I narrowed down the options to only include newly-designed, full-length inflatable air mattresses equipped with the latest, greatest materials. I worked with top manufacturers to find out exactly why these new pads are so much better, and to obtain some upcoming models that aren't even on sale yet.
Then, I spent a night sleeping on each and every pad here on the hardwood floor in my bedroom. My dog loved that -- he had the real bed all to himself for a solid month -- but it also gave me a good baseline comparison. If one of them left me uniquely uncomfortable, it wasn't because I'd tried to use it on an uneven, rocky ledge halfway up a frigid mountain and then compared it to another pad I'd used to sleep on the beach. I took the standout performers out for several nights of real world testing in the field and passed the pads to my camping buddies in the process, soliciting their feedback.
Finally, we spread out all the pads in my living room for an epic dog battle: Wiley (39kg) and Quasar (my housemate's 30kg Weimeraner) tore around the room for over two hours, testing the limits of these inflatables with tooth and nail. Only one pad failed.
As a control, I included my own Therm-A-Rest Trail Lite ($US70) in the test: a thin (4cm) self-inflating air and foam design that most seasoned campers will be familiar with. If a newfangled pad couldn't beat my trusty Trail Lite, it wasn't worth including here. Thankfully, our top picks are all way better.
The Best All-Round Sleeping Pad: Nemo Astro Insulated Lite 20R
Whether you're car camping, backpacking or just looking for a pad which can handle any outdoors sleeping duty in absolute comfort, your best option is the $US130 Nemo Astro Insulated Lite 20R. The 8cm thick pad incorporates a thick-enough layer of quality Primaloft insulation to keep you warm on nights down to -9C.
The lateral air baffles spread weight evenly across the width of my body, and it feels wider than the competition from Therm-A-Rest, because its edges don't easily collapse. You can blow it up as much as you like to get a firm surface -- it only takes about 20 breaths -- or even let some air out for a softer one. The Astro provides excellent support regardless of pressure. At 8cm thick, it's was more than capable of keeping my hips and shoulders off the ground, while also moulding to my body's curves, providing even pressure all over rather than developing hot spots on my pointy bits.
It's also easy to deflate: just fold in thirds and roll right up, no need to flatten beforehand. The resulting 20cm tall, 10cm diameter cylinder weighs just 540g -- not the smallest or lightest, but still a ridiculously comfortable night's sleep you can easily fit in a backpack.
Plus, it's quiet. The foil-like insulation inside the competing Therm-A-Rest models crinkles enough to wake up some of my buddies during the night. By comparison, the Nemo Astro sleeps in complete silence.
If you're a stomach sleeper, the Astro's built-in pillow might pose an issue, but I liked it. The pillow eliminated the need for me to shove my clothes into my sleeping bag's stuff sack, then spend the whole night getting poked in the ear by my keys.
The Best Ultralight Sleeping Pad: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite
Inflating to a thickness of 6cm, the $US140 Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite isn't quite as thick as the Nemo Astro, but it's just as comfortable and gets even firmer, if you like. And this one weighs only 350g, making it perfect for ultralight backpackers. The 190g you save over the Astro may not sound huge -- it's about the same weight as my down jacket -- but its comfort per gram is incredibly high. It takes just 15 breaths to inflate, and the R-Value of 3.2 should keep you comfortable down to 0C.
The downside? Its multiple internal air baffles, coated in a foil-like heat reflector, crinkle like a bag of chips every time you move. And, while the pad measures the industry standard 51cm across, you lose at least 2.5cm of effective width on each side to collapse, should you apply any weight there. Sleep on your back? Your arms will hang off the sides.
Having said that, neither issue bothers me in the least and I wouldn't have noticed the noise or the reduced effective width if they hadn't been pointed out to me by, well… less hardcore campers. The XLite is my personal favourite.
The Best Cold Weather Sleeping Pad: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm
The $US150 Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XTherm weighs 80g more than the nearly identical XLite, but more than makes up for the difference where cold weather is concerned. With more insulation and a thicker, stronger layer of nylon on its underside, it carries an exceptional R-Value of 5.9, making it ideal for temperatures dropping below -18C.
Noise is again an issue, but no other pad on the market carries this much insulation or comfort in nearly as light a pad. The NeoAir XTherm is not pictured in this test's comparison shots because Chris is currently using it as he climbs a 20,000-peak in Nepal. In November. That he chose to take this pad with him over anything else available anywhere should tell you all you need to know.
The Best Car Camping Sleeping Pad: Exped Comfort Megamat 10
This thing is more comfortable than the very expensive Tempurpedic memory foam mattress I use at home. Sadly, it's also nearly as thick and heavy. Weighing 2.55kg and rolling up to a 79cm long by 25cm diameter package, you're only ever going to want to transport the Megamat in your car or truck. But man, is it worth the effort.
When inflated, the $US220 Exped Comfort Megamat 10 gives you not only a completely flat sleeping surface, but also completely vertical sides, meaning you're able to use all of its very generous 198cm x 76cm surface -- assuming you can fit it in your tent. At 10cm thick (hence the name), it's also capable of providing you with all the cushion and support you could ever want. Insulation is the best I tried, with an R-Value of 9.5.
And surprisingly, you can inflate it with just 25 breaths despite the size. Exped includes a little foot pump with the Megamat, but it takes about 15 minutes of stomping -- roughly 14 minutes longer than it takes to simply blow it up with your lungs. The large, flat valves are a little fussy, but you won't lose pressure between breaths. Deflation is harder: expect to do a lot of squishing, rolling and re-rolling to get it in the stuff sack once again.
The top surface of the Megamat is a plush, brushed fleece material that's soft, quiet and slip-free. That, along with the rest of the pad's construction, adds a welcome level of ruggedness exceeding any other pad in this test. I felt absolutely confident in it, even while sleeping on sharp rocks or branches (which you won't feel) or while fighting a half-wild dog for sleeping space. The amount of Wiley fur that's now built up on this pad should be testament to how much I enjoy it. The Megamat's my first choice whenever I have the space to carry it.
Photo: Pig Monkey
The Best Sleeping Pad Under $US50: Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite SOL, Small
On a budget? You're better off spending $US35 on a size small Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite SOL than you are $US10 on a crappy piece of foam at a surplus store. Not only will it provide more insulation with an R-Value of 2.6, but it will be far more comfortable and rugged.
At only 132cm long, it likely won't extend all the way down your legs, but the $US45 regular-size version is 183cm long. We recommend sticking with the shorter pad since these don't exactly pack down small, the 340g weight should help make up for that. Regardless, this is one pad you'll be strapping to the outside of your pack.
As an upside to the incompressible foam structure, the Z-Lite SOL is virtually indestructible and weatherproof. This is one pad where you you don't need to worry about sharp thorns, zippers, dog battles or rain. Just realise that compared to the comfort of a thick, inflatable pad, a closed-cell foam design like this can only do so much. We hope you like roughing it.
Alps Mountaineering Featherlite
If this didn't weigh 635g, pack up way too big (thank the unnecessary integrated pump!) and lack an option for insulation, it would have rivaled the Nemo for the overall win. It's just as comfortable and costs only $US58.
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core
Disappointing! We expected more from Big Agnes than this unstable, $US72 pool float. You fall into the longitudinal cracks if you side sleep, and it's way too easy to slide off its slippery surface.
Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core SL
Much better, but doesn't get nearly as firm as I'd like and still can't quite shake the pool float vibe. Again, it's got a slippery surface. Don't try to sleep on this one on a slope, you'll slip right off during the night. ( $US135)
Big Agnes Double Z
More supportive than the raft-like Air Core, but sleeps cold due to its lack of insulation. And yes, you're looking at another slippery surface courtesy of Big Agnes. ( $US64)
Exped Synmat UL 7
An excellent pad, but just not as good as any of our inflatable winners. The raft-type baffles limit comfort. A shame, because quality is extremely high otherwise. Time for a design rethink Exped! ($US130)
Exped Synmat 7
The above, with a frustrating, heavy pump built right into the pad. Inflating it is like performing CPR on an air mattress. ($US103)
Exped Synmat Hyperlite
20g lighter than the XLite, but you pay for that with incredibly thin fabric. Wiley tore a 2.5cm by 2.5cm hole in the pad the first time he stepped on it. Not nearly as comfortable either. (Coming 2015)
Klymit Static V Luxe
The 76cm width is supposed to make this an ultralight pad for two or luxury pad for one. It's too narrow for the former and too thin for the latter, with odd gaps between baffles. ($US70)
Klymit Inertia O-Zone
Sleeps warmer and more comfortable than you'd expect, but it's still insanely thin at 4cm, limiting comfort while saving you no weight or size over the vastly more comfy XLite. ($US70)
Nemo Cosmo Air 25L with Pillowtop
Like the Astro, but 13cm wider and equipped with an integrated pump. There's no need for that and it adds both weight and complication. The optional Pillowtop feels cheap and doesn't do anything a blanket wouldn't. ($US140 pad, $US80 Pillowtop)
REI Flash Insulated Air Sleeping Pad
Surprisingly nice for a house brand pad, but spending the extra money for the lighter XLite is more than worth it. Ditch the longitudinal baffles! ($US100)
Sea To Summit Comfort Plus
All those little air pockets are supposed to work like the springs in your mattress, individually adjusting for support. They kinda do, but the pad is too thin for that to matter. (On sale 2015.)
Sea To Summit Ultralight
Even thinner! Your hips and shoulders rest on the ground if you're a side sleeper. Incredibly easy to inflate and deflate, but the comfort's just not there and it doesn't save you any weight and only minimal size over the XLite. (On sale 2015)
Therm-A-Rest Trail Lite
Old Faithful and now thoroughly old-fashioned. Packs larger and heavier than most of the thicker inflatable pads here and barely keeps you off the ground. ( $US58)
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir Dream
I had high hopes that this could be a super-comfy pad for car camping, and then become nice and light for backpacking by pulling out the removable air mattress. But it's just not ideal for either task. ( $US163)
Therm-A-Rest NeoAir All-Season
Another of my personal pads and a very close rival to the winning Nemo. But it's noisy and the edges collapse. Remains an excellent one-pad solution, with an excellent comfort to size/weight ratio and good warmth. More rugged than XLite. ( $US128)
Coleman 4-in-1 Self Inflating Camp Pad
Ick! I included this one since you'll likely run across it if you go looking for camping gear. It's worth taking the time to seek out better brands: this thing is giant, heavy and less comfortable than everything else tested here. ($US61)
Coleman Self Inflating Camp Pad
Slightly smaller than the 4-in-1, but still features an inverse relationship between packed size and comfort. Just don't. ($US47)
REI Camp Bed 3.5
Feels like a Coleman. Don't bother. ($US120)