A guide to the best ultralight backpacking sleeping pads and mats.
Tested and written by Appalachain Trail and Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers.
FOAM PADS: A rectangular piece of soft foam or padded material, similar to a yoga mat. They are often called "closed-cell pads" because their foam is made of closed air cells. These pads either roll, collapse or fold up. Their grooves can range for comfort, compactness and style.
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 its like sleeping on, well... the floor. Others actually prefer the stiff sleep.
Foam (left) vs Inflatable (right)
INFLATABLE PADS: Either self-inflation or manual inflation. Self-inflating pads fill up with air on their own. Just unroll them on the ground, open the valve and watch them slowly rise. Otherwise, you will manually inflate the pad with good ‘ole lung power. The differences are rather insignificant and can vary from model to model. There are lightweight pumps out there. I never saw anyone using a pump on my thru-hike though and I would think they are relatively unnecessary.
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 literally 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.
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.
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.
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 back 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 exposed ground will drain away 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 factor in adding unnecessary weight to your pad. Foam pads have been traditionally viewed as a lighter option than inflatable. This is not always the case though. In general, 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 head down to their knees - electing to have their feet hang off the end or on top of the actual backpacking bag. I personally 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.
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 though.
Inflation Valve. I prefer the one-handed valves that pop open instead of twist. Some have this button-like 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.
Weight: 12 oz, R-Value: 3.2
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 XLite 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. Soft-touch fabrics plus a baffled internal structure provide stability, support and above all, mega comfort for a good night's sleep. Advanced technology efficiently traps radiating heat. There is also a female version with an added layer of ThermaCapture so that the fairer sex can stay toasty warm.
Weight: 9.1 oz, R-Value: N/A
Price: $49.99 on amazon.com
The Klymit Inertia is the most compact sleeping mat on the market, rolling up to a pack size smaller similar to a Coke can. This thing rolls up so tiny you might mistake it for a pillow. Also one of the lightest mats to be found, it is designed to give support and comfort at key pressure points while eliminating unnecessary material. You can blow it up in 3-5 easy breaths and the push valve allows for quick inflation and deflation. A full-length pad, it is perfect for those who prefer to sleep on their backs. Keep in mind these "gaps" in the X frame can be a big problem for side sleepers. They also don't insulate much at all.
Weight: 13.9 oz, R-Value: 0.7
Price: $99.95 on amazon.com
A personal favorite and my go-to mat. Surprisingly comfy and super sleek, the Sea to Summit Ultralight has won all sorts of awards and become one of the best selling pads. This high tech mat comes with air sprung cells that act like mini individual coils from a bed mattress to evenly distribute weight and mold around the curves of your body. This provides not only a great night's sleep, but also durability that is often lacking in other mats. The multi-function valve is unparalleled - allowing the pressure to easily be adjusted mid-lay. Bonus, you don't have to worry about any internal bacterial growth due to it being treated with antimicrobial.
Weight: 1 lb 2 oz, R-Value: 1.3
Price: $49.95 on amazon.com
Praised as the only 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 only requires 10-15 breaths to inflate, is very comfortable to sleep on and has an adjustable valve for easy air flow. Also comes with supporting side rails to help make sure you stay on during the night. Includes a stuff sack, a patch kit, and a lifetime warranty. Not ideal for winter backpacking.
Weight: 14 oz, R-Value: 2.6
Price: $44.95 on amazon.com
Indestructible and quick to set up, the Therm a Rest Foam ZLite SOL is ideal for those fast-packing on a budget. It is an inexpensive, thin and tough closed-cell foam pad made with an egg-crate mold. Keep in mind it can also be tough to sleep on, especially if you are on the tall side. There is a 72 inch version available, but the shorter one is lighter and significantly more packable. You can strap it to the outside of your pack - it is weatherproof and you won't need to worry about punctures. Note the other side is yellow. Can also be used as a ground layer in addition to another inflatable pad in winter conditions.
Weight: 1 lb 1 oz, R-Value: "30 F"
Price: $119.95 on amazon.com
The lightest air mattress under the Nemo brand. The Tensor is constructed from high quality 20-denier fabric to create a load of durable comfort... and it will still pack up as small as your water bottle. This comes with a big air-chamber - a good thing for those wanting a 3 inch loft... or a potential headache for those with tired lungs. The fabric is low-stretch, eliminating any springiness. A layer of aluminized film lines the middle to help trap your body heat. Comes with a repair kit, stuff sack and compression straps.
Weight: 1 lb, R-Value: "20 F"
Another rectangular and super cushy inflatable sleeping pad, the Big Agnes QCore SLX is like sleeping on air in the backcountry. This might get the award for most comfortable sleep. It has built-in heat reflective technology, antimicrobial treatment, multi-directional support and stability construction. Super lightweight and compact, this 3 season sleeping pad has a quilted top providing a soft-to-the-touch sleeping surface. Large outer chambers to keep you comfortably cradled in the middle of the pad.
Weight: 14.3 oz, R-Value: 3.1
The Exped Synmat SL is an overall great sleeping pad and is the lightest 4-season model Exped offers. It is fast and easy to inflate, thanks to its added feature of an internal pump. This puppy is made out of PU foam and is covered in a grip-skin external layer to prevent slipping and sliding at night. The Synmat is slightly more expensive than others on the list, but provides thickness (2.5 inches) and a higher R value in exchange. Repair kit and stuff sack included.
Weight: 6 oz, R-Value: N/A
Price: $24 on gossamergear.com
A pure torso length sleeping mat and a super affordable one at that. This little guy is definitely one for the ultralight backpackers - a pillow for your head and something for your feet are recommended. The cool thing about the Nightlite is that it doubles up as frame-like support for the Mariposa pack. It conveniently slides into the packs' two mini back-sleeves. The closed cells prevent water from being absorbed and are soft on the skin. This pad is generally more durable than other egg-crate pads.
Weight: 15 oz, R-Value: 3.7
Price: $99.95 on rei.com
Worthy of an honorable mention, this mummy shaped sleeping pad provides a good warmth-to-weight ratio for a good price. Complete with tapered head and feet to reduce weight and pack size. It has 2 flat valves: 1 for inflation and 1 for deflation, so it is easily adjustable for your desired level of stiffness. The REI Flash Insulated pad comes with dual-fiber insulation and a reflective layer efficiently welded through the interior for increased stability and comfort. It is 2 inches thick for a cozy night sleep.
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine and Bicycling Magazine to Fast Company and Science Alert. He recently wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe.
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