what are these Sleeping pads are you talking about? When I was young, all the hiking was uphill both ways and everyone slept on the floor in sleeping bags with only a half inch of thin closed-cell foam between us and each pebble. We also filtered the water with our teeth and ate raw meat and mainly silage feed. kids these days.
However, I think there’s something to be said for a comfortable sleeping pad at the end of a long day on the trail, or even at the campsite next to your car. There are now a bunch of ways to make sure no peas (or pebbles) disturb your sleep outdoors. For years we’ve tested sleeping pads of all kinds in all kinds of conditions, and we’re happy to report that in all that time we haven’t had a single failure on us. However, there are some distinguishing features and others that should be avoided.
Be sure to read our other outdoor guides, including the best tents, best hiking gear, best camp stoves, and camp cooking guide.
Gear Readers Special Offer: Get a One year subscription to Wired for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to Wired.com and our print magazine (if you like it). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.
The best ultra-comfortable car camping pillow
Therm-a-Rest invented the self-inflating camping mattress. The brand has kept pace in the 50 years since then, either innovating or succeeding in every major development in the field. The MondoKing is the most comfortable mattress in the class, and a prime mattress for picky car campers and those who stay in the backcountry for weeks or months at a time. This sturdy mat is 4 inches thick and weighs 4 pounds. You won’t want to lift it too far, but even a large-body side sleeper won’t disappoint.
The StrataCore foam inside gives it an R-value of 7, so the claimed relief is less than the temperature at which vodka freezes. (On our test nights, WIRED did not independently verify good sleep at -20 degrees Fahrenheit.) It’s also very comfortable. Like the Megamat below, it’s 70 denier on the bottom with an extended 50 denier top that provides the natural sagging of a true mattress. MondoKing also has a nice static feature, which means you never feel like you’re about to snap. The MondoKing is better than a lot of hotel mattresses and inflates and deflates fast enough that you can roll it up next time you find yourself on a lumpy hotel bed. —Martin Sizmar
- Expeded MegMat 10 for $180: This is the extra thick and luxurious pad that started the trend of bulky car camping pads. For this we thank the accelerator. The MegaMat is still a great option and is quite equivalent to the MondoKing, although the MondoKing is lighter in weight and less bulky. On the other hand, the MegaMat has slightly better insulation and might be a better choice if you’re a cold sleeper.
Best for couples and families
We’re big fans of REI’s in-house line, which is solid and performs well without breaking the bank. On a recent camping trip, every family with kids under 10 had this mattress, mine included. At 56 inches wide by 6 inches long, it’s roomy enough to fit mom and two elementary school students and fit the MSR’s 6-person Habitude tent. (Dad and the dog still had to sleep on the floor.)
It comes with a small bag for easy transport that includes a handy air pump, but the universal nozzle means you can ditch the pump and use a battery-operated pump for quick and easy inflation. Welded seams kept the mattress taut and bouncy through three days and nights of kids jumping up and down on it. The surface is soft enough to sleep with your face pressed against if you slip out of your sleeping bag, and it’s insulated, but an R-value of 2.6. You definitely needed a duvet under sleeping bags for 40 degrees. – Adrian Sue
- Kelty’s Kush Queen Airbed for $105: This PVC-free air bed from Kelty includes a pump that makes inflation a snap (be sure to charge it up before you go), and the 6-inch pillow is super comfortable. It’s not an insulated air mattress like the REI above, so it’s best for the warmer months, but it can double as a spare bed at home.
Best soft sleeping pillow
When you venture into the backcountry, every ounce counts. In the case of sleeping pads, there’s always a trade-off. You want the fewest ounces with an R-value. The Nemo Equipment Insulated Motorized Sleeping Pad has an R-value of 4.2 and weighs just 15.2 ounces. That alone is impressive, but what I love about Tensor is that it’s thick, comfortable, and most importantly, it hangs near silent. I hate the swish of nylon that’s pretty much synonymous with backcountry sleeping. There is hardly any of that with Tensor, which makes it worth the money in my opinion. The insulation is a reflective film, with a baffled air chamber design, which helps keep it cool. The design also helps to roll it into a small utility bag. It’s about the size of a 16-ounce Nalgene bottle. There’s also a non-mummy version for $187 if you’d prefer a little extra space.
- NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad for $210The Tensor’s obvious competitor is Therm-a-Rest’s NeoAir XLite, according to WIRED reviewer Matt Jancer. The Xlite NeoAir may be lightweight, but it’s not snug. He used it on glaciers without the cold creeping up his backside. You have to blow it out by hand, but the easy-twist valve makes it simple, and I’ve been impressed with its durability over the course of five years. No holes or scratches. It tends to slip, but it’s quiet.
- Sea to Summit Ultralight for $110: If you’re the type to cut down your toothbrush handle to save weight, this mat is worth considering. It has an R-value of 1.1, which makes it a summer-only pillow. But it only weighs 11 ounces, packs pretty small, and is $70 cheaper than Tensor. If most of your campsites are in the summer, this will do the job. It’s a little louder than Nemo’s voice.
Best for country rest
If you’re willing to shell out a few extra ounces for some extra comfort and a better night’s sleep (in theory), the NeoAir Topo is our pad of choice. At 21 ounces, it’s definitely on the heavy side, but it’s also 3 inches thick, and we promise you won’t feel pebbles, or even small rocks, under this thing. Its 2.3 R value makes it a good choice for three-season camping or backpacking, and I found even the regular to be roomy enough. Therm-a-Rest includes a breathalyzer pump bag, zip-top bag, and field repair kit.
Best old school board
I was kidding up front here, but I wasn’t. This pillow was my introduction to backcountry sleep, and I’m still a fan (although, technically, it was a no-name brand). The Z-Lite and its ilk weigh almost nothing (10 ounces for the little one), fold small enough to lash out at the outside of any package, and double as a chair, extra padding on chilly nights, a table, you name it. I’m just too old to use the Z-Lite anymore, but I still have one on almost every trip I take. Pairing it with the inflatable Nemo above gives me a wide range of sleeping and sitting possibilities with a total weight of less than 2 lbs. It means I can carry more steaks, and good rural food is really the key to everything.
Best backcountry 4 season pad
If I’m headed to camp in the snow, this is the pillow to bring. The Ultra 7R from Exped offers (as the name suggests) an R-value of 7 in a pad that weighs less than 2 pounds for the wide version. I suggest going for the wide version. I found the regular to be a little on the narrow side, and the weight difference (5 ounces) doesn’t justify the lost sleeping space. I have used this pad up to 30 degrees Fahrenheit and it was very comfortable (in a 20 degree bag). Speed rates down to -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Exped’s Schnozzel Pump Bag ($45) is also excellent and a must if you’re camping in the cold, because you don’t want moisture from your breath inside your carpet.
Best baby sleeping pillow
Let’s be honest – if your child is old enough to go backpacking, they will probably be big enough to be fine with an oversized sleeping pad and that will age as they get older. However, in a moment of parental weakness, I bought my kids sleeping pads that fit over their Kindercone sleeping bags, which came in handy for a surprisingly long time. My daughter is about to finish second grade and she has since kindergarten.
After all, 60 inches is quite long—almost long enough to use. This one has an R-value of 4.5, and my kids have slept very warm on these for several years in temperatures as low as 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Separate valves for inflation and deflation make it easy for young children not to be confused and help with setup. Oddly enough, these sleeping pads are also easier to roll up and put back in their bag than my sleeping pad; REI may have secretly made me strong there. – Adrian Sue
The following sleeping pads didn’t impress us as much as the ones above, but we tested them and still like them enough if none of the others did.
Sea to Summit Women’s Insulated Air Sleeping Mat, $160We debated for some time whether women need different sleeping pads. After some long conversations with our testers, we decided there wasn’t much of a difference. However, this is a good sleeping pad for anyone. It is very close to the sea to the Summit Ultralight above.
REI Helix Insulated Air Sleeping Pillow, $160: This REI pad is comparable to the Nemo Tensor above, but it is noisier and heavier. It’s marginally cheaper, and there’s nothing particularly bad about it, but we think you should spend the extra $20 and get Nemo Tensor.
Pads to avoid
Not every sleeping pad is a winner. We have tested and encountered issues with the following models.
Al Moajil Flexmate Plus: What if cheap, light, and indestructible closed-cell foam mats like the iconic Z-Rest and RidgeRest…were gigantic? It’s a fun idea, but the Exped Flexmat Plus fails miserably. The problem with this extra-thick, 1.5-inch closed-cell mat is that despite being light, cheap, and relatively indestructible, the foam is hard and spiky. And by “spiky” we mean it’s literally just spikes that stab you in your sleep. Fans say it takes a break. After six nights, reviewer Martin Szemar begged the Dungeon Keeper to release him.