Best Sleeping Pad for Summer Backpacking

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As any seasoned backpacker can tell you, there are two equally-critical halves to a successful backpacking trip: an exciting, productive day and a safe, restful night. One of the unsung heroes of the backpacker’s arsenal is the sleeping pad: that little piece of comfort between the exhausted backpacker and whatever ground lies beneath. Through thirty years and four seasons, I’ve enjoyed backpacking in varied climates and terrains across the country. Before too much of this year passes, I want to share with you some research I’ve done on the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking.

Best Sleeping Pad (Winner): Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite

In 1971, a trio of avid climbers and unemployed engineers invented the first self-inflating, open-cell foam air mattress. A year later, branded as Therm-a-Rest, this line of products would begin to revolutionize the way that outdoors enthusiasts spent their nights. Forty-five years later, Therm-a-Rest is still at the forefront of the backpacking and mountaineering industries. My top pick for best sleeping pad for summer backpacking: the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite continues this tradition by combining cutting edge science with tried-and-true field experience.

Sleeping by Night

One of the most thrilling yet challenging aspects of backpacking is the necessity of carrying all your gear at all times. Much more so than car camping, you must evaluate the packability (size, weight, ease-of-access) of each piece of equipment. When considering my pick for the best sleeping pad, I decided to group my review into two halves: sleeping by night and packing by day.

Sleeping Pad Type & Shape

There are three main categories of backpacking sleeping pads:

Air Pads

Basically mini-air mattresses, these are generally the lightest and most expensive contenders for best sleeping pad.

Closed-Cell Foam Pads

Heavier and less comfortable, foam pads have the advantage of being much cheaper and more durable.

Self-Inflating Pads

A combination of both concepts, self-inflating pads allows air into a lining of open-cell foam when the valve is opened. They are generally very comfortable but not as light as air pads.

Closed-Cell Foam Pads

Heavier and less comfortable, foam pads have the advantage of being much cheaper and more durable.

Self-Inflating Pads

A combination of both concepts, self-inflating pads allows air into a lining of open-cell foam when the valve is opened.  They are generally very comfortable but not as light as air pads.

Like most of the best sleeping pads for backpacking, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is an air pad. This construction gives it to the ability to pack very small and light.

The ‘mummy’ shape of the pad helps it stay light-weight and retain body-heat as insulation against the ground.

Insulation (R-Value)

An essential consideration for backpacking sleeping pads, the R-Value is a measure of how well the sleeping pad insulates. R-Values range from 0 (no insulation) to 9 (extremely insulated). Like a sleeping bag, the sleeping pad is also rated for a number of ‘seasons’. Three season pads (spring, summer, fall) typically have an R-Value of 2 – 4, while pads rated for sub-freezing winter use have an R-Value of 5+.

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite has an R-Value of 3.2.  The core of the sleeping pad is separated into two ‘baffles’ (compartments). The warm air generated by your body is trapped inside the top baffle, insulating you from the cold air in the bottom baffle.

While it may be ill-equipped to insulate you from the ground in cold weather, it is a perfect fit to be the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking.

Pad Thickness

Closely correlated to the R-Value, the thickness of the pad when in use (in this case, inflated) is of critical importance when considering the best sleeping pad. In addition to insulation, the thickness can also indicate the degree of comfort on less-than-ideal surfaces.

Tied for thickest in our review, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is 2.5 inches thick – impressive for such a small and light sleeping pad.

Packing by Day

Arguably of equal importance to an avid backpacker is how the best sleeping pad stores during the trek.  The following categories relate to how the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite functions when it’s not in use.

Weight and Pack Size

Modern technology has allowed contenders for the best sleeping pad to pack away impressively small and lightweight.

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is the lightest in our review at an incredibly light 12 ounces.

Gone are the days when a backpacker needed to dedicate the entire top of the pack to carrying the sleeping pad. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite packs into a 4” x 9” stuff sack – small enough to slide into a side pocket.

Packing and Unpacking

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is not self-inflating. To use, simply remove it from the stuff sack, unfurl it and inflate it using your breath. Reviews indicate that it takes about 2 minutes (20 breaths) for the average backpacker to inflate the pad. Therm-a-Rest also sells a NeoAir Pump Sack and a NeoAir Mini Pump if you don’t want to rely on your own lungs.

Durability

Due to its lightweight construction, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is not the most durable of our contenders for best sleeping pad. To adjust for this deficiency, Therm-a-Rest includes a portable repair kit. Regardless, you should remove any sharp debris below the sleeping pad and take care when lying down for the night.

Material Thickness

When considering candidates for the best sleeping pad, material thickness is a huge factor in durability.  The shell fabric of sleeping pads is compared using a measurement called ‘denier’ (D). Ranging from 20D – 75D, higher denier sleeping pads are more durable. Generally, if the material thickness differs on the different parts of the pad, the bottom denier is used in comparison.

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is rated at 30D, placing it on the thinner end of our comparison.

Flaws But Not Deal Breakers

Noise

In this context, I am referring to the amount of noise that the sleeping pad makes when you shift weight or slide the sleeping bag against it. Made from ultralight materials, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is ‘noisier’ than some of its competitors. This is an important consideration if you are a light sleeper or easily bothered by auditory distractions.

Punctures

Again, due to its ultra-light construction, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is vulnerable to punctures that reduce its expected life-span. Proper care for the pad should extend its life, but this is not a very durable sleeping pad.

 

Best Sleeping Pad (Runner Up): Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat

Founded by Australian inventor and explorer Roland Tyson, Sea to Summit took its name from Tyson’s first serious commission: to design gear for Tim McCartney-Snape, an adventurer with the daring dream to climb Mount Everest by beginning at sea level. In 1990, after a 745-mile journey under his own steam, McCartney-Snape completed the journey using the gear that Tyson had designed. This incredible true story sets the stage for our runner-up for best sleeping pad, the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat.

Sleeping by Night

Sleeping Pad Type & Shape

Like the Therm-a-Rest, the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is a mummy-shaped air pad.

However, the Sea to Summit sleeping pad is constructed from hundreds of connected but compartmentalized Air Sprung Cells instead of a few large chambers. This provides an increased number of inflection points to prevent you from touching the ground when you concentrate your weight (usually by rolling on your side).

Insulation (R-Value)

In addition to it scientifically-minded structural design, the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is constructed with Exkin Platinum fabric and Thermolite® insulation. These innovative technologies work together to prevent body heat loss, giving the Sea to Summit an R-Value of 3.3, slightly higher than the Therm-a-Rest.

Pad Thickness

The Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is 2 inches thick when fully inflated. While this is thin compared to the other air pads in our review, the combination of design elements like the Air Sprung Cells and Thermolite® insulation keep the user comfortable.

Packing by Day

Weight and Pack Size

Like the Therm-a-Rest, the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat packs into an impressively small 4 in x 9 in stuff sack.

However, the Sea to Summit’s increased insulation and durability adds weight. At 1 pound, 1 ounce for the regular length pad, it’s 5 ounces heavier than the Therm-a-Rest but still quite light compared to some of its competitors.

Packing and Unpacking

When it comes to packing and unpacking, several unique components add value to the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat. Included in the original dimensions of the pad, the stuff sack includes a built-in Airstream pump that assists with inflation. Anti-microbial treatment inside the pad resists the development of mold and other cultures that can grow due to the warm, wet air used to inflate it.

Durability

As you can tell from the quantity of unique technology contained in the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat, the cornerstone of the Sea to Summit design philosophy is scientific innovation. All of this expertise helps make the pad remarkably durable despite its light construction.

Material Thickness

The exterior of the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is ripstop nylon fabric with a 40-denier rating. For its weight, this sleeping pad is really durable.

Flaws But Not Deal Breakers

Squeaky & Slippery

Like the Therm-a-Rest, the Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is made of slick synthetic materials designed to be lightweight. This adds greatly to the noise factor and may cause your sleeping bag to slide around during the night, landing you on the ground.

Valve Leaks

While the fabric seems to be of durable construction, several reviews single out the valve as an issue. I suggest testing out the Sea to Summit (or any sleeping pad) at home for a few nights before going on your anticipated expedition.

Best Sleeping Pad (Best Value): Klymit Insulated Static V Lite

Leading with the logo, ‘Not Just a Sleeping Bag Company’, Klymit is a Utah-based outdoor equipment company with a focus on people. The Klymit website includes interesting features like a complete company roster and an interactive page that helps you select the perfect sleeping pad. Klymit boasts that it develops and tests all its proprietary tech in-house. Perhaps that is how it keeps the cost down. For the money, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite may be the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking.

Sleeping by Night

Sleeping Pad Type & Shape

Like the Therm-a-Rest and the Sea to Summit, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is an air pad. However, unlike the mummy design of the previous pads, the Klymit is a rounded rectangle. The air pockets follow a patented V-shape which helps you stay supported in any sleeping position. Separate ‘side rail’ air pockets inflate to a greater thickness than their neighbors, keeping the sleeper centered on the pad.

Insulation (R-Value)

The Klymit Insulated Static V Lite boasts proprietary Klymalite™ Synthetic insulation which slows the escape of body-warmed air and the intrusion of cold air from the ground. At an R-value of 4.4, the Klymit is by far the warmest sleeping pad in our comparison and is suitable for use during winter or at higher elevations. For its light weight, it has impressive thermal properties.

Pad Thickness

At 2.5 inches, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is as thick as the Therm-a-Rest. The Klymit features what the producers call ‘Deep Weld Patterning’. These pronounced ridges and valleys encourage your sleeping bag to loft, increasing comfort and thermal retention.

Packing by Day

Weight and Pack Size

As you may have guessed from the pad shape, R-Value, and features, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is the heaviest pad in our review. At 1 pound 4 ounces, it is still extremely manageable for all but the most ultralight adventurers. The pad packs into a 5” x 8” stuff-sack, which is slightly larger and squarer than the Therm-a-Rest and the Sea to Summit.

Packing and Unpacking

The Klymit Insulated Static V Lite advertises that it inflates in only 10 breaths. While this may be ambitious, it serves to indicate that the Klymit is intended to be user-friendly. A twist-pull valve makes very easy inflation, rapid deflation, and no inadvertent opening.

Durability

Judging by the review content, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is the most durable of the three air pads in this review. Any ultralight air pad is vulnerable to puncture, but this model seems to be holding it together.

Material Thickness

At a rating of 30D, the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is much thinner than its brother, the original Klymit Insulated Static V, which claims an impressive 75D. The difference in material thickness allows the Static V Lite to travel 6 ounces lighter, though.

Flaws But Not Deal Breakers

Valve Issues

Several reviewers have noted that the pad deflates but none cite punctures, which draws suspicion to the valve. Klymit prides itself on its return policy. My advice is always to go camping in the living room for a night or two and test your equipment before that much-anticipated excursion.

Weight

This observation is relative. While the Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is lighter than many sleeping pads, it is still heavier than our leading competitor by almost 50%. Whether or not those seven ounces are a deal breaker depends entirely on you and where you plan to pack the sleeping pad.

Best Sleeping Pad (Best Foam Pad): Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL

Honestly, when discussing the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking, comparing air pads to closed-cell foam pads is apples-to-oranges. Considering performance alone, the best closed-cell foam pads would fall far down the list of contenders. However, top-of-the-line air pads can cost several hundred dollars.

In order to include those budget adventurers out there, I give you the best foam sleeping pad for summer backpacking: the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL.

Sleeping by Night

Sleeping Pad Type & Shape

The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is a rectangular, closed-cell foam sleeping pad. This construction is exactly what it sounds like. Unlike open-cell foam, which would soak up moisture, the closed-cell foam construction provides a sturdy and protective platform for the resting backpacker. Mini-eggshell construction keeps you elevated above the temperature and inconsistencies of the ground.

Insulation (R-Value)

Heat-trapping dimples and a reflective ThermaCapture coating help to hold body heat next to the sleeper.  At an R-Value of 2.6, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL ranks considerably lower than our air pad contenders. This is still a three-season pad and improves thermal retention much more than a sleeping bag alone.

Pad Thickness

At 0.75 inches, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is less than half the thickness of any air pad. However, consider that almost all of this depth is highly dense closed-cell foam. While this may do less to retain heat, it will serve the purpose of protecting you from a bumpy ground.

Packing by Day

best sleeping pad

Weight and Pack Size

This may surprise you. At only 14 ounces, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is lighter than both the Sea to Summit and the Klymit.

However, closed-cell foam does not ‘squish’ at all. The pad folds up neatly, but at 5” x 20” (the full width) you need to reserve the entire top or bottom of your backpack to carry this Therm-a-Rest.

Packing and Unpacking

It doesn’t get much easier than packing and unpacking the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL. Unfold the accordion-packed rectangle to use. Fold it back to carry.

Durability

Besides cost, this is where the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL (or any closed-cell foam pad) really outscores the air pads. You can’t pop it and there is no valve to malfunction. Unless you get your pad too close to the fire or your dog gets ahold of it, this sleeping pad could literally serve you for decades.

Material Thickness

While this score does not carry the same implications as it does for air pads, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is rated at 30D.

Flaws But Not Deal Breakers

Not Very Comfortable

I know this headline is to-the-point, but there is really no way around it. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL will protect you from the ground and provide some degree of thermal retention, but it will not offer the comfort of an air pad.

Pack Size

For serious backpackers, this may be more of a concern than the comfort. I know when I go on a trek of 5 days or more, over 50% – 60% of the space in my pack is dedicated to food and water. This leaves little room for all the other necessities, even strapped to the outside of the pack. Having to dedicate a full body-width to toting the sleeping pad may cramp your carrying capacity.

All the Nitty Gritty

Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XLite Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Klymit Insulated Static V Lite
Type Air Pad Air Pad Closed-Cell Foam Air Pad
Weight 12 oz 1 lb 1 oz 14 oz 1 lb 4 oz
Thickness 2.5 in 2.0 in 0.75 in 2.5 in
Shape Mummy Mummy Rectangle Rectangle
Useable Dimensions 20” x 72” 21.5” x 72” 20” x 72” 23” x 72”
Packed Dimensions 4 in x 9 in 4 in x 9 in 5.5 in x 20 in 5 in x 8 in
R-Value (Warmth) 3.2 3.3 2.6 4.4
Denier

(Fabric Thickness)

30D 40D 30D 30D

The Bottom Line

If you want to do some serious backpacking, do NOT sideline the careful selection of a great sleeping pad. When you’re backpacking, the gear you bring with you has to do for the entirety of the trip. There may not be an option for running back to the car or opting-out for a hotel. Some lessons are not better learned the hard way. In the case of selecting the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking, do your homework in advance and take some advice from the pros.

For a beginning backpacker on a budget, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is a great place the start. If you want to explore more expensive options down the road, you can always pass this durable pad down or keep it for less rugged excursions.

The Klymit Insulated Static V Lite is a slightly heavier, warmer air pad at an incredible value.

The Sea to Summit Ultralight Insulated Mat is a fantastic backpacking air pad with a built-in pump and an innovative air chamber system.

For my money, Therm-a-Rest is still leading the pack with the best pads on the market. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite is ultra-lightweight, warm, and durable. It scores at the top of the charts with how it sleeps at night and how it packs during the day.

Whatever sleeping pad you take with you, remember that you’ll have more fun during the day if you rest well at night. The most serious explorers take this bit of wisdom the most serious of all.

Frequently Asked Questions

How are women’s sleeping pads different?

Most women backpackers use standard sleeping pads. However, some producers do make sleeping pads that are specifically tailored for women. These tend to be shorter (average 66” long instead of 72”) and more insulated. Some have increased padding where they expect the hips to rest. The weight increase from the added insulation generally washes out the weight decrease from the shorter length.

Why aren’t there any self-inflating sleeping pads in your review?

They’re heavier. It’s that simple.

Self-inflating sleeping pads are wonderful for car camping. They are comfortable, warm, and generally simulate an actual bed much better than air pads or closed-cell foam pads. They simply weigh too much to be contenders for the best sleeping pad for summer backpacking.

Want to take your trek over water as well as land? Check out my pick for the Best Water Shoes for Summer 2018.

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