Sleeping pads help keep you insulated from the ground, add comfort, and protect your bag from spikeys and moisture. But, there are so many types of pads! Which should you get? Here is a way to help select a pad.
First, here is a little overview on pads. There are basically 3 types of sleeping pads on the market that are appropriate for long distance hiking.
1. Closed-cell foam. These are made only of foam but, unlike a sponge, they do not soak up water. The most popular closed-cell foam pads for long distance hiking are: Therm-a-Rest ZLite SOL and Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite.
2. Self-inflating. These are open-celled foam (think sponge) inside a nylon cover. When a valve is opened, the foam expands, and sucks in air. They come in many different thicknesses, from 3/4″ to 3.5″ (most hikers choose 1-1.5″). The most popular self-inflating pads for long distance hikers is the Therm-a-Rest Prolite or the ProLite Plus.
3. Air. Air pads are nylon covers filled mostly with air, and usually a very small amount of down or synthetic insulation to keep you from freezing your butt off with just air below you. Think swimming pool floaty, but way more technical. The most popular air pads are the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core, and the Klymit Inertia XFrame.
Now, use the following benefits to help you select the pad that is right for you (I have limited it to the most popular pads for thru hikers, but there are many other comparable pads). Choose 3 benefits below that are most important to you and write down the 3 pads with the highest scores in each of those 3 categories, along their scores.
This should be considered at the same time as you select a sleeping bag. Sleeping bag comfort ratings are dependent on the type of pad used. They are usually rated using a closed-cell foam pad. If you want to get more than the minimum temperature rating out of your sleeping bag, consider a warmer sleeping pad.
Insulated Air Core = 8 NeoAir XLite = 6 ProLite Plus = 6 RidgeRest SOLite = 5 ProLite = 4 ZLiteSOL = 4 Inertia X Frame = 2
RidgeRest SOLite = 7 ZLite SOL = 6 ProLite = 3 Inertia X Frame = 2 ProLite Plus = 2 Insulated Air Core = 2 NeoAir XLite = 0
Inertia X Frame = 8 NeoAir XLite = 6 RidgeRest SOLite = 5 ZLite SOL = 5 ProLite = 4 Insulated Air Core = 2 ProLite Plus = 2
Comfort (especially for side sleepers)
NeoAir XLite = 8 Insulated Air Core = 7 ProLite Plus = 6.5 Inertia X Frame = 5.5 ProLite = 4.5 RidgeRest SOLite = 2 ZLite SOL = 2
Compactness (when folded up)
Inertia X Frame = 10 NeoAir XLite = 9 ProLite = 9 Insulated Air Core = 8 ProLite Plus = 6 ZLite SOL = 4 RidgeRest SOLite = 3
This benefit is particularly important in desert environs or for people who use very minimal ground sheets. Particularly, consider this for the first 700 miles of the PCT.
RidgeRest SOLite = 9 ZLite SOL = 7 ProLite Plus = 4 ProLite = 4 Inertia X Frame = 2 Insulated Air Core = 2 NeoAir XLite = 1
Ability To Insulate if Damaged/Punctured
Disclaimer: Like all of the numbers in this article, these numbers are my educated guess based on my experience with the pads. These particular scores are based on numbers that gear reps have thrown at me with regard to their pad’s deflated insulation value (R-value). Although I do think it is useful and accurate as a comparison, take the scores with a grain of salt.
RidgeRest SOLite = 10 ZLite SOL = 8.5 ProLite Plus = 6 ProLite = 4 Insulated Air Core = 1 NeoAir XLite = 0.5 Inertia X Frame = 0
Ease of Use
ZLite SOL = 10 RidgeRest SOLite = 9 ProLite Plus = 7 ProLite = 7 Inertia X Frame = 5 NeoAir XLite = 4 Insulated Air Core = 4
Certain pads lend themselves to helping you carry a lighter weight (frameless) backpack. If packed correctly, they can provide support to your pack. Some pack companies even build in a holder to use your pad as back support.
RidgeRest SOLite = 9 ZLite = 7 ProLite Plus = 4 Insulated Air Core = 2 ProLite = 2 NeoAir XLite = 2 Inertia X Frame = 0
Some pads make squeaking or crinkling noises when you shift around on them. If you are a very light sleeper or you share a tent with a light sleeper, this may be a worthwhile consideration. Otherwise, I think people who have not actually used these pads place more value on this benefit than necessary. Also, this is a ranking of the pads as they are brand new. Most pads that start out crinkly or squeaky get less so over time.
ZLite SOL = 9 RidgeRest SOLite = 8 ProLite = 8 ProLite Plus = 8 Insulated Air Core = 6 Inertia X Frame = 6 NeoAir XLite = 2
Another consideration for selecting a pad is length. Traditional backpackers often choose length based on how tall they are. A 6’3″ man will often get the 6’6″ pad. Long distance backpackers, however, are more likely to size a pad based on their torso length. They will often get a 47″ (sometimes called the short, 3/4 length, small, or extra small) pad, which supports their head, back, and hips. Then, they place their empty backpack (soft back panel facing up) under their legs for insulation there. This is personal preference, but it does save on weight and cost. For example, a ProLite Plus pad in 78″ is 1 lb, 10 oz. and the 47″ is 14 oz. The price also changes from $129 to $90.
Now add up the scores for each pad that came up on your list. This should give you a good idea of which pads might best meet your needs. Sleep well!