There are several different types of sleeping pads, all of which share the goal of providing a barrier between you and the ground and adding comfort in a camping or camping-like situation. Self-inflating sleeping pads are just one type of sleeping pad that does this.
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Unlike a regular sleeping pad, a self-inflating pad borrows the concept of an air mattress to add comfort without bulk. As a result, the best way to describe a self-inflating sleeping pad is to imagine a sponge on top of an air pocket with a fabric covering. It works when the sponge (aka a thin foam mattress) sucks in air, inflating the air pocket, and it can be compressed by simply squeezing the air out of the sponge. Since there is no need for air pumps or electricity, a self-inflating sleeping pad is perfect for camping or backpacking trips.
Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads— What to Consider
Valve Type: In order for a self-inflating sleeping pad to inflate and deflate, there needs to be a controlled way for air to get in and out—this is the job of the valve. Generally, self-inflating sleeping pads have either one valve that inflates and deflates the pad or two valves, one for inflating and one for deflating. Valves usually work by twisting a mechanism that allows air to flow, but many of them also allow for manual inflation. So, if the pad doesn’t fully inflate on its own, you can add a few puffs of air to help it expand completely. Usually you will find the valves located on a corner, or corners, of the sleeping pad.
Durability: Since sleeping pads will often be placed on rough terrain, durability is a major factor to consider if you want to be able to use your sleeping pad multiple times. Even when placing it on the tent floor, there is a high potential for punctures or rips that could ruin the pad. Because of this, you will want to find a sleeping pad with a durable outer shell. A term that outdoor enthusiasts use for this is denier, which refers to the thickness of fabric. As you can imagine, the higher the denier, the thicker and more durable the fabric will be, but this could also mean more weight. The goal is to find a balance between durability and weight that meets your needs. But, if you are using your sleeping pad on a cot or surface other than the ground, durability and denier may not be as important to you.
Insulation & Thickness: Part of a sleeping pad’s job is to provide a barrier between you and the surface you are sleeping on, which could be the cold, hard ground. Because of this, you will want a sleeping pad that is thick enough and insulated well enough to keep the cold from the ground away from you while you sleep.
The overall thickness of a self-inflating sleeping pad depends on the height of the foam pad plus the amount of air used to inflate it. You will find that most of these pads are 3 inches thick or less when fully inflated. If you are looking for a lighter pad, you could find one with less foam and more space for air, while a heavyweight pad would be made up of more foam than air.
Since self-inflating sleeping pads need to be able to draw air in on their own, they are insulated with open cell foam, which closely resembles, and works like, a sponge. Luckily, open cell foam is a better insulator than closed cell foam (i.e. a memory foam mattress), so it will do a better job blocking cool air from the ground. An easy way to tell how well the pad insulates is to look at its R-value; the higher the R-value, the warmer you will be. Usually an R-value of 3 is for general purposes, but you should look for an R-value of 5 or higher for particularly cold temperatures.
Size & Shape: Self-inflating sleeping pads are usually either rectangular or mummy-shaped, which is basically a narrower rectangle with rounded corners. But, they do come in many different lengths and widths. Be sure to find a sleeping pad that, first, accommodates your body, and second, matches up with the sleeping bag, cot, or tent you will be using with it. If your sleeping pad is too short or narrow for you, it won’t be able to provide enough comfort or insulation. Another point you may want to consider is how much weight the sleeping pad can hold without losing air. Similarly, a sleeping pad that is a bad fit for the rest of your equipment won’t be able to meet your needs.
Comfort: Comfort is one of the main reasons campers purchase sleeping pads. Not only do sleeping pads add comfort by keeping you warmer, but they are also able to mask the painful imperfections of the terrain you are sleeping on. Some self-inflating sleeping pads have specialized cell designs to address individual preferences, while others provide more comfort by using thicker foam pads inside. Additionally, you can control the amount of air your sleeping pad takes in, which allows you to customize the comfort level. Some campers have found that sleeping on your back while on an inflated pad can help distribute your weight, which also adds comfort. In the end, comfort is a matter of your personal taste.
What Are the Top Five Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads?
Here is a summary of the top five self-inflating sleeping pads, each offering a unique combination of desirable features. All of these products are highly rated, and sleep tested.
What Else Should You Consider When Using and Purchasing Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads?
Even though there are several factors to take into account when purchasing and using self-inflating sleeping pads, paying attention to detail could help you find the perfect one for you on the first attempt. First, consider the price. The sleeping pads listed above range in price from $30 to $85, but if you are looking for one that is more professional grade, you could spend several hundred dollars. With all of the equipment that goes into a successful camping expedition, it is important to think about where you want to spend the majority of your budget, and it may or may not be on a self-inflating sleeping pad. Luckily, there are options at every price point.
Next, consider any accessories you may need that aren’t included with the pad itself. Although many of the sleeping pads listed above come with their own compression bands and carrying sack, some don’t, so if those items would be helpful to you, be sure to opt for a sleeping pad that comes with its own extras. Aside from compression bands and carrying sacks, an important accessory that may prove to be necessary is a repair kit. Some of the pads on the list include a repair kit, but if your choice doesn’t, a repair kit is an inexpensive way to avoid sleeping on a flat pad.
In addition, be aware of the fact that, like air mattresses, self-inflating sleeping pads may make some noise when you change positions at night. If this is something that could bother you (or your partner), you may want to find a pad that is more foam than air, or simply not inflate it to max capacity. By the same token, you want a sleeping pad that only loses air when you want it to. Some self-inflating pads may leak and gradually flatten throughout the night. A quality valve and durable materials could remedy that.
Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads— Final Thoughts
Self-inflating sleeping pads are a sleeping pad and hassle-free air mattress all in one. Although there are many factors to consider when purchasing one, keep in mind that all of it comes down to comfort level, which is different for everyone. So, the best self-inflating sleeping pad is the one that meets all of your needs and checks off all of your criteria.