The choice and range of sleeping mats (or pads as they say in North America) can be mind boggling these days. Here I lay out the various options, differences, new rating system and what are the important considerations in the selection of sleeping mats.
To start with, here is a bit of personal history, but it sort of mirrors the history of sleeping mats. When I started backpacking at the age of 11, or hiking trips as we said in the Scouts in the 1970's, sleeping mats didn't really exist or if they did I didn't know anyone who used them. We would go out even in the winter sleeping direct on cold groundsheets, it still wasn't that warm in the summer either. However, I was young and what you don't have, you don't miss. If we were at Scout camp, where we slept in Patrol tents, rather than tents for hiking, some of us would use old newspapers, as insulation, an old tramp's trick we were told as method of keeping the cold ground at bay.
Spin on a few years, and towards the end of 1970's and people started to buy and use Closed Cell Foam (CCF) mats, anyone camping in those days would have a bright yellow mat from Karrimor, the now famous Karrimat.
They were bulky and you always had to find somewhere to strap them onto your already bulging backpack but these mats gave us the first comfortable and warm nights sleep. Let me go forward a few more years, Thermarest a US based company invented the first self inflating mat in the 1970's, but I'm pretty certain that these did not make an appearance until much later in the UK. I'm not quite sure when I got my first self inflating mat but it was a big green one from Thermarest and although it was big by comparison to today's super small packed size of mats, it rolled up and I was able to put inside my backpack.
As often with many backpackers, the search is always on to find smaller, lighter, better equipment, and this mat was followed by the Thermarest Prolite, then the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Peak Elite mat where many people seem to have had leaks at the seams (including me) and onto the X-Lite, X- Therm and Exped Down Mats for winter (super warm, super comfortable)
What Options are Available?
CCF (Closed Foam)
These are relatively inexpensive, and can come as roll (like my Karrimat of 40 years ago, or as a concertina style. They are pretty much bullet proof, you can't puncture them,they don't absorb moisture, they are ultra reliable, but not that comfortable compared to many mats today. They are a favorite amongst ultralight long distance hikers because of the above attributes. I take a piece of thin 3 mm CCF, (weighs 67 grams) with serves as a good back-up should my inflatable mat get a puncture or one sections 'ballons' making difficult to sleep on.
The R value is around 2.2 (2 degrees C) for the Exped Flexmat Plus
Self - inflating Mats
Constructed of open cell foam, which is placed between two sheets of material, such as ripstop nylon or polyester. The foam inside when upacked and laid out will expand sucking the air in. Generally you will need to add a few puffs yourself to fully inflate, but much less than a inflatable mat. Advantages include cheaper prices, more comfort than CCF mats, more robust compared to inflatable mats but heavier and less comfortable than air mats. We stock a great value inflatable mat at half the price of many and it is from a big brand - Kelty, the Cosmic Mummy Sleeping Mat.
Ultralight Inflatable Mats
Sometimes known as airbeds, these may have air trapped in pockets, with some having added insulation such as synthetic material or down, these tend to be a bit quieter when moving around on them, than the mats that have heat reflective layers, which reflect the users body heat back to them. These mats are very comfortable, lightweight and many pack down small when compared to other types of mat. The comfort comes from the fact that these mats are generally double the thickness of other mat types. You have take a bit of care with them, these are not the sort of mat that you can just throw on the ground and use as they will probably puncture, but all of them come with a field repair kit. Good examples are Sierra Designs Granby at the value end to then other end with the Sea to Summit Ether LightXT range
There have been some interesting and innovative designs, particularly from Klymit, including the following:-
Inertia X Frame and Inertia Ozone
These are the ultimate in minimalist inflatable sleeping mats with designs which remove all extraneous material and places the chambers only where padding is needed, to allow the user to have a very light but supportive mat. The X Frame only weighs 260 grams. The spaces between the inflated chambers serve as expansion 'zones'to allow your sleeping bag to fully loft beneath your sleeping bag. This maximises thermal performance rather than with a traditional mat where the insulation on the bottom of the sleeping bag is effectively crushed, resulting in a loss of thermal efficiency.
The Inertia Ozone is slightly less minimalist and has a built in pillow which means the pillow does not slide off the mat. It uses the same design to allow the sleeping bag to fully loft. These two mats can be used inside the sleeping bag or outside of it. Klymit range can be found here
Horizontal, Vertical, V-Shaped Chambers or Pocketed Springs?
Inflatable air mats come in a number of designs. It is difficult to say what is the best design, I have been comfortable on on all four types, but some people swear that they are more comfortable on only one type of design. I think after spending some time on horizontal chambered mats and gone back to vertical chambers, horizontal is probably not my favoured choice, but the only way really to know is to try another design, should you not be comfortable with a particular mat design. The use of pocketed springs is something fairly recent, and I have been very comfortable on The Sea to Summit range. I think these are ideal for side sleepers, their extra thickness, seems to stop 'bottoming out' and feeling the ground beneath you.
A regular length mat is typically 183 cm or 6 feet long. Long versions will generally be 197 cm 6 and a half feet long. Widths vary between 51 and 61 cms and come as mummy shaped and rectangle in shape. I like a wide rectangle mat in the winter, to stop my arms touching the cold groundsheet.
R-Values - What do they mean and what is the new standard introduced in 2020?
The R-value is a way of classifying sleeping mats to give an indication of what temperature a sleeping mat will cope with. A R-value is a physical measurement of a mat's resistance to heat loss, so the higher the R-value, the greater the resistance to heat loss and hence the colder the temperature you can sleep comfortably in.
Sleeping mats are designed to stop this heat loss. Any one who has slept on a highly insulated mat, will quickly feel warm because the heat loss is much less.
This table below from Sea to Summit shows how the R-value relates to temperature but also the impact on cold and warm sleepers.
Some people will sleep colder than others and may need a warmer mat than someone else. Most women will sleep colder for example. Using the most appropriate mat for the time of year and conditions that you will sleep in, is as important as choosing the right sleeping bag/quilt. We get quite a few questions about feeling cold in sleeping bags that on the face of it should keep the user warm, it oftens turns out that they are using an inadequate mat for the conditions. This is very important with sleeping quilts, as you are basically using a part back-less sleeping bag and therefore an appropriate sleeping mat for the temperature and conditions is essential. When I mean conditions, I also mean the type of shelter, as well as the temperatures likley to be encountered. For example sleeping in an open tarp in windy conditions will need a warmer mat than a fully enclosed tent in a sheltered valley.
New R-value measurement
To provide a more rigorous and reliable methodology for measuring the R-value of sleeping mats, manufacturers have from 2020 been measuring the R-Value using a new industry standard ASTM F3340-18. This standardises the way of measuring the R-value, but the R- value metric remains the same. Standardising allows direct comparisons of sleeping mats like the EN rating on sleeping bags. For details on sleeping bags and quilts and do you have the right temperature rated product see our blog post here It is likely that for a period of time the R-value will been shown for the old and new system of measurement.
Mat Stacking - extending your main mat's seasons of use.
One way of extending your summer mat's range is the use of a CCF mat under an inflatable mat which will add to the overall R-value. There is a direct addition to the R-value, so if an inflatable mat has a R-value of 3 and your CCF mat has a value of 2.2, the combined total is 5.2 which is suitable for all but the very coldest of UK winter conditions.
Our complete range of sleeping mats can be found here More winter mats will be on our on-line store as soon as they are in stock from the manaufacturers.
Finally use this checklist in your decision on the choice of sleeping mat for you.
Comfort - what am I happy with?
Mat Type - Inflatable/self inflating/ CCF
R- value - season(s) of use - Spring and Summer/ all year round
Size and shape - Mummy, rectangle etc
Weight - how little can I go against my requirement for comfort?
Pack size - related to the above
Opportunity to carry out field repairs - is it easy to repair? Not a problem on an overnight, but how about on an extended trip?