Welcome to the second post in this series, where I geek out on analyzing a bunch of other hikers’ gear lists and share some useful conclusions to help you choose gear that’s right for you.
Post #1 in the series looked at what factors made certain backpacks the most popular choices for hikers on the John Muir Trail. This week, it’s time for sleeping pads!
Why the John Muir Trail? For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the John Muir Trail (JMT for short) is a ~210 mile trail through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. It’s gorgeous, it’s challenging, and it’s remote, in some places requiring hikers to carry up to 9 days of food between resupply points. It reaches elevations up to over 14,000 feet, requiring a solid set of gear suitable for cool and sometimes rainy weather even during summer.
Finally, the JMT is an incredibly popular trail, attracting everyone from experienced fastpackers to ambitious beginners (the latter was me once – the JMT was my first real backpacking trip, years ago). This means there’s a wide range of gear choices that are more applicable to most “normal” backpackers (those of us who are just out for a long weekend every now and then) than perhaps a Pacific Crest Trail gear list. And, the trail’s popularity means it’s easy to find gear lists online!
I’ve collected and analyzed around 25 gear lists from hikers of all types who thru-hiked the JMT within the last few years. When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep on the trail, these folks should know what’s what.
What to look for when choosing a sleeping pad
Before we dive into the data, let’s take a quick look at the most important factors when choosing a sleeping pad for backpacking:
- R value (warmth)
- Weight and packability
It’s probably no surprise that it’s impossible to be on the good side of all these factors at once. Increased comfort and warmth usually mean a heavier and larger pad. If you have the budget for it, you can get the same warmth and comfort for less added weight. Unlike the world of sleeping bags and tents, the truly ultralight sleeping pads are usually more affordable than mid-weight choices, but many backpackers won’t find them comfortable enough for sustained use.
Types of Sleeping Pads
Sleeping pads usually break down into three categories: traditional closed-cell foam pads, self-inflating foam pads, and inflatable air pads.
Closed cell foam pads are often much cheaper, reasonably lightweight, and there’s no risk of an accidental puncture in the middle of the night. However, many backpackers find them less comfortable, especially for side sleepers, and less warm. They’re also bulky and usually must be carried on the outside of your pack.
Self-inflating foam pads are a middle ground. They’re more comfortable and warmer than closed-cell foam but not as light and compressible as inflatable air pads.
Inflatable air pads come in many styles, but the basic idea is to put a cushion of air between your body and the ground. Some come with pump bags, and some require lung power. Some are more durable than others and some are made with warmer materials. Many backpackers find them warmer and more comfortable than closed cell foam pads, but they are more expensive and sometimes do get punctured (not the end of the world – I’ve patched mine three times over 5 years and still wouldn’t trade it).
Size and shape also play a role. Many backpacking sleeping pads are mummy-shaped, making them a bit lighter than full rectangular pads but potentially too narrow for some. Many models also come in multiple sizes to accommodate different size hikers, allowing shorter hikers to save a bit of weight and space while taller or wider hikers get the additional space they need. Pay close attention to the dimensions to make sure you’re getting the smallest pad that will fit you.
For those looking to really shave ounces, some ultralight sleeping pads come in 3/4 or torso length. The idea is that your legs don’t need as much warmth or cushion. I’ve never tried one and they sound a bit uncomfortable, but some hikers find them totally sufficient.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the gear list data, which includes examples of all these types of pads.
Sleeping pads from 25 JMT gear lists
Below is a table showing all the sleeping pads mentioned in the JMT gear lists analyzed. It’s sortable! Sort to your heart’s content to see how the various sleeping pads compare in weight, price and R value.
The Mentions column shows how many times each pad was included in the 25 gear lists analyzed. The most mentioned pads are at the top.
If you haven’t seen R value before, it’s a measure of a pad’s warmth. We’ll get into this more below, but for now just know a higher number means warmer.
Note: many of these come in several difference sizes, for example short, long or wide. The numbers below are always for the regular size.
The 3 most popular sleeping pads
Let’s look at the most popular choices in more detail. Keep in mind that 25 gear lists aren’t enough to guarantee a representative sample. But from personal experience and “word on the trail,” I can see that the top picks from this list are indeed some of the most popular sleeping pads on the market. Starting with…
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
This happens to be the pad I’ve used for the past five years, including hiking the John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, middle of nowhere in Guinea, bicycle touring in Patagonia, and many more adventures. I’ve had to patch three small holes over time, but the process is easy and I’d say it’s held up well considering what I’ve put it through. Personally, I strongly recommend it and know many other hikers who do as well.
There’s also a women’s specific version that is a bit warmer (R value of 3.9), a bit shorter, and weighs about the same. If you’re a shorter person and/or colder sleeper, this could be a great option for you.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm
This is like a warmer version of the NeoAir XLite, suitable for winter camping and helpful for cold sleepers in other seasons too. I think it offers the most warmth per ounce of any sleeping pad on the market. If you’re a cold sleeper and/or plan on doing some winter or snow camping, the extra few ounces for this pad may be well worth it.
Therm-a-Rest ProLite and ProLite Plus
Therm-a-Rest’s ProLite line is much more affordable than the NeoAir line. The tradeoff: heavier and less compressible, and (for the regular ProLite) less warm. These are a good middle ground if your budget doesn’t stretch to NeoAir range. Bonus: they are self-inflating! Always nice after a long day of hiking at high altitude.
The ProLite Plus is the warmer version, delivering about the same warmth as the NeoAir XLite but for $70 less (and 11 extra ounces of weight).
Other notable sleeping pad brands
Therm-a-Rest dominates this list with the top three most popular pads, and for good reason; they make great pads. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other companies out there making good sleeping pads too. Here are a couple notable examples:
- Exped: a premium brand with a strong reputation and high price to match. Their pads are heavier than Therm-a-Rest, but arguably more durable and comfortable. I tried a friend’s once on a bicycle tour and have to admit it did feel a little plusher than my NeoAir XLite.
- Klymit: known for their innovative air pad designs that attempt to balance weight, comfort and affordability. My first sleeping pad was a Klymit Static V and it served me well until I started hiking longer days and investing in cutting weight from my pack.
For even more options, including picks from Nemo, Sea to Summit, and Big Agnes, see this overview of lightweight sleeping pads.
Cost vs. Weight Gear Worksheet
I know, choosing the best outdoor gear from so many options can be overwhelming! To help, I’m sharing the interactive spreadsheet I use to make my own choices. It will help you compare cost and weight of potential gear choices, so you can cut weight from your pack in the most cost-effective way possible.
Enter your email address below, then click the link in the confirmation email, and I’ll send you the google spreadsheet link right away. I love all the gear I’ve chosen using this method and I hope you will too.
Sleeping Pad Weight
The difference between the lightest and heaviest pads on the list was a factor of almost 5x! The average weight for all sleeping pads mentioned was a reasonable 15 ounces.
Here’s a graph showing the number of pads mentioned in each weight range:
What can we learn from this?
- For hikers who can sleep comfortably on a torso-length closed cell foam pad, some serious ounces can be shaved.
- For the rest of us, aiming for under one pound is probably a good middle ground.
- If you’re toting around over 20 ounces of sleeping pad and want to lighten your pack, seeking out a good deal on a lighter pad might be a cost-effective way of dropping up to half a pound without sacrificing comfort or warmth.
Sleeping Pad R Value
You might think a sleeping pad’s most important function is to create a cloud-like cushion of pillowy softness for your tired body. But equally important is its role in keeping you warm.
The term “R value” is a measure of how well a sleeping pad retains the heat produced by your body. If you were to roll out your sleeping bag right on the ground, not only would you be uncomfortable, you would also be really chilly. Much of the heat produced by your body would escape into the ground, leaving you shivering. A pad with a higher R value keeps you warmer by trapping more of that heat in and around your body.
Remember that when your body weight compresses the insulation in your sleeping bag, it doesn’t trap body heat very well. So even if you have the warmest sleeping bag ever, you still rely on the pad beneath you to keep you insulated from the cold ground. Uncomfortably cold sleepers will typically notice a big improvement by switching to a warmer sleeping pad.
Not all manufacturers list their pads’ R value, but for those that do, here’s a graph showing how many pads mentioned in the gear lists fall in which R value range:
So what does this mean? Here’s my take on it:
- Most backpackers on summer mountain hikes (comparable to the John Muir Trail) should aim for an R value of 3 – 3.9.
- Hardy souls and warm sleepers can probably get by with an R value in the 2 – 2.9 range, but it might stretch the limits of comfort on chilly nights at high altitude.
- For cold sleepers a pad with a 5+ R value would not be overkill on a trail like the JMT, especially if you have the budget for a lightweight version like the NeoAir XTherm. Most JMT hikers will spend a few nights camped above 10,000 feet, and especially if hiking late in the summer, the nights can easily dip below freezing.
Note: If you plan to do some winter camping in addition to your three-season hiking, a higher R value pad may serve you well. As another option, consider getting a more moderate R value pad for your three season trips and then supplementing with an extra closed cell foam mat for winter trips. This system can be both cost and weight effective.
Where to get the best prices on sleeping pads for backpacking?
Top of the line pads can be expensive! Unless you can sleep comfortably on a not-so-cushy closed cell foam pad, budget options are hard to find. Don’t despair though, you have options. Here are some ideas:
- Watch for sales or coupons at Backcountry, REI, REI Outlet and similar
- Check for discounts and watch for flash sale notifications at sites like Sierra, The Clymb and Steep And Cheap
- Check for used gear listings on eBay, REI used gear, and Outdoor Gear Exchange. Maybe you’ll get lucky and score a great deal on some pre-loved gear.
- Consider your needs. If you want to do longer trips in more challenging terrain with colder weather, one of the more premium sleeping pads is probably worth the investment. For less frequent short trips in warm climates, there are some incredibly good value sleeping pads on Amazon that get good reviews and seem to balance weight and comfort fairly well for the price (none are super warm though).
The value of a good night’s sleep is high when it comes to enjoying your time in the backcountry. If you’re on the fence and want to do more hiking in the future, consider investing a little extra into your sleeping pad. I know I’ve gotten way more than my money’s worth from my NeoAir Xlite at this point. If now just isn’t the right time, consider a reputable middle-of-the-road pad like the Therm-a-Rest ProLite that can easily be resold later as used gear.
If you liked this overview of the most popular sleeping pads on the John Muir Trail and what we can all learn from them, you might also like this similar overview of popular backpacks for long-distance summer hikes.
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