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The skinny on sleeping pads

Loading up my pack for a hunt

All photo credits: Josh Kirchner and Jake Kirchner

When I first dove into the world of backpack hunting, I thought I was pretty tough. I remember dismissing gear items like sleeping pads. As a kid, I would sleep on the ground all of the time and be completely fine. “Who needs one of those pesky air mattresses?” I thought. Sooner or later, after much research, I settled on grabbing one of the old school roll-up foam pads for my first trips into the backcountry. They were cheap and fit the bill. They also barely fit into/on my backpack, though, and I was soon on the road to bigger (more like smaller) and better things in the names of sleeping pads. No longer was I on “Team No Sleeping Pad.” I was a convert and a firm one at that. But what’s so special about sleeping pads? Why are we better off with them, rather than without?

Why should you bring along a sleeping pad?

Sleeping pad in my tent

The first thing that most will probably think of when asked this question is obviously comfort and I wouldn’t argue with them at all. Comfort is a huge plus with most sleeping pads, but not all. Remember that relic of a pad I mentioned above? The roll-up foam one? Those are definitely not built for comfort like the newer inflatable models of today. So, why did I bring it? Sleeping pads serve a greater purpose in the long run and that comes in the form of warmth, which is referred to as its R-value. Maybe, you’ve heard of it? It is a sort of rating for each pad out there. The higher the number, the warmer the pad. That old foam pad has an R-value of around 1.5. Not a ton, but it did the trick. You can find pads that go all the way up to almost an R-value of 6, which is pretty toasty. I like around number 3. For me, this is a great all around R-value that will take care of you in most situations. These pads are actually insulating your warmth and protecting that warmth from the cold ground. This might not be a huge deal during the summer months, but when the temperatures drop, trust me, you are going to want that warm sleeping pad.

Different kinds of pads

Foam

Foam pad

These are going to be very similar, if not the same, as the old school roll up foam pad I mentioned at the beginning of this article. As I said, they are cheap and get the job done. If it is between me bringing this pad or not going out, I’m bringing this pad. They are much bigger than the newer inflatable models, but they are also very lightweight. This is a great option for a beginning backpack hunter who isn’t ready to take the plunge towards one of the more expensive pads just yet. The most important thing is that you get in the field and this will get you there.

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Self-inflating

That sounds pretty cool, right? A pad that inflates itself? That’s right, they exist and are a sort of hybrid pad. They blend the foam pads with the inflatable ones. What happens if you start with the pad compressed, just like it was in your pack. From there, you simply open up a valve and that will release the pressure of the compressed foam, which will inflate the pad. These pads are a bit thicker than the first option, which offers more comfort. My brother used one of these for a bit and he really liked this part of it. The part that he didn’t like though was how big it was. They are smaller than the first option, but still pretty big and not as lightweight.

Inflatable

Blowing up my sleeping pad

This is the option that most of us in the backpack hunting world land on sooner or later. The name says it all. They are completely inflatable. That is both a positive and a negative. You’ll understand after blowing one up at 10,000’. It takes the air right out of you! These pads are both thicker and more comfortable—the best of both worlds. Great comfort in a small and lightweight package. Yes, you are going to pay for that lightweight package, but let me tell you, it is 100% worth it. A good night’s sleep is important back there and these little gems belong in your backpack for that reason. I highly suggest that you carry the little repair kit with you, though, because they are inflatable, which means that they can pop. This can easily be fixed with the repair kit.

Ultralight versus normal pads

On a hunt in Arizona

We have established that bringing a sleeping pad along is probably for the best. We have also laid out the different kinds of pads that are available. Here’s the next question: should you go ultralight or not?

Ultralight

I’ve never heard someone say, “I really wish my gear was heavier.” A lightweight backpack is a huge plus on a backcountry hunt. You are way less fatigued and recover easier from the day’s events. This equals hunting longer and harder. Ultralight sleeping pads have really gotten to the point where you don’t even notice them in your pack—until you open it. The pad I run is 12 ounces. 12 ounces of backcountry heaven. Like most ultralight options out there, that pretty weight comes at a price and that price is not just what you pay at the store. Ultralight equipment is just that: ultralight. It’s very thin and you feel like it could break at any moment. If you are incredibly hard on your gear, the most ultralight of ultralight options might not be for you. In terms of pads, I have never had a failure in this regard, but have heard many stories of those that have. I just try and make sure that before putting my pad down, I clear the area of any sharp objects. Mine is still going strong without ever having to repair a pad.

Normal

Difference in sleeping pad sizes

Regular pad (left) versus ultralight pad (right)

The “normal” options out there for sleeping pads are going to be just as effective at what they do as any other one. You will get that effectiveness at a lower cost as well. Let’s face it: backpacking equipment is expensive so anywhere you can save money is welcome. If you don’t mind the little bit of extra weight and the slightly less room in your pack, I say go for it. I used a “normal” pad for years before upgrading to an ultralight model. That pad is still going strong with no leaks and still as effective as ever. It was half the price of the one I have now. It’s also twice the size in my pack, which is why I wanted to upgrade. If I have more room in my pack, I can pack more food, which lets me stay in the field longer.

Closing

There it is! The skinny on sleeping pads right before you! Looking back on when I first started this backpack hunting thing out, I laugh. How close-minded I was to dismiss needing a sleeping pad in the backcountry. Nowadays, I can’t imagine going out there without a pad and, honestly, I wouldn’t. Even if I had to bring along that old foam roll-up pad that I can’t stand the sight of, I would do it. So, whether you grab an ultralight pad, an old school one, self-inflating or a normal version, do it. You absolutely will not regret it. Backcountry hunting is hard and you will appreciate the good night’s sleep at the end of a long day. Sleep is fuel and fuel is one of those things you need to keep pushing.

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