Insulated sleeping pads are made for backpacking in three seasons. We put these ultralight sleeping pads to test over the course of a wet spring on Vancouver Island. They were tested on a variety of surfaces, temperatures, and trips and compared them based on ease of use, comfort, durability, warmth and weight to create an overall Gear Institute rating.
The Nomad Camping Mattress Insulated pad is more a mattress than a sleeping pad. At 6 inches thick and nearly 4 pounds in weight, the Nomad Camping is best suited for car camping and winter outings when the campers can't stand the thought of sleeping on the ground.
The Klymit Static V Insulated earned accolades for its performance on winter backcountry trips. Though not the lightest or most compact, it proved to be comfortable and well insulated, making it a winner for cold camps.
The Therm-a-Rest ProLite Apex earned rave comments from testers regarding its comfort and durability. The ProLite also sports an attractive price, making it affordable as well as effective in four-season backpacking use. The ProLite Apex is the best choice for general backpacking when price and performance are equally important.
The Therm-a-Rest Luxury Map is the largest in our insulated sleeping pad test and best suited for car camping. The Luxury Map is bulky and heavy, but it has great insulation and unmatched comfort – it's a fine mattress when weight and space aren't issues of concern.
The NeoAir XTherm proved to be an effective pad for cold-weather specialists such as mountaineers and backcountry skiers. The XTherm is the lightest, warmest and most compact pad in this class. It is the go-to choice for backcountry winter adventures.
So now you know which insulated sleeping pads were our favorite, but exactly how did they all compare against one another? Below we have described our scoring metrics in detail and discuss which products performed the best and the worst in each category.
The easiest way to compare warmth in a sleeping pad is to compare R-values. An R-value is a measurement of the capacity of a material to resist heat flow, with the higher the number equalling better insulation. Even if you don’t understand exactly how this relates to keeping you warm or what temperature this translates to comfort, it is simple enough to understand that a higher R-value pad will keep you warmer. R-value is a standardized number that is easy to compare. Many companies, but not all, test and rate their products in this way. Starting in 2020, the entire industry is adopting an R-value standard, so soon it will be even easier to compare products. Most lightweight summer sleeping pads will have R-values between 1 and 3 and four-season insulated sleeping pads will be rated 4 or higher.
The product with the highest R-value in our field test was the Therm-a-Rest Luxury map, with a rating of 6.8. This is followed by the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm at 5.7. It is worth noting that these two warmest pads serve opposite purposes: the Luxury Map is large and heavy, but so comfortable for car camping. The NeoAir XTherm is lightweight and packable, which makes it perfect for backcountry use.
Two pads in our test did not have R-values listed for them: the Nemo Nomad Camping Mattress and the Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air. The AXL is lightweight and packable so we brought it with us on an overnight ski tour. It did not keep us warm. Even when using an excellent sleeping bag, we could feel cold seeping up from the snow through the mat and had to stuff extra jackets underneath our body to make it through the night. Our conclusion is that the Big Agnes AXL Air should not be used for winter trips or camping on snow. All of the other pads in this review performed much better in than the AXL in terms of warmth.
Comfort is a subjective scoring metric, though it is supremely important. After many nights of testing our standout favorite is the Therm-a-Rest Luxury Map. A self-inflating pad, this mat has thick urethane foam inside it which provides insulation as well as cushion. It is beefed up with the addition of air. Our testers have found that the stable, firm-yet-cushioned feel of sleeping on the self-inflating mattresses that combine both foam and air is their favorite. Unlike an air construction pad that feels bouncy and overly round underneath you as it resists your weight, the body can sink into the Luxury Map ever-so-slightly in a way that feels comforting and familiar. The Luxury Map earns bonus points for its silky soft stretch-knit fabric surface that is far more luxurious than any competitor. All that being said, the Luxury Map cannot be carried into the backcountry, so it is only suitable for car camping.
The ProLite Apex is also a self-inflating pad and offers a similar stable cushion to the Luxury Map at a much lower weight and smaller packed size. When inflated, the surface is slightly ridged, which our testers enjoyed. Several testers reported preferring the feel of this pad to air construction pads.
When it comes to the smaller, lighter, and more packable pads several are notable in terms of comfort. Both the Sea to Summit Etherlight and Comfort Plus are designed with what the company calls “air spring cells.” These small pillows of air provide a surface that is more similar to a mattress than an inflatable pad, and our testers love the feel. Additionally, the Comfort Plus is inflated on both the top and the bottom surface, which adds a little extra work at the outset, but allows for customizable inflation. If you like things a little softer, the top surface can be deflated slightly to your desired level of cushion.
For campground camping during early spring, late fall, or the middle of winter, weight is not much of a concern. If you don’t need to carry your sleeping pad more than a few feet from the car to the tent, then you can bring the biggest, cushiest, and heaviest pad there is and be happier for it. This is the application for the Luxury Map and the Nemo Nomad, both of which weigh more than three pounds.
If you have any aspirations to get into the mountains during the colder months, weight becomes a huge concern. The lightest pad in our test was the Big Agnes AXL Air, which weighed 12.4 ounces on our scale. A close second was the NeoAir XTherm at 15 ounces. For a winter backcountry mission, we would rather bring the NeoAir because it is far better and insulating than the AXL.
The Sea to Summit W’s Etherlight, Therm-a-Rest ProLite Apex, and Klymit Static V all weigh roughly 1 pound 7 ounces, which is acceptable for carrying in a backpack, especially since all of these are comfortable and have an R-value of 4 or higher.
Like weight, packed size only matters if you plan to carry your sleeping pad with you to a backcountry destination. Then it matters quite a lot. As you can see in the photo above, the Luxury Map and Nemo Nomad Camping Mattress are much too large to carry in a backpack, even though they are very pleasant to sleep on at a campground. The most packable pad is the Big Agnes AXL Air, which rolls up into a tiny package. However, because of its lack of insulating performance, we don’t recommend this pad, even for the long-distance backcountry traveler. The next smallest is the NeoAir XTherm, which is by far our favorite pad to take on climbing, skiing, and winter backpacking adventures.
During our test period, we did not have any failures or durability issues with any of our tested products and we were not particularly delicate with them either. This leads us to conclude that they are all well made. However, we can make some assumptions about the long term durability of each pad based on its features. When an air construction pad gets punctured, it stops working altogether. While inflated it is thick and cushy, but without any air, it becomes a lifeless skin. The two self-inflating pads in our test, the Therm-a-Rest Luxury Map and the ProLite Apex have a layer of foam within them, so if those mats suffer a puncture, they can still insulate the sleeper somewhat. It would definitely be less comfortable, but there would still be some insulation. This is like extra safety insurance. The Sea to Summit Comfort Plus also has an extra layer of safety built-in. Since it has two inflatable chambers, if one pops, the other one will still work. The pad won’t be as thick or as plush, but it will still function.
But how resistant are these products to punctures in the first place? The best way for us to assess durability to punctures is to look at the materials used on the bottom of each pad. Fabrics that have a higher denier typically translates to thicker and tougher materials. Among the products we tested, the Klymit Static V and the Nemo Nomad feature the strongest materials, both use 75 denier polyester. The Luxury Map has 75D fabric on the bottom only and the NeoAir XTherm has 70D material on the bottom only. The rest of the products use 40 or 50 denier materials, which may be plenty durable for the average user. The only product where we could not determine the density of the material used was the Big Agnes AXL Air, which does not list this spec.
Ease of Use
Sleeping pads are simple products. When it comes to ease of use, what we are really measuring is: how long does it take to inflate and deflate? And how easy is the valve to use? The Big Agnes AXL and the NeoAir XTherm suffer a bit here because they both take a lot of air to blow them up. The two self-inflating pads stand out in this category because they are so simple: unroll the pad, open the valve, and let it sit. Our testers typically add a few puffs of air into them before sleeping on them, but it takes far fewer breaths and much less time then it does to inflate a NeoAir to full firmness.
The two Sea to Summit pads that we tested both have unique multi-function valves that increase ease of use. If the top lid is removed, a one-way valve is revealed. This is for inflation. It can be blown into or the stuff sack can attach to it for easier inflation. (More on that below.) If the second layer of the valve is removed, it opens a large hole which dumps the air out of the pad quickly. Though this valve has a slightly higher learning curve than most twist-and-lock valves, once we started using it, we loved it.
These Sea to Summit Pads are especially easy to inflate with the special stuff sacks. While one end of the sack opens to store the pad, the other end opens into a pump sack with a nozzle that mates with the pad’s valve. Attach these together, then open the stuff sack and blow one easy breath into it. The sack should be filled with air, but not be airtight. Next, begin rolling the sack down from the top. This squeezes the air into the pad. (It is fun to watch the air cells spring up as they fill.) It typically took our testers between 2-4 rolls to get the pads fully inflated.
Lastly, there is the Nemo Nomad Camping Mattress. This is by far the largest and thickest pad that we reviewed, which means it needs the most air. Thankfully, it does not require any blowing or breathing to inflate. Instead, there is a foot-pump valve. Remove the cap, step on the valve, and keep pumping with your leg. The mattress inflates fully in a couple of minutes.
First and foremost, our testing process involves using the products. For insulated sleeping pads, that means camping, and not just fairweather camping, but winter camping. We assembled a team of more than 8 different testers of varying ages, genders, experience levels, and camping preference. Then we took these pads on winter desert camping trips in Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks, early spring camping near Tahoe, carried them on overnight ski tours in the Sierra, and flew them onto the Pika Glacier in Alaska where our test team then proceeded to wait out a two-week storm. After nearly a year of hands-on-testing, this experience gave us a practical foundation to form our opinions.
Then we got into the nitty-gritty details. We compiled a spreadsheet where we noted the R-value of each pad, listed the dimensions, and recorded the prices. We weighed each pad on our own scale to verify how heavy each product really is. Every pad was rolled into its stuff sack and photographed next to one another for obvious packed size comparison. We compared the durability of materials used, thicknesses, insulation, and valves. We researched each product and read other user reviews. The result is a well-informed opinion that you can trust.
What is an Insulated Sleeping Pad?
All sleeping pads are designed to insulate a sleeping person from the cold-emitting ground. Even when camping in the summer, a sleeping mat is an essential piece of gear that keeps each camper comfortable, warm, and safe.
Within the broader category of sleeping pads, there are three main styles of construction:
Closed-cell foam mats
These pads consist only of pieces of foam, sometimes with pieces of different densities welded together. They are extremely easy to use because they do not need to be inflated or stuffed into a sack. These pieces of foam are also extremely durable. Most often closed-cell foam mats are used for lightweight summer backpacking, or as an additional insulating layer underneath a four-season insulated sleeping mat when camping on top of the snow.
Inflatable Air Construction pads
Air construction mats require being blown up. The air provides cushion to the sleeper and the interior design includes baffles, insulation, or reflective materials to provide insulation from the ground. Inflatable pads roll up very small when deflated and fit easily inside a backpack. The benefit to inflatable pads is that they are the lightest and most packable, so are ideal on trips when weight matters (and it usually does.) The downside is that inflatable mats are fragile; there is always the chance of a puncture. They also tend to be expensive.
Self-inflating pads fall in between closed-cell foam mat and air construction pads: they are inflatable sleeping pads with foam inside. An inflatable mat is like a limp deflated balloon until it is blown up. A self-inflating pad resembles a squished sponge or one of those tiny foam creatures that start in the shape of a pill until you drop it in water. When the valve is opened, the internal foam springs up and fills with air, holding a predetermined structure, just like the sponge or tiny dinosaur. To get one of these mats to self-inflate, all you need to do is unroll the pad and open the valve. Leave it alone for a while, then top it off with a few breaths before sleeping on it. Self-inflating mats are more durable than inflatable pads but less so than foam mats since they can still pop. They are bulkier and heavier than air construction pads, but smaller than foam mats.
Insulated Sleeping Pads
Like sleeping bags, sleeping mats come in different temperature ranges for use in different seasons and conditions. Lightweight pads designed for summer backpacking provide necessary insulation, but prioritize low weight and small packed size, because backpacking is more fun when you carry less weight. Sleeping pads designed for use in winter and for sleeping on ice and snow need to be much warmer and more insulating than ultralight products. Insulated sleeping pads are designed for four-season use, which is usually accomplished by including actual insulation on the interior of the pad, whether it is an air construction pad or a self-inflating one. Many use Primaloft or some other synthetic insulation (similar to that inside a synthetic jacket) to slow the transfer of heat between surfaces of the sleeping pad. Some just use urethane foam. Either way, an insulated pad increases how warm a person will feel when sleeping on it, even in winter conditions.
There are two main styles of four-season insulated sleeping pads that are designed for different camping scenarios:
Car Camping Mattresses
Insulated car camping mattresses are warm enough for four-season use, but many will want to use them for summer camping as well. These are large, thick, cushioned pads that resemble a bed or a blow-up mattress more than a sleeping pad. They are too large and heavy to ever consider carrying in a backpack, but they are far more portable than an actual bed. Therefore car camping mattresses are best for use when you don’t have to walk far from your car to your tent. For many people, this is the only type of sleeping mat they will ever need, so why not choose the warmest and most comfortable one?
Packable Backcountry Sleeping Pads
For people who like to head into the backcountry during the winter months, such as skiers, mountaineers, and avid backpackers, something smaller and lighter than a car camping mattress is required. For these outdoor adventurers, small packed size and low weight are still a priority, but warmth is also key, especially if the tent will be erected on top of the snow. Using a pad that is not well-insulated results in a miserably cold night (trust us—we had a bad experience with one pad in this test!).