“Without thee what is all the morning’s wealth?
Come, blessed barrier between day and day,
Dear mother of fresh thoughts and joyous health!”
~William Wordsworth, “To Sleep”
Whether on or off the trail, lack of sleep significantly effects how we feel and perform during the day. Therefore, when it comes to choosing a sleeping mat, the key is to find out what level of comfort you require in order to obtain a good night’s rest. The decision ultimately boils down to two factors: individual needs and the conditions at hand.
- Pro’s: Greater comfort; more compact; generally better insulation in the cold.
- Con’s: Heavier; need to be more selective about where you sleep due to risk of puncture; more expensive.
CLOSED CELL FOAM
- Pro’s: Practically indestructible; lighter; can be used as a makeshift frame inside ultralight packs; good for stretching on; inexpensive.
- Con’s: Not as comfortable; bulkier; if strapped on the outside of your pack, are prone to get caught or tear when hiking through overgrown terrain.
HORSES FOR COURSES
- Desert / Rocky Terrain: If you are hiking in a desert or a particularly rocky environment go with a closed cell foam mat. Punctures are common and those repair kits they give you don’t always do the trick. If a foam model doesn’t provide you with sufficient comfort, consider combining a thin foam mat with a torso length inflatable mat. This combination safeguards against punctures, whilst also providing extra insulation from the ground. The downside, of course, is a little extra weight.
- Freezing temps / Insulation: If hiking in extremely cold conditions, no matter what type of sleeper you are, the key is insulation (see R-Value below). You may have a super warm sleeping bag, but if you don’t have sufficient insulation from the ground you are going to be cold. In such circumstances I will often “double up”, carrying both a closed cell foam mat and a lightweight inflatable .
- R-Value measures a mat’s resistance to heat flow. The higher the R-Value, the more insulation the sleeping mat will provide. In sub-zero temperatures most people (varies according to the individual) require an R-Value of 4 or more in order to feel comfortable. In milder conditions, sleeping mats with R-Values of 2 to 3 generally suffice for most hikers.
If you are one of those people who can sleep on anything, anywhere at anytime, chances are you will be fine with a foam mat. If you are at the other end of the “sleeping comfort” spectrum, than you will probably require an inflatable mat in order to obtain a good night’s sleep. Most of us fall somewhere in between, thus personal experience will ultimately be your best guide.
3/4 Length Mats: Over the years I have gone back and forward between closed cell foam and inflatable. The one constant in my sleeping system is that I always use mats which are no more than 3/4 length. At night I sleep with my feet on top of my pack. In addition to saving on weight and volume, such a system in which the feet are elevated, has the added benefit of reducing swelling in the lower extremities after a long day on the trail.