“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 trail or off, lack of sleep significantly affects 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 into which you are venturing.
- Pro’s: Greater comfort; more compact; generally better insulation in the cold; models with thinner materials (e.g. Thermarest NeoAir), can be utilized as a makeshift framesheet by doubling them over and placing them against the back of your pack’s interior (see Skills – Loading your Pack).
- Con’s: Need to be more selective about where you sleep due to risk of puncture; more expensive; generally heavier, however, in recent years the emergence of lighter models (e.g. Thermarest NeoAir Small 8 oz) means that the weight/bulk penalty once associated with choosing an inflatable over a foam model is no longer what it was.
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 for an extended period in a desert or a particularly rocky environment, consider going 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 (e.g. Gossamer Gear Thinlight Foam Pad – 1/8” / 2.5 oz) 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 in addition to 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.
- Groundsheet: If you’re using a tarp as your shelter (i.e. no floor), I recommend carrying a ground sheet. For a weight penalty of only one to three ounces, a cut-down-to-size sheet of polycro plastic or Tyvek is worth carrying in order to protect the bottom of your mat. This especially holds true if you are using an inflatable model.
Less is More
3/4 Length Mats: Over the years I have gone back and forth between closed cell foam and inflatable models. That being said, the one constant in my sleeping system is that I have always used mats that are no more than 3/4 length.
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.
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 happen to be at the other end of the “sleeping comfort” spectrum, then you will probably require an inflatable mat in order to obtain a good night’s rest.
Most of us fall somewhere in between. Personal experience will ultimately be your best guide.