We are happy to welcome back  James Menta of 3beds.com  for this post. Remember, guest writers are always welcome here – so if you have an idea for a blog post that you think would be helpful to the readers, bring it!

Our third day on Cumberland Island…a chilly spring morning.

My wife and I had been planning the trip for about 6 months and we were finally there.

She’s stirring up some cocoa and instant coffee on that blue little beaten-up stove we should have replaced years ago. She’s so excited she can’t stop talking.

She’s talking about wild horses we saw strolling on the beach the day before, armadillos, raccoons and all I can think about is how I don’t want to get up. My eyelids weigh a ton, my hips and shoulders are aching…I’m feeling weak beyond words.

I somehow gathered the will to get up and the caffeine boost gave me just enough strength to be able to enjoy the beauties of the island that are second to none and wonder what was going with me.


Cumberland Island Beach

It wasn’t until the end of that that day, inflating my air pad for the next night and laying my aching body on it that I realized what’s going on – I wasn’t getting enough proper rest.

Not enough proper rest along the trail and nowhere enough quality sleep at night.

It was the air pad I’ve chosen for myself just a few weeks back. I remember that day at the store very well. I remember myself, an inexperienced hiker, standing there and talking to the salesperson convinced that he’s trying to squeeze out more money out of me by throwing around fancy terms like “insulation, R and temperature ratings, comfort”…

My response, “Just give me the yellow one.”

That was over decades ago. There are thousands of miles of trail in my proverbial rearview mirror since and what I’d say is a decent know-how about what’s important on the trail, especially when it comes to gear, whether you take day hikes or car camping.

That’s what this article about – choosing the best air pad / airbed for your specific set of needs without breaking the bank.

So, let’s get cracking and let’s talk sleeping pads…

Types of inflatables

Basically, there are two types of pads and one of those has a subtype:

  • Foam mats
  • Air pads (regular and self-inflating)

Foam mats

Cheap and light, you’ll see these strapped to the sides of backpacks of most hikers who are on overnight hikes.

On their own, they provide very little apart from the basic protection from the ground and its pesky buzzards but combine them with a good air pad or even just a sleeping bag and you have what is probably most widely accepted sleeping arrangement for a hiker.

The main advantages:

Cheap and light. It’s only normal that you’ll find models of foam mats out there that will cost over 100 bucks. But if you look past the fancy names, shiny surfaces and weird patterns, these are all made from closed-cell foam and there’s really no reason to splurge here.


Foam mat

Main issue:

You don’t inflate or deflate these, so they can’t be “packed” like an air pad, you just fold them and attach them to the side or the bottom of the backpack and that means a bulky addition. Again, used on their own, they are really only an option for short rests along the trail.

Air pads

These are what you’d cool an “old-school” air pad, in spite of the fact that there’s nothing old school about them anymore.

From the materials used, the pumps, the construction…today, air pads are anything but old school.

So much has changed that, today, you have the option to choose anything from a sturdy thick pad to pads for ultra-light hikers that pack to the size of a soda can, featuring just a piece of light material around the edges and at crucial support areas.


Ultra-light airpad

Choose a one-way valve –

these pads are manually inflated and they feature a built-in hand pump or simply have a valve that you blow into. If it’s the later, choosing a one-way valve will eliminate the issue of air leaking back between blows, the air can go in but not back out. A separate valve is used when you want to deflate.

Main advantages:

They pack very small.

Main issues

: It’s not a good idea using them on their own since they’re prone to punctures.

Self-inflating pads

It was the early 70s, the time of the infamous Boeing layoffs when an engineer that was just let go, John Boroughs changed the landscape of the air pad industry forever.

While gardening, he noticed a special quality in the foam mats he was using. The mats were made from open-cell foam and would let air out as you apply pressure and suck it back in regaining their initial shape when released.

A few years later, he and his two engineer friends brought a revolutionary product to the market of camping gear – a self-inflating pad.

The inside of these pads is a thick layer of the mentioned open cell foam and the process of inflating and deflating seems like there has to be some kind of battery operated pump involved when in fact, it’s just the ability the of the material to regain shape.

It’s pretty simple – you open the valve, press and fold the pad to deflate it. When you open the valve again, the tiny tubes in the structure of the foam suck the air back in.


Foam mat and self-inflating pad

Main advantages:

If you are using a regular air pad all you have beneath is basically a piece of material filled with air. Since it’s prone to punctures, you can easily be left with a useless piece of plastic on the trail. With a self-inflating pad, however, even if the material does get punctured, there’s still foam inside and can offer reasonable comfort and insulation.

Main issues:

Because there’s foam inside, you can never fold a self-inflating pad to the size of an air pad, the foam ads bulk even when the air is squeezed out. Additionally, these pads tend to have a higher price tag compared to a regular air pad.

Choosing the right length and width

The tendency in the industry is to go lighter and smaller which, in reality, adds little value to the average hiker, especially for day hikes.

For backpacking, camping and overnight hikes, the little weight you can shed by going ultra-light rarely justifies the sacrifice of comfort (unless you are an ultra-light hiker, in which case, every ounce matters). This especially goes if you are expecting low temperatures.

If that’s the case, it’s a probably the best idea to go with a pad that comfortably fits the width of your shoulder and the full length of your body.

For day hikes, you can opt in for anything from a set sized pad or a regular pad that can be folded and used as a comfy improvised “chair” for rests along the trail.

R-value and temperature ratings

This is where it gets a bit confusing, and to be blunt, a part of it is the fault of companies making the inflatables.

But, let’s do what we can do and clarify what’s what…

What is R-value in the first place?

It’s a standard value used to measure Thermal Resistance (hence the R). In other words, it’s a measure of well your pad is at insulating it you from the temperatures of the ground you lay it on.

It is a standard value and can I compare it across brands?

The answers to these are, “yes”, and “probably not the best idea”.

It is a standard value and it has a unique formula used to calculate it. However (and this is a dirt little secret of the industry) there is no standard of how it’s measured. This means that comparing it across brands is, to say the least, imprecise and not recommended.

How does it relate to temperatures I’m expecting?

This is probably where most of the confusion stems from. If you are looking to get an air pad and come across one that only lists the R-value in the fact sheet, how do you if the inflatable is the best choice for your needs?

Not a simple question, with all the confusing information, R-values and temperature ratings out there.

So, to make some sense of it, we gathered a pool of data about R-values and temperature ratings across about a dozen of brands and few hundred products and came up with the following reference table:



To simplify things –

unless you are expecting some extreme conditions, in reality, you probably don’t need to go to these lengths to understand R-value.

The range between 3 and 4.5 are what you would call a 4-season pad, meaning that it covers most of the scenarios an average hiker will come across.

What if I have multiple items (like a foam mat and an air pad)?

You simply add the R-value up to get the R-value of the setting you’ve chosen for yourself.

There is some loss of (insulation) properties but it’s not a value that would make a difference on the trail.

As a rule of thumb – if you are setting up two layers, go with the thicker on top (ex. foam mat + air pad)


Air pad on top of a foam mat


Camping air mattresses

It’s not news when we say that a regular air mattress (the kind you might use when you have guests over or even for everyday use)

is only an option if you are driving to the campsite rather than backpacking.

The best air mattresses offer unparalleled comfort. Whether you go with a high-rise or have enough space to go with a luxury of a high-rise or an EZ airbed (the frames of the EZ bed will keep you completely off the ground), an air mattress is as close as you can get to the feeling of a regular bed.


Camping air mattress

Since not many hikers will opt in for an air mattress, let’s just briefly go over a few rules of thumb for the ones who do:

  • Choose an air mattress with an extra thick PVC or full-textile – these are the most durable and least prone to punctures
  • Go with chambered design – the airbeds with an internal structure or chambers or air coils will distribute weight much better and will be the most comfortable
  • Make sure the pump can be battery and manually operated. A regular air mattress for home use will feature a pump that needs to be plugged into a wall and not all of these can use batteries or fit a nozzle of a manual or leg pump. For camping – make sure that the blow-up bed you choose has the option.
  • If your plan doesn’t include setting up a tent, you can always opt-in for a truck or SUV air bed. These are specifically designed to fit different vehicles.
  • Read reviews of the air mattresses before you make any decisions. Who better to tell you if an air mattress fits the bill than the people already using it? If you have your eye on a certain model, go through the online reviews and look for consumer experiences with the airbed on a campsite.

Summing it up

Getting proper rest can make or break your adventure.

If your body aches and your mind is begging you for some quiet time and rest, will you be able to fully appreciate everything Mother Nature is placing in front of you.

Knowledge and proper planning is a significant part of the equation of a perfect hike or a camping trip.

Should you find yourself in a position to choose an air mattress or a sleeping pad and you think of something that you read here today, writing these pages is time well spent.

Stay smart and enjoy every step


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