Gear Q&A: Should I Get a Foam or Inflatable Sleeping Pad For My Thru-Hike?

The following Gear Question was pulled from the Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers Class of 2015 page on Facebook.  If you have a question you’d like answered, simply let your trusty Gear Aficionado know in the comments below.

Question: Should I Get a Foam or Inflatable Sleeping Pad For My Thru-Hike?

Answer: A great night’s slumber is important for a thru-hiker for muscle recovery and mental stability! Sleeping on the ground for six months doesn’t have to be brutal. As in all gear choices, the best sleeping pad will depend on your preferences. However, as a thru-hiker, weight, packed size, durability, heat reflection, and comfort should all be considered. There are two types of backpacking sleeping pads: foam and inflatable.

Foam Pads

foam pads

Foam pads will be the cheapest option for those looking to save some money and/or weight. What you save in money you do forfeit in comfort. However, foam pads do come in a variety of textures, offering some comfort variability. These pads are durable and provide great insulation. Do consider these pads will not typically fit inside your pack and will have to be strapped to the outside (either rolled up or folded accordion style).

Inflatable Pads

maninflatpads

Manual Inflatable Pads

selfinflatpads

Self-Inflating Pads

Inflatable pads can be expensive but are worth the comfort, especially for those who sleep on their side. There are self-inflating pads and manual inflatable pads. The manual inflatable pads will be your thickest option but do consider that you have to blow-up the pad by mouth every night. However, this does allow you to adjust the pad’s firmness. The thickness is also great when rain decides to infiltrate your tent, leaving you dry on your thick pad. Some inflatable pads do come with a pump but that is just another thing to weigh down your pack. An inflatable pad is the top choice if you are concerned about comfort but do realize there is a risk of puncture.

Inflatable pads can be heavy. However, some models have “cut-out” portions of the pad to save on weight. Although these are lighter than the average inflatable pad, heat reflection is lacking. This type of pad is perfect for summer but might cause cold nights during the winter.

holepads

Size

Once you decide on either foam or inflatable, size is next to be considered. Sleeping pads vary in length, width, and thickness. Inflatable pads will offer the thickest choices. If you tend to roll around in your sleep, a wider pad might be perfect for you. If you are shorter or simply want to cut on weight, you might find a shorter length to be your best option.

Notes

  • Some pads are targeted specifically for women by a shorter length and more insulation at the feet and hips.
  • If no sleeping pad seems right for you, you just might be a hammocker! However, some hammockers do use a foam pad for added insulation and nights slept in a shelter.

Verdict

I always recommend an inflatable sleeping pad for a thru-hiker because it is more comfortable, less bulky, insulating, and lightweight options are available. Inflatable pads might not be as durable but I have never had a problem with my inflatable sleeping pad.

Resources

Review of my sleeping pad, Thermarest’s NeoAir
Review of a “cut out” inflatable sleeping pad, the Klymit Inertia
Reviews of Men’s Top Sleeping Pads
Review of Women’s Top Sleeping Pads
REI’s How to Choose a Sleeping Pad


Have a burning gear question regarding your upcoming thru-hike? Put your question in the comments to be answered in another Q&A post!

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Comments 16

  • Avatar
    Kye : Jun 12th

    Just one little issue with the inflatables: they. Are. LOUD. I dread it every time someone rolls into a shelter after me and starts huffing into their mattress five feet away, soon to be followed by a night of non-stop squeaking. I hope hikers with inflatable pads are getting a truly fantastic night’s sleep—because the rest of us aren’t sleeping at all.

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