First lets take a look why you should even be buying a pad at all. Pads no matter what they are filled with provide two major important factors while backpacking and or camping. The first thing they provide is comfort. They keep you off the hard ground allowing you a better night sleep. The second thing is that they provide insulation. Depending on the type of pad you get they can provide different comfort and insulation levels.
The major difference between foam sleeping pads and the inflatable pads is stated in their names. The foam pads are made of foam. The inflatable and self inflating pads inflate with air to provide you with comfort. The fact that a pad is either foam or inflatable does not mean that one is better than the other. Each pad has its pros and cons. My reasons for purchasing one over the other might not be the same as the next hiker. I always consider your pad as part of the "Big 3(+1)" Sleeping Bag, Sleeping Pad, Backpack, and Shelter.
Before buying a sleeping pad you will need to look at a few things
1. How will you be carrying it
If you are carrying it in your backpack you will want to make sure your pad weighs very little and is easy to pack or can roll up right. If you are car camping on the other hand you can go for a more luxurious heavier air mattress.
?¨2. Pad Length
Depending on how tall or short you are, you can save pack weight by choosing a shorter pad. Some people will sacrifice the extra weight to be more comfortable or to ensure that their feet do not hang off the end of the pad.
The R-Value is the value of resistance that the pad creates that hinders the flow of heat away from the persons body and the ground. Depending on the type of environment that you will be camping in will require different levels of R-Value. Phillip over at Section Hiker has a very detailed post R-Values and the R-Values of the most popular sleeping pads.
Now that you know the answer to the how, where, and length questions lets take more in depth look at the different types of pads.
Foam Sleeping Pads
Egg Carton Pads
Commonly known as Closed Cell Foam or CCF, these pads can either be rolled or folded to be attached to the outside of your pack. They are typically light in weight but can take up quite a bit of space. Most people will strap these to the outside of their backpacks. The foam pads are very durable, waterproof, warm enough for three-season hiking, and light.
"The Blue Pad"
The only real way to pack this guy is to roll it. A super cheap but very bulky pad. It is easy to find at most big box stores. It reminds us of a thick yoga mat. Many people do not find this pad to be extremely comfortable. There is nothing fancy about this pad and gives you a little cushion and heat resistance. One downside of this pad is that its R-Value 1.4 is quite low and will not provide much help during the winter months.
These pads are considered to be the most comfortable. They are inflated by the hiker. Inflating sleeping pads are the most expensive but give you the warmest R-Values and most comfort. The comfort comes at a price. Most come with pumps to assist in blowing up the pad. Many will even have the pump built in.
These are the lightest and most compact. These pads have been a mainstay in the backpackers gear kit for decades. To inflate you simply twist the valve open and let it inflate. They are usually constructed with a Closed Cell Foam but many of the newer pads have removed the CCF and rely completely on air to provide comfort.
**Adam Nutting is a regular contributor to the Sierra Social Hub as part of TeamSierra. Check out his blog, Hiking the Trail for more great outdoor information.