This post is part of the Backpacking Gear for Beginners course.
Why do you need a sleeping mat?
Since you’re going to be sleeping outside, you need something to sleep on. We can bring a big foam mattress, or even a large inflatable mattress. There are a couple options for something small enough to fit in your backpack.
Thin foam is the first option. The blue mats you’ve probably seen rolled up, or the folded foam mats. They are simple, never get holes and don’t need to be inflated. They’re also not very comfortable.
Inflatable is another option. Most Therm-a-rest are inflatable as with many other brands like Exped, Big Agnes and Nemo. They pack down very small and inflate to 3 or 4 inches thick.
Inflatable or not?
For me this is an easy question. Inflatable mats are more comfortable to sleep on. They’re also a bit more expensive and can get holes. The absolute cheapest and most durable are the rolled and folded foam mats.
Lay on and move on the fabric
If you can, test the mat in a tent in a store or friends tent. Different sleeping mat and tent materials can be very noisy when you move. I have a very lightweight tent and mat combo that I like but together they are obnoxiously loud when I move at night. Some clothes in between solved the issue but I should have tested the mat first.
Some mats just have air in them, some have synthetic or down feather insulation. These block all your heat from escaping down into the ground at night. Your sleeping bag has insulation but when it’s all squished by your body, it won’t keep the heat in.
Look for an R-value on sleeping mats. Just like sleeping bags and insulation in your house, the R-value measures the insulation value. 0 to 4 is for summer or 3 season. 5 to 8 is getting up into cold and winter insulation. If you have a warmer sleeping bag, you can get away with a lower R-value.
Thicker materials and insulation add weight to a mat. Don’t go overboard with either since you have to carry it.
Get a bag to inflate
Some mats will come with a pumpbag you can use to inflate your mat. It’s a little bit more work to blow up the mat but your mat will last longer. A pump bag like the Schnozzel from Exped is super light and doubles as a waterproof dry bag for your sleeping bag.