Choose the right sleeping pad alongside a backpacking quilt and a tarp tent, and you can have an ultralight sleeping system under 2kg / 4.5lbs that will accompany you anywhere.
And there is no need to break the bank, with tried and tested quality designs under 100$ that can handle years of abuse on the trail, at the back of your car, or supplementing rock-hard mattresses across Asia.
Important Characteristics For Budget-Minded Trekkers And Backpackers
Cut. With low weight and bulk in mind, travelers, hikers and backpackers can forget about the many “luxury” and extra-large editions. Buy only what you need. Narrow fits and rounded corners reduce your burden, but also reclaim precious space in your tent.
Size. If you are short or a side-sleeper, consider the “small” sleeping pad sizes. Several companies also offer 3/4 length versions. An empty backpack or clothes are usually enough for the feet. Or a big pillow made from your spare clothes for the head area. You will save 10-30% on the regular-sized model.
Insulation. Unless you are exclusively car camping or traveling through tropical countries, a minimum R value of 1.5 to 2 is a must for true 3-season use. Make that 3 to 4 or more for 4-season use. Female campers should also consider the women’s version where available, which trades length for warmth.
Durability. Ultralight mats look good on paper, but tend to fail systematically when you are far away from a replacement. What’s the point of carrying something you can’t rely on? And can you really afford to buy a short-lived item on a budget?
Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads
The basic option. The classic foam sleeping mattresses have been around for decades, and remain an excellent choice, either as a standalone camping mattress or to supplement and protect air pads. Can also double as yoga mat, camping seat, etc.
Subpar Comfort & Warmth. Foams are thin, usually under 2 cm / 0.75 in. Enough for gnarly mountaineers, but uncomfortable for many, especially side sleepers. R values oscillate between 0.5 and 2.
High Bulk & Low Weight. As long as you don’t mind carrying your foam on the outside of your backpack, the significant bulk is not much of a problem. Typical weights are pleasantly light at around 200-400 g / 7-14 oz.
Durable & Affordable. The closed-cell foam does collapse over time, but quality pads last a long time. And with most price tags well under 40$, this choice firmly remains in budget territory.
Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads
Self-inflating pads rely on air trapped in a dense foam to provide loft and insulation. Rather than boasting with a few strong points, they are versatile and reasonably priced all-around workhorses.
Decent Comfort & Warmth. The thickness of trekking and backpacking models usually lies between 2-4 cm / 0.8-1.6 in. The R values too are average, between 2 and 3.5. But even fully deflated they still provide some insulation.
Average Bulk & Weight. Compared to classic foam pads, bulk is reduced by half. On the other hand, self-inflating mats are heavy, starting at around 500 g / 18 oz. Beefy base camp and car camping models even exceed 1 kg / 35 oz.
Durable & Affordable. Thicker fabrics and better weight distribution thanks to the dense foam greatly extends their life. Self-inflating mats are not immune to punctures, but tears are extremely rare. With much competition from the newer fancy inflatable air mattresses, prices remain reasonable.
Inflatable Sleeping Pads
Progress in materials and designs led to the popular inflatable sleeping pads conquering much of the market. For occasional use and deep-pocketed individuals they are indeed attractive. But for budget-minded heavy users they come with severe drawbacks.
Excellent Comfort & Warmth. Having 5-8 cm / 2-3 in of adjustable firmness under your bum feels almost decadent. Especially if you are upgrading from a thin foam or self-inflating mat. It’s hard to go back if you buy one, especially for tossers and side sleepers. Once fully inflated, many models boasts with impressive R ratios between 4 and 7.
Low Bulk & Weight. It’s impossible to beat their rolled-up size, usually smaller than a water bottle. On the scale too air pads are impressive, starting at around 450 g / 15 oz and going all the way down to 170 g / 6 oz for the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite in small.
Fragile & Expensive. Even air mattresses made out of high-quality materials only need one unlucky sharp rock or twig to become a useless shell of high-tech fabrics. And then there is the hefty price tag, generally between 100 and 250$.
Yes, they can be field-repaired. But for heavy and continued use, adding a thin foam pad underneath is essential to reduce punctures, overall abrasion and to introduce some redundancy. However, this it all but negates the bulk and weight benefits.
Top Budget Foam Sleeping Pad:
Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol
By far the best closed-cell foam mat on the market. The Z Lite has been the classic companion of mountaineers and climbers for many years for a good reason.
Out in the mountains, when your life might depend on retaining your body heat, you can only afford to carry the warmest pad that is guaranteed not to fail on sharp rocks. Or a pair of crampons.
Comfort & Warmth. The Z Lite Sol relies on a 3D structure that resembles an egg carton, dual density foam and a reflective coating on one side to maximize heat retention and comfort. The R ratio is a very respectable 2. This pad is an outlier in terms of comfort and warmth, at least for a closed-cell foam.
Bulk & Weight. The accordion design eliminates empty spaces when folded. It also makes an excellent seat to keep your bum off the cold ground. The regular size weighs around 410 g / 14 oz, and the 3/4 length brings this down to a mere 290 g / 10 oz.
Durability & Ease Of Use. The dimples eventually flatten over time, reducing comfort and insulation properties. But it takes some heavy use before you get there, unlike the cheaper Aliexpress knock-offs. And compared to air mattresses, it won’t ever let you down by surprise in the middle of the night. Plus it takes 2 seconds to fold.
Price. More expensive than most closed-cell foams, the Z Lite Sol still won’t break the bank at 35$ for the small size, and 45$ for the regular. Plus it’s regularly on sale.
Top Budget Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad:
Therm-A-Rest Prolite Plus
The Prolite Plus has been on the market virtually unchanged for decades, a testimony to its popularity. This extremely durable sleeping pad is still the best all-arounder when looking for a compromise between comfort, durability and weight.
Comfort & Warmth. With 3.8 cm / 1.5 in to keep you off the ground, this pad is a step up from the humble foam. It can take a little time to get used to, but it’s plenty for a comfortable night for most. The R ratio of 3.2, boosted to 3.9 for the women’s version, is sufficient for real 3 season use. And you can always supplement it with a foam for a resilient winter set-up.
Bulk & Weight. At 650 g / 23 oz for the regular size and 450 g / 15 oz in small, this mat is on the heavy side. Rolled up too it won’t impress anyone, although it’s obviously still much more compact than foam pads. But for the self-inflating sleeping mattress category, it’s almost as good as it gets.
Durability & Ease Of Use. The fabrics on this pad are tough. It will last you for many years, and is easily repaired in the field. Plus it comes with one of the last true lifetime warranties on the market. We had one delaminate after a decade. It got replaced, no questions asked.
Price. Around 100$ for the regular size might seem like a lot. But considering it will outlast most pads, and is backed by lifelong customer service, it’s a bargain.
Budget Inflatable Sleeping Pads:
Comfy, compact and ultralight. Inflatable sleeping pads are tempting. But their design is inherently more fragile. In real life, they simply don’t last that long.
Even the arguably most durable inflatable mattress, the NeoAir XTherm, fails after several months of heavy use. It’s a great piece of gear, but at over 200$, this is not budget territory anymore.
For value-oriented hikers and backpackers, you are left with two choices. Cheap Chinese inflatable air pads cost around 20 to 40$ on Aliexpress. Alternatively, some companies sell them directly, rebranded and with clever marketing such as the Vertex mattress. The verdict: durability and reliability are poor. Don’t bother.
The second and much smarter option is to wait for discounted inflatable mats, either during a sale or second hand. But supplementing your pad with a foam or at least a yoga mat as much as possible will still be the only way to significantly increase longevity.