Sleeping pads provide a comfortable insulation layer between you and the ground. They serve two purposes: firstly, to prevent your body from losing heat directly to the ground, and secondly, to provide comfort and ensure a good night’s sleep. Recently, air-filled sleeping pads have become increasingly popular due to their comfort, lightweight and small packed volume.
Whether you have an ultra-light small sleeping pad or a simple foam mat, it’s worth taking time to think through how to care, pack and look after your pad to ensure that it lasts long and serves you well!
Check for wear and tear to the material (both top and bottom). Check that any valves are working (no hissing when closed and pressure on the mat) and that there are no punctures (check it stays inflated). Check that the material is clean and dry.
Although tempting to strap a sleeping pad to the outside of a pack, as seen in movies and many many other walkers, it really depends on the terrain as to whether or not this is a good idea. If you are expecting wide routes, little obstructing vegetation and no scrambling, then the chances of damaging sleeping pad are low. However, if you’re expecting even a small section of dense bush, narrow tracks or pushing packs over rocks, then there’s a good chance the pad will suffer quite a bit of damage when strapped outside. Try to have all you carry inside your pack.
If the only feasible way to carry your sleeping pad is to strap it to the outside of your pack, please do not wrap it in plastic garbage bags – these just get shredded on the track, and tiny bits of plastic will fly off into the bush. A classic way to destroy any hope of leaving no trace! If you need to strap it to the outside of your pack, then strap it to the very back of your pack where it will brush up against fewer plants. Avoid strapping it to the top, bottom or side of your pack, where the sleeping pad will be brushing up against rocks and plants often.
In the bush, treat your sleeping pad gently. Avoid using it on sharp surfaces, always put a groundsheet down first. Choose the smoothest surface to camp on, and remove surface rocks or sticks that may cause damage to the pad.
Expect your sleeping pad to get a bit dirty in the bush – this is something you can deal with at home. However, there are a few things worth cleaning up immediately if they are spilt on a sleeping pad: insect repellent with DEET can damage material, and sap from trees can stick to material and be hard to remove. Wash off with a cloth soaked in water. If the sap is hard to remove, consider using alcohol wipes from first aid kit.
When setting up your sleeping pad, over inflate it slightly. Then when you lay down, you can release a bit of air until it feels super comfortable. Roll on your side and make sure your hip is not pressing against the ground.
Repairs in the field
Finding a leak in the field can be disheartening, to say the least, but if you carry a patch repair kit, it’s usually fairly straightforward to repair. Remember, the job done in the field doesn’t have to be the final one, it’s merely a way to get the gear to last until the end of the trip. Even if you don’t have specific patches for a sleeping pad, you may find that improvising a patch with tape or bandages from your first aid kit is good enough to make the gear last the remainder of the trip, and you can do a more thorough repair at home.
The first thing is to find the leak. Sometimes this is easy as you can hear the air leak or see a hole. Other times, this can be much harder, especially if there is a tiny hole or a really slow leak. In these cases, it works well to use water to identify the leak. However, you need to make a judgement here: is it worth getting your sleeping pad wet? Are you able to dry it adequately before doing the repair and subsequently using it? If not, given that you have a slow leak, you may be better off just accepting the fact that the pad will leak a little over the course of the evening, and you need to re-inflate it during the night. This is usually the better option than sleeping on a semi-wet pad, with an improper repair job that only needs to be redone again and again. However, if you have good sun and warm conditions, and you can dry out the pad, then locating the hole by immersing the pad in water is helpful.
After finding the leak, use an alcohol-based wipe from a first aid kit to clean the area. Then follow the instructions on the patch and glue. Some adhesives need time to dry before applying the patch (this is called curing), while others don’t need a patch at all. In general, make sure that the patch covers at least 1 cm surrounding the hole, but follow specific instructions by the manufacturer.
Back home, clean off any dirt, insect repellent, sunscreen or anything else that has stuck to the pad using a damp cloth. If left on long-term, these can cause damage to the material, particularly if chemicals such as DEET have been used in the insect repellent. For stubborn stains, use biodegradable soap. Once a season, do a complete clean of sleeping mat to remove body sweat and dirt, as they can transfer to a sleeping bag and compromise performance. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for washing. With inflatable sleeping pads take care to ensure the valve is closed with cleaning, drying the inside is tricky and it should not need cleaning.
After cleaning, dry sleeping pad thoroughly (but avoid prolonged periods of direct sunlight), and open the valve. Take care to dry both the interior and exterior of the sleeping pad. Interior moisture can lead to mould and degradation of the material. To dry the interior is to use a hair dryer on a low setting to partially inflate the sleeping pad (deflate and repeat a few times).
For long-term storage, follow instructions specific to your sleeping pad as some need to be inflated (e.g. therm-a-rest©), while others can be left deflated (e.g. neoair©). In general, self-inflating pads should be stored semi-inflated for good air circulation, whereas air pads should be stored loosely and not folded along the same crease lines each time. Choose a cool, dry place that isn’t susceptible to extremely hot or wet weather.
Repairs at home
Repairing sleeping pads at home is far more luxurious than fixing them in the field. You can focus on getting the job done well, with the right gear for long-lasting results.
If you can’t find a hole, try filling a tub or bucket with water and add a drop of dishwashing detergent or soap. Inflate sleeping pad as much as possible and splash a small amount of water onto the surface of the pad. Look out for tiny bubbles to appear from where the leak is. If you still can’t see bubbles, try gently squeezing the pad. Dry the area thoroughly with a towel, and mark the leak by drawing a circle around it with a marker pen. It is possible to have more than one leak, so keep looking even after you have found the first leak.
After finding the leak(s) then follow the instructions on the patch and glue. Some adhesives need time to dry before applying the patch (this is called curing), while others don’t need a patch at all. In general, make sure that the patch covers at least 1 cm surrounding the hole, but follow specific instructions by the manufacturer. Fixing leaks on a seam can be more challenging, so take extra care to patch well.
Selecting a sleeping pad is an important choice – it’s the main thing that will keep you comfortable and warm during the night. When you lie directly on the ground, heat is transferred away from your body to the ground quickly because the ground is normally much colder than your body and very conductive. This means that you will lose body heat and get cold. Sleeping bag insulation only works when it is expanded, so sleeping bags provide essentially no insulation between you and the ground.
You do not ‘lose’ heat as such. Heat is a form of energy that can not be destroyed, but it can be moved or changed into a different form. We tend to ‘lose’ heat from it being transfered from us to something else and this can happen in three main ways.
1. Conduction is where heat moves from a hot object to a colder object (or area) by moving directly through material, similar to how electricity travels along a wire. You feel this when laying on a cool rock, parts of your body touching the rock feel cold as the heat moves from you to the rock. This transfer can be slowed by putting an insulator between you and the ground.
2. Convection creates circular air currents as warm air rises (eg to the top of the sleeping pad) swapping with cool air at the bottom. This movement of heat can be slowed by creating small air chambers and other barriers to slow or stop this air movement. You can see convection in action in a big way above a campfire with embers been lifted high above the fire.
3. Radiation is the transfer of heat as a form of light, radiant heat is the main warmth you mostly feel from a campfire and when in direct sunlight. Most of the heat is in the form of infrared light, so we can’t see it, but it moves the same as light. Radiant heat can be reflected (with a mirror) or absorbed into another material that will then heat up (where it move again by conduction or convection). Shiny silver coverings on sleeping pads can help reflect the radiant heat back to you.
Everyone is different when it comes to preferences for sleeping bags, so make sure to try out a few different pads before making a decision. For those prone to pressure injuries, test out sleeping pad at home first before taking it on a bushwalk to ensure that your skin copes. Similarly, for people with back or neck pain, testing at home can help ensure the best pick for your walk.
Here are some examples of different types of sleeping pads with a comparison between various features.
1. Type: Air Pad
Description: Air-filled mattresses that the user manually inflate before use. These tend to be thick and comfortable
Examples: Therm-a-Rest Neo Air XTherm, Nemo Nomad Air 30XL sleeping mattress, Exped downmat 7m
Pros: Small, lightweight, comfortable, compact. Customisable firmness based on how much air is put in. Can be very good insulator depending on style.
Cons: Expensive. Can make loud crinkly noises depending on the material used. Can be punctured or rip, and therefore a real possibility of leaks. Not all have great at insulating because of the large open air spaces that circulate cold air directly beneath the user. Some manufacturers add insulation to the mattress to significantly reduce this effect.
2. Type: Self-inflating
Description: Self-inflating pads combine the warmth of closed cell foam with the comfort of open cell foam. Cells are covered in an airtight, waterproof material. Users inflate the pad by opening a valve and letting the foam inside expand, sucking in air. You can add extra aid if you want it firmer pad.
Examples: Therm-a-Rest® LuxuryMap™, Therm-a-Rest® ProLite ™
Pros: Comfortable, compact, excellent insulation. Customisable firmness based on how much air is put in.
Cons: More expensive and heavier than closed-cell foam.
3. Type: Closed-cell foam
Description: Made of dense foam that is filled with small closed-cell foam that to reduce conduction and convection, thus retaining heat.
Examples: Therm-a-Rest™ Z Lite SOL™ Mattress, Ultralon EVA Closed Cell Foam Hiking Mat
Pros: Warm, light and hardy (tend to last a long time). Cells are water-repellent, so mat is waterproof. No need to worry about punctures and can double as a seat around the campfire.
Cons: Not as comfortable as thicker pads, stiff and firm. Bulky.
Key features to consider:
This is a lab-obtained value that conveys the insulating properties of the sleeping pad. The higher the number, the better the insulation. Since the measurement is made about the resistance of a sleeping pad to heat transfer, the larger the R-value, the better it is at retaining heat (i.e. good for winter).
Insulation type: poor
Lowest temperature: 0℃
Insulation type: moderate
Lowest temperature: -7℃
Insulation type: good
Lowest temperature: -10℃
Insulation type: excellent
Lowest temperature: -18℃
Of course, every person is different and their tolerance to cold will vary with the way they sleep and the sleeping bag they use. The R-values are what the pad can do at it’s extreme and not loaded with a person lying on it (this reduces insulation). Select a pad with an R-value that is higher than you expect to have a comfortable night.
Sleeping pads vary in size by their thickness, width and length. Some bushwalkers prefer three-quarter or half sized lengths to save on weight. Bushwalkers may use clothes or other material to provide padding under their feet with shorter pads, but full-length pads tend to be more comfortable. As a general rule the thicker the pad, the more comfortable and few pressure points.
Some sleeping pads are rectangular, while others are mummy-shaped, following the body’s natural shape. For instance, the Therm-a-Rest™ Women’s ProLite. This has the advantage to save on weight due to less material.
4. Surface material
Some sleeping pad surfaces are really slippery, causing your sleeping bag to roll off easily, particularly if you move around a lot in your sleep. Surfaces that are textured tend to have more grip and can provide a more comfortable sleep. Too much grip can then make it hard to move around. Some sleeping bags have pockets to hold the sleeping pad. If you have this design, then you tend to want more slippy pads to make it easier to get in and out.
5. Inflation time and chambers
The two factors that affect inflation time are the size of the pad and the type of valve. Some valves transport high airflow, meaning that the pad inflates quickly (far more enjoyable to inflate these pads after a long day on the track!). And of course, a three-quarter pad will be much faster to inflate than a similar full-size model. Some pads are self-inflating, while others need to be inflated by mouth. Orally inflated pads tend to be slow and over time can have mold build up inside the pad. To avoid mold growth, use a dry bag pump, as these not only make inflating pads much faster and easier but the bags can also be used to keep gear dry.
Side rail ‘baffles’ are railings on the side of a pad that make it harder for the user to roll off the pad during sleep.