When you’re going on an ultralight bike touring adventure, there are three essential elements of your sleep system. These being your sleeping bag, tent, and your pad.
Of the three, the one that’s arguably most important is your sleeping pad. Get this right and you’ll have a comfy night’s sleep insulated from the chilly ground. Get it wrong and you’ll feel like the princess with that elusive pea, whilst feeling the cold seeping into your bones. Not nice and not a great way to kick off a day’s cycling.
Sleeping pads vary from the ultra-low price of a simple foam mat, via comfy-but-bulky self-inflating pads, through to ultralight and compact blow-up pads. And there are lots of brands to choose from (like Big Agnes, Sea to Summit, Therm-A-Rest, etc) and it can get confusing pretty fast. I’ve got a rundown of my favorite options here and I’ve also got a brief guide to the things you need to consider when choosing a pad. Let’s dive in and take a look.
How to choose a sleeping pad
I’ve slept on many pads over the years ever since my early days as a young cub scout. In those days the only option available (certainly the only one that my parents were willing to buy for me) was the cheapest foam mat. When you’re an 8-year old cub scout this isn’t an issue because you weigh virtually nothing (so hardly make a dent in it) and you’re stuffed into a canvas tent with a bunch of other cub scouts so there’s plenty of body heat to share around. As an adult (weighing slightly more!) and either solo or in a smaller group, getting your sleeping pad is essential for warmth and comfort.
So, what do you need to consider when choosing your pad?
Types of sleeping pad
There are three broad categories of pad available, these being:
- Foam mat
- Self-inflating pad
- Blow-up mattress
Foam mats are the cheapest, and have fairly good ground insulation, but they’re not something that I’d generally recommend for bikepacking. There’s two reasons for this: comfort and packed size. Unfortunately, foam mats just aren’t the comfiest to sleep on for any length of time and certainly if you’re camping out for multiple nights. Average thickness for the foam is usually around 0.5 inches (or 1cm) so won’t give much padding on rough or stony ground. Not only that but foam mats typically roll up to quite a bulky size – in the region of 5in x 20in (12x50cm). Hard enough to stash on a backpack but a nightmare to find room for on a bike. And, even when you do find space, it then acts as quite a windbreak.
Foam mats do have some plus points though. They are very tough and will stand up to a lot of wear and tear. Because they don’t inflate there’s no chance of them getting a puncture. In fact, you can rip chunks out of a foam mat and still get virtually the same level of comfort and padding as you would with a pristine mat. That’s great but, for me, the negatives outweigh the positives.
Self-inflating pads are much better than foam mats. They tend to be thicker when inflated (in the region of 1.5in or 4cm) and offer good insulation from the ground due to the thick fabric used and the layer of air. They’re easy to inflate as well. Simply open up the valve and leaving the pad unrolled, when it’s fully inflated just close the valve up and it’s ready to use. However, the pads tend to be quite heavy (up to 3 lbs or 1.4kg) and bulky when rolled (around 6x26in or 15x65cm). They’re more expensive than a foam mat but often much cheaper than a good quality blow-up, so can be a good option when you’re on a limited budget. Particularly when cargo space isn’t an issue.
The best type of pad is a blow-up mattress. These are the thickest pads of all the available options, at up to 4in or 10cm! With that depth of cushioning you’re guaranteed to float off into a world of dreams.
Insulation on quality blow-up mattresses is very good, making them perfect for cold and wintery conditions. The best aspect of these pads for bikepacking is how small and light they are when packed up. A typical mattress rolls up to 4.5×7.5in (11x19cm) and weighs in at around 16oz or 450g.
Sleeping pad thickness
The general rule of thumb is that blow-up mattresses have the deepest cushioning, with self-inflating pads next, and foam mats bringing up the rear.
Is that important? Well, it’s a matter of personal choice but my preference is for the thickest blow-up mattress possible. Bikepacking is a physically demanding activity. When you’ve had a full day in the saddle it’s important to give your body the optimum conditions for overnight recovery. For me, that means a deep pad that suspends my aching limbs as far as possible from the hard ground and gives great thermal protection from its icy fingers.
Sleeping pad weight
What’s the most crucial piece of bikepacking kit that you never actually take out with you on a bike trip? A set of scales.
Keeping the weight down when you’re bikepacking is essential and so, if you’re anything like me, you’ll constantly be weighing your kit to determine which option is the lightest and therefore the easiest to pedal up a hill. Generally speaking, blow-up mattresses are the lightest, followed by foam mats. Self-inflating pads are the heaviest due to their internal structure and the materials used in their construction.
A good quality blow-up mattress will weigh around 1lb 2oz or 450g.
Sleeping pad packed size
The larger the packed size of any piece of kit the harder it is to find a place for it on your bike, and the more wind resistance it will offer as the breeze picks up. More wind resistance equals more fatigue in your leg muscles.
Look for pads that pack up really small without sacrificing pad depth. Blow-up mattresses are the best for packed size (typically packing down to a tiny 4.5×7.5in or 11x19cm). Foam mats and self-inflating pads will pack up to a similar size each, which will likely be much much larger than a blow-up.
Sleeping pad temperature rating
The insulation rating for a sleeping pad is known as the R-Value. With a higher R-Value indicating a pad that will keep you warmer. It’s a useful measure to compare between different pads but bear in mind that the pad is only a part of what keeps you warm and there are plenty of other factors. The tent, the bag, what you wear, how the cold the night is, and whether you’re a woman or a man all have an influence.
Sleeping pad shape and size
Pads generally come in a few different lengths (depending on your height) and a couple different shapes (rectangular or mummy). There’s an opportunity here to shave off a few ounces and a little bit from the packed size. Mummy-shaped pads are smaller than rectangular ones. Shorter pads are lighter and pack smaller than longer ones.
Be careful not to go too small though. If you’re a 6’6” hunk of muscle-bound man meat who likes to change position constantly through the night, then you’re going to need a bigger pad than a petite lady who wakes up in exactly the same position that she went to sleep in.
The best bikepacking sleeping pad is one that will keep you insulated from the ground chill and cushioned from the lumps and bumps of your tent pitch. A good quality blow-up mattress is my recommendation as they give great insulation and padding whilst also packing up small and very light.
Have a great sleep on your next bikepacking adventure!
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