Sleeping mats have two main functions: insulation and comfort. Comfort is perhaps the more obvious benefit, as a sleeping mat provides cushioning over uneven ground and gives a more mattress-like feel.
Insulation from the ground is essential, because whilst your sleeping bag protects you from losing body heat to the air, the ground actually conducts heat away from you at a much faster rate. A sleeping mat prevents this from happening and keeps you warmer through the night.
When choosing your sleeping mat, you should consider how important the following factors are to you: warmth, weight, pack size and comfort. Once you know which of these are your priorities, your decision will become much easier.
It can help to breathe a couple of puffs into the mat after giving it time to self-inflate; however, don’t do this too often as moisture blown into the mat can reduce its durability. When storing your self-inflating mat, it’s best to keep it flat with the valve open, as storing it rolled up long-term can limit the mat’s ability to self-inflate.
Air-filled mats use air to provide cushioning and sometimes include additional insulation such as down or reflective materials. They’re the ultimate in packable and lightweight sleeping, but you have to provide the puff to inflate them.
Pros of air-filled mats
- They are thicker than self-inflating mats, so are great for side sleepers
- They are very lightweight and packable
Cons of air-filled mats
- The air circulating freely inside makes air-filled mats less warm than self-inflating
- You may find them hard to inflate and may want to bring a pump if you have a respiratory condition/have had a long day adventuring!
Also known as roll mats or closed-cell foam mats, these are simply mats which roll or fold away.
Pros of foam mats
- They are light, durable and often cheap
- They cannot be punctured
Cons of foam mats
- They have poor packability, and often need to be strapped to the outside of a rucksack
- They are less warm and comfortable than other options
A traditional inflatable mattress, large and high-volume.
Pros of air beds
- They are thick and comfortable, making them the closest option to your bed at home
Cons of air beds
- They are big and heavy, so are only suitable for taking in the car
- They require a pump
- They have no additional insulation
Pack size is a common consideration for a sleeping mat, but it needs to be big enough to be fit for purpose. The mat should be at least wide enough to fit your shoulders whilst lying flat on your back. It is possible to buy ¾ length mats where your feet and lower legs are not insulated, but these should only be considered if you want ultimate packability and are sleeping in comfortable temperatures.
Some manufacturers produce women's-specific mats, which generally are a little shorter and contain more insulation around the torso and feet. With the reduction in length, offset against the extra insulation, these pads tend to end up a similar weight and pack size, so are worth considering for the extra warmth.
On some sleeping mats you’ll notice an R-Value in the product description or on the product. This is a measure of the mat’s ability to resist heat flow: the higher the R-Value, the more thermally resistant a mat is, and therefore warmer. There is currently no industry standardisation of this measurement, so whilst it is useful to know, it isn't the best way to compare mats.
If you’re heading out in particularly cold temperatures, it’s worth adding an extra mat to provide additional insulation. A foam mat underneath a self-inflating or air-filled mat is perfect for this.