Inflatable sleeping pads are the popular trend among backpackers today. I get it. They are comfortable and the modern designs have become quite durable. But don’t be too quick to overlook the traditional closed-cell foam pad. They don’t take time to inflate, never deflate at night, double as a butt pad, and don’t take up space in your backpack. And I would argue that they are more comfortable than they are given credit for. Now you’re probably assuming I’m a foam pad purist. But that’s not entirely true.
Having personally used a variety of inflatable sleeping pads and then testing the best closed cell foam pads to find the best backpacking sleeping pads, I have come to the conclusion that there is no one best sleeping pad for every scenario. It all depends on what qualities are most important to you.
Each piece of gear in your backpack has advantages and disadvantages; Here’s an in-depth look at the trade-offs between closed cell and inflatable sleeping pads.
Closed cell foam pads
- No time to set up or take down
- Will not fail
- Doesn’t take up space in your backpack
- Less warm
- Less convenient
- Can get caught on things
- Only good for one season
My current favorite pad is the Nemo Switchback closed-cell foam tray. Not having to deflate, roll, and pack a pad saves me time every morning, which is invaluable on high-mileage days.
Side sleepers may have stopped reading by now, but I often catch Zs on my side on closed-cell foam pads in the backcountry. Admittedly, I tend to roll over and sometimes fall asleep on my stomach or back. Comfort is always a personal preference. But don’t discount all closed-cell foam pads on that one condition; Take the FlexMat Plus as proof that closed cell foam pads are not all created equal. At a whopping 1.5 inches thick, this pad is the most comfortable CCF pad I have ever slept on.
Another common complaint about foam pads is their low R-value. An R-value is a standardized rating of how well your pad withstands the cold. The secret of heat is air. Jackets and sleeping bags are not bulky just because they are filled with insulation. The air trapped in these fluffy outer layers actually keeps you warm, like a personal hot air bladder. Sleeping pads are no different, which is why inflatable sleeping pads typically have higher R-values than closed-cell foam pads.
The way closed cell foam pads trap air to keep you warm at night is by using knots and simulating an egg carton pattern. Air gets trapped in the indentations between the nodes, giving you a warm buffer of air against the cold ground. The best closed-cell foam pads also offer some sort of metallic coating to reflect cold air back toward the floor and warm air back toward you. As the knots on your pad begin to flatten, the space that warm air can occupy decreases and your pad loses more heat. At this point, it’s time for a replacement.
- Good for three seasons
- can fail
- Takes time to inflate and deflate
While inflatable pads might have that probability If you do your research, invest in a quality pad, and take care of it, chances are you’ll experience failure. Carrying a light pad that suits your sleeping style and conditions may be best, especially with patch kits and field repairs that could save the day.
Inflatable pads are also far less bulky than closed cell foam mats. CCF pads must be attached to the outside of the backpack. Whether it’s horizontally at the top or bottom of your pack, or vertically in a pocket or attached by bungee straps, tight squeezing and bushwhacking can grab your extra surface, scratching the pad and slowing you down. I’ve gotten used to the extra width and height of my pack thanks to the closed cell foam padding, but climbing through canyons is still a challenge.
Depending on the terrain, an inflatable pad may be all you need. Sharp rocks, branches, thorns or cactus needles all pose a threat, but your tent floor should provide enough protection for a durable inflatable pad. The weight of a heavier pad compared to two lighter pads is of course comparable, and nothing can replace a solid sleep before a double-digit kilometer day.
More expensive, more comfortable, and warmer inflatable pillows are worth the investment if you can just turn a blind eye. Whether you choose a CCF pad, an inflatable pad, or a double-up, consider which features are most important to you in the backcountry.
Dual sleep system
- Year-Round Sleep System
- backup options
- Must buy two pads
- Must wear two pads
While you can’t give up your snuggly inflatable pad for comfort alone, there are a few reasons even inflatable fanatics could add a closed-cell foam pad to their sleep system. Being a team closed cell foam like me, I certainly won’t be taking winter desert trips with only an R-value of 2. Gear up for all seasons and save weight when the weather is over Rooting for both sides of the great sleeping pad debate.
R-values can be combined so adding a CCF insert under an inflatable will keep you warmer and more comfortable. An added benefit of a dual-pad sleep system is that your inflatable pad is less likely to puncture or deflate when protected from rocks and sticks by the foam pad. If the worst happens and your inflatable pad has a problem, at least you have a closed cell foam pad to fall back on instead of exposing yourself to the cold hard ground or worse, aborting your trip.
The versatility of closed-cell foam pads should also not be underestimated. Recently, after climbing a pass, I was greeted by a sharply sloping boulder field. Instead of slowly working my way through shifting and slippery rocks, I found a line of snow that ran the length of the pass. I carpet-bounced my closed-cell foam pad and installed an ice pick as a brake before descending the mountain, saving me valuable time and energy (and having a hell of a time doing it). If I had only had an inflatable pillow, I would have had to dig it out of my bag (instantly no), inflate it, and then manage to get down without bursting before deflating, rolling, and inserting it into the ultra-lightweight version of Mary Poppins purse. But if I’m being honest, no one is going to risk a poppable and expensive sleeping pad to save 30 minutes on the third day of a seven-day trip.
Closed-cell foam pads can also be used as a warming pad when you’re too hungry to let your pot cool down (every meal), as a shock pad for breaks, and as extra insulation in a pinch. Versatility, reliability and efficiency are the keys to choosing backpacking gear, which I think makes a closed cell foam pad an easy choice. But if the idea of carrying two sleeping pads seems ridiculous, let’s just look at the benefits of an inflatable sleeping pad.