It is the sleeping mat that you should be looking to first if you’re after a good night’s sleep when camping. Sleeping mats define your comfort by providing protection from the ground below, whilst also working as the most crucial element for warmth.
The nuances of sleeping mats are almost as diverse as sleeping bags. You’ll find varying degrees of weight, durability, value, thickness and, most importantly, warmth. All sleeping mats (or pads, as they’re sometimes known) for backpacking will have temperature ratings similar to sleeping bags. We’ve tested a handful that roughly fall into the three-season range, and that are suited to a variety of activities.
Choosing The Best Sleeping Mat For You
Most sleeping mats are very lightweight with backpacking in mind, while others are the ones you’d want if you were camping in the same place for a few days – the kind you wouldn’t want to lug across somewhere extremely wild.
And that’s the first decision to make: What will you be using the mat for? Sleeping mats all sit on a scale between weight and comfort, but always bear in mind the temperature you’re expecting. If you’re going to be using it almost exclusively for long-distance backpacking, then you want to consider weight over comfort.
If you’re just going to be camping in a car or staying in one place for a few nights, then comfort wins, but it will be at the expense of weight. The old school roll away mats can still be bought (also known as closed-cell foam), take for example the Therm-a-Rest option in the list below. The main focus of this group test, however, will be on inflatable mats.
Bear in mind also that we’re testing one mattress from each of the relatively few companies that make sleeping mats. Within their ranges, you will find you’ll find something that suits your needs. Take a look at our Sleeping Mats Buyer’s Guide for an in depth look into the different features of sleeping mats.
When buying a sleeping mat, be sure to check out the warmth rating. Mats are usually rated for warmth by using the R-Value. This is the same value you may recognise to measure the insulation efficiency at home. Unlike a sleeping bag which can be ventilated, you should always buy the sleeping mat with an R-Value that is the lowest temperature you’ll encounter. Plus if you’re a cold sleeper, always boost the R-Value. For winter, aim for 4-4.5 or greater, and for extreme cold look for higher than 5.7. For three-season use in the UK spring, summer and autumn, then 2.1-4.5 is fine. Less than 2 should suffice for ultra-lightweight summer camping.
There are various ways designers increase the warmth of a sleeping mat. Firstly, is thickness. You’ll be higher off the ground and with more air between you and the cold earth; that’s more air to heat up and keep you warm. Another way to increase warmth is through the materials that are used. A thicker material will generally keep the cold out a little bit more. And finally, a layer of down or synthetic insulation can be used to add warmth. Even a very thin layer can make a huge difference when you’re sleeping on top of snow.
The size and shape of mats vary widely too. If you’re going ultralight, some mats are only ¾ length, the idea being your legs don’t need as much insulation against the ground. Others come in different lengths and should be chosen according to your size. The width also varies, with very lightweight ones being narrower, of course, but there’s more chance of sliding off.
Durability has always been an issue with sleeping mats. In the constant push to make these mats lighter, the materials used tend to get thinner and thinner and sometimes at the expense of durability. Over the years, we’ve noticed that mats tend to be the item of camping gear that fails the most with heavy use. Three main things can happen: the valve can go, which is a hard fix; and the interior baffle walls can disfigure and balloon.
Any punctures, however, can usually be fixed quickly on the go. Most mats come with a puncture repair kit and can be fixed pretty much like a bike inner tube.
There have been a few changes in inflation systems over the last couple of years, in an attempt to eliminate getting dizzy blowing up the mattress. Some use a pump, perhaps fashioned out of a piece of fabric supplied. That said, for most of the lightweight mattresses, because they are quite small and thin, you should be able to fill them in 20-30 breaths or so. Thermarest makes a battery powered pump that works well, and Exped and Sea to Summit favour pump bags to fill them. Larger mats, such as the Quechua, are self-inflating, requiring only minimal topping up.
BEST BUY: Sea to Summit Ether Light XT
Weight: 425g (regular)
As part of a wide range of camping accessories, Sea to Summit has become particularly known among backpackers for their range of lightweight sleeping mattresses. Inside this small bundle, the Ether Light XT contains a lot of serious design features that make it one of our favourites. It’s also the most expensive on test, but the price is arguably justified.
The Ether Light XT is Sea to Summit’s lightest insulated sleeping mat, with an R-Value of 3.8, putting it firmly in a three-season territory, and edging into the winter season; Sea To Summit describe it as ‘all-season’.
Its warmth comes from a layer of synthetic Thermolite insulation and a layer of material that ‘reflects radiant heat’. It’s also an incredible 10cm thick, by far the thickest on the test which makes it superb if you sleep on your side. The ‘Air Sprung Cell’ cell pattern we’ve seen developed by Sea to Summit over the years allows for this thickness, but the key is that the parts in-between the larger cells are not welded through so no heat escapes. Advantages of this construction are that it helps keep the weight and size down, but most importantly each cell moves individually with the body. The shape tapers off towards the feet.
It uses a nylon fabric that is the quietest on test and is also grippy, so you’re not sliding off in your bag. A neat touch is the ‘pillow lock’ that attaches the company’s Aeros pillows to the mat.
Pumping it up is easy thanks to the stuff sack that doubles as a pump. It uses the deeply satisfying venturi effect that means the bag can be filled with one breath. You then squeeze the air into the mat. It took about three fills and a quick top up with the mouth. Less than a minute.
And there we have it, light, insulated and very, very comfortable. It’s premium for sure, but so is a good night’s sleep.
Pros: Light, comfortable, easy to inflate.
Cons: Expensive, a bit narrow.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Uberlite
This has been dubbed the lightest inflatable air mat ever made, and we’re not going to argue with that. At 250g this is super, super light. Much lighter than any of the other mats featured in this round up.
When something comes in that low on the scales, we’re obviously all going to immediately question how durable it is, and with this the answer is that it’s, well, not that durable – the fabric is just 15D.
The thing is, if you look after it and be careful with what you’re laying it out on top of, there’s no reason why this won’t last a good amount of time without breaking, and if keeping your pack weight as low as possible is hugely important, perhaps it’s worth taking the risk.
When this thing is packed up in its stuff sack, it’s about the size of a Coke can. It’s quite remarkable really, and a potential game changer for any fastpackers or ultralight hikers out there.
It’s comfy – as comfy as any of the other mats in this round-up – and it creates plenty of space between your body and the ground, but there isn’t too much space to move around here as it’s tapered to the shape of someone lying on their back. It’s also not insulated, so look elsewhere if you want something for winter use.
For a heavier (but by no means heavy) version of this, check out the Therm-a-rest NeoAir XLite which is reviewed further down this page.
Pros: super light, tiny
Cons: expensive, delicate
Read our full Therm-a-rest NeoAir Uberlite review.
Sea-To-Summit Comfort Light Insulated
The immediate thing that’s noticeable about this is the intriguing looking air cells. It’s what Sea-to-Summit call ‘Hybrid Layer Air Sprung Cell technology’. The idea is that small pockets of air are more stable than a few big ones, offering you much more comfort and support than large lilo-like tubes.
The Exkin Platinum fabric used here reflects radiant heat back to the camper, while Thermolite insulation prevents heat loss between the user and the ground, and this combination of tech makes the mat warm enough to be used in cold weather.
We tested this on a week long trek through Lapland where the temperature hovered around zero degrees celsius at night. It was perfectly comfortable to sleep on – both in terms of how warm it kept us and how it felt. In fact, after a while we stopped worrying about pitching our tent over smaller rocks because we knew we just wouldn’t feel them through the mat.
As for the inflation method, it comes with a lightweight bag that you scoop air into and then force it into the mat through the valve by pressure. It’s remarkably easy and quick and most importantly, it saves your breath!
Pros: Warm, lightweight
Check out our full Sea-to-Summit Comfort Light Insulated review.
Exped Synmat UL 7
While this might not be technically classed as a four-season sleeping mat, it does have a temperature limit of -4C – so it could therefore make a suitable option for use in all but the coldest of UK winter conditions. This is a cold weather performance is thanks to the 60 g/m of Texpedloft synthetic fibres that are laminated to both the upper and lower sides of the mat.
Alongside this insulating ability, it’s also remarkably light and packable, making it ideal for backpacking trips where you want to keep the load light. And it doesn’t skimp on comfort either, keeping you a good few inches off the ground and, with its lack of tapering, giving you a lot of space to move around.
There are separate inflate and deflate valves that are single-directional (so they won’t let air out until you want them to), and, like the Sea-to-Summit option above, it comes with a large pump sack to inflate it. If you get your “scooping air” technique right, you can inflate the mat with two squeezes of the pump sack.
Two smaller things we’d liked about this mat, are that the fabric has a tiny bit of grip to it to stop you sliding around, and it also keeps fairly quiet when you move about.
Note: Further down this article you’ll find Exped’s warmer down insulated version of this.
Pros: Warm, comfortable, easy inflation
Read our full Exped Synmat UL7 review.
Robens Primacore 60
The key thing about this sleeping mat by Danish brand Robens is that it’s filled with PrimaLoft synthetic insulation. We like this stuff; it has high insulation qualities, it lofts almost like down, and it carries on working even when it gets wet (unlike down). This fibre works excellently in insulated jackets, and well, it turns out it works well in sleeping mats as well.
There are similarities between this and the Exped Synmat UL reviewed above. This is in regards to weight, packed size and the type of insulation. The Exped has the edge in each area though, being slightly lighter, slightly cheaper and slightly warmer, and it comes with a pump bag already supplied, whereas with Robens you have to purchase one separately.
Still, we don’t want to knock this too much. It’s comfortable, it’s by no means heavy, it’s warm enough for three-season use (R 2.2) and it packs down small enough to be attractive to backpackers.
Pros: Durable, comfortable
Cons: Quite heavy
Read our full Robens Primacore 60 review.
Snugpak Air Mat
The clever thing about this sleeping mat by British brand Snugpak is that you don’t need to waste your breath on it or even carry some form of pump either. That’s because there’s a pump built into it.
To inflate it you open up a little valve in one of the corners and then you either stamp down on this repeatedly or pump it with the palm of your hand. Do this for about a minute, and maybe give a puff or two at the end for a little extra pressure, and then viola, you have a very comfortable mattress to sleep on – one that’s actually rather large as well.
There isn’t any insulation (as far as we can tell) in this, so it’s not one for winter use, but for spring through to autumn this will serve you well.
At 630g there are much lighter mats out there, but there are also heavier and much more expensive ones as well. £59 for a mat like this is a great deal in our books.
Pros: Great value
Cons: On the heavy side
Check out our full Snugpak Air Mat review.