Remember that first camping experience, the cold lumpy ground, the

midnight shivers, the sore hip in the morning? Sleeping mats exist

for two reasons: one, and the most important one, is to prevent your

body heat from seeping away into the cold ground through the

compressed insulation of your sleeping bag.

The second, and it's not entirely unconnected, is just comfort. Us

weak-willed, spoiled 21st century folk are used to cushy mattresses,

so sleeping directly on hard ground doesn't always come easy.

Classic mats

The classic sleeping mat comes in a closed cell foam

material. The 'closed cell' bit is important because it prevents

the foam from soaking up water like an open cell version commonly

known as a sponge. Pluses are that they're relatively cheap, fairly

hard to damage, can be carried outside your pack with impunity and

are light and compact once rolled up.

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best known is the legendary Karrimat but there are loads of

options out there. One effective evolution is the Ridgerest,

which uses a rudged construction to trap extra air under the mat and

increase comfort and insulation values. The most efficent ones fold

into a neat, easily stowable package.

Generally the more insulation you want, the thicker the foam you

need. If you're camping on a glacier, you may need two foam mats to

keep the cold at bay.

Finally, some users cite the potential to use a closed cell foam

matt as a splint if you break a leg or arm - your call....

Self-inflating mats

The best known of these are made by Therm-a-Rest but again

there are plenty of other options out there. They consist of a foam

core sandwiched inside an outer made of a tough, air and waterproof

fabric. They roll up tightly for carrying, but by opening a valve air

is free to flow into the inside of the matt and inflate the foam.

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self-inflating bit is sometimes wishful thinking, you often have to

blow into the mat to inflate it properly but even the weakest wuss

can usually manage it. As with the classic foam mat, warmth is

generally down to the thickness of the matt. Simple, the thicker the

mat, the more air it traps and the thicker and more effective the

insulation layer.

So why are some mats more expensive than others? The top brands

use more sophisticated foam inside their mats with holes cut into them

to save weight and bulk. They also tend to use lighter, thinner

fabrics to cut weight and pack size. That's a two-edge sword as the

really light self-inflaters tend to puncture more easily.

Ultra-lightweight self-inflaters pack smaller than normal foam,

though they generally weigh more and are best carried inside the

pack to reduce the possibility of puncturing.

Speaking of which, make sure your self-inflating pad comes with a

puncture repair kit, a self-deflating mat is no fun.

As a generalisation, self-inflaters are more comfortable and

significantly warmer than closed-cell foam mats because they trap more

air and pressure adjustments allow for comfort tuning.

If you're car camping rather than backpacking, a really fat

self-inflater offers amazing comfort, though at a weight you won't

want to carry.

Last point, look for a non-slip finish to stop you from sliding

down the mat during the night. Not fun.

Down-filled pads

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by Exped, down-filled pads are similar to airbeds but contain

high loft goose down to prevent air currents from moving heat away

from your body, which is why conventional air beds are useless. The

end result is, say the makers, a mattress that's three times warmer

than any other mat of the same weight.

Users swear by them, though they're not astonishingly light. So

what's the catch? Well, a price starting at around £100 means

you have to be serious about your sleeping. A dedicated high altitude

glacier camper perhaps. OTT for most, but if you must have the most

warmth, possibly the way to go.

Comedy improvisation

If you're a serious lightweight freak you can start by using a

three-quarter length pad - not something we'd bother with, and it gets

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packs include a bivvy pad, but they're generally thin, minimalist

instruments of torment best left to serious lightweight Alpinists and

for emergency use.

Then there's the dark side of adventure racing and mountain

marathon where people use bubble wrap as a lightweight alternative to

a real mat. Fine if you're too knackered to care, we reckon.

Last but definitely not least, at a weight of under 100 grammes,

the Balloon

Bed is a winner for lightweight obsessives. A lightweight

mattress with channels to take long balloon which you simply pop at

the end of a happy night's sleep. The balloon bed comes complete with

a pump and gives a depth of around 4cm when inflated making it

surpringly comfortable.

We've seen one in action on a bivvy and while it looks ridiculous,

the thing works. Who needs bubble wrap?

Which should you choose?

Unless you're a serious weight freak, and maybe even then,

self-inflating mats are the obvious solution. The one downside is

that they can puncture and in the field repairs can be difficult

unless the leak is easy to spot or you carry a bathtub full of water

with you.

They're great on glaciers and significantly more comfortable than

normal foam mats, particularly the thicker, luxury versions. Foam is

bombproof and cheap if you're not worried about comfort, but most

users are won over by inflated comfort first time out.

The down-filled pads from Exped have one major drawback, the cost,

though we have excellent feedback on their performance. Finally,

adventure racers should be looking at the Balloon Bed, it's hard to

beat.