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  Show - Winter

Sleeping Pads: Cheap Sleep Insurance

By Steve Mann

When you're in the backcountry you willingly give up many of the comforts of home. One comfort you shouldn't sacrifice is a good night's sleep. A sleeping pad is cheap sleep insurance. This month's Field Test reviews self-inflating sleeping pads, the most commonly purchased pad for outdoor recreation.

We set a few criteria to narrow the scope of our test. First, we decided to test all full length pads, 72" or longer. Our test crew felt that for all but the longest trips in warm weather, the longer pads are preferable.

Second we set a weight limit of 3 pounds. Car campers may choose heavier, thicker, more comfortable pads, but none us wants to carry a car mattress. Hey, comfort is important, but has its limits. Eleven pads from five different manufacturers matched our criteria.

There are two primary factors for rating sleeping pads: comfort and weight. The dominate factor depends on the user and the intended usage. For minimalists, or long trips, weight prevails. For shorter trips, or those who just can't sleep on the cold hard ground, comfort wins

While weight and comfort far outdistance other factors, there are other considerations, such as keeping your sleeping bag on the pad. Slide off during the night and you'll loose not only comfort, but also insulation value. I still remember those cold nights as a Boy Scout before anyone told me about sleeping pads.

Two pad characteristics help you stay on the pad. One is a non-slip fabric, which adds weight. The second is a wider pad. Virtually every manufacturer claims non-slip fabrics, but some are more non-slip than others. As for width, 20" is standard, but pads vary from 20 to 25 inches.

For test purposes, we divided the pads into three categories, based on thickness. The low-weight end of the scale features 1" sleeping pads. Comfort reigns in 2" pads. In between you'll find1 ½" pads.

Before jumping in to the reviews, take a look at the comparison chart. Since we have eleven pads, there isn't room to mention the weight, price, and dimension of every pad in the text, but its all in the chart.

Manufacturer Model Weight Dimensions Repair
Two inch pads:
Cascade Designs LE 2 lbs 5 oz 20 x 72 x 2 Y $110
SunnyRec Corporation HollowLite SMR0220C 2 lbs 5 oz 20 x 72 x 2 Y $89.99
Artiach ConfortMat 2 lb 12 oz 20 x 73 x 2 N $67
1 ½ inch pads:
Cascade Designs CampLite 2 lbs 12 oz 25 x 77 x 1.6 N $80
Slumberjack Standard Camper 3 lb 1 oz 22 x 72 x 1.5 N $54.99
SunnyRec Corporation SMT0215 2 lbs 7 oz 20 x 72 x 1.5 N 72.99
Basic Designs ErgoMat 2 lbs 8 oz 22 x 77 x 1.5 Y
Basic Designs All Terrain Pad Ergo 2 lbs 5 oz 20 x 72 x 1.5 Y
One inch pads:
SunnyRec Corporation Hex Grip SMT0210 1 lb 14 oz 20 x 72 x 1 N $68.99
Cascade Designs Ultralite 1 lb 8 oz 20 x 72 x 1 N $70
Artiach SkinMat 1 lb 9 oz 20 x 73 x 0.8 Y $61
Winter Sleeping Pad
Polar Barriers Toddy Long 3 lbs 1 oz 20 x 72 N $68

Two Inch Category:

Cascade Designs Therm-A-Rest LE

LE stands for Luxury Edition. True to its name it has a super cushy, comfortable feel. The top surface is DWR (durable water resistant) treated low-slip stretch-knit fabric. The bottom quick-drying nylon oxford resists dirt and dampness. A nice touch is the pouch in the stuff sack for the repair kit, keeping it handy should you need it. At $110, the LE has highest price in this review, but its worth the price.

My field notes state, "A very soft feel. By far the most comfortable." Rhett concurred, "This was by far my favorite pad in the two-inch category. Therm-A-Rest really has something going. I liked the non-slip top. Not only did it keep me on the mat, it was comfortably soft to boot. The pad also gave great support. It was similar to the SunnyRec HollowLite support-wise, but it was much softer, and more sponge like."

For Jeff, the LE is "well worth the extra weight on shorter trips. Very comfortable-I slept like I was in a bed. The length fit me well-many 72" pads do not."

Back to pad list

SunnyRec's Hollow Lite SMR0220C

The HollowLite pad features hollow tubes for warmth retention and light weight. This construction allows a good balance between weight, at 2 lbs 5 oz and comfort. Other features are a non-slip fabric top, durable bottom fabric, and a proprietary reflective coating for improved thermal insulation. DWR impregnated nylon protects the pad from water and stains.

Rhett, a regular on our crew, noted "I was pleasantly surprised with this pad. It was quite supportive, but lacked the comfort of the LE. The non-slip top worked well, but seemed kind of rigid. A good comparison would be that the Therm-A-Rest LE is like the toilet paper at home, and the Sunny-Rec like the paper you'd find in a public restroom-both very functional, just not equally comfortable."

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Artiach ConfortMat

Artiach makes their pads in Europe, and distributes in the US through Appalachian Mountain Supply. The ConfortMat offers a highly durable textured polyester exterior-no cotton or nylon which can fray. The texturing enhances non-slip, and the polyester increases UV resistance.

I found the non-slip top to be slicker. Comfort was good, although somewhat firmer than the LE. Charlotte, our only female reviewer for this test, liked the ConfortMat just behind the LE for comfort. "I'd probably buy the LE despite its higher price tag," she reasoned, "but if price were more of a factor, or I planned to use the pad less frequently, the ConfortMat would be my choice. At $67 it offers good comfort for the lowest price."

Back to pad list

One and a Half inch Category

Basic Designs ErgoMat

The ErgoMat features a tapered design to save weight. It measures 22" wide at shoulders, but only 20" at feet. Also the foam is 1.5" thick in the body, but only 1" in bottom section. Four separate chambers, each with its own valve, allow you to vary the inflation for a custom feel. The chambers have independent plastic valves, like more like your see in a pool mattress. If one chamber gets punctured, the other chambers remain usable. The upper chamber inflates for a tapered air-only pillow. The tough bottom of the pad resists punctures and abrasion.

Our reviewers did not like the valves. We found it difficult to deflate a chamber, then close the valve. You have to roll back, allowing air back in, to reach the valve. Straps, attached to the pad, are easy to find and can't get lost.

Rhett "didn't like this one at all. The idea of tapered sides gives you less weight and more space in your tent, but it wasn't soft and it didn't give the desired support." Other reviewers agreed. This was our least favorite of the 1 ½" pads.

Back to pad list

SunnyRec HexaGrip Mat SMT0215

SunnyRec builds this pad with a raised hexagon pattern, or "surface modulation technology" (SMT) to increase grip and comfort, patterned after mattresses used in hospitals. The surface is impregnated with a DWR for stain and water resistance. In almost all respects the Hexagrip mat was adequate, even good. The problem was that it did not lead in weight, price, or comfort, and other than the hex grip, it has few distinguishing features.

This 72" pad seemed even shorter than SunnyRec's HollowLite pad. The pad's top two inches were flattened (foamless) to allow attachment of straps-not a problem for sleepers less than 5' 10", but noticed by our 6' or taller reviewers. The HexaGrip is a good all-around pad.

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Cascade Designs Therm-A-Rest CampLite

CampLite's closed cell foam consists of a solid sheet of foam slightly narrower than the mattress fabric. The foam is slit, then stretched to the width of fabric, making the slits into interlocking openings, to reduce bulk and weight. When you lay on the pad, the foam collapses slightly to fill in the holes, blocking air flow from the ground.

The stretching means that the CampLite is both wider and longer than other pads, features which were a hit with Jeff. "This is my choice for the best overall. The extra width made sleeping much more comfortable for me and I found slipping off to be much less of a problem. I really noticed the width at my shoulders. The extra length meant I had no trouble with either my head or feet hanging over the ends."

For shorter sleepers, the length and width probably aren't worth the extra ounces. For Charlotte, "the extra width didn't help me. Still, it is quite comfortable; my second choice in the category."

The only extra missing from the CampLite is a repair kit. The consensus among our testers is that every pad should include such a kit. It you pad doesn't, seriously consider a third-party repair kit such as the GearAid kits from Destination Outdoors.

Back to pad list

Slumberjack Standard Camper

The Slumberjack is thick and comfortable. A slip-resistant polyester fabric keeps your bag in place and reduces pad slippage against tent floor. It is DWR coated top and bottom and includes a mesh stuff sack.

A close second in comfort, Charlotte suggested "its comfort was more like that of a two inch pad," but its weight made it difficult to recommend. Jeff noted that it "seemed wider than most others, except the CampLite." Price is a strong point at a low $55.

Back to pad list

Basic Designs All Terrain Pad (ATP) Ergo

As the "Ergo" name suggests, the ATP tapers like the ErgoMat, but the rest of the ATPs features are more traditional, such as the single standard top-corner valve and single chamber. An addition is an upper section, about 8 inches long, with extra foam for a pillow. Charlotte liked the ATP best in this category feeling that the pillow gave more upper-back and neck support. Softness was good, but less than the Litefoam XL.

As you would expect, reviewers who prefer wider pads found the tapered sides not to their liking. Jeff discover that "when I turn on my side, either my knees or feet are off the pad.."

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One inch category

SunnyRec HexGripSMT0210

Identical to the 1 ½" HexaGrip, except for thickness, we found it hard to recommend the HexaGrip pad. "This was my least favorite in this category," wrote Rhett. It is about the same price as the other two, but heavier and no more comfortable."

I rated the SunnyRec as "third for comfort, but only by a smidgeon. Like the 1 ½" HexaGrip pad, the foam ends about two inches from the top of the mattress. Since I'm 6' I missed those 2 inches."

Back to pad list

Cascade Designs Therm-A-Rest Ultralite

We're beginning to sound like a broken record with the Therm-A-Rest pads. "Once again I have to say I like the Therm-A-Rest the best. This was a great lightweight pad. It has all the features of the 2" LE, except for extra support," raved Rhett. Jeff agreed, "The best lightweight pad-very comfy. Combine its lightest weight with the best comfort and this is the clear winner."

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Artiach SkinMat

The SkinMat is the most compact of the bunch. Fold it in half, and it rolls into a bundle just larger in than a loaf of bread, making it fit inside your pack, rather than strapped to the outside. The surface is an unusual polyurethane material with non-slip, waterproof (not water resistant) properties.

Everyone liked this pad. It is very small, light, and quite comfortable. It is made a little differently from the rest, and while the outer layer that looks like it may be slick, actually holds your bag and back in place while you sleep.

Back to pad list

The Bottom Line

Now you've seen the results of our field test by category, but most of your customers won't want to buy more than one pad, i.e. one for long trips (the 1" category) and one for shorter trips for comfort (2" category). So if you want to buy one pad that is the best general purpose sleeping pad, which one do we recommend?

There isn't one overall winner. It still depends on your most common usage. Are you a weekend warrior with overnight trips and occasional longer trips, or a long-hauler who sometimes takes shorter trips with friends?

I asked the crew which one pad they would buy. Although I got slightly different answers from each, there was some consistency-the top choices were all Therm-A-Rest pads. The overall top selection was the CampLite, just edging out the LE because of price. Take away the price barrier and the LE win-it is more comfortable and weighs less.

For taller or wider body types the CampLite remains on top, regardless of price, because of its extra length and width. When weight is the critical decision factor, the Therm-A-Rest UltraLite won out, followed closely by the Artiach SkinMat. If packing volume is important the SkinMat should be considered.

Honorable mentions goes to the Basic Designs All-Terrain Pad for the extra neck and head support, and the Slumberjack Standard Camper and Artiach ConfortMat for good comfort at a great price.

For more information:

Cascade Designs, 800-527-1527,

SunnyRec Corporation, 310-638-4368

Appalachian Mountain Supply (Artiach), 800-569-4110,

Slumberjack, 800-233-6283,

Basic Designs, 800-697-5801

Steve Mann is the Editorial Director at

Note: This information on Cascade Designs Therm-A-Rest pads in this article was updated on November 18, 1999.

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