I'm pretty tall and I find that to purchase a brand-name sleeping pad means shelling out serious $$$. To solve this I have always just purchased a roll of foam padding that I could cut to make sure it would a couple of inches longer than me. The thing is, I rarely backpack in harsh conditions.

So for someone considering moving into harsher conditions, but needing to balance performance for $, what are the definable differences between expensive sleeping pads and foam pads?


From personal experience, these are the relative advantages / disadvantages I have discovered personally or witnessed first hand:

Ole' Blue: - The lovable, closed-cell foam pad.

  • Virtually indestructible (works even with a 6 inch gaping gash through it)
  • Can be cut to fit (some people go for the shoulders-only approach)
  • Light
  • Bulky (full length does not roll up very small)

'Spensive Air Mattress - Such as Thermarest et. al.

  • Soft (some people find them more comfortable)
  • Thick distance between you and the ground (1/2 inch or more of insulating "dead air" depending on the model)
  • Easy to puncture (requires care when packing / carrying a repair kit)
  • Relatively useless when deflated (less-than advertised insulating power, though some models do have a thin layer of close-cell foam inside)
  • Higher end ultra-light pads pack down pretty dang small

As for insulating power, since dead air is what provides that insulation. Even the highest rated (base on R value) high-end inflatable is going to be useless if it deflates. Closed-cell foam (such as ole' blue) are full of little isolated air pockets that trap air permanently and never deflate (though they can compress over time).

FWIW - I use a more expensive inflatable 90% of the time, largely for its small pack size, and better comfort (when it holds air through the night, which is about 75% of the time.) However, when I'm heading out on a snow-camping trip, I always bring the dependable insulating power of 'ole blue as well and double-pad it.

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    The higher end pads have both now. Inflation and a foam layer. – Russell Steen Feb 7 '12 at 3:10
  • Sweet - thanks for the info - I updated my answer. – Lost Feb 7 '12 at 3:45

The only meaningful thing I can think of is that the R-value of a pad is crucial to being warm in colder conditions. If the manufacturer of the foam padding you are buying provides the R-value (or the material used, and you can find the R-value independently) then you have a good way to compare to "brand name" mattresses, which should all provide their R-value in the specs.

So, assuming your cut-to fit measures up when it comes to R-value, I would absolutely encourage you to keep using it.

Some people (myself included) prefer the comfort of an inflatable pad, but ultimately that's a personal choice. When money is an issue, going back to the good ol "blue foam pad" seems pretty reasonable to me.

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  • +1. I would still be using my old foam pad if I were not a side-sleeper. – Clare Steen Feb 6 '12 at 23:27

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