Backpacker Sleeping Pad Preferences: Inflatable Air Pads Dominate

Most backpackers use inflatable sleeping pads because they’re thicker and more comfortable than ones made out of closed cell foam and lighter weight than self-inflating pads. While each of these sleeping pad types has different pros and cons, the immense popularity of inflatable sleeping pads is staggering.

In a recent survey on SectionHiker, we asked over 600 backpackers (n=635) which type of sleeping pads they preferred: inflatable sleeping pads, closed cell foam pads, or self-inflating pads. The numbers speak for themselves. Inflatable sleeping pad use outweighs self-inflating sleeping pads or closed cell foam pads by over five-to-one. That’s a remarkable turn-around in less than 10 years, when inflatable sleeping pads were still relatively new on the scene and far less reliable than they are today.

The Comfort Revolution

Inflatable sleeping pad use really took off beginning in 2009 when Therm-a-Rest came out with the first NeoAir inflatable sleeping pad. The first full-size NeoAir pad weighed just 14 ounces, cost $149.95, and had an R-value of 2.5. The only other popular sleeping pad on the market with a comparable weight and R-value was the Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest, which also weighed 14 oz, had an R-value of 2.6, and cost $25. While Big Agnes, Exped, and other manufacturers sold inflatable sleeping pads the 2009, the NeoAir was a technological breakthrough that really put inflatable air pads on the map.

The Original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir from 2009
The Original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir from 2009

A Concise History of Sleeping Pads

Therm-a-Rest, the inventor of the NeoAir, has always been an engineering-driven company. In fact, the company was originally founded by Seattle-based engineers who had been laid off from Boeing in the early 70’s. Their first breakthrough invention was the original Therm-a-Rest, a reliable self-inflating sleeping pad which was one of the first super-successful outdoor recreation products.

Self-inflating sleeping pads were a huge leap forward because they used a combination of foam for insulation and air channels for comfort. There were also quite reliable and will still insulate you if a valve breaks or you tear the face fabric. While large self-inflating pads are heavier and not as thick and comfortable as a NeoAir, torso-length self-inflating pads like the Therm-a-Rest Prolite (9 oz) are an often-overlooked ultralight sleeping pad option, that’s just a relevant today as it was decades ago.

The accordion-style folding Z-Lite foam pad was Therm-a-Rest’s next major innovation, a product that is still used by serious long distance hikers because it’s so lightweight, virtually impossible to destroy, inexpensive, and easier to carry than a roll up pad. They’re also far more comfortable than an inflatable sleeping pad in a hammock and can be used to protect an inflatable pad on rough ground or augment it’s R-value in colder weather.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Insulation
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Insulation

But the design of the NeoAir was a complete paradigm shift away from heavier feather and foam-based insulation to one based on air-pockets and silvered reflective coatings. It was a fabulous technical breakthrough that provided loads of comfort and increased pad thickness, while being quite lightweight. Therm-a-Rest introduced the lighter weight NeoAir XLite in 2012, then a higher R-value version called the NeoAir XTherm, followed by a host of other models for different types of backpacking and camping. All the while, continuously improving the product line with the introduction of lighter weight face-fabrics, improved valve reliability, seam durability, and quieter (less crinkly) interior baffles.

The Big Picture

What can the shift in sleeping pad preferences over the past decade tell us about the evolution of backpacking gear going forward? Technological advancements, such as the invention of the NeoAir insulation system, innovative new fabrics, materials, and manufacturing techniques will continue to have a big influence. What stands out for me, is how important the combination of lighter weight gear and increased comfort is to backpacking gear consumers. Light weight by itself will always be trumped by light weight and comfortable. It explains many of the new products we see gear companies introducing this year and seems like an unstoppable trend in backpacking consumer preferences.

This was an interesting survey. Thanks to all who participated.

About the Survey

This survey was run on the SectionHiker.com website which has over 300,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking and camping gear.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general hiking population based on the size of the survey results where n=635 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant because the population self-selected.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: hikers who read SectionHiker.com might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who read Internet content might not be representative of all hikers, hikers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all hikers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers and hikers who are interested in learning about the sleeping pads used by their peers.

Written 2018.

Check out SectionHiker’s Other Reader Surveys:

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6 comments

  1. Back in the old days (look out, here comes another war story) the pad I liked the best was a sandwich pad. It had a thin closed cell foam on the bottom glued to a thicker, open cell foam on top. The pad came enclosed in a sleeve that was coated nylon on the bottom and breathable 60-40 on top. There were number of vendors, but the one I had was by Pack Foam Products. Unfortunately, these pads (and Pack Foam Products) are as extinct as the Dodo Bird.

  2. Long Distance Hiker

    Even 6-7 years ago, we’d see a lot more rolled up pads hanging from the bottom of packs…now, a few z rests (guestimate of 25%-30%) that we see on the outside of packs on the long trails. Having known many people who start out the AT or PCT with a closed cell foam and swap out promptly to a inflattable, the stats really back up the visuals that we get on the trails.

    For me personally, when I sleep on the ground, the inflatable pad is so nice as a side sleeper, with a bony-hip. It gives a bit of a sag where I need it. ~ Beardoh (longdistancehiker.com)

  3. Hi Philip,

    I just read about Pariah Equipment’s Recharge UL air pad, which goes for $70… So much cheaper than the competition…so much so that I’m a little suspicious.

    Do you know anything about this product or the company?

  4. Don’t mean to be picky but when you say that inflatable are used more than 5 to 1 over self inflating AND foam, shouldn’t that and be an or? Seems from the graph that they are about 3 to 1 over both and 5 to 1 over each other option. Maybe not incorrect language but a little confusing with the graph right above it.

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