Foam Sleeping Pads vs Inflatable Pads on the Appalachian Trail

Foam Sleeping Pads vs Inflatable Pads on the Appalachian trail

One of the biggest questions when choosing a sleeping pad for the Appalachian Trail (AT) is deciding between a closed-cell foam or inflatable sleeping pad. Before we get into the details, the biggest takeaway is that you can either use a foam or inflatable sleeping pad on the Appalachian Trail. Both varieties have pros and cons, and which you choose really depends on your individual preference. There are definitely considerations in making this choice, which we’ll dive into below.

What is a foam pad sleeping pad?

A foam pad is made of closed-cell foam, a dense foam with tiny pockets of air. You’ll see hikers carrying these on outside of their pack, usually strapped to the top. Closed-cell foam pads are lightweight but bulky, and usually have a lower R-value than inflatable pads. Sold fold up like an accordion which makes them more compact and easier to carry, while others roll-up. They are super convenient and don’t take any effort to inflate at night, but they aren’t as cushy to sleep on. They are incredibly durable though, so you won’t have to worry about popping them.

Make / ModelTypeR-ValueWeightPrice
Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SolFoam/Folding214 oz$45
NEMO SwitchbackFoam/Folding214.5 oz$50
Exped FlexMat PlusFoam/Folding2.217.6 oz$55
Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest SoliteFoam/Roll-up2.114 oz$20
Therm-a-Rest Ridgerest ClassicFoam/Roll-up2.014 oz$20
Alps Mountaineering Foam Pad 375Foam/Roll-up2.09 oz$20
Big Agnes Third DegreeFoam/Roll-up1.512 oz$40

What exactly is an inflatable sleeping pad?

An inflatable pad consists of a shell material along with some sort of lightweight insulation or reflective material on the interior that increases protection from the cold ground. They roll up into small cylinders that can be the size of a 32 oz. Nalgene bottle, and tuck easily into a pack. They also must be inflated every night and deflated in the morning, and aren’t as durable as a foam pad, but are warmer and often more comfortable.

Make / ModelTypeR-ValueWeightPrice
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLiteInflatable4.212 oz$190
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XThermInflatable6.915 oz$215
Sea-to-Summit Ether Light XT InsulatedInflatable3.216.3 oz$190
NEMO Tensor InsulatedInflatable3.515 oz$160
NEMO Tensor Alpine ULInflatable4.817 oz$225
Big Agnes Q Core SLXInflatable3.218 oz$150
Sea-to-Summit Ultralight InsulatedInflatable3.116.9 oz$140

How to Choose

Price

Foam sleeping pads are much less expensive than inflatable pads. The most popular foam pads (regular sized) are between $45-50, while the popular models of inflatable pads are between $100-$180. Inflatable pads use higher tech, pricier materials and are also more complex to manufacture. If you’re on a budget, a closed-cell foam pad is your best bet.

Foam pad are virtually indestructible.
Foam pads are virtually indestructible.

Durability

One of the biggest differences between foam and inflatable sleeping pads is durability. Since you’ll be sleeping in a shelter or tent most nights on the AT, your sleeping pad typically won’t come into contact with sharp rocks or bare ground. Desert hikers need to worry about thorns and cacti, but on the AT, you’re pretty safe from those popping your inflatable pad. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful, but most tent sites won’t destroy your inflatable pad.

Warmth

Most AT thru-hikers experience a variety of weather that plunges down into the single digits, whether they’re starting in early spring on a NOBO hike, or finishing in late fall on a SOBO journey. Many foam pads have an R-value of about 2, while even the inflatable pads with lower R-values are still in the 3.5 R-value range. If you are a colder sleeper, you’ll be more comfortable for the duration of your hike with an inflatable pad with an R-value of 3.5 or more. If you start your hike when there’s still snow for freezing temperatures, we’d recommend a pad with an R-value of 5 or more.

Inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable for side sleepers than foam pads
Inflatable sleeping pads are more comfortable for side sleepers than foam pads

Comfort

A foam pad is thinner and doesn’t have the same cushioning on hard surfaces. Side sleepers often prefer the extra padding from a few inches of an inflatable pad over the thin sleeping surface of a foam pad. If you sleep mostly on your stomach or back, you will likely be fine with the thinner foam pad. Side sleepers have a smaller surface area of their body in contact with the ground, which makes for harsher pressure points on hips and knees. The NEMO Switchback foam pad, for example, is only 0.9 inches thick, while the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite inflatable pad is 2.5 inches thick.

Multiple Uses

Hikers love to throw their foam pads onto a rock for a snack break, and they unfold quickly to provide a seat outside the tent at camp. Not only is an inflatable pad not prime for rock sitting, you’re probably not going to want to blow it up more than once a day.

Roll-up foam pads are inexpensive but bulky to pack
Roll-up foam pads are inexpensive but bulky to pack

Packability

A foam pad has to sit on the top of your pack, and you’re stuck with the entire width, which can make tight squeezes on the trail (hello New York Lemon Squeezer) a pain in the butt. The inflatable pad rolls down to a tight cylinder and can fit in the outside mesh of your pack or wedged into an open part in the main body of your pack.

Level of Effort

We have unscientifically proven that it takes about 30 breaths to inflate the popular Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. After a long day of hiking, that’s often the last thing you want to do. You might find yourself watching the other hikers at camp unfold their foam sleeping pad, throw it into their tent, and are asleep while you’re still getting lightheaded inflating your sleeping pad. That said, there are plenty of options out there that don’t take the 30 breaths of a NeoAir and more and more inflatable pads are bundled with inflation sacks that do the work for you.

The Bottom Line

Sleeping conditions on the Appalachian Trail are sufficiently benign that you can use a foam pad or an inflatable pad without worrying about damaging them when sleeping in a tent or shelter.

Foam sleeping pads are:

  • Much less expensive
  • More comfortable for back sleepers
  • Require virtually no effort to setup
  • Can be used in multiple ways (sleeping, sitting, etc)

Inflatable sleeping pads are::

  • Warmer for colder weather
  • Much smaller to pack
  • More comfortable for side sleepers

For an even deeper dive into sleeping pads, check out the 10 Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads and Sleeping Pad R-Values.

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About the author

Maggie Slepian is originally from the northeast and is currently based in Bozeman, Montana. Maggie has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, is *almost* done with the New Hampshire 48 4,000-footers, has developed backpacking routes in the Utah high desert, and spent the past five years testing gear and working professionally in the outdoor industry. Maggie spends as much time outdoors as possible, whether it's backpacking, peak bagging, bikepacking, mountain biking, climbing, skiing, or kayaking. She is currently a full-time freelance writer and editor, and is always busy planning the next backcountry adventure. Get in touch at maggieslepian.com.

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38 comments

  1. Good discussion of pros and cons, but inflatable vs. foam is not an either-or choice. I usually carry both. In moderate weather, I use a 1/2 length foam pad and in cooler weather a full-length one that goes under my inflatable. That adds insulation, and protects the inflatable from rocks, shelter floor splinters, etc. The foam pad also keeps the inflatable from slip-sliding if the surface isn’t level. If you’re saving weight, you can combine the lightest-weight options of each. Gossamer Gear, in particular, sells various lightweight foam pad options. I even use a small foam pad in a hammock, just to add insulation for my butt and hips.

  2. You can significantly reduce the level of effort of an inflatable pad by using the Exped Schnozzel pump bag. It replaces your pack liner while you’re hiking, so it doesn’t add any weight (it actually weighs an ounce less than the trash compactor bags I was using). I can inflate my long, wide sleeping pad in two “pumps”, with very little effort.

    It’s still not as fast or easy as a foam pad, but it reduces the gap dramatically. If your pad doesn’t have a compatible valve, I think Exped makes some adapters. But my REI pad and my wife’s Sea-to-Summit pad are both compatible.

    • I think the “level of effort” argument is pretty moot these days. I also use an exped schnozzel, which doubles as a pack liner, to inflate my Sea-to-summit Etherlight Insulated Pad. Sea-to-Summit, Therm-a-Rest, NEMO and other premium pad makers all include inflation stuff sacks with their inflatable pads these days so you don’t have to huff and puff to inflate them.

    • If a person doesn’t have a Schnozzel, there are some other nice options. I bought something called an InstaFlator at a pool supply store. It’s a tubular plastic bag about 8′ long with a nozzle at the end that can be fit over a round inflation valve. A quick blow into the end of the bag, roll it up and force the air into your sleeping pad. It takes me about 1.5 “blows” to inflate my NeoAir. The InstaFlator weighs under 2 oz. and cost only a couple dollars. I keep one in the stuff bag with my NeoAir.

  3. I think there is also quite a bit of effort and time in deflating the pad and getting it small enough to fit back into it’s stuff sack, especially on the older pads with small valves, much so that I don’t even bother with the stuff sack any longer. Inflatables such as the AXL have a bigger valve and are much easier and quicker to deflate.

    • I agree, the stuff sack stays home, in a box full of unused and spare stuff sacks. Once I leave an item’s stuff sack at home, it never makes another trip.

      home

  4. Looks like the Gentian Pond shelter in the first photo. Really cool location and nice shelter.

  5. I used both on my AT thru-hike. I used an inflatable for the first half through the end of PA and then used a Thermarest Z-Lite for from PA onward. The two people that I was hiking with from Shenandoah through then were both using the Z-Lite and I was jealous of how quickly they were setting up for camp and packing up in the morning without having to inflate or deflate/roll-up. I made the switch and was quite happy from that perspective. It was really nice getting to camp and basically being done as soon as the tent was up or even easier if we were staying in the shelter.

    I didn’t like having it on the outside of my pack, though. I didn’t like having it strapped to the bottom of the pack because it made it awkward every time I sat it down, so I put it on top which also made it annoying whenever I tried to look behind me as I had to turn completely. Also had to worry about it snagging on things whenever the trail wasn’t clear with down trees and what not and keep an extra garbage bag to keep it dry when it was raining. For another thru-hike, I would probably continue to use the Z-lite, but for the weekend trips I do now, I am back to using an inflatable. The ‘hassle’ of inflating/deflating the inflatable isn’t much on a 2-5 day trip as it was on the thru-hike where it was a continuous daily activity.

    • I can’t believe you left out sound. I used a sea to summit ultralight for the first 300 miles of the AT section hike. But I felt like I couldn’t stay in a shelter because I toss and turn and it made so much noise. I switched to switchback and its great. Not as comfortable, but quiet.

      The Bear

      • That’s a really good point! The first few campsites and shelters on my AT hike were a cacophony of people thrashing around on their new NeoAir pads. I find the NeoAir quiets down after a few weeks of use, and my other go-to pad (Sea to Summit Ultralight) is much quieter overall.

        The loudest sleeping pad I’ve ever used is the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm. Ain’t nobody sleeping if you roll around on that thing

    • I had an older REI Flash pad that I already had a decent number of nights on and was relatively quiet. Especially when you compared it to the Thermarest NeoAir that seemed to be the most popular pad out there at the time. Because of that, I was never too self conscious about the sound. Additionally, I never stayed in the shelter too often. Pretty much would only do so if it was just the folks I was hiking with at the shelter. Spent the vast majority of my nights in my tent.

  6. I have truly come full circle with regards to sleeping bag pads. 30 years ago I used the rollup Thermarest foam pad. It was indestructible, weighed tons, and was like lashing a rolled up Afghan carpet to your backpack! Then I transitioned to to lightweight blow up pads. Used them for close to 20 years. As I’ve gotten older (late 50s) I’ve gone back to the foam pads. I use a Nemo. Why? Ease of use, no time to set up, don’t puncture, etc. It’s light as a feather compared to the old foam pads.

  7. I’ve been under anesthesia twenty-one times to have something done to my spine, including several major surgeries and over a dozen rounds of TFESI steroid injections. I recently had to postpone two more sets of injections as my wife and I fight off Covid–believe me, you don’t want this stuff!

    When I was younger, I could barely sleep on a fold up pad and I then used self inflating ones for many years until the NeoAir came out. I bought a Sea to Summit Ether Light XT 4 inch thick pad during REI’s recent sale and also a Nemo Switchback but haven’t yet had the energy to open the box.

    I’m going to try out the Switchback but I highly doubt it will work for me. The money won’t be wasted, the grandkids don’t mind that type of pad. Also, those pads make great mechanic creepers. I wouldn’t want to crawl under a vehicle without one.

    Even when using the NeoAir, I bring a small foam pad as a sit/kneel pad. My AT hiking partner Larry uses a piece of Reflectix for a kneel pad and I switched to a piece of that to save an ounce.

    Grandpa of the House of Covid (all six in the house got it–we love to share!) is still planning on going backpacking when he recovers and is spending his down time whittling down the family fortune on sleeping pads. The bright side of Covid is that I finally got down to my target weight, but upon further review, there had to be better ways to accomplish that!

    • Oooh. Get well. All of you.

    • Hey Grandpa, good on you for still getting out! You’ve really been thru the surgery – and recovery- wringer.
      I’m 65, had a pretty physical life and now have the surgeries and body issues and it’s a fight to get out, but worth it every time. Hats off to you for keeping the fighters mentality!

    • Ouch! Hope all of you recover soon! Got thanked by a trail runner for wearing a mask this past weekend. The in and out trail is so narrow and popular that the CDC placed a COVID warning sign up at the entrances, but many ignore.

      Take care!

    • Thanks to all of you. We’re recovering well on the Covid front–doc says we’re no longer contagious, although I wear my N95 mask if I’m going somewhere. I don’t want to possibly expose anyone if I’m still shedding virus. In a few minutes, I have to take my wife to the ER. She slipped on the steps and the doc thinks she may have dislocated her shoulder. If it’s not one thing, it’s ten others!

      • Well, she didn’t dislocate her shoulder but she broke the humerus just below the shoulder. It’s always something!

      • Ouch! I’m not sure where you are, but a few decades ago, I broke my left humerus just below the shoulder doing an armpit plant during a very icy Stowe Derby in 1989. Also thought at the time that it was a shoulder dislocation.

        But the X-ray revealed an upper humerus broken into four pieces. At the time the conventional remedy was replacing the end of the bone with titanium steel. Because that likely would have required replacement every ten years or so, the UVM surgeon, Dr. James Mogen who was also a cross country skier, suggested a novel procedure: suturing the bones back together.

        The downside was not moving the upper arm for two months while the bone knit – leaving me with at totally frozen shoulder and three more months of PT. In retrospect it was well worth it. Although a modest 70 percent recovery of mobility was predicted, I’m 100 percent at everything except scratching my right shoulder blade with my left hand. And that’s at about 80 percent.

        Because this was a novel approach to the repair, I was several times Exhibit A for orthopedic residents at UVM. They soon replaced me with a video.

        I hope your wife’s injury is less severe and won’t require surgery. But I do want to stress the importance of the follow-up PT. Given your back history, you’re likely on to that!

        Best wishes for the New Year. This one’s been Hell to pay.

        Another Grandpa

  8. If the R value of the Alps Mountaineering 375…a full length 3/8 inch 9oz pad…is really R2 then that is impressive. Thermarest only claim 1.7 for their similarly sized non silvered “original” 14oz 3/4 inch Z-lite! …hmm
    Alps Mountaineering don’t give an R value for their 375 foam pad on their site that I could find. Actually they don’t seem to give R values for most of their pads. My guess is the Alps 375 is closer to R0.5 but it’s just a guess.

    • I got that R-value from a company representative.

      • If Alps can back that up then they should promote it because, if true, it has the best weight to warmth ratio of any foam pad I can find. While a 3/8 inch pad is not something I would use on its own out of choice, I would consider it as an underpad for winter use.

    • Not a good answer to the question, but back when I bought my 1/8″ Thinlight, Gossamer Gear claimed 0.7 for it. That would make a 3X thicker pad about 2.0-2.1 if correct. I don’t know where that number came from and this was before the current testing standards.

      Now they say that it likely varies due to inconsistencies in the density, and they don’t claim anything but estimate an R of about 0.5 for the 1/8″ and 1.0 for the 1/4″pad.

      • Another thought: Due to it’s “egg carton” construction the material thickness in the Z-Lite is thinner than 3/4″ and it’s surface area is greater than it’s measured dimensions – meaning if it were flattened out it would be longer and wider than a standard-sized pad.

      • They’re just making shit up. In the absence of testing using the new sleeping pad R-value standard, don’t believe a word of it.

      • Yeah. Better to say Not Rated than to fudge. It either meets the standard or it doesn’t.

    • I’m thinking about, in addition to an underquilt, a pad of some sort for cold weather… I guess you’d call it stacking.

      • Brett, I’ve experimented with foam and inflatable pads in my hammock and found they do not work well for me. Even if only partially inflated, they don’t stay in position, and I end up with my arms and legs off the pad and cold. I even tried the Kammock Pongo pad, designed for hammocks, and found it only helps slightly. I finally did the obvious thing and bought a warmer underquilt. This weekend I’ll experiment with “stacking” underquilts and using a hammock “sock,” since it will be cold. I’ll be camped near my car, just in case. I use a small closed-cell foam pad just under my butt and hips, since that is the critical spot. I probably need to buy some “puffy” insulated pants for when fleece is inadequate.

  9. How does the X-Therm have such a much better R value and why would anyone use any other pad? It is even more durable than the Neo.

  10. Love my RidgeRest! I cut it down to half length, padding the hips to shoulder. As I am a side sleeper (Snore on my back) I have cut the pad down to 17 inches wide. It works for me. For cold weather I would leave it full length but still have it at 17 inches wide.

    • John, my Ridgerest remains rolled up in my garage for all but about one winter trip a year when I fear temps will drop to -10 F. or lower. Then it goes Under my winter REI FLASH air mattress.

      The Ridgerest was for a long time the most comfortable closed cell mattress until the folding version came out. I still use a folding MSR/Thermarest sit pad in every season.

  11. I paired the Exped FlexMat Plus and the Alps 375 last night at a campground along the Pinhoti Trail in Alabama – Alps on top of the Exped. I forgot my digital thermometer, but given the forecast, I’d guess the temp was no lower than 40 degrees. Temps the several days previous were probably in the 50s for highs and 30s-40s for lows. It was a rainy night under a tarp and I was quite warm with only a 40 degree bag, though I did have fleece bottoms, wool socks, wool top, and a wool watch cap. At no point did I feel cold beneath me. If I were a dedicated back sleeper, this would be an amazing combination. And even though I’m a rotisserie sleeper, it was surprisingly comfortable when I was on either side. Maybe I should really say it was surprisingly not terribly uncomfortable!

  12. Have an REI FLASH Insulated (R 3.7) 3 season air mattress, regular mummy and a mating Sea to Summit pump bag/dry bag that I also use for my clothes. This mattress has worked to 18 F. by my pack thermometer.
    Weight-> 15 oz.

    Yeah, I know the Gen. 1 of this mattress has had seam failure “issues” but REI “assures” me that if any seam fail they will either replace it or refund my money – my choice. Punctures are my problem and that’s understandable.

    I also have REI’s FLASH All Season (R 5.3) air mattress which is nicely warm under my -20 F. down winter bag.
    Weight-> 18 oz.

  13. I think age is also a variable that should be used. As a Soldier I could tolerate the 1st GEN Thermarest pads much better than the yoga pads we were first issued as a young 20-something. But as I get older, each decade corresponds to 2.0 of a breath (e.g., 20 breaths of an inflatable = 40 y/o…) and so on. I hid my winter NeoAir X-Therm under my sleeping bag the entire way as a thru-hiker on the A.T. Sure I fell off a lot, but that is how you meet your neighbor!.
    Now I have a Big Agnes bag with a sleeve, and again I’m alone! In the winter, my Big Agnes Insulated Q-Core is my go to. Sure more breaths, but I fill it during the making of dinner and only do 10 breaths each time. My mind is so busy making dinner I don’t notice the effort, including above 14000’s.
    Always a great thread and platform…

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