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Is a Sleeping Bag Better Than a Sleeping Pad For Sleeping on the Ground?

Sleeping bags and sleeping pads are designed to be used together as the major elements of your camping sleeping system. They fulfill very different requirements. Unless you have no other alternative, we would never recommend that you sleep directly on the ground. 

What Does a Sleeping Bag Do?

Your sleeping bag has 1 primary role:

  • Keep you warm while sleeping

For practicality, most sleeping bags must fulfil 2 further requirements:

  • Fold up as small as possible for easy storage and transportation
  • Be as light as possible


Hyke & Byke Shavano 32 Degree F 650 Fill Power Hydrophobic Down Sleeping Bag. These sleeping bags weigh just 1.9lbs each.

Sleeping bags keep you warm by insulating you from the cold air outside.  All sleeping bags achieve this insulation by trapping and retaining as much air as possible in their fabric and filling.  Relatively little insulation is directly provided by the materials of the sleeping bag.

Despite the hundreds of types of sleeping bag available, the filling comes down to 2 basic choices:

  • Down
  • Synthetic

Down is still claimed to be the most efficient insulation material available for a sleeping bag.  It provides a very high insulation to weight ratio, compresses pretty easily to cram into your backpack, and, should give good service for many years.

Down only works well when dry.  If, you do get wet a down sleeping bag will lose much of its insulation very quickly.  To counter this, many down sleeping bags are made of waterproof fabrics which can add to the weight.


Waterproof (?) sleeping bag. Designed for 3 season use. Pack weighs 7lbs and is much larger than a down sleeping bag when rolled up.

Synthetic fillings now offer great insulation values – almost up to the best down fillings.  They also perform better when wet.

What does a sleeping pad do?

A sleeping pad has 2 principle roles:

  • Insulate you from the ground
  • Provide a comfortable base on which to sleep.

Like sleeping bags, sleeping pads are also designed to be:

  • As light as possible
  • Fold/roll up small for storage and transportation

There are 3 main types of sleeping pad:

Closed-cell foam sleeping pads


Typical Closed-Cell, Foam Sleeping Pad

Features

  • Lightweight
  • Roll-up tightly for carrying
  • Provides minimal cushioning. 
  • Can achieve high levels of thermal insulation.

These are the sleeping pads you often see tied to the bottom of a hikers backpack.

Example of foam sleeping pad attached to backpack. We are not sure how this guy can walk with that much gear.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Air pad – Sleeping Pad


Inflatable Sleeping Pad. The cells for air pockets are clearly seen.

Features

  • Lightweight. 
  • Some inflation needed before it can be used.  Nothing like as much air used as for an air mattress as an air sleeping pad is usually only an inch or two thick.
  • Can be folded or rolled up tight for carrying.  Will not be as compact as a foam model.
  • Medium levels of cushioning and thermal insulation.

Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad

Features

  • Self Inflating – heaviest and bulkiest of the types of sleeping pad. 
  • Combine closed-cell structure with air pockets. The cell structure expands when the valve is opened drawing air into the sleeping pad. Valve must be shut before use.
  • High degree of cushioning
  • Good insulation – on a par with air pads.
  • Best (most expensive) models can still be folded for transportation/carrying. These are bulky items when folded.
  • Typical pack weight – 7lbs plus


Typical Self Inflating Sleeping pad. This model can be folded, with some effort, to a similar size to a closed-cell foam pad

We are not going to discuss the merits of each type of sleeping pad here. 

Do I Need a Sleeping Pad?

As we said in the introduction, we never recommend sleeping directly on the ground if there are any alternatives. There are 2 reasons:

  • The ground is cold.  Any direct contact with the ground will drain the heat from your body very quickly.
  • The ground is hard, lumpy and very uncomfortable to sleep on.

If you lie on the ground in a sleeping bag you will compress the filling, forcing any trapped air out.  Remember, most of the insulation properties of a sleeping bag are provided by the air it can trap and retain – not by the sleeping bag itself.  As soon as you force the air out, you have reduced the insulation factor to almost zero.

As you get older, lying directly on the hard ground gets to be almost as big an issue as the lack of insulation.  It is particularly hard on side sleepers.  Our hipbones tend to find every rock and lumps there are.  Even if you sleep, you are going to wake bruised and sore.

Compressed down or synthetic fillings provide very little cushioning.

For us, as family camping enthusiasts, a sleeping pad is at the lowest end of the options we would choose. 

Your Sleeping System – How Important is a Sleeping Pad?

Your sleeping system includes everything you need to get a good, comfortable night’s sleep.  The essential components are a sleeping bag (or other coverings that will keep you warm), a sleeping pad (or other floor coverings to insulate you from the floor), pillows (can be improvised), and the clothes you wear in you sleeping bag.

The sleeping bag and clothes worn inside, are all intended to trap air and you body heat, to protect you against cold air temperatures. 

A sleeping bags ‘R’ value (a measure of thermal insulation) ranges from about 2 (not well insulated) on up to 5.5 or 6 (very well insulated). The R value for a sleeping pad also goes from 2 but goes on up to 7. Unlike a sleeping bag, a sleeping pad provides that same level of insulation when in contact with the ground.

A sleeping pad is essential to provide you with the insulation and cushioning to protect you from the ground.

What are the alternatives to a sleeping pad?

There are many alternatives to sleeping pads.  Which you choose depends a great deal on the type of camping you are going to do.

Ultralight hikers are likely to use a closed cell foam sleeping pads.  Backpackers may also use foam pads but are likely to view the investment in a self-inflating sleeping pad as worthwhile.

Family campers may  opt for self-inflating sleeping pads too.  Particularly for children and teenagers.  We are delighted to see several double sleeping pads becoming available too.


One of a range of ‘double’ self-inflating sleeping pads now available

Our choice of ground covering has been for many years, a queen sized air mattress. 


Buy a quality air mattress and you will never need to worry about leaks.

We no longer use sleeping bags either.  We long ago switched to using a duvet to sleep under when camping.  We find it more flexible and comfortable than even the best sleeping bags. Blankets also provide a great alternative to sleeping bags.

There are also many camping cots available.  These come in either single or double bed sizes.


Light weight, single camping cot. Weighs in at 3lbs and will roll-up to about the same size as a foam sleeping pad.

Sleeping Pads – Frequently Asked Questions

QuestionAnswer
How thick should a sleeping pad beA sleeping  pad needs to insulate you from the ground, and, provide you with cushioning so you can sleep comfortably. Closed cell foam sleeping pad are typically around half an inch thick.  They will provide good thermal insulation, but they don’t provide too much in the way of cushioning. Air pads and self-inflating pads are generally around 2-3inches deep when ready for use.  These provide both good insulation and good cushioning
Do sleeping pads keep you warmAs we have discussed, a sleeping pad does not keep you warm.  Its job is to provide thermal insulation from the ground.  Your sleeping bag, blankets or duvet keep you warm
What do you put under a sleeping padMost sleeping pads can be thrown directly onto the ground.  In our view, if your tent doesn’t include a bathtub footprint, it is good to put your sleeping pad on a tarp or other tent footprint
Do you put a sleeping pad inside a sleeping bagSleeping pads should be place directly on the floor and your sleeping bag goes on top We too have fallen off our sleeping pads – sometimes several times a night – but they simply don’t fit inside a sleeping bag.
Can you use a yoga mat as a sleeping padNo. Yoga mats are designed to provide a non-slip surface.  They don’t include any foam for insulation or cushioning.
What is the best thing to sleep on while campingThis is a matter or personal choice.  If, like us, you are dedicated to family camping and all your gear is carried in your car, we strongly believe in the comfort of queen sized air mattresses. If you have to carry all of your sleeping system on your back, we feel that an air pad or self-inflating sleeping pad is best.
Can you get double sleeping padsYes.  There is a limited choice of double sleeping pads.  We have yet to see any queen pads.

Summary

Sleeping bags and sleeping pads fulfill different roles.  They are designed to be used together to help you build the optimal sleeping system for your preferred style of camping.

Sleeping bags and sleeping pads provide one style of sleeping system.  As you progress to family camping, in larger tents, your bigger problem is likely to be, “How do I stay cool when camping“. In this case, you are likely to move onto cots or air mattresses to sleep on, and blankets, duvets or throws as you covering.

The choice is yours.

Rolled up sleeping pad.  It works with a sleeping bag.  Neither a sleeping pad or a sleeping bag should be used alone to sleep on the ground
Rolled up sleeping mat

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Keith Longmire

Keith Longmire

I’m the guy that loves camping, insists on family camping trips, and the editor and owner of Campingsage.com

I love camping and the outdoors. Through this site I hope to help you enjoy it too.