The cold winter months are no excuse to stay inside. There is arguably some of the best adventure to be had during the snowy season. Nature is at its most stunning and frightening during this time and if you’re like us, you want to explore the possibilities that frozen landscapes offer. Of course, it’s essential to head out prepared when winter camping, with the best winter sleeping pads and the rest of the gear you need.
While there is a lot of the importance to be placed on a good four-season tent and winter sleeping bag. Many folks who are new to winter camping will make the mistake of underestimating the importance of a good winter-rated sleeping pad. This can end up in you passing an excessively uncomfortable and sleepless night on the snow.
When you are in a sleeping bag, most of your heat is lost through the ground. The insulation below is unable to function properly when it is compressed under your weight. This is why it’s so important to use an insulated sleeping pad. Do not take this lightly, if you camp on snow without an insulated sleeping pad, you will feel extremely cold and are putting yourself at risk for hypothermia.
Sleeping pad manufacturers rate their sleeping pads using a system called R-value. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad will be. For standard winter camping, anything above 4 will work, although 5.5 and above offers more comfortable sleep.
Since insulated sleeping pads are inflatable, they can be punctured. It’s important to carry a few extra safety supplies when winter camping in case your pad gets punctured accidentally. A patch kit is necessary to carry with you at all times. Additionally, I recommend carrying a closed-cell foam pad and an emergency blanket. You can put the closed-cell foam pad underneath your sleeping pad, and the R-values from both pads will stack giving you extra warmth. In case of catastrophic failure on your inflatable sleeping pad, you can use the closed-cell foam alongside the emergency blanket to stay safe.
The best sleeping pads, too, will last a long time if you treat them well. My last winter pad worked for about six years on probably 100 nights. It’s important to always store it in a cool, dry place when you’re not using it. All pads will develop leaks that need to be patched.
Here are some of the best options for winter sleeping pads:
1. Best overall: Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm
For all intents and purposes, Therm-a-Rest are the inventors of the modern sleeping pad. Prior to their designs, people were sleeping on closed-cell foam only. It’s safe to say they know a thing or two about sleeping pad innovation.
The Xtherm is the winter version of their popular NeoAir line of sleeping mats. It is well equipped for cold weather pursuits with an R-value of 6.9. At 15 ounces it may seem heavy compared to three-season pads, but the Xtherm weighs less than the other mats in its warmth class.
The Xtherm comes with a patch kit (most good sleep pads should come with this). One feature that will make your life a lot easier is the pump sack it comes with. This makes inflating the pad much quicker.
People consistently rate the Xtherm, as well as other NeoAir mattresses, as comfortable sleeping pads. The Xtherm is 2.5 inches tall when inflated. One great feature of the Xtherm is the baffle construction, which has been optimized to make the mat as flat as possible. The fabric is lightweight but tough. Overall, the NeoAir Xtherm offers balanced performance resulting in low weight and bulk with a lot of warmth and comfort.
2. Best for extreme cold: Exped Downmat XP 9
In the harshest of camps, it makes sense to bring a burly sleeping pad. If you want a pad that will work well in snow caves and on sub-zero nights but still fits into a backpack, the Exped Downmat XP 9 is a fantastic choice. Exped had the brilliant idea to pump their pads full of 700 fill power down feathers, as insulation that packs down well and weighs less than foam. This resulted in some of the warmest pads available that still come in an agreeable size for backpackers.
The Downmat XP 9 is Exped’s warmest down filled mattress for backpacking. With an R-value of 7.8 and a height of 3.5 inches, it provides superior comfort when compared to most other packable sleeping mats. All that extra comfort does come at a cost however, as the pad is heavier (just shy of 2 pounds) and bulkier than the competition. It’s suitable for the coldest temperatures in the most trying conditions. Even the fabric is thicker than many other pads and boosts the Downmat’s durability. The included pump sack makes inflating the mat super fast and easy.
Exped backs up all their products with a lifetime guarantee. Provide them with your proof of purchase and they will gladly fix any defects at no additional cost. Their customer service is above par, and a great reason to choose an Exped sleeping pad.
For winter camping enthusiasts, the Downmat XP 9 is a welcome piece of comfort in your tent. The extra weight and bulk are a small price to pay in return for a truly good night’s sleep.
3. Best budget winter pad: Sea to Summit Comfort Plus SI
It’s not a secret that most winter sleeping pads are expensive. The extra insulation adds to the cost of already high prices for inflatable sleeping pads. It can be a major deterrent when contemplating whether or not you want to try winter camping. Luckily, Sea to Summit makes a great pad that will keep you warm and won’t burn a hole in your wallet.
The Comfort Plus SI is that pad. SI stands for self-inflating. Instead of needing to be pumped up like some of the other pads on this list, the Comfort Plus SI will fill up with air on its own once you open the valve. This pad doesn’t feature the same baffled construction as other inflatable pads either. That means it’s less prone to failure from torn baffles, and it’s easier to patch should it spring a leak. In general, the Comfort Plus SI ranks well in terms of durability. At 2 pounds 2 ounces, it isn’t lightweight, but it isn’t too terribly heavy either.
With an R-value of 4.1, the Comfort Plus SI isn’t quite as warm as the other pads we listed, however it still works for winter camping. It can easily be paired with a closed-cell foam pad stacked underneath to boost the level of insulation between you and the ground. When it’s fully inflated, the height is an impressive 3 inches, and it provides a lot of comfort.
4. Best for camping near your car: REI Camp Bed SI
Hiking off into the snow-covered forest isn’t for everyone, and that’s OK. Our forays into nature don’t need to be arduous journeys for us to enjoy them. Some of the most beautiful camp spots are accessible by car. In the dead of winter, these spots are often just as cold as more remote camping so you need to come prepared. Luckily, you don’t need to worry as much about weight and pack size when you have a car. Instead, you can bring a more comfortable and luxurious pad.
The REI Camp Bed SI is a great option for those car camping adventures where you have the opportunity to carry more. It has a generous R-value of 7.6 that allows for four-season rest without feeling cold, even on snow. Additionally, the dimensions and height are larger than backpacking sleeping pads and give you a bit of wiggle room. The fabric is also thicker and more comfortable than lightweight options. The standard size Camp Bed SI weighs 3 pounds 10 ounces. Because the Camp Bed SI doesn’t make any sacrifices on weight, it is built extra tough and will hold up well against abrasions.
REI backs up all their products with the same great warranty. If there is any problem with your pad, you can always return it for a full refund.
5. Best closed-cell stacking pad: Nemo Switchback
As I mentioned before, it’s a great idea to bring an extra closed-cell foam pad alongside your inflatable pad for winter use. The Nemo Switchback is an ideal choice for a stacking pad. It has an R-value of 2, which will add to the R-value of the pad you put on top of it. That means if you have a pad with an R-value of 4, you can put the Switchback underneath and boost your total R-value to 6.
A closed-cell stacking pad is also invaluable in case of emergency, should your main pad be damaged beyond repair in the field. You can lay out clothing and your backpack underneath the Switchback and keep yourself from becoming hypothermic. I have spent a night like this when my inflatable pad had a valve malfunction, and while it was very uncomfortable and cold, it kept me safe. The closed-cell foam on the Switchback can’t be punctured, it is in another class of durability when compared to all inflatable pads. The Switchback also protects your inflatable sleeping pad from sharp objects on the ground below your tent, such as rocks and thorns.
There are many closed-cell foam pads on the market, so what makes the Nemo Switchback a standout? It has been designed to fold into itself better than other folding pads. That means it packs down smaller. Additionally, the bumps provide a tiny bit of extra height when compared to other folding pads. No closed-cell foam pad feels luxurious on its own, but the Switchback is manageable and actually works well as a stand-alone pad during the summer. It is also possible to stack multiple Switchback pads during the winter. This is an incredibly durable option, but it won’t be quite as warm or comfortable as having an inflatable pad.
Atticus Lee is an outdoors writer and perpetual traveler. When he’s not writing about adventures and gear, he’s riding his bike across different countries and learning about their cultures. He enjoys coffee, campfires, and street food.
Image by travin_photo, Shutterstock
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