Do You Need a Sleeping Pad for Camping? (And Alternatives)

If you are new to camping, you might not know right away what gear you need and don’t need. There are certain things you can get away with. For example, you don’t always need a sleeping bag for camping (see my sleeping bag alternatives), but can you go camping without a sleeping pad? Well, it depends. Let’s take a look…

Can you go camping without a sleeping pad? A sleeping pad is highly recommended when camping. A sleeping pad provides comfort and insulation from the ground. If you don’t use a sleeping pad, you may feel cold. During the warmer months, a sleeping pad is optional for cots and hammocks.

Why You Need a Sleeping Pad for Camping

Yes, if you’re sleeping on the ground, you probably need a sleeping pad for camping and it’s going to make a world of difference. There are some cases where you can get away without one, but more on that later.

So why do you need a sleeping pad exactly? For two primary reasons:

  1. General comfort from the ground (rocks and roots)
  2. Prevent heat loss through conduction

Let’s take a deeper look at why sleeping pads are helpful:

Prevent Soreness

Unless you are used to sleeping on hard ground, then you’re going to want to bring a sleeping pad. If you don’t think you need one, try sleeping on your floor or outside in your backyard. It just may be uncomfortable after a while. And remember, when you’re in the wilderness, the ground is going to be uneven and sometimes filled with rocks and roots.

If you’re a side sleeper especially like me, your hips are going to be digging into the ground and will be sore in the morning. Not fun.

Warmth

If you can sleep comfortably on the ground (and some people can), you’ll most likely feel cold even during the summer. This is because the ground will suck away your body heat through conduction. A sleeping pad will insulate you from the ground and keep you feeling a lot warmer. This is why sleeping pads are even more important during the winter. Some campers even use two sleeping pads (see my best tips on how to stay warm camping).

If you don’t use a sleeping pad, even with a good sleeping bag, you’ll feel warmer at the top and cold at the bottom. Your sleeping bag will get compressed and lose all it’s insulation properties. This is why some sleeping bags are made without insulation on the bottom and why some campers prefer to use quilts.

Getting Enough Sleep

Even if you can “rough” it out (see my article on how to go cowboy camping), sleeping well while camping is going to be important to have enough energy the next day. If you’re doing a multiday hike, you’ll need to stay energized and alert. The more tired you are, the more injury-prone you will be. Getting enough sleep will help prevent injuries on technical trails and keep you alert when navigating.

Do You Need a Sleeping Pad with a Cot?

Whether or not you need a sleeping pad for your cot really depends on the temperature. In warm weather, you can get away without a sleeping pad and it might actually make you feel better. If it’s too hot outside, sleeping without a pad on a cot will help you keep cool by having the air circulate underneath you.

In the colder months though, you’ll still want a sleeping pad. Your sleeping bag will still compress and leave you exposed to the cold air underneath. A cot with a sleeping pad will help you stay warmer. Also, be sure to take a look at my camping tips for sleeping warmer when it’s cold.

If you’re car camping and want something more comfortable, you can buy a mattress for your cot. Many cots (such as Coleman) brands are 30 inches wide, which makes a narrow twin mattress the perfect size. One of the most popular mattresses for such cots (including Coleman brand) is the Zinus Memory Foam 6 Inch Green Tea Matress (see reviews and price at Amazon). If you have a 25″ cot, then consider getting the Milliard Tri Folding Mattress instead.

Do You Need a Sleeping Pad with a Hammock?

Hammocks are my preferred way to sleep when I go camping. I’ve slept with and without sleeping pads and know that it also depends on the weather.

Sleeping in a hammock
Sleeping in a hammock

In the summer, like a cot, sleeping without a sleeping pad is doable. I love it when all I need to do is set up my tree straps, clip on my hammock, and fall asleep. But it’s not always like that. In the summer, you might have lots of bugs that can bite through the hammock fabric. A sleeping pad will be warmer, but it will at least keep the bugs from biting you.

Anytime when it’s cool outside, you’ll want a sleeping pad for your hammock. This prevents what is known as CBS – Cold Butt Syndrom, caused by the cold air circulating underneath you. The good thing about hammocks though is that sleeping pads that would normally be too hard to sleep on become a lot more comfortable inside the hammock. You can pick up a really cheap rollup closed foam sleeping pad from Walmart or buy a foldable one like the REDCamp closed-cell foam pad.

There are sleeping pads designed specifically for hammocks. These are shaped with flaps that take shape to the hammock. One of the common problems with normal sleeping pads is that they can slide around in the hammock, which can be a little annoying when you’re covered in blankets trying to adjust the mat.

One choice for sleeping pads for hammocks is the Klymit Hammock V Sleeping Pad. The Klymit Hammock V Sleeping Pad is the first air pad designed specifically for hammocks that is non-slip and made from rugged 20D polyester. Be sure to check out the reviews and price at Amazon and see how good it really is.

Sleeping Pad Alternatives

There are times when you don’t exactly need a sleeping pad. I’ve slept on the ground next to fires before using nothing more than a wool blanket (see mine at Amazon). I’ve also built and slept in debris shelters. But doing these things isn’t ideal. You’re not always going to have time or energy to build a shelter or keep a fire going all night.

Sleeping in debris shelter
My crazy days when I would build shelters and sleep in them without a bag or pad.

The best choice for a sleeping pad is a real sleeping pad. But if you’re in a pinch, then some of these alternatives may work.

Here’s a list of sleeping pad alternatives:

  • Air Mattress
  • Portable matress
  • Cot
  • Hammock
  • Gym pad
  • Thick sleeping bags / blankets
  • Thick yoga mat
  • A thick pile of leaves

For comfort, anything that keeps you off the ground is going to work, but it won’t necessarily keep you warm. To stay warm, you’ll either need thick insulation or a real sleeping pad.

What About Yoga Mats for Camping?

Yoga mat for camping
Yoga mat for camping

A lot of people wonder if they can use a yoga mat as a sleeping pad. Unless you have a pretty thick mat, yoga mats are a poor choice for camping. Many of them are thin and provide little or no insulation properties. They can also tend to be heavier than real sleeping pads. Some yoga mats also absorb water, which can make them a poor choice when camping.

What Kind of Sleeping Pad Should I Get?

There are three types of sleeping pads:

  • Closed-cell foam
  • Air pads
  • Self-inflating pads

Closed-cell sleeping pads are the type of pads that don’t need to be blown up. They are basically a big piece of foam. They are a lot stiffer, making them less comfortable to sleep on, but they are cheap and you’ll never have to worry about punctures or leaks

Air pads are the most popular and can be pretty comfortable, especially for side sleepers. You will need to inflate them but they came really compact.

Self-inflating pads are a combination of closed-cell sleeping pads and air pads. These offer great insulation and the firmness can be adjusted by adding or removing air.

One great option for a sleeping pad is the Sleepingo Sleeping Pad. Surprisingly, this pad is 2″ thick but folds up to the size of a water bottle. What I especially like about this pad is that it comes with a lifetime warranty. And if you don’t like it, they’ll refund your money, no return necessary. Make sure you check out the Sleepingo Pad at Amazon.

Conclusion

So do you really need a sleeping pad? Probably yes. Sleeping pads are one important piece of geat you don’t want to pass up. If you’re sleeping on the ground, do yourself a favor and get a sleeping pad. It will keep you warm, comfortable, and well-rested to take on the next day.

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