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Survival Equipment

Choose the best sleeping pad for camping or backpacking

A good sleeping pad can help provide a good night's sleep.
Choose the best sleeping pad for camping or backpacking

Getting a good night’s sleep in the wilderness depends on a lot of variables. Don’t forget the sleeping pad!

by Leon Pantenburg

Several years ago, my wife bought me an insulated air mattress for backpacking. It was the Exped Downmat 7 and cost about $150. I thought the price exorbitant until the first use. I was at a January campout in Oregon’s Cascades Mountains and my tent was pitched on ice. All that was between me and the cold was the tent floor, the downmat and my sleeping bag. I slept like a baby.

I love sleeping out under the stars. While I will not use my tarp or tent, I won't forgo my Downmat 7!

I love sleeping under the stars, like on this summer backpack trip in Oregon’s Ochocco Mountains. While I will sometimes forgo my tarp or tent, I won’t leave my Downmat 7 behind! (Scott Langton photo)

A vital part of your wilderness or camping experience is what you sleep on. Too thin, and your bed is hard and unyielding. An uninsulated standard air mattress can let the cold ground suck the heat right out of you.

Too large, and the sleeping pad becomes difficult to carry and use.

To write this, I got some sleeping pad advice from Bob Patterson, an old friend and camping gear expert. (Check out his creds below!)

“The older one gets the more one gets into comfort,” Patterson said. “I usually use a self-inflating air mattress.  It cuts down on the need to call a wrecker to get me out of the bag in the morning!”

According to Patterson, some questions need to be answered before you invest in a sleeping pad. These might include:

What activities will you be doing?  Climbing, canoeing, winter camping, car camping?

What is your main concern?  Comfort, insulation, weight, bulk?

Once you establish your priorities,  consider these aspects of  buying a pad:

Where will I be using this?  An air mattress that would be very comfortable on a Louisiana summer night will chill you to the bone winter camping in the mountains. And, a hard, non-yielding pad that insulates well may be like sleeping on a board.

How bulky and heavy is it? Anymore, I go light when  backpacking. That means the lightest, most effective pad. My Down7 is used in all weather conditions, and it does very well here in Central Oregon. But it might not be the best choice in hot, desert regions.

Here are some choices, according to Patterson:

The closed cell ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!

The closed cell Ensulite pad on the left will provide good insulation, while the egg crate style foam pad is a little softer. Both are rather hard to sleep on!

Ensulite is light weight and insulates pretty well, but doesn’t roll very small and isn’t that comfortable by itself. Patterson reports problems with condensation collecting in corrugated and egg crate type of closed cell foam mattresses during winter camping.

Self-inflating mattresses are comfortable and convenient, and roll fairly tightly, but don’t insulate that well, and are kind of heavy.

Stay away from vinyl air mattresses for camping, they are for the pool or lake.

Air mattresses in general have one important built in defect: potential leakage.

“Any mattress that blows up needs a repair kit to accompany it,” Patterson said. ” An air mattress with a hole isn’t any good.  If you blow up your air mattress by mouth,  you can end up with icing problems in cold weather.”

Here is what Patterson uses:

Car camping or in a hunting base camp: “I use my self-inflating four-incher when there are no weight or bulk considerations,” he said. “I hate rolling off, or having my arms fall off, of the side of 20-inch wide mattresses, so mine are 25 or 30 inches wide and full length.  They are a little heavier, but the comfort for a good night’s sleep is worth it. ”

The 1” or 1.5” thick usually provide enough padding for comfort, he added.

“During the (2007) Boundary Waters Canoe Area  Honeymoon Lake Fire evacuation, (To read the story, click on Honeymoon Lake evacuation) we ended up sleeping on only our self-inflating pads, on a granite slab by the shore of Lake Superior,” Patterson said. ” They were OK, but that’s probably the extreme test.”

Winter camping in cold weather: “I have used a three-inch thick self-inflating pad, but it’s heavy and bulky,” Patterson said. “It only works when pulling equipment on a sled.”

The best winter system Patterson calls the “best of two worlds”  is a regular one-inch or  or 1.5-inch self-inflating mattress coupled with an Ensulite pad on the bottom.

My Downmat 7 has had extensive use and has always worked well. But any air mattress should always have a repair kit with it.

My Downmat 7 is about the size of a loaf of bread, and has had extensive use. Any air mattress should have a repair kit with it.

” In winter,  it takes longer for self-inflating mattresses to blow up.  Be careful about topping them off by blowing on the valve in subfreezing temperatures,” Patterson said.  “Breath moisture can result in valve freezing and internal freezing, making them difficult to roll up. The ice may prevent proper inflation the next time.”

Use these suggestions to decide what is going to work the best for you in your particular circumstances. No matter what your final  sleeping pad choice is, though, make sure it will work for you most of the time.

“My main advice for all gear is: If you can only have one, buy one for the conditions you will use it in 90 percent of the time,” Patterson said.  “An ounce of technique is worth a pound of technology. Learn and develop techniques to cope with occasional extreme conditions.  If you can afford to get specialized equipment for extremes, go for it.”

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson

Bob Patterson is a retired firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, and as part of his job, was outdoors in all kinds of weather year-round. A skilled outdoorsman, Patterson is a regular in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year, and is a former member of the National Ski Patrol. He does a lot of  northern Minnesota COLD camping.

Before he went to work as a firefighter, Bob sold sporting goods and outdoor equipment for several years in Ames, Iowa. Bob is my former Iowa State University roomate and a long-time family friend. We have hunted, fished, canoed, backpacked, camped and climbed together for decades. Bob’s on my short list of people to hang out with outdoors.

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Survival Equipment

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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