When it comes to camping, the most difficult part of a trip isn’t hiking, carrying in gear, or even starting a fire. It’s getting a good night’s sleep.
Testing the warmth and coziness of a sleeping bag on a warm, carpeted living room floor is a poor predictor of its performance once rolled out on the floor of a tent, millimeters of plastic away from rocks, sticks, and dirt. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked by first-time campers, and people typically realize their mistake at the worst possible time: bedtime.
Because a good night’s sleep can make all the difference between a great camping trip and deciding you’ll be sticking to hotels in the future, that potentially makes a sleeping pad the single most important piece of equipment you can bring along.
There are two benefits to camping pads that make them so important to an enjoyable camping experience: insulation and comfort. The former is often overlooked, but can make as much of a difference between a sleepless night and a refreshing weekend as the latter.
Whether you realize it or not, an insulating surface is the most important part of sleeping, and foam camping mats are able to affordably provide that benefit. Even on the warm days, the ground will be cooler than your body temperature. This may feel good at first if you’ve been beaten down by the sun’s rays all day, but can eventually become an uncomfortable, or even dangerous situation. Foam has even been used by individuals in insulating survival gear supplies, both in camping and clothing, a topic discussed in a previous article.
Contact with a surface colder than the body will allow it to conduct heat away from you. A sleeping bag will compress under your weight and offers almost no resistance, hence why the same bag in a warm, carpeted house is so much toastier than the one in the woods. The ground will slowly draw heat away from your body, cooling you to the point of discomfort over the course of an entire night. This heat loss is incredibly important to be aware of when camping in cold temperatures, particularly if there is snow on the ground.
Fortunately, insulating foam pads are a poor conductor of heat, and when placed between the sleeper and the ground, reduce the ability of the ground to draw heat away from the sleeper, keeping you warmer. Both open-cell and closed-cell foam pads offer this benefit, with open-cell being slightly more insulating, while thin sheets of closed-cell foam are non-absorbent, easier to clean, more rugged, and easily rolled and packed.
These foam mats don’t only offer insulation from just the ground either. People sleeping on air mattresses are essentially resting on a large heat sink. A foam layer between the body and the bed will help reduce the heat lost to the air cavity. On cots and hammocks, you have the same situation with open air under your body. Staying warm, while obvious in terms of comfort, is vital to safety as well, making the insulating capability of foam incredibly important to individuals embarking on an overnight trip.
The second benefit camping pads bring to the table is more obvious, but impossible to understate. Simply put, foam is soft, and the ground is hard. Soft foam on the hard ground makes the ground softer, and more comfortable for sleeping. Incredible, right?
Our beds are softer than what people slept on thousands of years ago, and when we make the transition from modern sleep surfaces to a more rustic environment, it likely won’t go over well without something at least attempting to bridge the comfort gap.
With a camping pad, you can have a cushion layer that takes the edge off the hard ground. Lumpy spots, sticks, and rocks are invisible until you lie down, but will seemingly grow in size during the night as they poke and prod. A thin, closed-cell foam sheet can smooth out a rough surface, great for people who don’t have major comfort demands, but still would prefer avoiding sticks and stones. Adding an open-cell pad on top of that can completely transform the experience into luxury. With durable closed-cell foam protecting your body against the ground, soft pad foam will cushion you in the same way a mattress topper does at home, and is even warm to boot!
While they may be basic, the benefits sleeping pads bring to the camping experience are not insignificant. If you want to enjoy your time away from the world, you need to make sure you’re able to get rest, and camping pads are the best way to ensure that happens.