How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses

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What can we say? We love sleeping in the dirt. Here’s how our eclectic group of campers and adventurers tests every sleeping pad we review firsthand.
How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Intro
We purchase our pads ourselves, and test them in the field first hand for bias-free reviews.

A lot more goes into a good sleeping pad test than just sleeping. The reviews you read on our website are the culmination of hours of research combined with weeks of hands-on testing in the field, and our team is constantly evaluating gear throughout the year. 

Our philosophy when it comes to gear reviews is simple. We choose ourselves, we buy ourselves, and we test ourselves. Here’s how it works. 

1. Our Method
2. Why Don’t We “Grade” Our Products?
3. What We Do With Our Gear After Testing?
4. Comfort
5. Weight and Packed Size
6. Insulation
7. Ease of Use
8. Durability
9. Value

Our Method

Our approach to selecting and sourcing sleeping pads is much the same as anyone elses: We start with untold hours of research, both online and in store, to identify the best potential products for review. Our goal here is to identify both the best sleeping pads and best camping mattresses currently on the market, as well as those that we feel bring something unique to the table. 

Once we’ve identified a suitable sample of pads that we feel best represent the most popular use cases, we purchase each product ourselves with our own money. This is arguably the most important part of our process, as it allows us to remain objective with each item we review, giving us the freedom to speak honestly and directly about each product we test. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Our Method
Our sleeping pads are all tested out in the dirt where they belong.

From here we move into hands-on testing, splitting each of the pads between 4-5 of our in-house testers. Again, our aim here is to get as many pads as possible into the hands of the most diverse sampling of enthusiasts possible. These pads rotate between testers throughout the year, and each user takes detailed notes from their time with each product. 

At the end of the testing season, we gather up all of our field notes for an in-depth analysis. Here we look for common trends in strengths and weaknesses, then our editorial team combines the data into the most well rounded first-hand review possible. 

Why Don’t We “Grade” Our Products?

You may have noticed that we don’t assign any specific numeric value to any of the sleeping pads or mattresses we test and review. This is intentional, and something we’ve done since the beginning. 

Our reasoning here is that because we test such a wide variety of sleeping pads, we don’t feel any single scale should apply across the board. Some sleeping pads are ultralight and ultra packable yet only work well in the warmest months, while others are a bit heavier but so well insulated they could keep you toasty in a literal blizzard. 

Because different pads have different “ideal” use cases, we evaluate each based on its own merits and report our findings accordingly. We don’t feel assigning a generic value across the board would do many of the pads we test justice, so we stick to the facts and let each reader decide for themselves. 

What Do We Do With Our Gear After Testing?

As much as we’d love to keep every mattress, camping tent, and backpack we test, we’re still a relatively small outfit here at The Wise Adventurer. That means that both our storage space and budget are limited, so when our time is up with a given sample of gear, we sell everything we buy back to local outdoor enthusiasts in our areas at a significant discount. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - What Do We Do With Our Gear After Testing
As much as we’d love to keep them all, we sell our test gear back to the outdoors community at a fraction of MSRP.

Doing so allows us to recoup some of the costs of our lengthy field tests (we often pay full MSRP for the items we purchase), which in turn helps to fund the next round of reviews each season. We also love the opportunity to get great gear into the hands of people who will continue to use it for years to come, further supporting the communities we set our to serve in the first place. 

Alright, enough of that. Here’s the nitty-gritty on how we review our sleeping pads. 

Comfort

Most of us would argue that comfort is what compels us to buy a camp mattress in the first place. Sleeping outside is good fun, sleeping on the ground… not so much. 

From a research standpoint, we’ve found that thicker mattresses and pads tend to be more comfortable than thinner ones for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that thicker mattresses allow side sleepers and heavier folks to sleep through the night without their hips, shoulders, or knees coming into contact with the ground below and creating pressure points. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Comfort 1
All of our favorite pads from this year’s field test were three inches thick or more.

The second is that because thicker mattresses have increased internal volume, they almost always have a wider range of adjustability for firmness than thinner alternatives. This is important because maximally inflated mattresses tend to be bouncier and less stable, especially if their internal baffling is sub par. 

If we’re shopping specifically for camping mattresses rather than lightweight backpacking pads, we also always look for models made using thick foam (preferably 4 inches or so) for maximal comfort and insulation. At this point there’s really no arguing that conventional air mattresses can compete with the plush comfort and warmth of open-cell foam, so foam is what we want.

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Comfort 2
When it comes to camping mattresses, traditional blow-up mattresses are no match for modern open-cell foam beds like this Exped Megamat 10.

When it comes time to field test our selections, we evaluate comfort the only way we know how: Having each of our testers spend several nights sleeping on each mattress. Because comfort is such a subjective quality, it’s particularly important to gather as many opinions as possible here. 

Some folks prefer a firmer bed where others want something more plush and forgiving. Some folks sleep on their backs, others on their sides, and a select few even manage to sleep through the night on their stomachs somehow. We collect as many first hand impressions as possible on the widest variety of surfaces possible (inside tents, directly on the ground, the beds of trucks, inside vans, etc.) to identify any common strengths or weaknesses, then make our final evaluations based on the sum total of the information. 

Weight and Packed Size

While neither weight nor packed size matter much for car camping mattresses (assuming you’ve got room to store and transport them), both are major factors for backpacking sleeping pads. As a general rule of thumb, backpackers should want the smallest packed size they can possibly get, and ideally a total weight of somewhere around 1 pound or less in a modern air filled pad.

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Weight and Packed Size 1
The Nemo Tensor Insulated is a great example of an ultralight pad: It weighs less than a pound and packs down smaller than most non-insulated alternatives.

In terms of research, any respectable manufacturer will list both the packed size and total weight of a sleeping pad in the spec sheet, so we pay close attention to these metrics when choosing pads ourselves. It’s also important to note that there’s a difference between “minimum trail weight” and “total weight” as the former refers to just the pad itself, while the latter includes the added weight and bulk of a stuff sack, pump sack, or both. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Weight and Packed Size 2
We don’t mind carrying a slightly larger pad like the Big Agnes Rapide seen here in exchange for some added comfort.

When it comes to testing, the first thing we do with a sleeping pad after receiving it is to measure and weigh it ourselves. After we’ve found the manufacturer’s listed sizes and weights can be off by an ounce or two for better or worse, so this is an important variable to confirm firsthand. 

The other important evaluation we do here in the field is to confirm whether or not a sleeping pad can be easily packed back down to its original size. These things are rolled pretty tightly from the factory, and after the first real-world use we find many pads seem to gain an extra square inch or two no matter how carefully we pack them back down.

Insulation

When researching the insulation of both sleeping pads and camp mattresses, we look at two important factors: The listed R-values, and existing customer feedback. The R-value is important because it essentially tells us how warm the manufacturer “claims” their pad to be, while the customer feedback helps to clue us into any potential discrepancies between the claimed warmth and real-world experience of the pad.

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Insulation 1
We found the Therm-a-Rest Neoair XLite seen here to be the perfect combination of warmth and packability.

Once we’ve ordered each pad and have them in hand, we set about testing them. When testing for insulation, we make an effort to have both “warmer” and “colder” sleepers spend time on each pad in a similar variety of conditions. We do this because although the laboratory testing for R-value is supposed to be uniform across brands, we often find that two pads with the same R-values can deliver very different results in the field.

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Insulation 2
The thick foam construction of camping mattresses like the Nemo Roamer seen here deliver R-values high enough to keep you warm in the most brutal winter conditions, but we test them all summer too.

Our testers spend time sleeping on each pad, testing different models back to back to get a feel for any potential concerns. By testing several pads under identical conditions (weather, clothing, shelter, etc.), we’re able to accurately gauge the effectiveness of a pad’s insulation as well as how it performs compared to its competitors. 

Ease of Use

When we talk about sleeping pads, ease of use typically comes down to little more than inflation and deflation. Pads and mattresses that fill up quickly and with minimal effort tend to score the highest here, as do those that deflate and pack away with minimal fuss. There’s really no way of knowing how a pad will do in this particular area without using it firsthand, so that’s exactly what we do. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Ease of Use 1
This one way valve on the Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe makes for easy inflation and doubles as a one-touch adjuster for firmness.

There’s no one-size-fits-all all formula here, although we will note that features like self-inflating foam and well-designed one-way valves tend to go a long way toward user-friendliness. We’ve also found that an effective pump sack like Nemo’s “Vortex” bag can do wonders here on large mattresses and small pads alike. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Ease of Use 2
Nemo’s Vortex pump sack is easily our favorite we’ve tested, as it makes inflating even the largest mattresses an absolute breeze.

We have a few pet peeves in this area as well, including leaky valves that won’t hold air for a full night and extra bulky mattresses that require multiple attempts (or multiple people) to pack back down into their carry sacks. We’ll also note that this is where solid foam options (both folding closed cell backpacking pads and roll-up open cell camping beds) tend to do quite well as they’re always ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. 

Durability

When researching pads and mattresses for purchase, we find spec sheets are a great indicator of a pad’s potential durability. The main factor we look out for here is high denier fabrics, particularly on the bottom and sides of a sleeping pad as these are the most puncture-prone areas out in the field. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Durability 1
Extra tough fabrics like the 50D tricot polyester of this Exped Megamat are worth paying for, as they extend the useful life of your camping mattress.

When testing durability ourselves, our main goal is to get as much use as possible on each pad we test. We bring the pads on group camping trips, boondocking weekends, week-long backpacking escapades, you name it. This is also another area where it pays to have a diverse group of testers, as many of the pads we test find their way into backcountry ski adventures, motorcycle trips, and even multi-month thru-hikes as well. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Durability 2
When it comes to durability, nothing beats the puncture-proof indestructibility of a closed-cell foam pad like this Therm-a-rest Z-Lite Sol.

Once our testing season draws to a close, we get together and compare notes to identify any common themes or irregularities between testers. Pads are carefully inspected for wear and tear, and any necessary field repairs are documented as well. 

Value

This can be a tough one to nail down in precise terms, but in our experience, you know a good value when you see one. The value of any given pad ultimately depends on the end user, but as a rule of thumb, we tend to look at this metric as a cost-to-performance ratio. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Value 1
This massive Exped Megamat 10 is one of the more expensive camping mattresses we’ve ever tested, but its combination of obscene comfort and outstanding durability is an investment worth making.

When we evaluate value in the field, much of our testing is comparison-based. If, for example, we find a $100 pad performs nearly as well as one double or triple the cost, this both raises the perceived value of the affordable pad and lowers the perceived value of the more “premium” option. 

How We Test And Review Sleeping Pads and Camping Mattresses - Value 2
Traditional foam pads like the Nemo Switchback may lack the bells and whistles of the latest ultralight air pads, but they’re still an incredibly effective piece of kit for a rock bottom price.

The one major caveat we pay attention to when we test for value is durability. As we’re all well aware, a more expensive piece of gear doesn’t always translate to a better piece of gear. We often find major value inexpensive gear that “gets the job done” for a few seasons (folding foam backpacking pads are a great example of this), but if we shell out big bucks for the latest and greatest only to have it fail after a few months, you can expect to read all about it. 

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