Probably the 2nd best Guide to choosing your Sleeping Mat

Markus Ruzicka Random bits and bobs of life Leave a Comment

Sleeping mats provide you with 2 big benefits: insulation from the ground, and comfortability. Though at first glance, comfortability may look like the biggest plus of using a sleeping mat, it actually is about insulation, as the bottom insulation of your sleeping bag is compressed when lying down.


I had some of my best night’s sleep in the back of this car in Iceland.

Types of sleeping mats

Generally speaking, there are about 4 types of sleeping mats, all with their own pros and cons.

Air mattresses. The kind you will find camping, or on the beach. Nothing too special about them.

Pros: Very comfy and thick. Nice to take swimming. Cheap.

Cons: They can be bulky and offer pretty much no insulation. In Mongolia, we spent a couple of nights at -3°C on them, and I literally froze my ass off.

Foam mats. Basic backpacking foam mats which are nearly indestructible. Aim for evazote closed cell mats, as they don’t soak up water. I prefer folding mats like the Thermarest Z Light Sol or the Karrimor folding mat over rolled mats, as they take up less space when packed.

Pros: Lightweight, durable, excellent insulation, cheap.

Cons: As a standalone, with the Thermarest Ridgerest even being 2cm thick, they aren’t too comfortable on rocky surfaces. Some people report that the dents of their Ridgerest/Z lite collect condense water which soaked their sleepingbag. I personally never encountered this problem, and just wanted you to know.

Air mats. These mats either use reflecting chambers like the Thermarests, or are filled with synthetic or down fibers. They must be manually inflated.

Pros: Very comfy, very warm, very lightweight.

Cons: May puncture, need to be inflated first. Some come with a stuff sack which can be used as a pump, or have an in-built pump. When in freezing temperatures, you shouldn’t blow them up by mouth, as the moisture in your exhaled air can freeze and damage the mat. I had to learn this the hard way in Iceland. Some people don’t like the rustling of the mats, though well recognizable in the shop or your bedroom, when outdoors the rustling is overlapped by the tent flapping in the wind, your sleeping bag, your partner, the rain, animals, and so on. Though for some people this seems to be a game breaker, I personally don’t mind. Price.

Self inflating mats. These offer a combination of air mats and foam mats, and are for the lazy among us. Just open the valve, wait some minutes, done. With an average thickness of 3-4cm, they can be quite comfy too.

Pros: Comfortable and compact. Good insulation.

Cons: Heavier than foam and some air mats. Deflating them and getting the air out can be a pain in the ass. Price.

Hint 1: If you happen to be a side sleeper, or weigh more than 90-100kg, at least get a 3.8cm thick mat, as otherwise your hips would push through. My main mat delaminated in Iceland, and I had to use my 0.9cm foam mat, the next few days my hips felt like I had severe muscle ache.

Hint 2: When traveling in cold climates, ALWAYS (!) carry a foam mat with you, additionally to your main inflatable mat. If the main mat pops, and you have no backup, you are seriously risking your health (and maybe life) due to hypothermia. Plus, 0.9cm of foam mat are still better than sleeping on the plain ground.

Hint 3: When carrying an extra foam mat, put it beneath your main mat if the ground is spiky or rocky to protect your main mat, and on top of it in freezing conditions as this seems to insulate better.

Hint 4: When sitting on your mat close to a fire, better use the plain foam one, as flying sparks might puncture your main mat.

Hint 5: With a mat of about 6-7cm thickness, you can even sleep comfortably on gravel rocks, without worrying too much about clearing your camp site first. Yes, this can be quite a pain in the ass. If you are going by canoe and staying on gravel bars, being quite exhausted and just looking forward to get some sleep, doing some additional bothersome Feng Shui  pior to be able to rest can be daunting. Hence, get a thicker mat.

Only had to get rid of 2 or 3 bigger rocks, thanks due to my thick air mat.

Only had to get rid of 2 or 3 bigger rocks, thanks due to my thick air mat.

Hint 6: Generally, the big producers of air and self inflating mats estimate the lifetime of their mats to be about 250 nights until the mats delaminates. Some company officials from Thermarest said in a forum that this was partly due to bacteria and fungi forming inside. You can reduce this, by using a pump sack.

Hint 7: As nights tend to be colder than during day times, don’t inflate your mat too much, as when the air warms up, it will expand and might damage your mat. When travelling in polar regions where the sun doesn’t set during summer, when moving your mat out of your tent, try to not overly expose it to direct sun light, as the radiation might also heat up your mat.

Hint 7: Thermarest offers a true lifetime guarantee. If your mat delaminates (and it’s not your fault), simply send it to them, and you’ll get a new one. Though this procedure might take up 1-3 months.

Delaminated mat in Iceland. I should have used my pump sack. Though thanks to Thermarest's guarantee, I received a new mat in about 6 weeks.

Delaminated mat in Iceland. I should have used my pump sack. Though thanks to Thermarest’s guarantee, I received a new mat in about 6 weeks.


R Value (Tog Value) – the insulation of your mat

Insulation is measured according to its capacity to resist (“R”) heat flow. The higher the R, the better the insulation of your mat. If you are British, you probably are used to TOG values. 1 R = 1.8 Tog, 1 Tog = 0.57 R.

Choose your mat according to the temperature. Generally, a thicker mat has a higher R value.

R value


Field of use



3 seasons, warm nights



3 seasons, cold nights



3-4 seasons



4 seasons, winter camping



Alpine tours



Extended winter tours and expeditions

Hint: When combining mats, you can just add their R values. A mat with an R value of 1, combined with an R value of 3, equals to an R value of 4.

What surface to sleep on

The ground has a much higher thermal conductivity value than the air (0.024), ranging from 0.05 (dry snow) up to 3.98 (granite). This means, that the ground conducts heat away from your body 2 to 165 faster than air.

Hence, in winter, and when the temperatures are freezing it is better so sleep on dry snow than rock, or ice. When camping during non freezing temperatures, choose dry ground over moist leaves. Also, you don’t have to worry too much about heat loss due to conductivity when it’s not freezing, and just choose a nice durable surface like sand, or rock.

Hands down, if I where to only own one sleeping mat, it would be either the Thermarest Z light, or Karrimor folding mat as it’s always advisable to have a foam mat as backups, and the Thermarest Neoair 4 season.

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