Torso-length (small) sleeping pads - my experience with foam vs inflatable pads

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If watching a video is more your speed, check out my youtube videos about the sleeping gear that has worked for me so far on the AT.

Sleeping pad use on trail

I was in Maine hiking Southbound with Foggy, one of my favorite hiking partners to date, at great speed when I got serious about getting my pack weight down. I cut accessory loops off my pack and trimmed the straps, got rid of my extra stuff-sacks, cut the labels out of my gear, and even peeled the stickers off of my water bottles. I had gotten my base-weight to around 13 pounds almost entirely by cutting down on what I was carrying.

The biggest drop in weight I managed at the time was when I cut down my foam sleeping pad to torso-length. I was initially worried that I would be uncomfortable, or that the ground might be cold under my legs, but it wasn't too bad. It a warm summer and we were hauling a** through southern Maine and New Hampshire towards even warmer weather.

In my tent, I had no concerns about the foot end of my sleeping bag getting dirty or worn. I kept the bathtub floor clean by pulling the tent stakes and shaking the whole tent out before packing it up whenever it got dirty inside. In the shelters I would throw down my ground sheet for my tent and keep my gear up off the wood flooring.

In the summer I often slept really hot at night, as I had not yet made the switch to a lighter quilt for summer nights. The cooler ground helped a lot to keep me from getting too hot and sweaty. On cooler nights, and where the ground was hard or uneven I used my pack to extend my foam sleeping pad.
"Small" vs "Large" sized inflatable pads.
It's not always lighter to go shorter!

For months of hiking my foam sleeping pad provided adequate comfort. Eventually my foam pad started to feel a little thin from all the use I'd put it through, and I started to wake up somewhat stiff in the shoulders going Northbound through southern Virginia the next hiking season. The weather was COLD. I ran into a hiking friend named Medicine Man at the Roan High Knob shelter and we got to endure -11 degrees Fahrenheit with windchill together.  

After the Grayson Highlands I decided to buy an inflatable pad, and I've slept much more comfortably ever since. I have trouble falling asleep unless I'm on my side, and I think an inflatable pad produces unmatched cushioning and comfort. I have run into some unexpected problems, though, with using a shorter inflatable pad.

As I explained in a previous post, going lighter has meant that I no longer have much to pad out my legs with when I use a torso-length pad in the summer months. This is particularly troublesome with my small inflatable pad, since my legs now hang off at an angle ("leg hang-off") with my summer kit. Leg hang-off makes my knees get pretty uncomfortable. Furthermore, my quilts tend to be pretty drafty around the bottom of the pad where there is nothing for it to seal up against.

With so much less gear, a torso length pad actually requires that I add weight in other gear categories, like a pack that can be used to pad out my legs to add warmth or extra clothes to keep my heels and knees up off any hard ground. 

For my summer kit that I've put together for this coming season I've realized that using my short inflatable pad would reduce the overall warmth of my sleep system, requiring a warmer sleeping bag, or otherwise impacting my comfort and ability to get a good night of rest. The added expense and weight (about a 4 ounce difference) of a regular sized inflatable pad stings a little bit. Though the small inflatable pad has served me very well, I would have bought the regular (full size) if I had known what I know now.

In colder weather and with more traditional equipment load-outs, however, a torso length pad offers awesome weight savings since you will be carrying what you need to make the best use of its shorter length. 

Foam vs Inflatable Breakdown

  • Foam ("closed cell foam" / "CCF") torso length pads don't suffer the problem of leg hang-off comfort issues that thicker inflatable pads tend to have.
  • Foam sleeping pads can double as sit-pads, improving comfort on breaks during the day and when sitting around camp. 
  • Foam sleeping pads get compressed, thinning out over time, but are very sturdy pieces of gear that will not let you down unexpectedly.
  • A full-length foam pad can be rotated (head to foot end) every time you use it, spreading out the wear to make the pad last longer.
  • A full length foam pad can be folded in half for added comfort where the ground is especially uncomfortable. 
  • Inflatable sleeping pads can pop or leak, leaving you with little or no cushioning and a potentially very uncomfortable couple of nights of sleep until repair or replacement is possible. 
  • Inflatable sleeping pads are very comfortable, most notably for those who sleep on their sides, and can weigh less than foam sleeping pads.
  • Thicker inflatable sleeping pads make up for lumpy ground and let you get a good night sleep whatever the ground looks like.
  • A torso-length inflatable sleeping pad suffers from leg hang-off comfort issues and a full-length pad is probably necessary for adequate warmth and leg comfort where you have little other gear to pad your legs out with. 

My thick inflatable pad made this spot way more
comfortable than it would have been using foam.

So which should you use if you are going out on a hike?

If you are going out for a weekend, or just giving hiking and camping a first try, stick with a foam sleeping pad. With the foam pad, you don't have to worry about popping your pad and having an uncomfortable night. I don't want to overstate the potential for failure with a good inflatable sleeping pad, but it just isn't going to happen with a foam pad. Patch kits do come with many inflatable sleeping pads, and should be carried with you on your trips.

An inflatable sleeping pad will typically be much more expensive, but it will be noticeably more comfortable. If you are taking a longer trip or going on a through-hike of a longer trail I'd say it's absolutely worth the investment for a durable, full length inflatable sleeping pad. Good sleep will make for a much better trip overall. 

I have found that small discomforts add up and wear me down over months of hiking. If your main goal is to have a very light pack, don't think that a full-sized pack is holding you back all that much. Including the full pad I've just ordered today, my summer pack weight is down to under 5 pounds at the time of this writing.

NOTE: If you are planning to use a hammock, a sleeping pad may not be the best option for you. You can make a sleeping pad work, but an under-quilt made to be used as hammock underside insulation is a much more effective solution. If you have a double-layer hammock with a slot for a sleeping pad insert, then you may have more success with using a pad in a hammock.

If you are interested in equipment talk check out some of my other gear posts by clicking through the labels in the drop down menu in the sidebar. 

If you like the idea of an inflatable sleeping pad and want to try one out check out the pad I'm using on the AT this summer.

Here's a link to a video where I talk about the pad I'm bringing with me this summer if video is more your thing.


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