One of the biggest questions when choosing a sleeping pad for the Appalachian Trail (AT) is deciding between a closed-cell foam or inflatable sleeping pad. Before we get into the details, the biggest takeaway is that you can either use a foam or inflatable sleeping pad on the Appalachian Trail. Both varieties have pros and cons, and which you choose really depends on your individual preference. There are definitely considerations in making this choice, which we’ll dive into below.
What is a foam pad sleeping pad?
A foam pad is made of closed-cell foam, a dense foam with tiny pockets of air. You’ll see hikers carrying these on outside of their pack, usually strapped to the top. Closed-cell foam pads are lightweight but bulky, and usually have a lower R-value than inflatable pads. Sold fold up like an accordion which makes them more compact and easier to carry, while others roll-up. They are super convenient and don’t take any effort to inflate at night, but they aren’t as cushy to sleep on. They are incredibly durable though, so you won’t have to worry about popping them.
What exactly is an inflatable sleeping pad?
An inflatable pad consists of a shell material along with some sort of lightweight insulation or reflective material on the interior that increases protection from the cold ground. They roll up into small cylinders that can be the size of a 32 oz. Nalgene bottle, and tuck easily into a pack. They also must be inflated every night and deflated in the morning, and aren’t as durable as a foam pad, but are warmer and often more comfortable.
How to Choose
Foam sleeping pads are much less expensive than inflatable pads. The most popular foam pads (regular sized) are between $45-50, while the popular models of inflatable pads are between $100-$180. Inflatable pads use higher tech, pricier materials and are also more complex to manufacture. If you’re on a budget, a closed-cell foam pad is your best bet.
One of the biggest differences between foam and inflatable sleeping pads is durability. Since you’ll be sleeping in a shelter or tent most nights on the AT, your sleeping pad typically won’t come into contact with sharp rocks or bare ground. Desert hikers need to worry about thorns and cacti, but on the AT, you’re pretty safe from those popping your inflatable pad. This doesn’t mean you don’t need to be careful, but most tent sites won’t destroy your inflatable pad.
Most AT thru-hikers experience a variety of weather that plunges down into the single digits, whether they’re starting in early spring on a NOBO hike, or finishing in late fall on a SOBO journey. Many foam pads have an R-value of about 2, while even the inflatable pads with lower R-values are still in the 3.5 R-value range. If you are a colder sleeper, you’ll be more comfortable for the duration of your hike with an inflatable pad with an R-value of 3.5 or more. If you start your hike when there’s still snow for freezing temperatures, we’d recommend a pad with an R-value of 5 or more.
A foam pad is thinner and doesn’t have the same cushioning on hard surfaces. Side sleepers often prefer the extra padding from a few inches of an inflatable pad over the thin sleeping surface of a foam pad. If you sleep mostly on your stomach or back, you will likely be fine with the thinner foam pad. Side sleepers have a smaller surface area of their body in contact with the ground, which makes for harsher pressure points on hips and knees. The NEMO Switchback foam pad, for example, is only 0.9 inches thick, while the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite inflatable pad is 2.5 inches thick.
Hikers love to throw their foam pads onto a rock for a snack break, and they unfold quickly to provide a seat outside the tent at camp. Not only is an inflatable pad not prime for rock sitting, you’re probably not going to want to blow it up more than once a day.
A foam pad has to sit on the top of your pack, and you’re stuck with the entire width, which can make tight squeezes on the trail (hello New York Lemon Squeezer) a pain in the butt. The inflatable pad rolls down to a tight cylinder and can fit in the outside mesh of your pack or wedged into an open part in the main body of your pack.
Level of Effort
We have unscientifically proven that it takes about 30 breaths to inflate the popular Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. After a long day of hiking, that’s often the last thing you want to do. You might find yourself watching the other hikers at camp unfold their foam sleeping pad, throw it into their tent, and are asleep while you’re still getting lightheaded inflating your sleeping pad. That said, there are plenty of options out there that don’t take the 30 breaths of a NeoAir and more and more inflatable pads are bundled with inflation sacks that do the work for you.
The Bottom Line
Sleeping conditions on the Appalachian Trail are sufficiently benign that you can use a foam pad or an inflatable pad without worrying about damaging them when sleeping in a tent or shelter.
Foam sleeping pads are:
- Much less expensive
- More comfortable for back sleepers
- Require virtually no effort to setup
- Can be used in multiple ways (sleeping, sitting, etc)
Inflatable sleeping pads are::
- Warmer for colder weather
- Much smaller to pack
- More comfortable for side sleepers
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