Sleeping Pads
Credit: Kevin Callan

It’s odd that it took so long for us to go from sleeping on boughs, to using high-tech mini-air mattresses with goose down floating around inside.

After all, comfort has always been the mother of campsite inventions, and there’s always been a strong desire to have a comfortable sleep. The traditional “how-to” books provided great detail on the proper way to layer conifer twigs. And that was a good start. Later came the big blue closed-cell foamy pads, bulky air mattresses and elongated bubble-wrap designs. Nowadays, we’re equipped with the ultimate gadget: the Therm-a-Rest. This invention revolutionized how well we sleep outdoors.

The story goes that two engineers and enthusiastic hikers from Seattle — John Burroughs and Jim Lea — focused their skills at creating a better sleeping pad because they found themselves laid-off from work with nothing better to do. A lack of insulation and padding from the cold, hard ground was the main problem with what was already commercially available.

What inspired their idea of the “Therm-a-Rest” was a simple kneeling pad used out in the garden, built of open-cell foam and covered with a perforated polyurethane cover. Experimentation with a secondhand sandwich grill helped build the prototype; fusing the two layers together led to a self-inflating pad.

At present, some campers still buy the cheapo closed-cell foamy pad or turn blue trying to blow up a massive air mattress. But eventually all will cave-in and buy a Therm-a-Rest or something similar, and finally find an answer to the number-one concern campers have been mumbling about for years — they will finally get a good night’s sleep.

Here are some top choices of what to sleep on this season:

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite

I’ve mentioned this product before — and there’s a good reason why. This is one awesome mat to sleep on. It’s also the lightest and most compact that I know about, being smaller than a one-litre water bottle when packed up. The NeoAir XLite delivers real warmth as well, having a reflective layer to recycle body heat and air pockets that conserve heat. It also has good support, being six centimetres thick. Of course, you have to blow it up every night and deflate it every morning — and the price tag is $150.


Exped became renowned for giving you a comfortable sleep when they launched their down-embedded sleeping mats. They’re still one of the top choices for campers trying to get a good night’s sleep. They’re latest design takes it up a notch, however. The SIM DUO provides extra comfort for one camper but also folds out to provide comfort for two. It’s still the compact, self-inflating style Exped is known for — but allows you and your sleeping partner to get extra cozy together. Not a bad idea.

Eureka AirRest Classic

This has been a popular sleeping mat for quite some time. Now it’s wider and longer, providing even more comfort. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier then some other mats, but it’s also a better deal ($60). The 75D soft polyester non-slip top fabric helps reduce slipping off your mat through the night — the common curse of a lot of sleeping mats. It’s also self-inflating and has a large intake valve to allow better airflow when inflating and deflating it.

Pipe Insulation

If you want to safe a lot of money, and still want relative comfort, then go to your local hardware store and buy a two-metre piece of pipe insulation. It’s lightweight, comfortable, provides exceptional warmth and costs a mere $15. It’s bulky compared to something like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite, but rolls up to the same size as one of those old blue foamy pads.

Conestoga Gen 2 Cot

One of the most interesting sleeping systems I’ve seen lately is the Conestoga Gen 2: a sleeping cot that serves as a carrying rack/pack frame for your gear. It’s a good idea. Sleeping on a cot is darn cozy. You’re well off the ground and much drier if a surge of water starts seeping into your tent. Packing a standard cot into the interior is a bit absurd, however. I’ve taken a lightweight cot on winter camping trips. It was the LuxuryLite Cot from Therm-a-Rest. But I was also pulling a freight toboggan and sleeping in a canvas prospector tent. However, using a cot while backpacking, canoeing or kayaking would add way too much unnecessary weight and bulk. But what if the cot acts as your pack frame? The gear is stored in duffels, dry sacks or barrels, which strap onto the pack/cot. I’ve yet to use this device myself, but I’ve seen others packing it in during an interior Algonquin trip. They seemed happy while on the portage. Maybe it was because they were getting a good night sleep. 

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