One of the greatest things about travel and adventure is the opportunity to wake up in new and unique places each morning. Sometimes that's a hut on a mountain, a hostel in a far-off country, a tent beside a lake, or the back of your car. There are just so many wondrous places to wake up. And, as a travel and adventure photographer, there are points where you are going to need to wake up somewhere very early in the morning to capture that sunrise or where you're going to need to crash out late at night (or early in the morning) after catching the night's sky. And typically, that means not being able to get back to a proper bed, so you will need to camp out somewhere nearby. And this is a fantastic thing! I love having the chance to camp somewhere, wake up and walk out of my tent to shoot the sunrise: no need to get up three hours early to drive somewhere and walk in. You just roll out of bed (after a peaceful night in the woods), and there you are.
So, a few weeks ago we talked about backpacking with your camera gear, and while some listeners loved it, they also wanted more information. Mostly around what other gear is essential to have with you beyond your camera kit. What gear is critical will depend entirely on what you are doing, the situation you are in, and several other factors. So I can't address everything, but today I will address one of the most critical pieces of gear that will affect everything about your following day. Your sleeping mat. This is something that you will need to invest in if you want to be a travel and adventure photographer because - if you're doing this right - there will be times where you won't get back to a comfy bed. And that's what you want. You will be camping, sleeping out of your car, or on a beach somewhere.
So, today won't be about anything directly camera-related. But it will be about how to get a great night's sleep in the great outdoors so that you can be up, refreshed, and ready for those amazing sunsets and nights with the Milky Way. I will cover the different types of sleeping pad options, what each one is good for, what to look for one you are buying each type, and where and when you may want to consider each sleeping mat.
This is so important for anyone who is wanting to create better images. As the saying goes, if you want more interesting photos, live a more interesting life. You'll have to get sleeping outdoors if you want more interesting adventure photos.
Alright, let's get started with what types of sleeping pads are out there.
I think everyone listening to this podcast will likely have slept on an air mattress at some point in their lives. They are big, bulky, and need a lot of pumping to inflate them if you don't have power. These are the classic car-camping sleeping accessory. Air mattresses use sealed champers full of air to provide a super plush and comfy sleeping surface. They typically lift you a long way off the ground (until they get a hole in them), will help you feel less of the earth (meaning no rocks or other things poking into your back) and can provide you with one of the best night's rest you'll get.
So, the pros of an air mattress are its comfort, price, customization by adding or removing air to get your desired firmness, and that they are standard bed sizes, meaning you can use your linens from home on these beds.
The cons to the air mattress are the size (they don't pack tiny), their weight, and you will need a pump of some form to inflate it. The biggest downside to them is the lack of insulation. Most air mattresses won't retain any heat, so they don't work well on cold nights. They are also very fragile, and one small, almost impossible to find puncture can deflate the mattress leaving you sleeping on the ground.
Air mattresses are meant for car camping because of their size and weight. So don't expect to hike very far with one of these in your bag. But they do make for a great night's sleep in a tent, a car, or on your buddy's living room floor.
Inflatable Sleeping Pad
Inflatable sleeping pads are a bit of a do it all in the sleeping outdoors world. They can be your one, go to sleeping mat if you are car camping or backpacking. These sleeping pads are essentially just super fancy air mattresses. They work by you blowing air into them to create your desired firmness.
They excel because they pack to a tiny size, are lightweight, and are typically very comfortable. Plus, they all come with some form of insulation which means you will stay a bit warmer or a lot warmer (depending on the pad's R-value, more on that to come in a bit).
The cons to this style of sleeping pad are the price (they are the most expensive type on this list), they are less durable, and some types of pads make a ton of noise when you move around.
While the pad is less durable, they are super easy to fix, and the patch kits are incredibly lightweight, meaning you won't mind carrying one while backpacking.
These pads are great for backpackers who want the smallest sleeping mat at a great weight and want a comfortable night's sleep. These should also be your go-to if you are sleeping somewhere cold.
Closed-Cell Foam Sleeping Pads
These are the classic, simple backpacking mat that most of us can envision hanging off the outside of a bag. Typically found in a space-age silver colour (to help reflect heat), they fold like an accordion and are a favourite amongst backpackers looking to go ultralight.
These pads are the lightest option on the market, the cheapest, and the most durable. They don't absorb moisture, and they can't get punctured (leaving you sleeping on the ground.) You can even use these pads as a chair at camp or drape them over a log to make sitting more comfortable (and less wet if there is moisture).
Unfortunately, they are big, bulky, aren't very comfortable, and you don't want to use one of these when sleeping in very cold conditions.
Ultimately, this type of pads' intended for those going ultra-light backpacking (which, let's be honest, none of us hiking with cameras are doing here), where weight is at a premium (so, yep, that's us), on thru-hikes where durability matters the most, and when you need an extra layer between you and the ground. This is truly where these mats shine for us photographers, as we will frequently be in places where the land is frigid, and you need an extra layer underneath your inflatable sleeping pad to help protect yourself and stay a bit warmer. They also make an excellent add-on for car camping as they can protect you from the minor imperfections, rocks and other things that are inevitably in the trunks or back seats of cars (if that's where you are sleeping.)
Because of their durability and lack of water retention, these pads also make an excellent addition to a camera bag for long outdoor shooting sessions. You can lay them out and have a rest while watching the stars, or you can fold them up and sit on them. I particularly love these kinds of mats when you are waiting in one spot, lying or sitting on the ground for a long time (think in a blind waiting for wildlife).
Self-Inflating Sleeping Pad
This type of pad uses a layer of open-cell foam inside a fabric shell. You don't need to inflate these pads yourself using your lungs or a pump. Just open the valve, and let air rush in to fill up the pad slowly. These are kind of like the halfway point between inflatable sleeping pads and closed-cell foam pads.
They are pretty comfortable (not as comfy as an inflatable but more comfortable than closed foam), they are decently insulated, and cost somewhere between the two other types. Unfortunately, because of their in-betweenness, they don't really do anything well. This also means they have some similar problems to the two other types as well. They aren't as durable as foam pads, but they pack just bulky. And they are heavier than both of these alternatives. Although, they are easier to repair than an inflatable pad.
All in all, these are great for car camping and short backpacking trips. But really, they aren't my favourite. I prefer the comfort of a big air mattress and the packability of an inflatable sleeping pad. But, if you are looking for something almost as comfortable as an air mattress but has more durability, these make a good option. Overall though, not the first place I would spend my money.
Alright, so that's the four main types of sleeping pads on the market. Here are the ways I see each of these types of pads helping us out as photographers.
Air mattresses are great for when you are car camping or crashing on a buddy's floor. They are comfy. You should sleep well and wake rested. And you aren't putting wear and tear on your more expensive backpacking inflatable air mattress.
Inflatables are for backpacking and tight car camping trips. They aren't super durable, so be gentle with them, but you will get a great night's sleep on one, and you'll save a lot of bulk and weight, leaving more room for cameras and tripods.
Foam pads are excellent as an extra layer of protection between you and the ground. Use one the next time you need to sit and wait for something to happen, and you'll be warmer, comfier and drier.
Avoid self-inflating unless you love how they feel or need the comfort mixed with durability, not worth the money.
So, those are the types of pads, but what should you be looking for in the next sleeping pad you purchase. Here are four things to keep in mind.
What to Look For:
- The R-Value
- Size and Shape
- Weight and Packed Size
Weight and Packed Size.
If you're backpacking, you've got limited weight and space to carry gear. You will need to think of how much room your mat will take up. You can get mats that are smaller than a 1liter water bottle and less than 300 grams, but you will pay for them. If you're out of room in your bag, this may be where a foam pad makes sense, as you can hang it off your backpack without needing to worry too much. You will need to balance your priorities here, especially if you're on a tight budget.
If you're car camping, it doesn't matter that much. Although, don't get insanely big ones if you've got a tiny car. My wife and I ran into that problem with two big self-inflating mats and had to reconfigure the entire trunk to get them in.
You can get pads that range in thickness from 1.5 cm to 11 cm. The low end is basically protecting you from the ground stealing your body heat. The far end is super comfy and plush. This is a personal preference, so if you're living somewhere where you can try things out right now, go and lay on some different mats to see which is the most comfortable for you.
I will say, if you're a side sleeper like me, you will want something more than 4 cm thick; otherwise, you're just going to be sleeping on the ground. So don't forget to test your mat laying on your side.
Size & Shape
There are many different shapes and sizes, but the first thing to look out for is that you will fit on the mat. You can get half-size sleeping mats that only keep your torso off the ground. This is, so you have room to put a backpack or something else under your feet if you're tight on space. But generally, I hate recommending those to anyone but the most hardcore. So look for one that is going to fit all of you, both in height and width.
Then there is the shape of the mat. Some mats are very streamlined, some look like mummy sacks, and others give you some movement room. If you're an active sleeper, you'll want a little more room to move.
Finally, there are women-specific mats that have extra insulation in the torso and feet. This is because women generally get colder in those areas. So if that's you, regardless of how you self-identify, this type of mat may work for you.
The R-value is a rating telling you the insulation level of the mat. The scale runs from 1 up. 1 to 2.5 ratings are warm weather pads. They offer very little insulation. 2.5 to 4 are for kind of cold nights (like fall and spring). They generally have ok insulation. Anything rated 4 and over is suitable for cold camping; the higher the rating, the better.
Of course, the more insulation a pad has, the bigger and heavier it will be. Well-insulated pads tend to weigh a lot more than their summer cousins. But, a summer pad will do you no good on a cold winter night, so you need to know where you're going and what you're doing.
And that's it. Those are many things you'll need to think about when you are investing in a sleeping pad. Getting the one that works for your situation may seem expensive, especially when the pads get into the hundreds of dollars, but it is worth the investment. Just like how you need the right camera equipment for the job you're doing, you need the right adventure gear for what you're up to. Invest well, sleep well.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.