Are Sleeping Pads Necessary? Camping Without A Mat

Last Updated on 22/10/2022

Are Sleeping Pads Necessary

When asking, are sleeping pads necessary? My answer is almost always yes, and I will explain why in this article.

Are Sleeping Pads Necessary?

Sleeping pads are not just for comfort, they also prevent you from losing body heat through the ground. They are as important as your sleeping bag in most cases and will potentially have the biggest influence on how well you sleep. Sleep is more important than most people realize so anything you can do to improve it is a win.

Some people claim they don’t use or need a sleeping pad but nine times out of ten these people are trying to prove something to somebody. Sleeping pads are not a luxury in my eyes, but you can get some extra warm, extra deep, and luxurious sleeping pads that are not always necessary for the situation.

The only benefit to not taking a sleeping pad camping is that you don’t have to carry it. Other than that, a sleeping pad will provide nothing but value.

Reasons Why Sleeping Pads Are Necessary

Here are all the reasons why we think sleeping pads, camping mats, and air mattresses are crucial to your kit bag:

Keep You Warm

Sleeping directly on the ground without a camping mat might be ok in summer when the ground doesn’t get too cold and there isn’t much dampness around. But anytime the temperature drops below 60 degrees at night, you will begin to lose body heat through the ground and feel cold. It doesn’t matter how warm your sleeping bag is, the ground will drain any heat you generate without an insulated sleeping pad.

A hollow air mattress will not add much warmth unless it has a reflective lining inside, but a simple foam pad will keep you warm for the milder months of the year. In the colder months, it is absolutely necessary to use an insulated sleeping pad with an R-value of two and above.

Prevent Heat Loss

More important than adding warmth is preventing heat loss. You lose heat much, much faster through the ground than you do through the air. If you sleep directly on the cold ground in your sleeping bag it will be almost impossible to keep warm as you will lose heat faster than it can be generated.

There are three main ways you can lose heat when camping, radiation, convection, and conduction. An example of radiation heat loss would be when you light a campfire and feel the heat radiating from a distance. We lose 65 percent of our body heat through radiation according to WebMD.

Losing heat through convection requires some air movement like when the wind chills you or when warm air rises and the temperature drops. This is where having a windproof sleeping bag comes in handy. Conduction is the direct transfer of heat through touch which happens when your body heat comes into contact with a cooler object like the ground. Preventing conduction heat loss and trapping radiated heat are what make a sleeping pad necessary in cold temperatures.

We also lose heat through evaporation which is another reason why it is important to stay dry. Sleeping pads lift you off the ground which helps keep your sleeping bag dry underneath and in turn, prevents damp insulation from becoming a problem when it starts to evaporate.

Sleeping pads are all given an R-value rating for their thermal resistance which can be used to determine how well they prevent heat loss to the ground. 

Keep You Comfortable

Finding a completely flat and level piece of ground to pitch your tent is never going to happen. There will always be lumps, stones, tree roots, clumps of grass, and uncomfortable spots that you can’t see before actually lying on it for a minute or two. A sleeping pad absorbs all these inconsistencies and provides a comfortable platform to lay on.

As a side sleeper, I especially feel any lumps on the hips and shoulders and so for me a sleeping pad is a necessity. I like a nice deep insulated sleeping pad like the Exped Ultra 8R or Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Extreme. I also find that inflatable pads are often more comfortable if you let about 10% of the air out.

Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Extra-Thick Insulated Air Mattress, Tapered - Regular (72 x 21.5 x 4 inches)

Provide Better Sleep

Leading on from the last point, sleeping pads almost always ensure you get a better night’s sleep than without one. When you are backpacking or doing a multi-day hike, it is so important to get some good sleep to recharge your batteries. For this reason alone a sleeping pad is necessary when sleeping on the ground.

Sleeping Bags Compress

Some of the warmest 4-season sleeping bags have very little insulation on the bottom because when you lay on it, it compresses and ceases to trap warm air. This is particularly true with down feathers which rely on loft to capture and hold warmth. Because of this, you lose heat through the ground much faster than you might think.

If you have a down sleeping bag or the insulation is very thin on the underside then you almost definitely need a sleeping pad and preferably one with a reasonable R-value.

Get You Off the Ground

If the ground is hard, lumpy, rocky, or wet, a sleeping pad will lift you up by a few inches so that none of that is a problem. The main reason you want to get up off the ground though is when it is cold. Getting up off the ground also has the benefit of protecting your expensive sleeping bag from being damaged and getting dirty.

Couple zip sleeping bags together

When Are Sleeping Pads Not Necessary?

There are times when you don’t need a sleeping pad and when I was much younger I spent many nights without one. But let me be clear, I ALWAYS take a sleeping pad camping these days. Here are some of the times when you don’t strictly need a sleeping pad:

Above 60 Degrees Fahrenheit

When nighttime temperatures are above 60º Fahrenheit then the ground will not suck all your body heat away. So long as you can get comfy and the ground isn’t wet then you can get by with just a sleeping bag if you really want. If you are in a tent then you will be absolutely fine but if you are sleeping under a tarp or under the stars then try and at least use something like a groundsheet to protect your pad from puncture.

If You Have an Alternative

If you have a sleeping pad alternative then you technically don’t need to carry two. While a sleeping pad is always preferable, if you forget or lose yours then some other options for air mattresses like camping cots, rugs, and wool blankets can be used as sleeping pads if that is all you have. When pack size and weight aren’t an issue you may find that a deep mat of memory foam works out cheaper and more comfortably. 

If You Are a Light Sleeper

If you genuinely don’t need any kind of comfort to fall asleep then I envy you. There are those rare people who can fall asleep anywhere within 5 minutes of putting their head down. If the thought of sleeping on hard ground without a sleeping pad doesn’t cause you at least a small amount of anxiety then maybe you truly don’t need a sleeping pad as a necessity.

When You Are Trying to Prove how Tough You Are

This is kind of a joke but I always enjoy a tough guy who thinks they don’t need a sleeping pad only to complain about not getting any sleep the next day. Don’t get me wrong, I was that guy once.

Unless you are camping in cold conditions then you can often survive one night without a sleeping bag if you really have to. Everyone has an inner tough guy/girl in them somewhere and sometimes you have to access it.

guide to merino wool sleeping bag liners

Benefits of Not Using a Sleeping Pad

The only benefit of not taking a sleeping pad camping is that you don’t have to carry it. This will save you space and weight in your pack which allows you to travel lighter, faster, or with more space for water and rations. The multiple benefits of using a camping pad outweigh the one benefit of not using one.

Are Sleeping Pads Necessary for Camping Cots?

Fabric camping cots are extremely comfortable and stable but they do allow for cool air to circulate underneath your bed. Again, you can use a wool blanket or another alternative but an insulated mattress on top of a camping cot is taking camping in luxury to the next level. In the freezing months of winter, we would absolutely recommend a sleeping pad on top of a camping cot if the cot isn’t insulated.

Do You Need A Sleeping Pad For Backpacking?

There are lots of different styles of backpacking from campsites, hostels, and working holiday homes to luxurious hotels and Air BnBs. To take a sleeping pad everywhere you go, you need to be able to reasonably justify that you will use it.

If I was visiting somewhere like South East Asia then I would be more likely to pack a hammock than a sleeping pad because hostels and hotels are so cheap and there are some nasty creepy crawlies on the floor.

Do You Need a Camping Mat When Sleeping in Your Car

Do You Need a Camping Mat When Sleeping in Your Car?

When I am sleeping in my car I have 4 panels of thick foam that slot together when the seats go down. I also have an inflatable air bed that is designed specifically for a car. I have used my sleeping pad on a van floor many times but in a car, I prefer some basic closed-cell foam you can get here.

The reason you need a sleeping pad is that when the seats fold down they don’t lay perfectly flat and become very uncomfortable for both back and side sleepers.

Are Sleeping Mats Necessary for Hammock Camping?

You don’t often need to use a sleeping pad inside a hammock unless it is really cold or really windy. When you are in a hammock you really do feel the wind cut through from the sides and below so a sleeping pad helps to block that and keep you warm. However,  there are much better options to trying to lay on a sleeping pad in a hammock, like hammock underquilts for example.

Are Sleeping Pads Necessary in Summer?

In the summer it can be argued that sleeping pads are not necessary for warmth. But it cannot be denied that in order to be comfortable and get a good night’s sleep then you do need a sleeping pad when camping. If there is one season where you can get away without a sleeping pad it is summer.

Are Camping Pads Necessary in Spring and Autumn?

Spring and autumn can be very hit-and-miss. Meaning that early spring and late fall can be almost as cold as winter but on the other end it can be just like in summer. Always try and have a good idea of the temperature ranges you will be camping in before you decide not to take a sleeping pad. We always recommend at least a cheap foam mat in spring and summer.

Are Sleeping Pads Necessary in Winter?

In winter, insulated sleeping pads are an essential piece of gear that will help keep you safe from hypothermia. A simple foam pad will probably not be enough to keep you very warm. You need to level up to a mat with an R-value of 4 or above just to stand a chance of staying warm in winter.


We hope you found what you were looking for and can now decide for yourself, are sleeping pads necessary?

Gear Assistant
Gear Assistant

This article has been written and/or edited by Andrew N. 20+ years of hiking, mountaineering, and camping experience, with access to all the latest outdoor gear.

  1. […] you can go camping in summer without a sleeping pad, the addition of a foam mat will increase your comfort and quality of sleep exponentially. These […]

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