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The purpose of a ground pad is to provide insulation from the ground and cushioning for comfort. Of the two, insulation is the most important for survival. Some ground pads come with an ‘R’ value rating that can be used to gauge their insulation value. Both insulation and cushioning can be supplemented by selecting a site that has natural insulating materials already on the ground such as a layer of leaves or pine needles.
For backpacking purposes a three-quarter-length pad is usually adequate. This is a pad that is long enough to extend from the neck and shoulders down to the below the hips (between 36 and 48 inches long). A stuff sack filled with extra clothing can serve as a pillow for the head.
The insulation qualities of a ground pad become especially important when camping in winter. Many backpackers will carry two pads on winter trips, and at least one of them will be a full-length pad.
The most common ground pad types are:
Air Mattresses - Once popular these lost favor for backpacking. They are the most comfortable from a cushioning standpoint and provide adequate insulation in warmer temperatures, and deflated they are quite compact. But they were generally heavy, subject to failure from leaks and punctures, and make poor insulators compared to the other types ground pads. But there are new entries that make this type more viable than it once was.
Closed Cell Foam - These pads are the lightest and warmest and will not soak up water, but they are bulky and provide only minimal cushioning.
Open Cell Foam - While providing most of the warmth of a closed cell foam pad and more cushioning, they are at least as bulky, usually quite a bit heavier, and can absorb a large amount of water if left exposed.
Self Inflating - These pads are made of open cell foam incased in an airtight covering. They are quite popular because they provide the insulation of an open cell foam pad, are reasonably compact when deflated, and offer much of the comfort of an air mattress without having to be blown up. They are however quite a bit heavier than closed cell pads.
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