Underquilts vs. Sleeping Pads: Which are Better? Pros and Cons of Both


If you have headed outdoors to sleep in a backpacking hammock, you’ve probably heard the debate about which insulation method is better, underquilts or sleeping pads?

The important thing to remember is that BOTH sleeping pads and underquilts will actually work to keep you comfortable and warm when sleeping in your hammock, but there are some advantages and disadvantages to each. And it is those little differences that will assist you with your decision for which one is the right option for your overnight trip.

How Do You Stay Warm While Sleeping in a Hammock?

There is something sublime about sleeping out in a hammock! The great thing is that modern-day hammocks are far more than a place to relax for an afternoon siesta. They’ve become technologically advanced to the point where some backpacking hammocks function like suspended tents. But, that means you are still sleeping in them and for some people that can mean four-season adventures.

How is it possible to sleep in a hammock in the winter?

It all comes down to the insulation, which means utilizing an underquilt or a sleeping pad to keep your lower half warm. Popular opinion leans toward using an underquilt as being the best way to stay snug and comfortable in your hammock. However, there are pros and cons to both as well as other alternative options you might not have thought about.

What is an Underquilt?

In modern-day hammocking terms, an underquilt is a blanket that looks and feels like a sleeping bag, except it has no pouch area for you to sleep in. Instead, it is a single layer of soft, warm loft that is suspended under the hammock where your weight won’t crush the fibers which comprise the insulation. This creates a lot of trapped air that will warm with your body heat and keep you comfortable as you sleep. It essentially functions as a pod that envelops your hammock.

What is a Sleeping Pad?

In contrast, most campers would recognize a hammock sleeping pad. Similar to regular tent sleeping pads, a hammock sleeping pad is either a closed-cell, inflatable pad or it can be made of foam. Most hammock sleeping pads are tapered at both ends to fit snuggly in your hammock, but there are square versions as well. Unlike underquilts, sleeping pads usually fit in your hammock with you unless you have a double-layered hammock with a designed sleeve to hold one.

Which is Better An Underquilt or a Sleeping Pad?

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to both, so the choice between an underquilt or a sleeping pad is a personal one. The good news is that both will keep you warm while you sleep in your hammock. You just need to sort through the options to find which will work better for you!

Underquilt Pros

  • Popular opinion is that underquilts are more comfortable than sleeping pads. If you like the feel of sleeping in a hammock, an underquilt will enhance that experience since it doesn’t come between you and, well, the actual fabric of the hammock like a sleeping pad.
  • Despite often weighing more than a sleeping pad, underquilts don’t weigh MUCH more. Compare options and you’ll most likely find an underquilt within a few ounces of a sleeping pad.
  • Underquilts provide more warmth than sleeping pads. If you like to be out in extreme weather, the way an underquilt wraps around you and its uncrushed loft will keep you warmer.

Underquilt Cons

  • Underquilts tend to be more expensive than sleeping pads. If you are on a budget, you’ll have very limited underquilt options.
  • Underquilts often do not pack as small as sleeping pads. While there are ultra-light underquilts available that pack into a super small size, they may not provide as much warmth as you need and the price might have you running for a sleeping pad instead.
  • How you attach an underquilt can be a pain! If your hammock was not designed with a pouch to hold an underquilt, you’ll be rigging a web of bungee cords or rope underneath your hammock in order to attach it. And then hoping all of that work doesn’t come undone, especially in the middle of a cold night!

Sleeping Pad Pros

  • Sleeping pads are more versatile so if you may be sleeping on the ground for a night or two, this is your best option.
  • Sleeping pads tend to be lighter in weight. If you are hiking or concerned about how much weight you are carrying, a sleeping pad is a better option.
  • Sleeping pads are cheaper than underquilts. If budget is an option, you’ll find a lot more options at a lower cost than underquilts. Plus, we have some really cheap options below!
  • A half-inflated sleeping pad can feel wondrous. Described as akin to sleeping on a cloud, a half-inflated sleeping pad will provide warmth but lack that “about to pop” feel that tends to make it shift under you as you move. So, if you are going with a sleeping pad due to price but want a bit of the “wrap-around warmth” and feel of an underquilt, try only inflating your sleeping pad halfway.

Sleeping Pad Cons

  • Sleeping pads often shift at night under you unless you have a hammock designed for them. So if you are a restless sleeper you might find your feet, shoulders, or entire body off of the sleeping pad as it slides and possibly pops out of your hammock entirely.
  • Sleeping pads are often narrow. If you have broad shoulders, you might find your shoulders cold.
  • Sleeping pads tend to be short. If you are tall, you will struggle to find a sleeping pad that fits your full-frame while also fitting in your hammock. This will leave you with cold feet, a cold head and shoulders, or contemplating an expensive, long pad.
  • Per square inch, sleeping pads are not as warm as underquilts. If you plan to do some extremely cold weather camping, an underquilt will be a better option for warmth.
  • Foam pads tend to hold condensation, meaning your sleeping bag might end up a bit soggy by morning.

Do I need a Sleeping Bag for Underquilts or Sleeping Pads?

With all this talk about sleeping pads and underquilts, you might be wondering if you need to actually use a sleeping bag while hammock camping? The answer is yes. If the temperature is cool enough to need a sleeping pad or underquilt, you are going to want at least a blanket on top.

Underquilts and sleeping pads are designed to go below you. That leaves half of your body exposed to nighttime temperatures. While you might be able to get away with sleeping in a jacket, hat, socks, and mittens, you’ll be far more comfortable sleeping away the night wrapped up in your sleeping bag or a top blanket. So don’t think you can save space by leaving your sleeping bag behind just because you brought along a luxuriously warm underquilt or sleeping pad.

Are There Other Alternatives Instead of a Sleeping Pad or Underquilt?

The entire point of both sleeping pads and underquilts is to create a barrier between you and the frosty air. When you think of it that way, there are lots of other options available, including some DIY!

Emergency Blankets are designed to reflect your heat back to you. While they are not perfect as they don’t function quite the same as a lofty, warm quilt or pad, one will work in a pinch. They are cheap as well, something you should have with you while out in the cold, and pack up incredibly small. The downside is that the crinkly material may keep you up all night or have any nearby campers tossing you out of your hammock so you stop making noise. It also tends to retain condensation just like a foam sleeping pad, leading to a damp sleeping bag.

Reflectex is an insulation material you can find at most hardware stores. It looks like aluminum foil-lined bubble wrap, and in many ways that is exactly what it is. A plastic, bubble wrap like layer is sandwiched between two layers of heat-reflecting material. Fairly cheap and coming in varying widths and lengths, you can shape a pretty nifty sleeping pad out of this Nasa designed product. The only hard part will be figuring out how to carry it with you.

Some folks like to just use the sunshade for a car. Similar to reflectex, sunshades are made to reflect the heat of the sun’s rays and keep your car cool. Often rigid, one of these can be shaped into a sleeping pad that will keep you warmish. You’ll have to figure out how to take it with you if hiking, and you might be a bit jealous of your friend with the underquilt or store-bought sleeping pad in the morning if the temperatures dip low.

In Conclusion

Hammocks are amazingly comfortable and now they are a fantastic way to go camping. Coming with options from inside shelves to sleeping pods that wrap around you and your hammock for a snug night, as well as rain flies and bug screens, you might just find yourself ditching your ground tent to sleep in the trees. Just don’t forget that you need more gear than just the hammock and hanging straps if heading out in brisk weather.

Sleeping in a hammock without an underquilt or sleeping pad can be colder than sleeping on the ground without a pad, so make sure you stay warm by bringing an insulating layer along.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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