There are two main types of warmth options available for hammock users: the traditional sleeping pad and the underquilt. As expected, there are people in each camp who think that their option is the best choice.
Today, I will cover sleeping pads vs underquilts for hammocks and why each has benefits and drawbacks that may help you make your informed decision.
The main difference is an underquilt is designed to conform to you and your body while providing consistent warmth coverage over your entire body, whereas a sleeping pad is a fixed size and doesn’t conform to the space, leading to slipping from underneath your body and causing cold spots.
Now that we know that underquilts are more specifically designed to ensure comfort and quality lay, let’s discuss why both can be viable options depending on your needs, the hike ahead, and your hammocking setup.
Sleeping pads use a different rating system called the R-value. This measures how effective they are in insulating you from the ground and heat transfer, so they can be more tricky to gauge provided warmth in a hammock.
The Hammock Camping Warmth Challenge
While many are new to hammock camping, it differs greatly from laying in a backyard hammock. The heat can be absorbed from you by breezes over the top and underneath you, causing what is lovingly called “cold butt.”
Usually, a thru-hiker will have a sleeping bag or quilt to insulate and hold in the warmth they create above them, much the same as why any hammock sleep system has a backpacking top quilt to keep them warm above; below is a big difference.
The Versatile Sleeping Pad
A mainstay of ground dwellers is a sleeping pad that provides insulation from the ground as well as a little bit of cushioning.
These are built to help stop the earth itself from stealing heat directly from your body as this is a cause of many cold nights for sleepers.
The most common hammock sleeping pad is an inflatable mattress similar to what you would use for the ground, but many are more shaped for hammocks.
Any sleeping pad, though, will have limitations inside a hammock that don’t occur on the ground, limiting their benefit.
The Specialized Underquilt
An underquilt is the hammock’s answer to a sleeping pad. Since you aren’t on the ground, the convection of air traveling over your body steals body heat from your body.
The point of an underquilt is to function similarly to a top quilt by granting a layer to hold in warmth and maintaining an air pocket between you and the underquilt to keep in that valued body heat for a long warm, and comfortable night of sleep.
Making the Best Choice for You
This is where the conversation gets interesting as it will be determined by where you will be hiking and if there will be easy hangs with trees and areas that will work well with hammocks versus places like the PCT desert where hangs will be hard to spot.
If you are in a place where you know you can hang a hammock consistently, an underquilt will be the best option in most cases, but you need to weigh the benefits and drawbacks below.
The benefits of using an underquilt are that they are:
Setup Holds In Place Better
When you set up the hammock underquilt, you will need to get it in place and aligned to how you lay, which at first can cause some grief as you get used to it, but once you get the process down, the quilt stays in place without effort and re-adjustment all night.
Provide a Temperature Rating
Unlike a sleeping pad having a more “generic” R-value underquilts come with real temperature ratings, which makes aligning the correct purchase to your need much easier.
Packs Down Smaller
While this may be arguable, quilts are more compressible, but clothing can also fill in gaps inside a backpack, allowing less interior space needed than a pad.
Underquilts provide a far more comfortable sleep overall as they hug your body and give a soft, almost cocoon-like feeling that is unmatchable with a pad.
The cons to an underquilt are that they:
Nearly all cases, they will be more expensive than a similar warmth sleeping pad. This is due to the specialized nature of their design and lower overall production numbers.
Require Hanging – Not As Useable Without a Hammock
While not entirely true, as you can use an underquilt on the ground, they function much better when hung as it allows them to do their job unhindered.
They aren’t built to hold in the heat that could be lost to the ground, leading to a less-than-stellar performance.
Sleeping Pad Pros
Some of the benefits of hammock sleeping pads are that:
Can Be Used in a Hammock or Can Take to the Ground
One of the most significant benefits to sleeping pads is their overall versatility. You can use them as designed in a hammock, but they also can come in handy on the ground in a pinch or even inside an ultralight tent.
Already May Own One
Most from a tent will already own a sleeping pad, making them a more budget-friendly hammock camping sleep system.
Generally Lower Prices
Typically, sleeping pads are around half the cost of an underquilt, with some high-end options costing more but never reaching the same level that an underquilt costs.
Sleeping Pad Cons
Issues you may encounter when using hammock sleeping pads include:
Too Small Many Times for a Hammock
The biggest complaint with using a pad with a hammock is that they are too small in width and don’t fit the space right for most hammocks. You can get around this by shifting the pad or angling it, but it isn’t as comfortable.
Can Fall Out or Move During the Night – Repositioning and Slippage Issues
A huge problem for sleeping pads is they move and aren’t anchored in place, so when you shift, the pad can sometimes shift, too. This can lead to a less restful hammock camping experience.
When the pad moves too far, you can find yourself fully slipped off, and part of you begins to lose heat to the outside air, causing poor sleep and more repositioning, leading to more slipping, and starting the cycle over again.
Inflating and Deflating
For those who don’t have an integrated pump, this can be a pain as you need to get the pad blown up, which can sometimes take a while, depending on your lung capacity.
Pads are also made of materials that don’t breathe as you don’t want to lose heat through them, but in a hammock, this can lead to night sweats and an overall less comfortable hammock experience.
Final Thoughts on Hammock Use and Sleeping Pads Vs. Underquilts
So, which is better for your hammock sleeping pad vs underquilt? If you want the most comfortable option, go with an underquilt.
However, if you are looking for a more versatile and budget-friendly option, go with at least foam pads, if not an inflatable sleeping pad.
Hammock campers, in general, will have a lot of this due to personal preference. Still, when you are heading into colder weather, hammocking a quality underquilt will far outperform any closed-cell foam pad or inflatable sleeping pad.
When it is warmer weather outside, you may be able to skip out on underside insulation in general, as on my last trip out into 95-degree days with 75-degree nights, I used just a 50 degrees-rated top quilt as the breeze was helpful to keep sleep comfortable.