Part of Recommended Outdoor Gear by Mark Verber
A sleeping system is the combination of
Elsewhere I have some general notes about Getting a Good Night Sleep in the Outdoors which talks more about factors to concern and useful techniques.
More than any other piece of gear, you typically get what you pay for when it comes to sleeping bags.
Amount of Insulation: There are a variety of factors which should be considered when selecting a how much insulation you want. First you need to figure out what the lowest temperature you expect to face is. Next you should consider if you are a "warm" sleeper or a "cold" sleeper. For example, the same sleeping bag which keeps me toasty warm at 10F weight just a base, has her slightly chilled at 30F! You should also consider what might supplement your bags warmth: tents keep you approx 5-15F degrees warmer than the outside, bivy sacks can add 5-15F, liners can add 4-8F, and wearing cloths or outerwear can help hugely. Don't believe the silliness that sleeping bags work best when you aren't wearing clothing. The problem with wearing clothing inside a sleeping bag is driven by two issues: moisture in damp clothing can sap your warmth, and too many cloths in a tight fitting bag will compress the insulation in the sleeping bag making it less efficient. It should also be noted that many manufacturers reporting high optimistic temperature ratings for their sleeping bags. The exception to this rule seems to companies that make high quality bags such as Marmot, Nukatak, and Feathered Friends, and Western Mountaineering who seem to accurately report bag warmth. I think Western Mountaineering might under rates their sleeping bags. There is a fairly objective measure of sleeping bag warmth that is slowly being adopted by more vendors. There is a nice write up about the European rating system EN 13537 in Sleeping Well by Mammut. In general EN 13537 is a very good thing. Finally a way to compare different manufacturers bags. Just know whether you are looking at the "comfort" temperature rating or the "won't die" temperature rating. There are some minor issues related to EN 13537 testing variance but I expect this will get hammered out in the next couple of years. In the mean time, EN 13537 is way better than what we used to have, which was nothing what was often unsubstantiated claims by manufacturers. Until vendors start listing the complete EN 13537 data about their sleeping bags, the easiest way to figure out how warm a bag will be is to measure "inches of loft". According to testing done by the US army, the average person wants needs following loft to keep warm enough to be safe while sleeping. Typically sleeping bag manufacturers report inches of loft in counting both the loft from the bottom of the bag and the top of the bag, so you need to divide by two to compare to this chart. Most people will want more loft than is listed by the army. Nearly everyone agrees that Western Mountaineering bags are accurately (for people who sleep cold) or conservatively (for normal people) rated:
|Effective Temp||Army||Western Mountaineering|
|+40F||1.5"||1.5" (3" total)|
|0F||2.5"||3.5" (7" total)|
|-20F||3.0"||4.25" (8.5" total)|
|-40F||3.5"||5" (10" total)|
Type of Insulation: The second factor you should consider is what sort of insulation you would like to use. Historically the three best choices are Down, Polarguard (especially 3D and Delta), and Primaloft, though Climashield sounds pretty good and will likely replace Polarguard as the most commonly use synthetic in the next few years. Each of these materials has different performance characteristics. You will need to decide the relative weighting of these characteristics to determine what insulation material will be the best for you. Down is "rated" in terms of "fill power", that is the number of cubic inches one pound will fill. High fill power down has more down and less quills. There is a master's thesis about a model of how down compresses. I would recommend staying away from any synthetics materials which are not Polarguard, Climashield or Primaloft since they will tend to be heavier for the same warmth and will will be less compressible. You might be interested in a message explaining why the Cocoon jacket switched from Primaloft to Polarguard Delta though there I tend to prefer primaloft because my experience matches Richard's report that primaloft retains more insulation that primaloft after use. The following table gives you a sense of what 30F bags would be like using different insulation:
|Factor||Polarguard||Primaloft PL1||500-600 Fill Down||>800 Fill Down|
|Purchase Cost||<$80 (low cost)
$120-180 (high quality)
|Long Term Durability||4-7 years||3-6 years||10-15+ years||10-15+ years|
|~Comparative Stuff Size||2.2x||1.8x||1.4x||1x|
|Typical "30F" weight||2.7-3.5lb||3lb||2.2lb||1-1.5lb|
|Warm When Wet||Fair+ (dries faster)||Fair (absorbs less)||Poor||Poor|
The are many factors that should be considered besides warmth / weight including durability, drape, and what techniques need to be used to stability the insulation. There is an interesting thread on BPL about the interplay of warmth, weight, and loft and R values and loft, and EN 13537 and "clo" measurements.. The following is the best number I have found about the clo/oz numbers for a number of synthetics fills.
There is a fair amount of controversy about how important of "warm when wet" is for a sleeping bag. In truth... nothing is warm when wet. The advantage of the synthetics are they don't absorb a lot of water so you can squeeze most of the water out of the air gaps and be back on the way to a dry sleeping experience. If down gets wet, it's going to take time to dry (hints drying down), and you are going to be cold. The key is not to let you down bag get wet. NOTE: there is a new treatment which nano-coats down so that it doesn't absorb water. This "waterproof" down isn't waterproof, but it should behave a lot like a synthetic insulation which would be a huge improvement in wet conditions. Carry it in a drybag or use some other method to ensure it stays dry. Don't take the bag out of the dry bag until you are somewhere where the bag won't get wet. I used to think the getting down wet from splashing, rain, etc was an issue, but then I realized that in 30 years of camping, my sleeping bag or quilt has gotten wet enough to significantly impact the performance of a down bag once. There have been several times when the shell has gotten damp, but I was able to dry it out enough in the field that it wasn't a significant issue. I also realized that my dad had been using the same down sleeping bag for almost 25 years. It's not quite as lofty as it was originally, but it's still usable. I switched to using a down bag in 2000, and am very happy for the change. There are some situations when I would consider a synthetic insulation: an extended trip in a location that has continuous, very damp conditions (so a bag could never dry out) and the temperature was around freezing. If I was spending most of my time in locations in week+ long trips which were cool-cold and damp (say western Washington state) I would consider switching back to synthetic insulation. In conditions that were consistently cold (say below 0F) I would use a down bag with a vapor barrier.... see the section below entitled "Suggestions for Winter Insulation".
Styles: Sleeping bags are the most common way people stay warm in the back country. Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes and styles. Most common among backpackers is the so call mummy bag. Mummy style bags are popular because the they minimize weight by having little wasted material and by providing a good seal around the head and shoulders to prevent heat from leaking out. Mummy bags typically list the shoulder girth which often varies from 55"-70". I have found that 62" is the best for me as a 180lb 5'10" male. Ideally there should have enough room to allow you to move as much as you need to be comfortable, but no more than necessary to minimize how much space you need to heat up and to minimize convection. If you clothing is part of your sleeping system, you should make sure there is enough room for you to where those cloths without compressing your insulation. Rectangular bags are popular with some because they can be converted to a quilt and they provide a lot of room to move around. Top-bags have mesh or fabric bottoms with all the insulation on the top of the bag, relying on a sleeping pad to provide insulation. The theory is that you are going to crush any insulation which is under you, so why carry it around with you. Increasingly popular with ultra-light backpackers are insulation filled blankets and specially design quilts with foot pockets. Finally there are half bags, sometimes called elephant foot bags which are popular with climbers such as the Nunatak Akula. These looking like sleeping bags, but only cover the legs and are used in conjunction with an ultra warm jacket and hood to keep their upper body warm.
My Choice: I normally use a Nunatak Ghost Blanket (early version without a footbox but does have the narrow baffles) which weights a mere 16 oz as the core my insulation. In warm weather I lay the quilt loosely over my body. As the temperature drops I tighten the straps on the bottom of the quilt to block drafts, and add clothing as needed. When I am just on the edge I will curl up, pull my head under the quilt with only my mouth sticking out. I am comfortable using this quilt down to 30F when wearing a fleece hat, a light weight base layer, and wool socks. In colder weather I have been comfortable my adding a down balaclava, insulated vest, and insulated socks. If I am expecting the night time temperature to be consistently below 30F then I sometimes switch to a Western Mountaineering Versalite. If I only wanted one bag I would ebay my Ghost and Versalite and replace them with a Nunatak Arc Alpinist. I haven't done this because my two bags system give me a lighter solution much of the year, keeps me warm in the coldest conditions I face, and provides me a bag I can loan to friends on most trips.
Three Season Sleeping Bags: As noted above there are a variety factors which can effect what sort of sleeping bag you might select. In most cases I would recommend against getting the warmest sleeping bag you can find since in most conditions you will be carrying unnecessary weight and you run the risk of overheating at night. I believe most people will be very well served by getting a light-weight mummy bag or quilt which will keep them warm enough down to 15-30 F. This will keep you comfortable for most conditions, and safe in in all but the most extreme conditions. When facing the occasional colder conditions, it is possible to expand the temperature range with the use of clothing, a bivy, liner, etc. I recommend the Western Mountaineering Ultralight if it's not too tight for your shoulders or AlpinLite for you want a bit more room, a bag from Feathered Friends Light Flight line, Montbell UL SS Down Hugger #2/#3, or the 15F Marmot Helium_EQ. Other good choices include the Marmot Hydrogen if you don't mind a half zipper, the one of the other Western Mountaineering Extremlite line bags, or a semi-custom phdesigns bag . I personally like sleeping bags which don't have side baffles except for bag for extreme cold. This lets me shift more (or less) of the insulation to the top of the sleeping bag making it more or less insulating depending on the weather. If you use a bag in a more narrow range of conditions having side baffles can be helpful because they prevent cold spots caused by down shifting. Rock&Ice did a brief but decent write-up on summer-ish 1 pound sleeping options. [They missed the most excellent SummerLite which just was released by Western Mountaineering. 35F bag, 59" shoulders, 1lb 3oz.] A nice Comparative Lightweight Sleeping Bag Review was done by Charles Lindsey several years ago which list other high quality bags which I don't have personal experience using. One family of bags that I would add to Charles' list would be the Montbell Down Hugger line. I am not really up on current synthetic filled sleeping bags but it seems that the North Face Cat's Meow and Integral Design Primaloft bags are the standard which synthetic bags are measured against.
Quilts: While I am a quilt fan, I would note that
quilts are not a magic bullet. Several year ago high quality down quilts
provided a significant warmth for weight advantage over commercially made
sleeping bags of the day. Quilt lovers would say that sleeping bag have
un-needed insulation and fabric. You will compress the insulation under you
rendering it nearly useless. A quilt puts the insulation were it will do the
most good, on top of you. Rely on your sleeping pad to provide
insulation. A quilt uses less fabric because it doesn't need to go around your
body. A quilt doesn't need a zipper. The quilt is variable girth so you can wear
all your clothing for added insulation under the quilt without compressing your
insulation. See... it has to be lighter. Today though, there are several ultra
high quality sleeping bags which are quite close to the weight for warmth of a
quilt such as the WM Summerlite because of their close fit and insulation around
the head and neck which a quilt lacks. In most cases though, a quilt will still
have a warmth for weight advantage over a sleeping bag which is between 3-12oz
depending on sleeping bag design provided you have a warm hat or
drape the quilt over your head. On several shorter trips when it was
surprisingly cold I pulled my head under the quilt which have quite a boast in
how warm I felt. On a longer trip I would have worried about the moisture from
my breath condensing in the insulation... but several experienced outdoors
people have indicated they have done this an never had a significant problem. The
second reason some people like quilts is that they feel more free and less
constrained. In particular, it is easier to ventilate in warmer weather. Note:
some mummy shape quilts like the Nunatak Arc Alpinist have a fairly long foot
box which makes it hard to ventilate the legs in warm weather. It is
possible to use the sleeping bags with full length zippers in a quilt like fashion, getting close to a
quilt experience. Some people think
quilts are inappropriate in colder conditions because it's harder to prevent all
drafts, and the colder it gets, the more the drafts will impact comfort. I have
found quilts work fine in colder conditions for me. First, a shelter system which might
include a bivy can provide protection from winds. Additionally, quilt users are typically
wearing high loft clothing as part of their sleep system which provides a second
barrier against drafts. Furthermore, a quilt + clothing strategy typically
results in an easier transition because you are already in warm clothing.
Finally, quilts are simple, so they use less material, are less likely to fail,
and are easier / cheaper to make. There are some downsides of a quilt. First,
they are more prone to drafts than a typical sleeping bag. So a sleeping bag
will be warmer for weight when used by an extremely restless sleeper in the
face of high winds. These effects can be significantly mitigated by using a bivy
with a quilt. The downside of this combination is that a quilt + bivy tends to
give up the weight advantage and the freedom of movement that many people
like in a quilt. On the other hand, the combination of a DWR bivy and a quilt
provide a great deal of flexibility and allow the user to face a wide range of
conditions. Personally, I don't use a bivy. When in situations where I would
need protection from wind to stay sufficiently warm, I bring a shelter that can
provide adequate wind protection plus I have found that since I don't move a lot
at night and use the straps on the bottom of my quilt, drafts are pretty well
sealed off, even in the face of wind and an open tarp. Also possible downside
with using a quilt is that you will be sleeping directly on a pad, which
typically isn't breathable. Some people find this unpleasant. Some people say you can't be a side sleeper with a quilt. I haven't had a
significant problem. Many quilt
users also use tarps. If you are doing this without a bivy you might sometimes
run into insect problems. On one trip I was mobbed by ants. I could have mostly
sealed a sleeping bag off, but there was not protection with the quilt. Confused yet? If not, you can look at a long thread
quilts -vs- sleeping bags. In cooler weather the
Nunatak Arc Alpinist seems to be favored quilt.
Tim Marshall's Down/Cuben Quilt
look quite interesting using Cuben rather than nylon for the shell. In 2008 the GoLite
Ultra Bag should be release which looks decent, though a bit light on the fill
IMHO. In mild weather there
seem to be a number of popular quilts.
Ghost Blanket was one of the first, but it's a bit pricy.
JacksRBetter also makes some nice
looking quilts which are reasonably priced given their quality and versatility.
Some people have expressed concerns that the JRB quilts are a bit under filled.
I don't have enough personal experience to suggest if this is true or not.
A number of the JacksRBetter quilts have features which let you wear then quilt
in addition to using it to sleep under. Some people appreciate how this
multi-use aspect often removes the need to bring any insulating clothing. I
prefer a more minimalist quilt and a synthetic vest because I think it gives me
a bit more versatility at the same weight.
makes a number of quilts as well as an interesting bag which
surrounds a hammock called the PeaPod.
Other quilts are sold by Mountain Laurel Designs,
Katabatic Gear, Kick Ass Quilts and
Fanatic Fringe Quilt
(out of business?) made, a
1.5lb synthetic quilt rated to 40F, is a reasonable $129.
Some people open up sleeping bags and use them as quilts for one or two people.
Making a primaloft
insulated backpacking quilt is pretty easy. A bit more work
would be something like
down quilt or the ray-way
quilt. There was a nice summary of various quilt options in
hikinginfinland's quilt 101 post.
Couples Together: Couples often want to be able to sleep together. If a couple sleep close together, say spooned, they should be comfortable in temperatures which are 10-15F colder than they would be comfortable in under the same insulation without someone else. I think the best solution is a down or high loft synthetic quilt which is large enough to drape well over to people such as the Nunatak backcountry blanket. The most common approach is to have two sleeping bags which use the same zipper, with one bag having a left zip, and the other bag having a right zip. Personally, I have been less than happy with the sleeping bags zipped together. Zipping sleeping bags together often does not give this warmth advantage because the combination of the two bags has a tendency to billow a bit pushing warm air out. Additionally, they didn't seal very well around the face and neck. I have heard that if you place a high loft jacket around the opening that it can help the sealing problem. Another option to use a single sleeping bag with a Sweetie Pie Bag Doubler. Some rectangle sleeping bags come with an optional "undersheet" which turn them into a "top bag" which fits two.
Other Options: There are a number of sleeping bags which don't have insulation on the bottom which are a cross between quilts and classic sleeping bags. I would look at the Western Mountaineering Pod, Gossamer Gear SleepLight, Rab Q200 top bag, and a number of the bags from Big Agnes. There are also some sleeping bags which can be opened up, zip in a bag extender, and then used as a two person bag. There are a number of bags which have been designed to be both outerwear and a sleeping bag including the Lippiselk Bag, Exped Wallcreeper, Nunatak Raku, and the now discontinued Speer Hammock Frog Sac. While it would not be very good for reuse there are some emergency bivy (cheaper USA pricing) which can provide a great deal of warmth for a modest cost and weight: a good item for winter dayhikes.
Suggestions of Winter Insulation: In the winter it is almost a given that the dew point for your night-time perspiration will be somewhere inside your sleeping bag since there is a large temperature gradient being warm on the inside and below freeze at the shell. As a result your insulation will accumulate moisture. Down bags are find for many days but then you will find their performance dropping as they lose loft. Synthetics bags are better a maintaining loft as the accumulate moisture from condensation, but they to will also lose loft over time. Typically the most effective solution to this problem is to use a vapor barrier. A vapor barrier is a waterproof layer which is placed between your body and your insulation which prevents you perspiration from entering your insulation and helps keep your skin moist. Your skin wants to be in approx 78% humidity and will perspiration to try and retain this. You can use specially designed liner bags, wear vapor barrier clothing, or use a sleeping bag such as those from WarmLite which has an integrated vapor barrier. Since you are protecting your bag from internal moisture, I would recommend using a highly protective external shell made from eVENT or DryLoft because you want maximum protection for your insulation and the vapor barrier will protect the insulation from condensation. Companies that make good cold weather down bags include Valandre (discussion about Valandre), Western Mountaineering, Feathered Friends, Marmot, Montbell, and Warmlite. PHD Mountain Software lets you specify your bag through a web based application. This is kind of cool, but Feather Friends will produce down bags to your specifications as well. There are a few options besides using a hard core winter sleeping bag. If you are wearing high loft outwear, you might consider making them part of your sleeping system. That way you can use a lighter weight sleeping bag provided it has enough room inside to prevent compressing the insulation of your garments, a quilt, or maybe a 1/2 bag for your legs. You could also consider using an overbag, or an insulated liner combined with whatever you use in milder conditions. There have been several threads at BPL about combining sleeping bags and/or quilts for colder conditions.
Kids: For kids I would recommend the Big Agnes Little Red sleeping bag for kids less than 4ft, and the The North Face Tigger for kids under 5ft. Kids that are over 5ft should look at normal sleeping bags. The Montbell Super Stretch bags are well worth a look because they provide a range of widths in the same bag, and have a drawstring that lets you shorten the bag and let let the bag out when a long length is required.
Low Cost: Both Kelty Lightyear 20F and the Campmor "20F" Down Mummy can often been found for around $100. I have not used either of these bags, but have a number of friends who I trust who have. Among my friends there is a general agreement that these are two of the best values on the market. It's possible to find lighter bags, but not for these prices. Historically, these bags were optimistic in their ratings, they were more like 30-35F bags, rather than 20F, but they are still extremely useful. These models may evolve to be true 20F bags when the manufacturers start to use EN ratings and adjust names / ratings accordingly. For less than $100 you can make a high quality quilt. See my homemake page for links or check out the ray-way synthetic quilt or the thru-hiker down quilt kit.
The next question is what to sleep on. The first reason that people bring sleeping pads is to improve their sleeping comfort. I think getting a good night sleep, especially on an extended trip is very important. There is nothing worse than waking up in the morning feeling worse than when you went to bed. Some people can sleep on the bare ground or maybe 1/8" foam pads for some insulation. I wish I could do that for the weight and volumes savings, but I can't. When I have tried more minimalist padding, not only have I not slept well, but in some cases I woke up with new aches which continues for several days (my hips in particular). I have heard people assert that after a few days on the trail you will be able to sleep without a lot of padding because you have worn yourself out. This is not the case in my personal experience.
There is an even more important reason to consider taking some sort of pad... and that's to stay warm. Sleeping bags insulation is compressed by your body weight which means that it provides almost no insulation. If you don't have a pad, your body will try to warm what's below you. If the air temperature is high but the ground is cool, this might be nice.. but in most conditions you want insulation below you. The amount of insulation you need will vary depending on the air temperature, ground temperature, and what sort of "ground" you are sleeping on. For example, if you are in the mountains, sleeping on a large chunk of granite, you will find that the rock is a very effective heat sink, while if you are in a pine forest with lots of needles and soft earth below you, you need little or no insulation because the needles are taking care of you. Also note that sleeping on your side means that there is less surface area to insulate from below.. this means that side sleepers need need under insulation. Since different people require different amounts of insulation, I think it is most useful to talk about the "R" values of pads rather than what temperature a pad is good down to. Below are a list of full size pads sorted by warmth / weight: My antidotal experience is that R2.5 is good down to around 30F, R4 is good down to around 20F, and R6.5 has been good down to around 0F as a slide sleeper.Below is a table I created several years ago. It seem that the section hiker website has a much more up-to-date sleeping pad r-value table
|Mat||Insulation (R)||Weight (oz)||
|POE Hyper High Mountain (out of production)||20?!/
9 (informal test)
|mummy||closed cell foam + aerogel|
|Warmlite DAM||(estimate) 9.0||23||.39||mummy||air mattress + down|
|Artiach Light Plus||unconfirmed 2.2||7.8||.28||rectangular||closed cell foam|
|Gossamer Gear Nightlight (3/4)||2.2||8||.27||rectangular||closed cell foam|
|Exped Downmat 9||8.0||38||.21||rectangular||air mattress + down|
|Gossamer Gear Thinlight 1/8"||.4||2||.20||rectangular||closed cell foam|
|Big Agnes Insulated AirCore||4.1||22||.18||mummy||air mattress + synthetic|
|Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest||2.6||14||.18||rectangular||closed cell foam|
|Therm-a-Rest NeoAir||2.5||14||.18||rectangular||air mattress + reflective|
|Therma-a-Rest Z-Lite||2.2||15||.15||rectangular||closed cell foam|
|Therma-a-Test ProLite 4||3.2||24||.13||tapered||self-inflating|
|Therma-a-Rest ProLite 3||2.3||20||.11||tapered||self-inflating|
Therm-a-Rest has long dominated the marketplace, but Pacific Outdoor Equipment and Big Agnes are trying to challenge them. No matter what type of pad you select you need to decide the shape and length of the pad. Personally I like pads which are mummy shaped because the weight savings. Except in the cold weather, when you need maximum insulation, many people like 3/4 length pad. Most people don't put a lot of weight on their lower legs when they sleep so there is no need for the extra weight of a long pad. If you can't live without padding for your lower legs, extend your pad using a stuff sack filled with soft items like extra cloth or your backpack. Some people use torso sized pads to save even more weight.
NOTE: If you use a pad which has air in it (air mattress or self-inflating) remember to lets some air out if the pad will be spending the day in a hot tent. Air expands as it gets warmer. I know several people who have damaged their pads by leaving them sealed and fully inflated at the beginning of a hot day.
My Choice: I use a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir for three season trips. It's good by itself to 35F and down to 20F combined with the torso length pad from my backpack. I was able to sleep on my side down to 25F with just the NeoAir, but if I laid of my back or stomach it was clean the pad was not warm enough. In colder conditions I combine either the NeoAir or a Big Agnes Insulated AirCore with a full length foam pad. If I did a lot more snow camping I would pick up a down insulated air mattress.
Air Mattresses: Good quality backpacking air mattresses are lighter and more compact than self inflating pads for equivalent comfort / thickness. Of course if your air mattress is punctured, you have no padding, where a self inflating pad has at least a bit of padding. On the other hand, you can use them as rafts when crossing rivers. The new Therm-a-rest NeoAir looks like a great 2-3 season pad if you can afford the $150 price tag. The 72" pad weights 14oz, gives an extremely comfortable 2.5" of firm support, folds smaller than a 1L nalgene bottle, can keep most people comfortable down to 20-30F, and has a slightly tacky surface so it doesn't side around on slick tent floors. In warmer conditions un-insulated air mattresses can work well. On top of dirt or natural materials plan air mattresses can be used down to 35-40F with reasonable comfort... some people might be able to push them down to 30F. I have found that un-insulated air mattresses aren't sufficiently insulated on top of rock or snow when the air temperature is below around 50F. Examples of un-insulated air mattresses like this include the Big Agnes AirCore and Clearview. In colder weather a down or synthetic filled air mattresses are ideal, providing comfort and nearly unbeatable warmth/weight ratio insulation. For most people I recommend synthetic filled air mattresses. They weight slightly more than self inflating pads, but they are warmer, pack smaller, and I think are more comfortable. For three season use (temp above 20F) I would recommend some sort of insulated air matress. The cottage gear Kookabay is reported to make since very nice pads. Pacific Outdoor Equipment (POE) Ether Thermo (which replaced the previous max-thermo) and the Big Agnes (BA) Insulated AirCore and the commonly used since they are carried in a lot of stores. Both lines come in a variety of lengths and in both mummy and rectangular shapes. You won't go wrong with either one. I find the BA's larger number of air chambers (8 to POE's 6) makes a flatter and more comfortable sleeping surface. The BA Insulated AirCore had a run of failures a number of years ago where the Primaloft clumped producing cold spots. BA replaced the failed pads but some people have been weary since then. I have used my BA pad since 2003 and am delighted with it. Recently I have my first puncture, which was easily repaired in the light of day. The night I discover it wads not fun. On the other hand, the POE is reported to be more insulated (we didn't notice a difference with the older version of the POE and I haven't heard any reports of failure in the field. My daughter is happy with her POE pad. During the summer you can flip the pad over so the insulation in by the ground rather than young to keep cool. In winter conditions I would recommend the Warmlite Down Air Mattress which offers nearly 2x the warmth / weight of self inflators, and has the best warmth / weight ratio of any pad except those using aerogel insulation. There are other down air mattresses such as the Exped Down Air Mattress, but they are heavier than the Warmlite DAM. The lightest commercial un-insulated pad is the Big Agnes Clearview Air Pad which should be as light as 11oz for a 3/4 length pad. The lightest way get get an air mattress is to use balloons such as the the commercial balloonbed (my review) or make your own cheer-stick pad or a ultra-light poly-tube air mattress. The Mill Air makes a device to inflate things which is reported to weights less than 2oz, though I haven't confirmed the weight. Alpacka makes a 3oz inflated. This will be a way to inflate pads without adding moisture.
Foam Pads: These days, most foam pads are closed-cell foam because they don't soak up water, low cost, durability, and provide decent insulation. Ultralight backpackers often like to use foam pads because they can become part of the suspension system for frameless backpacks and they can be trimmed down to save weight. In the winter, foam pads are often used during the day: as standing pads to help keep feet warm, or sitting pads which help keep the user warm and dry. The cheapest form are the "blue pads" which you can find almost anywhere (from WalMart to REI) which cost less than $10. Ultra-light packers often trim this pads down to so that it is only as large as their torso or purchase torso size pads. Slightly more comfortable is Cascade Designs' RidgeRest. Cascade Design also makes the convenient folding Z-rest which has the unfortunate tendency to wear out with just moderate use. I think the best foam pad are made from Evazote such as those sold by Gossamer Gear. Years ago, the Mt Washington Evazote pads were a cult favorite among the ultralight community, but they are no longer made. If you don't need padding, just a bit of insulate for your three-season trips, I would suggest picking up a ThinLight pad. Insul Mats by Pacific Outdoor Equipment have a number of innovative designs such as the Uber-lite for minimalist and a number of interesting hybrid pads, including foam & aerogel POE Hyper High Mountain which is the warmest (R20!) pad made... if you believe the manufacturer's numbers.
Self Inflating Pads: There are a variety of these out these days. Montbell selling a self inflating pad which is thicker, lighter, and with better features than the therm-a-rest prolite 3 in Japan... hopefully they will start importing it into the US. In the US today, Cascade Design still makes the best self inflating pads. Designed specifically for light-weight backpacking in moderate weather are the minimalist Cascade Design Pro 3 and the Pacific Outdoor max-Lite. Both are lighter than the old Therm-a-Rest Ultralight. For colder weather (or more sleeping comfort) is the slightly heavier Cascade Designs Pro 4 and the Pacific Outdoor max-Mountain. Both these companies made a number of other pads which are larger, thicker and heavier.
Hammocks: Many people find hammocks, especially asymmetrical designs that provide an almost flat sleeping surface to be very comfortable. [I am not one of these people... I don't like sleeping in hammocks.] When you are worried about ground water, what could be better than being suspended several feet above what concerns you. See my hammocks section in my shelters page for more information. In warm weather nothing will keep you as cool as a nice hammock. In moderate weather many people find the aluminized windshield shades work well. In cooler weather you will need more insulation. My limited experience is that insulation which is adequate for when I was on the ground down to around 30F kept me almost warm enough at 48F in a hammock. The Gossamer Gear Thinlight Pad (1/4 or 3/8") looks like a good under insulation layer for cool-moderate weather. I won't recommend the 1/8" Thinlight because it's too easy to hole and isn't stiff enough to stay in place. In colder weather I would encourage considering using an under quilt. There are a variety of companies that make under-quilts for Hammocks including JackRBetter, the perfect trees, warbonnet outdoors, kick ass quilts, speer hammocks.
Pillows: One of the most common approaches is to place extra clothing (which is pretty soft) into your sleeping bag stuff sack. The downside of this is that the stuff sacks might not be the most comfortable thing against your face. Therm-a-rest makes stuff sacks which have a light fleece sewn into them which can be more comfortable than a nylon only stuff sack. Some people bring inflatable pillows. One of the light options for an air pillow are made by FlexAir (buy in limited quantities as the bpl.com ultralight pillow). Some people will even take a small down or primaloft stuff pillows such as those made by Quixote.
Cots: Typically large and heavy. LuxuryLite Low Rise Cot is only 30oz and packs up smaller than many pads... but it is $175. I have no experience with how comfortable it is.
Low Cost: A cheap closed cell foam pad. The "blue" pads can be found many places for less than $10.