Backcountry Comfort: REI Flash Sleeping Pad

We’ve been extensively testing the REI Flash Sleeping Pad, often asking testers to swap it for another pad halfway through the night to see which they like better. The results have been, well, surprising…

The REI Flash sleeping pad in it’s natural habitat–inside an REI Quarter Dome 1 tent on lichen-covered rocks. All of out testers agreed that the Flash is an outstanding air mattress for backpacking in all seasons. ( photo)

If you’re familiar with the phrase “herding cats,” you have some idea of what it’s like to the get the crew of gear testers to agree on anything. That makes perfect sense because we all bring different physiologies, experiences and expectations to the table. And that means we all have different opinions on what works and what doesn’t. So, for everyone to agree is understandably rare. That’s as true for sleeping pads as it is for backcountry skis.

That’s why we’re somewhat stunned with the feedback we got on the REI Flash sleeping pad. ALL of our testers loved it. And while some had air mats they liked better than the REI Flash sleeping pad for specific purposes, they all agreed on one thing: if they could only have one air pad for all uses in all seasons, the REI Flash sleeping pad would be a top choice.

REI Flash in Solo Tent 2
ES Testers agreed, if they could only have one air matress for all conditions, the REI Flash sleeping pad would be a top choice. ( photo)

To understand how our personal herd of cats all arrived in the same place at the same time, it helps to understand what we are looking for when we test an air mattress for our uses here in the damp, often cold Northeast. Since all air mattresses are, essentially, just a bag full of air that you place between your body and whatever’s underneath you,you have to look at very specific design features to see why one pad is better than another. We simply don’t accept “It was comfortable and lightweight,” as a complete review from any of our testers.

You can pretty much assume that any air mattress that doesn’t leak will provide plenty of cushioning and comfort (although we HAVE found exceptions). When testing air mattresses  we look at other factors, some of which  might not be immediately obvious.

Evaluating The REI Flash Sleeping Pad

Weighing in at less than 1 pound (after many nights of use!), the REI Flash sleeping pad is among the lightest pads but still delivers plenty of comfort. ( photo)

Although as we said, a sleeping pad is essentially a bag of air, a GOOD sleeping pad is more than that. Specific design features can make a sleeping pad function better. The REI Flash Sleeping Pad shows the benefits of careful design. Following are the specific areas we look at with each sleeping pad, and how the REI Flash fared.

Ease of Use

The mummy shape and “waffle” design of the REI Flash sleeping pad significantly reduce the volume of the pad so it can be inflated with fewer breaths. One of our favorite rectangular pads, for example, takes 15-18 breaths to inflate, the REI Flash Sleeping Pad takes 10-12 on average. Fewer breaths also mean you are blowing less moisture into the pad each time you inflate it; over time, that moisture can add up and increase weight and reduce the insulation value. Our testers liked that ease of use.

The mummy shape of the REI Flash Sleeping pad echoes the mummy shape of most backpacking sleeping bags. Obviously, this saves weight, but it also helps the pad fit into some of the smaller solo tents that narrow at the foot.


REI Flash sleeping pad closeup
The welded-through waffle construction on the REI Flash sleeping pad improves both surface stability and overall warmth. (Eastern photo)

The waffle surface of the REI Flash Sleeping Pad is another example of careful design thought. Again, the waffle chambers reduce interior volume, which means it inflates more easily. But there are a couple of added bonuses. One is that the waffle design is welded through and several testers noted that this seems to provide a more stable sleeping surface than some other pads. In other words, it’s not just the texture of the fabric that holds you in place, the nature of the way your sleeping bag molds into the pockets increases both the surface area contact and friction so you stay put through the night. One of our testers commented that he had no more difficulty staying on the pad than on his mattress at home; THAT’S stable!


The REI specs give the R value of the REI Flash sleeping pad as 3.7, which is warm enough for cold-weather use. But that tells only part of the story. Remember that we said the waffle surface has several benefits? It also allows the insulation in your sleeping bag to expand into those pockets in the pad’s surface, which likely provides as much or more insulation value as the R value of the pad. Expanded insulation (“loft”) is warmer than flattened insulation and this significantly helps the cold-weather performance of the REI Flash sleeping pad.

This, combined with the mylar reflective layer and fiberfill insulation makes the REI Flash sleeping pad very comparable in warmth to others we have tested that were heavier and bulkier. Our testers have slept on it in below-zero conditions with no complaints. Do note that this will NOT work with some “differential fill” sleeping bags that have little fill along your back; they may not have enough fill to fully expand into the pockets.

Materials and Construction

The laminated 30-denier ripstop polyester material used in the REI Flash Sleeping Pad is not the lightest we’ve ever seen, but it does seem to have the durability we prize. If you’re going to skimp on weight with ultralight fabric, you don’t want to do it with the one thing that MUST hold air to give you comfort and warmth.

The quality of the construction seems flawless. There are no uneven seams, no signs of excess glue around the valve (we’ve seen both), no obvious weak spots. Despite some hard use, our testers have not yet managed to get the pad to leak…and that’s a very good thing!


On an outing this summer, one of our testers noticed that her tent mate, a more active sleeper, was using an air pad that creaked loudly every time he rolled over, waking her up. She innocently (so she claims) suggested that they trade pads so she could get his feedback. The upshot: She got a good night’s sleep and he liked the REI Flash sleeping pad well enough to buy one for himself (seems the noise of his pad even woke him up!)

The Takeaway

The REI Flash sleeping pad is lightweight and compact for backpacking. Notice that REI allows plenty of room in their stuff sack, making it easier to roll up and store the sleeping pad. ( photo)

Over the years, we’ve been consistently impressed by the thoughtful designs and the overall quality and durability of most REI branded products. Even in something as seemingly simple as an air mattress, REI consistently delivers more than you expect. The REI Flash sleeping pad is no exception. No wonder our herd of cats all liked it.

Leave a Reply