If you’ve never slept on a Paco pad while car camping, you’re doing it wrong. They’re the plushest, most durable sleeping pads around and have a longtime cult following among river guides—including me.
I was resistant at first. During my first year guiding, I thought sleeping on a Paco pad would make me look soft and spoiled, so I roughed it on a regular one. But then I realized that I wasn’t just camping for a few nights; I was living outside for weeks at a time, and my fellow guides had the right idea. I’ve never gone back.
The pads, which run between $200 and $350, were first mass produced 34 years ago by Jack Kloepfer, founder of Jack’s Plastic Welding, a rafting business located in Aztec, New Mexico, just down the road from Durango, Colorado. He originally called them the Grand Canyon Pad, because they were designed for guides going down that stretch of the Colorado River. But his buddy Nels Niemi (a legendary Grand Canyon guide) renamed them after Jack’s nickname, Paco. It stuck. (Nowadays there are several brands that made similar pads, but “Paco pad” is still the most-used catch-all noun.)
What makes them so plush is a thick, high-density urethane foam that’s inserted into an industrial-strength PVC covering similar the kind used to make river rafts. They also have a self-inflating valve, so that some air gets between the foam to add extra cushion. There are various sizes, but the most common are three inches thick and weight a little over ten pounds—way too much for backpacking, but perfect for car camping or river trips. The high-density foam conforms to and absorbs rocky ground. Think of the design like a long-travel fork on your mountain bike: rocks that should present a problem don’t. On cold nights, the padding also does a great job fighting off frosty air rising from the ground.
The high-density foam is important for longevity as well. Jack didn’t want his pads to pack out too quickly when compressed with a person’s body weight, and he knew people would be rolling them up and wrenching them to boats or cars for long periods of time. He wanted them to feel as soft but sturdy on day 300 as they did on day one.
The PVC coating is part two of the secret sauce. It’s so durable, it lets you treat the pad horribly. Those jagged rocks won’t pop it in the middle of the night, and it holds up to repeated exposure to sun and water. In fact, the coating is so durable that, in the winter, the pad can function as a fast and exciting sled. People have even used them as floatie toys on hot days or to run certain rapids.
I get that the pads are expensive. They’re also huge. Rolled up, my pad is the size of 40-pound dog. Some of you might argue that, for those reasons, a Paco pad isn’t necessary. Why not just clear the ground and use a smaller, more affordable camping pad? I’m guessing those naysayers have never found themselves the last person to choose where they sleep at a site. As a professional guide of any sort (I guided float trips for ten years), you get used to giving the best to your clients.
Trust me, once you use a Paco pad, you’ll never go back. It takes a minute to get used to the strong plasticy smell coming off the PVC, but once you lie down after a long day of rowing, or hiking—or even just a long night of drinking—and realize there’s nothing poking you, your sleeping bag isn’t sucking in cold air, your back isn’t hurting from a too-soft air mattress, and you proceed to sleep almost as well as you might back at home, you’ll realize the genius and tell all your friends to invest, too.
My final bit of advice: get the Super Paco pad from Jack’s. The one-and-a-half-inch-thick Small Paco is plenty to get you through a summer of rough-ground sleeping, but you aren’t buying a Paco to save space or money, so go all in. NRS’s River Bed Sleeping pads are also a good option, but a tad less expensive.