Sleeping pad, Cot or Air Mattress: Let Me Pick For You

a camping cot, a sleeping pad and an air mattress

Let’s face it – camping isn’t comfortable. If you’re someone like me who’s used to having a reliable roof over your head, driving the couple miles to the closest grocery store, and owning a nice plush bed to climb into after the journey – you probably agree.

Back when many of the modern-day comforts like rechargeable batteries for the lights and waterproof fabric for the tent didn’t exist, you had to be a true adventurer to defy nature and leave the city behind for the great outdoors.

Lucky for us though – these days, you can carry the comfort of your home in the back of your car. There’s a nice solution to almost every outdoor element that could create stress or discomfort. And that includes the discomfort that comes with sleeping on the hard, untamed ground.

Picture this – you’ve done everything right. You’ve trekked for many miles over all kinds of terrain, seen all kinds of interesting wildlife, you’ve even walked through a large stream and got your socks wet and finally, after many trials – you’ve found a nice spot to set up camp. After you’ve set up the tent you get some much-needed food into your growling stomach and change into some comfortable clothes. You climb into your tent and lay your tired body on the mat. Initially, you’re filled with a sense of relief as you relax into your usual sleeping position. But just as you’re getting used to the feeling of laying down you register an annoyingly situated bump on the ground that you definitely did not notice when you were hurriedly laying down your tent. What do you do? Honestly, I don’t know either – but I have a feeling you won’t be feeling much love for mother nature the following morning.

This is a fairly common issue that many campers face, which is why all kinds of beds have been creatively designed and made since well – forever. And when I say all kinds, I really mean all kinds! From the simple cots you usually see being used by the army – to luxurious queen size arrangements that self-inflate and feature two bedside tables complete with reading lamps – you can get it all.

There are so many options available that what the modern-day individual stresses about is which one to get. This article will explain which option is good for what.


camping cots

If you were to see a camping cot you would recognize it immediately. The simplest cots have been used as far back as the First World War and possibly first by the Roman Army even before that. They’re simply a foldable support frame covered with fabric.

The frame of the cot is usually made of lightweight material like aluminum and is designed so that it can be taken apart and put together or fold completely like a lawn chair.

The fabric that you’re supposed to lie in can be canvas, linen or nylon. What I’ve just described is the version of the cot that was first created, clearly not the most comfortable but unquestionably the simplest. Since then, people have found ways to improve the design and make the cot as much like a permanent bed in terms of comfort as possible.

Which is why now, cots come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s explore a few of them.

Single person cots: The single cot is basically a compact stretcher designed for one person to lie in. They’re lighter than other types of cots and come with different features. They come in different heights and lengths and they’re relatively small when stretched out. So, if you own a one-person tent then anything bigger will probably make you feel crammed. The simplest version of the single cot has nothing, but fabric stretched over the frame. And although that’s still better than lying on the cold hard ground, it’s still not going to be very comfortable unless you lay a mat or mattress over it. There are versions of the single cot that come with cushioning on top of the frame though so that you don’t have to carry your one separately. Some feature a comfortable foam mattress and others an inflatable air mattress. Although these cots are usually sturdy enough to carry a person, they do tend to rock a bit so if you’re one to turn over during the night – you might find yourself on your face.

Double person cots: The only difference between the single and double cot is in width. While the single cot is designed for one person, the double cot is made to fit two. If you have a larger tent then this might be a good option, even if you won’t be sharing with anyone else. The width of the frame helps with stability – increasing the odds that your mid-slumber turn won’t turn into a mid-slumber tumble. The double cot also has different padding options, and some can be quite extravagant. The increase in frame material and larger mattress will definitely make the double cot heavier than the single cot but if you value comfort over mobility, this one’s for you.

Bunker cots: If you want to accommodate twice as many people in the same space and you have a tent with a high ceiling, which is rare but if you do this camping cot can be . The first thing I’ll say about these makeshift bunkbeds is – they’re heavy. It takes a sturdy material to keep the person on top from flattening the person on the bottom bunk so you can expect the bunker to weigh quite a bit. If you have the capacity to carry these though they’re definitely a good use of space and can be a perfect arrangement if you have kids.

The most common way campers use cots is by layering a sleeping pad or an air mattress over it, like this cot on amazon comes with an air mattress and a pump, it is perfect for people who are car camping.

Sleeping Pads

sleeping pads

Sleeping pads are by far the best options for someone who would like to travel as light as possible like backpackers. There are basically three types of sleeping pads but what they all have in common is their weight, or rather their lack thereof.

Sleeping pads look sort of like exercise mats with a bit more thickness to them and depending on what features are most important to you (size, weight, cushioning) you can easily pick one that suits your needs. There are even mats specifically made for women that feature more padding near the hips and feet.

sleeping pads are useful not only as cushioning to keep you off the ground but as insulation to keep you warm. Sleeping bags are great but if you’re sleeping in one directly on the cold ground, it won’t do much for you in the way of warmth which is why sleeping pads were made.

The ability of a sleeping pad to keep you warm is measured in R-Value which is basically its ability to resist heat transfer between your body and the ground. Below is a brief look at the three basic types of sleeping pads.

Inflatable pads: Of all the sleeping options available on the market, these are the most compact and easy to carry around. Air pads are fully deflatable and can be rolled up and placed inside your with pack no problem. There are different options when it comes to inflating an air pad, but the most common method is to blow into it until it’s firm enough to lay on. Most air pads have insulation to keep the warmth of your body from seeping away and they work fine for chilly weather but if you’re going to be camping in the winter, there are other kinds of sleeping pads that will probably suit you better. Much like air mattresses, a major concern for many people when stems from the fact that they’re prone to get punctured or tear on some object or another. Fortunately, most air pads come with patch kits that you can conveniently use even if you’re in the field. If your primary goal is to pack as light as possible these are for you.

Self-Inflating Pads: These mats are made of open cell foam, which is essentially a type of foam that can be easily compressed but then recovers to its original size once it’s let loose. Though not as light and as easily stored in a pack as an Air Pad, the Self-Inflating mats are not intrusive or heavy at all. They offer great insulation in cold weather and are generally more durable and stable because you won’t be relying completely on air to support you. These are a great sleeping solution if you’re backpacking, car camping or winter camping.

Closed-Cell Foam Pads: If you’re looking for an outdoors sleeping solution that’s firmer, more durable and cheaper than any previously mentioned, the foam pad is the one for you. These are made of well – foam and they don’t need to be inflated. They’re a bit bulky because they can’t be deflated, so you’ll probably have to carry it outside your pack. But if you can manage the extra weight you won’t have to worry because unlike the inflatable sleeping pads it’s resistant to tear and won’t get punctured along the way. The closed-cell foam pads are particularly good as insulation and work well for all kinds of weather conditions. If you’re willing and able to carry both a foam and an air pad, you’ll find that it’s possible to sleep just as comfortably outdoors as it is to sleep at home.

Air Mattresses

An air mattress is exactly what the name suggests it is. These inflatable beds are among the most recommended options for bedding when you’re on a camping trip, and there’s a few reasons for that.

Firstly, they’re relatively light and with a carrying bag can be a bit more convenient than other bedding options. Which, since you’re hoping to pack as light as possible – is exactly what you want from camping equipment. Also, they’re conveniently easy to inflate.

Each air mattress is different, and some come with manual pumps while others have automatic pumps. Needless to say, an automatic pump will save you some time and energy but if you’re going to be camping somewhere without electricity a manual pump will serve you well.

Another upside to sleeping on an air mattress probably won’t come as a surprise – it’s comfortable – especially when compared to sleeping on hard, uneven earth.

Now, although air mattresses are great for a lot of reasons, they’re not perfect. Certain conditions can make an air mattress quite uncomfortable. Weirdly, both hot climate and cold climate can make an air mattress unpleasant to spend the night on. On a cold night out the air inside the mattress will eventually begin to cool to the temperature of the ground because of the lack of insulation.

You can overcome this issue by putting a couple of blankets on top of the mattress before you lay on it to preserve your body heat but obviously, that would require you to carry a couple extra blankets. In warm weather, it’s not the lack of insulation but the lack of a breathable surface to lie upon that poses a problem.

Because air mattresses are made of non-porous materials like plastic it’s inevitable that you’ll get sweatier and more uncomfortable the longer you lie on it, especially if you’re inside a tent on a warm night. The remedy to this issue is the same one you’d have to turn to on a cold night, you’ll have to add a porous material like a blanket between you and the mattress.

Air mattresses come in different sizes but are generally quite large – and if you’re in a smaller size tent, it may be a tight fit. The problem isn’t just the length and width of the mattress but its height as well. Air mattresses are tall and will probably push up against the sloping sides of a smaller tent.

Another problem that campers regularly encounter when using an air mattress is their tendency to lose air. Slowly but surely, you’re likely to find yourself lying on more of a mat than a mattress and you’ll have to re-inflate it. Most people complain that they have to re-pump their mattress at least once per night which can be horribly annoying after a tiring day.

Also, if by some unfortunate accident your mattress happens to get punctured, you’ll have to patch it up. Fortunately, if the hole or tear isn’t too wide, there are various options to mend your mattress. There are different air mattress repair kits available, but some people just use gorilla tape, and it usually works.

The bottom line is, if you want to use an air mattress on your camping trip, you definitely can. It has its pros and cons, and depending on the conditions you’ll be exposing it to, it may be either perfect or horribly disappointing. A huge number of companies make air mattresses and lots of different types to choose from to suit your needs and budget.


An air mattress layered on a cot is the most comfortable sleeping setup, but the absence of a thermal layer and lack of breathability can make an air mattress unpleasant to spend a night on in both hot weather and cold weather, not to forget they are hefty, which makes sleeping pads the best sleeping setup.

CotsSleeping padsAir mattresses
Cold weatherno yes no
Comfortmost comfortable
Family camping tripsnoyesyes

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