Air Bed or Mat When Camping?

Deciding on an inflatable air bed or a simple sleeping ground pad, the important thing is to pick one which is comfortable for when you’re sleeping on uneven or hard ground. The best sleeping bag in the world won’t provide you with a restful sleep if you’re tossing and turning all night.

Not only do they provide extra comfort, they also form an additional layer of insulation between you and the ground which will further prevent heat loss.

How do they Work?

Sleeping pads work by trapping and holding a layer of dead (non-circulating) air between your body and the cold – in this case, the cold ground. Your body heat warms this layer of dead air and it becomes an insulation barrier. The performance of the insulation pad depends on how much air it holds and how freely the air is able to circulate.

Things to consider

Things to consider when choosing a pad are comfort, insulation, weight/bulkiness and durability. To decide which features are most important to you, it’s necessary to consider the following:

  • The kind of weather you might encounter – If you only camp in mild or warm conditions, comfort will probably be more important than insulation but if you camp all year round, you need to get a pad that will protect you from the cold and wet conditions.
  • The level of comfort when sleeping – Some people prefer to save on space, weight and money by choosing very basic pads. Others prefer to spend more and are prepared to carry additional weight to stay as comfortable as possible when camping.
  • How much extra weight do you want to carry? – If you’re carrying a rucksack for a longer period, thicker pads can be heavy and can cause problems. This is not so important if you’re travelling by car.
  • How much storage space do you have? – A light, compact pad will be easier to pack. This could be important if you’re travelling on a bike, in a canoe or on foot.

Different types of pads

There are four basic kinds of sleeping pads.

Air mattresses (air beds) are, in effect, inflatable beds, designed for camping. They’re probably the most comfortable form of sleeping pad but they tend to be bulky and can be ripped or punctured easily. Whilst being extremely comfortable, insulation tends to be poor as the air is allowed to freely circulate inside.

Open-cell foam pads are foam pads made from sponge consisting of tiny open air cells. They’re inexpensive, comfortable and lightweight. The tiny foam air cells restrict circulation which provides better insulation than air beds. However, open cell foam is absorbent and this causes problems when it’s wet. Open cell foam can also be bulky, difficult to pack and compress and is not very durable.

Closed-cell foam pads consist of dense foam filled with tiny closed air cells. They’re cheap and durable, i.e. they won’t pop if you step on them and they provide an extremely high level of insulation. They’re also non absorbent. On the negative side, they’re quite stiff and firm and have far less cushioning abilities than open cell foam. Self-inflating pads are open cell foam pads wrapped in waterproof, air tight nylon shells. They’re as comfortable as open cell pads but provide much better insulation properties. They come with built in air valves which let you adjust the amount of air inside which allows you to make the pad as firm as possible. They’re also very compact when rolled up. However, they’re heavier and cost more than both open and closed cell pads and they can be easily ripped or punctured.

A waterproof sheet or tarp can also provide extra insulation and protection and you can put these underneath your pad.

Test Drive your Bed First

You wouldn’t probably buy a bed for your bedroom without trying it out first so, if you camp frequently, you should adopt the same strategy for your camping mattress. Try out different types so you can get an idea of how much cushioning you need to feel comfortable, how long you need it to be and to determine how easy your bed/pad is to deflate and/or pack away. You might also want to consider other extras like an inflatable There are also beds and pads that can be joined together to form a larger sleeping area for two people.

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