When you consider having a sleeping pad or air mattress for camping, it depends on quite a few things. To put it simply, air mattresses are better for summer since they don’t insulate and sleeping pads for winter. If you’re camping in a tent and have the space for it, then a mattress is fine, but car campers have to use a sleeping pad.
In this sleeping pad VS air mattress article, we will go over the differences in size, comfort, warmth, durability, affordability, and adaptability.
Before we get into the differences, we should first touch on the different types of air mattresses and sleeping pads.
Most air mattresses require an air pump because a lot of air is needed to fill them, and they are usually sized according to regular beds such as twin, full, queen, king, etc.
Sleeping pads come in three main types; air pads, closed-cell foam pads, and self-inflating pads. Air pads are just like miniature air mattresses, and foam pads don’t require any inflation since they are just made of foam and can be rolled up compactly. Last but not least, self-inflating pads are a combination of the two and are filled with foam made of tiny bubbles that expand and pull in air when the valve is opened.
In this article, I will be using closed-cell foam pads to compare to as they are the most different from air mattresses. This type is made of a very dense foam that is filled with tiny closed air cells, hence where the name comes from. Since they can’t be inflated or deflated, they are very compact and lightweight. Of the three types, this one requires the least maintenance and provides the most insulation but is not as comfortable as the other two. Leaks or punctures simply are not a possibility with them.
Sleeping pads are much smaller in comparison with air mattresses, and they are usually designed to be ‘just’ wide and long enough. Taller people tend to find them uncomfortable for this reason, but the average sleeping pad is about 20 inches wide and 6 feet long and they do come in sizes ranging from small to extra-large so that just about anyone can find the right size for them.
For hiking or even car camping when space is limited, sleeping pads are better since most are specially made to fit inside a car. They are also very lightweight, ranging from 1lbs-4lbs, and can easily fit inside a backpack.
An air mattress is large and heavy even when deflated and requires a pump which also takes up space. For regular camping in a tent where you travel to the campsite by car, an air mattress is fine.
Most sleeping pads are made quite thin, and the thicker you want it the more expensive it’s going to be. Even though they are more comfortable than sleeping on the floor, this does not make them a winner when compared to mattresses.
Air mattresses are larger and much thicker. Plus, they can usually be adjusted by putting more or less air for the desired stiffness. With blankets and pillows, an air mattress can be indistinguishable from a regular bed.
So, it’s safe to say that air mattresses are more comfortable but they are less versatile since they require more space.
Since air mattresses are filled with air they don’t insulate, and the air inside gets as cold as the ambient temperature which will cause heat loss. Most mattresses are simply unable to offer any warmth so you have to rely on other gear to do that for you such as blankets, thick clothes, and/or sleeping bags.
Sleeping pads, on the other hand, provide lots of insulation and reduce the amount of heat loss from your body by far. It’s the foam insulation that does wonders; they are simply designed to insulate heat by creating a layer of dead air between you and the cold ground.
Most warmth is lost through the floor, so it’s best to place something like a tarp or blanket underneath the sleeping pad.
Every sleeping pad is given an R-value rating and the higher this value is, the warmer the pad keeps you overnight. The ‘R’ in R-value stands for resistant, meaning resistance to heat flow. Heat naturally wants to flow from hot to cold and insulation stops this with air pockets, slowing down the warmth from passing through. Most sleeping pads have an R-value range from less than 2, which is minimal insulation, to 5.5 or more which means that the pad is insulated very well.
So, a sleeping pad is definitely better for cold conditions.
Air mattresses are known for developing holes, rips, and tears. Cheaper ones naturally don’t last very long. Although it can depend on how well you treat your mattress regardless of price. Try to get a mattress that has gripping material on the sides and underneath, not just for protection but it’ll also ensure that you don’t slide on the tent’s floor while you sleep.
Never drag an air mattress, as this is a sure way for it to get ripped, and keep a tarp or something similar underneath it for even more protection.
Sleeping pads last a long time and there’s no risk of deflating, holes, or punctures. They are just designed to be tougher and thus more durable.
Prices for air mattresses vary greatly; you can find some as cheap as $15 and others that cost nearly $100. Most cheap ones do seem to stop holding air properly, and expensive ones do tend to be worth the investment. It really is a gamble though, as I know some campers who have been using their cheap air mattress for years without any issues whatsoever.
As already mentioned, sleeping pads are very long lasting, so whatever the price is, there is no doubt that they are worth it. The cheapest ones I’ve seen cost less than ten dollars, and others that cost over $100. In comparison, a sleeping pad costs less because of the durability.
What makes a difference is whether you’re looking to buy something for the long run or not.
It seems obvious by now that air mattresses are better for summer and it is imperative that you have access to a car as you would not want to be carrying one of these for a while. They’re not useful for cold conditions since they don’t insulate, and every camper knows that the weather could change drastically in just a few minutes. Mattresses are also more fragile, as you have to be careful with them so as not to cause any holes, rips, or tears that will ruin and render them useless.
Sleeping pads are useful no matter the weather conditions; come rain or shine. Thanks to the insulation that they provide, a sleeping pad is what you want to have with you in winter. They are also super easy to pack into a backpack and carry, so these are ideal for campers who walk to their campsite. Whatever they lack in comfort, they make up for in all other aspects.
Overall, sleeping pads seem to win in every department besides comfort.
Personally, my recommendation is that if you can afford both, go for it. That way, you have an air mattress to use in the summer and a sleeping pad for winter. As already mentioned, whether this is possible really depends on what kind of camper you are though. Car campers don’t really have any choice; they have to use a sleeping pad as that is what will fit. For those campers who are without access to a car when camping, sleeping pads are also your best option, since they easily fit in a backpack and aren’t heavy.
If possible, you could even combine the two for when it’s cold; place the sleeping pad on top of the air mattress to get the best of both worlds – warmth and comfort.
It doesn’t hurt to take the sleeping pad along with you as a backup either. Say the worst happens, and you discover a leak in your air mattress, at least you can just use your sleeping pad and chuck the air mattress in your car for the time being.
Being flexible, adaptable, and ready for anything is what it means to be a camper so having both of these on you helps you achieve that.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are camp beds better than air beds?
It completely depends on whether you prefer comfortability and what conditions you are camping in. Air beds take up more space and weigh more, so you’d need a car so as not to walk with it and they don’t provide any warmth so they’re fine to use in summer. Camp beds aren’t nearly as comfortable, but they are lighter and take up much less space.
What is the best thing to sleep on while camping?
Those who prefer to be comfortable should use an air mattress. Just keep in mind that these take up more space, weigh more, and don’t insulate so they’re not ideal to use in winter. Sleeping pads take up very little space so that they can easily fit in a backpack and weigh barely anything. Their foam insulation also provides plenty of warmth. Pads are better when car camping and for cold conditions.
What is the most comfortable bed for camping?
For summer, a large, padded air mattress is ideal but in winter you would want something that provides a lot more warmth like a sleeping pad or bed sack.
Should I use an air mattress for camping?
As long as you have the space for the mattress and its air pump, and ideally a car to transport it, an air mattress is a great idea. It’s recommended only to use them in warm conditions though as they don’t provide any warmth; the air inside of a mattress gets as cold as the air around it. Also, it’s better to have a blanket or tarp to place under the mattress in an attempt to retain more warmth.
Should you put a tarp under a tent?
Yes! It’s always a good idea to put a tarp under your tent to provide extra protection against the ground and avoid any rips or tears. Additionally, this will act as insulation as well since most warmth is lost through the floor.
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