Monday, January 23, 2017

What to Look for in a Good Camping Air Mattress

If you live to be eighty, you will have slept for about 9733 full days in your life.

Another fun fact – did you know that we can go longer without food than without sleep?

For a camper or a hiker, the quality of sleep they get on the trail is one of those things that can make or break a trip. On the other hand, the quality of sleep we get is largely affected by the comfort of our air mattresses and sleeping pads.

Yet, many of us don’t fully understand what makes a good air mattress for camping.

So, today we take the time for an in-depth analysis of just that – the choice of an airbed. We’ll go beyond the usual stuff people talk about and commonplace advice like…

“Make sure you’re comfortable…”
“Make sure there's enough room in your tent…”
“Make sure you’re warm…”

We go beyond that and dig deeper and look at what actually makes an inflatable comfortable or warm. We might get a bit “sciency” but we’ll also make sure we boil it down to actionable advice.

What determines the comfort of a camping air mattress

For most people, comfort means that the mattress/pad:
1. Is wide/long enough
2. It doesn’t feel flimsy but sturdy
3. Provides good insulation
4. Doesn't leak air

Some of these are intuitive (like choosing a camping air mattress that’s wide and long enough) but let’s get specific and kick-off the practical tips.

1. What camping airbed is wide/long enough for you?

Width is only an issue with sleeping pads because even the smallest of air mattresses are no smaller than 30" in width. When it comes to sleeping pads, the rule of thumb is that your shoulders and hips comfortably fit the pad.

Length also only needs to be addressed if you are getting a sleeping pad or if you are extra tall. The pads are usually 72-78 inches long, so if you are taller than 5.6, we’d recommend going with a long version every time.

2. What sturdy actually means?

Every camper knows the feeling they’re after in the long cold night out there, but few know what to look for in the product description or what to ask the salesman.

Let’s address that.

The "sturdy" feeling you are looking for comes from the construction of the mattress or pad.

For mattresses this usually means that it’s not only beams with nothing "happening" inside. So, you’ll want to avoid products that are just beams of air with nothing in-between. A good tip here would be to look for a bed that includes some form of air coils inside (a good example of inner construction that with a coiled design is the SoundAsleep Camping series).

It’s similar with camping pads – most of the best pads have an intricate inner construction and are not just air between two layers of PVC.

To explain this better, let’s take the example of the Therm-a- Rest Neo-Air Xtherm – its inner design includes 4 layers of horizontal triangular baffles. They call the design Triangular Core Matrix, but the fancy name is beside the point.

What’s important is that this design does a much better job of weight distribution and especially insulation, but more on that in a minute.

Materials – if you are not a fan of the bouncy feeling of an airbed you might want to look into products that are not PVC. That bouncy feeling comes from the fact that PVC is a stretchy material and the more it stretches, the flimsier the bed feels.

There aren’t many PVC-free options out there but they do exist. A good example is the Lightspeed Outdoors TPU, which is made out of fabric that stretches much less than PVC.

The result is a mattress that feels like memory foam and not air.

3. Insulation

Don’t be dazzled by the talks about the materials used for the insulation in sleeping pads, the insulation materials are there not to keep you warm but to minimize the heat loss happening between the bottom and the top of the pad.

What makes a “warm” pad?

To answer that, let’s start by answering what makes a cold one.

Heat loss is the answer, and it’s all simple physics.

Two objects of different temperatures tend to exchange energy when they come in contact. So, the cold bottom surface “wants” cool down the top. This happens through air circulation – micro currents of air move up and down inside your camping bed or sleeping pad and you feel the rushes of cold air (especially with an air mattress).

If there’s nothing between the top and bottom of your pad, these air current circulate freely. That’s why people tend to get confused about the R-values, confusing thickness of the material or the pad itself with insulation.

That is why you see pads as thick as 7-8 inches with an R-value of 1-2 and pads that are less than 3 inches thick with an R-value of over 5.5.

Here’s what you need to know

In the thick pads with low R-value, the cold air currents cool down the top and you are in for one long cold night. High-quality pads feature designs that prevent that from happening.

Let’s take the example of the triangular baffles design we mentioned – the bottom of the pad cools down the first layer of the baffles, the first layer then tend to cool down the second layer and so on. This means that every layer dampens the heat loss – the result is a thin pad with great insulation.

Trapping your body heat 

As we said, it’s all simple physics; your body is warmer than the surface of the camping mattress or pad. As a result, much of that heat is wasted on heating the surface of the pad.

Some companies utilize technology to solve that problem. The mentioned Therm-a- Rest, for example, uses materials that are very similar to those of an emergency blanket. The surface of the pad is reflecting the heat that you emit and traps it between you and the pad.

Combine the minimized heat loss between the bottom and the top with heat-reflective materials and you got yourself what you can call "a warm sleeping pad."

4. Air leaks

When it comes to the common problem of air leaks, we don’t bring any substantial wisdom to the table.

The best tip we can offer here is to take the time to read the reviews of the air mattresses and look for the reviews of campers, ignore the reviews of people that use the air mattress once every two months when they have guests for a sleepover.

What would be a good air mattress for your home might not fair so well faced with the great outdoors.

Two final tips

Best air mattress for car camping

If you are driving to the camping site and tent space is not an issue, you might look at two types of airbeds that you normally wouldn’t – the ones made of extra thick PVC and those mounted on a frame.

PVC of a blow-up bed is usually about 0.45 inches thick but there are beds out there with extra-thick and durable PVC (some of them up to 0.6 mm thick, like some of the models from Fox).

These are bulkier and heavier both inflated and deflated, but do not puncture as easily (duh!).

Best camping sleeping pads for women

The industry has gone a long time without truly recognizing the specific needs of a woman camper or hiker. That is not the case anymore – there are pads out there specifically designed to address those needs.

What’s different about a woman camper?

Women tend to be colder sleepers, which means they need a camping pad with a higher R-value for the same camping conditions and they need some more insulation and width at the hips.

That’s why the pads that are best for women campers usually come in what’s known as mummy shape (broader at the hips).


We’re well aware that this guide got a bit too detailed at some points but our "tactic" when compiling it was not only to help you choose a good camping mattress for yourself but help you understand WHY it’s good.

We hope we were at least partially successful.

Happy Trails,
Tim and Robin