Cushy Or Compact? Choosing A Mattress For Camping
A mattress for camping? If you’re a newbie to camping, it won’t be too long before you’ll want to trade up the your make-do mattress for one that you’ll take camping every time. If you’re a pro, you may have your options down already, but maybe you’re in the market for an upgrade.
So, here are 4 types in the category “mattress for camping” to organize the decision-making process. Some extra tips as well.
Definition: “Mattress” is synonymous with “pad” when used in the camping world.
Function of a camping mattress
The purpose of the mattress is (1) to cushion you while you sleep. The mattress must also (2) insulate you from the ground. Otherwise, you might as well be sleeping on an ice cube. You might even end up hypothermic. At the very least, you will become extremely grumpy from sleep deprivation.
Keep that in mind….
A conventional big ol’ inflatable mattress that you buy in a large department store.
Pros: This type is cushy, the closest thing you can get to a real mattress at home. Plus, it’s versatile enough to be used as a spare bed for house guests when you’re not camping. Other nice feature? You inflate it with the special pump that comes in the box.
Cons: These conventional air mattresses sleep extremely cold, since, in the absence of insulation underneath, you’ll be lying on an ever-renewing batch of frigid air. No quantity of sleeping bag fluff can counteract the icy stuff. No car coziness can offset the all-night under-butt chill. Been there, done that.
“Self-inflating” means you merely open the valve and the mattress expands. To get the cush just right, blow in extra air.
Pros: Thermarests generally provide good insulation. The cushier versions can be up to 4 inches thick. Since they’re insulated, you won’t have a layer of cold air underneath you: they’re a considerable improvement over the big ol’ #1. They also pack up much less bulky.
Cons: They can be difficult to get back into their stuff sacks when you’re breaking camp. No worries: find an old timer, and you can learn the technique that was developed decades ago for deflating Thermarests.
For car camping, Muddy Boots uses a base camp model from the Thermarest lineup, bought in 1997. It makes a great mattress for sleeping in the car as well.
There are generic versions of self-inflating mattresses, but DCMB recommends staying clear of them except…..You might find one you like at REI. You might also look for the brands that have repackaged discontinued Thermarest designs, e.g. Eastern Mountain Sports. This is the best way to get a quality mattress for camping while not breaking the bank.
Pacific Outdoor Equipment sells pads under their own name and also relabels them as in-house brands for major outdoor stores. These offer good quality for a reasonable price.
“Inflatable” means you’ll be using your lungs to fill it with air. This is not as extreme as you might imagine.
Pros: These roll up tiny and light. They’re uncomplicated to inflate and deflate. You can get a lot of height (=cush) for little bulk. These are DCMB’s top choice for backpacking.
Cons: Some crackle every time you move. Your sleep partner may not be charmed by this feature. Plus, unless insulated, they have the same shortcomings as Type #1, the big ol’ traditional.
Closed cell foam
Pros: These provide dense insulation under your body. They are the go-to for emergency situations in the backcountry. (For this concept, read What’s With The Blue Stuff? It’s Closed Cell Foam)
Cons: While great for insulation, closed-cell foam offers minimal cushion. These are an unpopular sleeping solution for the 30+ crowd.
Make do in this category: a yoga mat.
Takeaways and tips
If you’re sleeping at 40ºF or lower, you’ll want the mattress to be insulated. Otherwise, you’ll freeze your butt from all the cold air underneath you.
Incidentally, if you plan to use a hammock or cot, these also sleep very cold, since there’s nothing insulating you from below.
When you’re buying a mattress for camping, look carefully at the R rating on the package. The larger the number, the more effective it will be at insulating you from underneath. The R rating is standardized: you can reliably compare one mattress vs another.
Store a self-inflating mattress for camping fully inflated, and it will do its job for years.
For car camping, choose a wide version pad, 25″+ with a 77″+ length, or larger. For backpacking, the regular 22″ size works fine, unless you’re broad in the girth. That’s because If your arms are off the mattress, you’ll feel as though you are falling out of bed. The thicker the pad, the more you will notice.
Always try the mattress on at the store, since this is potentially a long-term purchase. Personal experience: Muddy Boots owns a 1983 vintage Thermarest, and it still works much as when it was brand new.
You may find that you’re more comfortable if you don’t inflate your mattress to the max. A super-filled mattress might approximate the hardest bed you’ve ever slept on. Lose a little air, and the pad will adjust to your body frame.
New to car camping?
Photo credits. Thermarests in an orange tent, IMG_1542: CC BY-SA by Matthew Hoelscher via Flickr. Blue air mattress in a van, Luxury: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Mitch Barrie via Flickr. Orange Thermarest, Small Therm-a-rest air mattress: CC BY 2.0 by Rick McCharles via Flickr. Thermarests in a car, IMG_5328: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Dean Wissing via Flickr. Pillow and Sleeping Pad (NeoAir): CC BY 2.0 by Rick McCharles via Flickr. Sitting on blue closed cell foam eating lunch: CC BY 2.0 by Michael R Perry via Flickr.