Camping Mattresses: How to Choose the Right One for You

Published on 03/02/2023 · 9 min readThere are a lot of options when it comes to camping mattresses and sleeping pads! Camping & Hiking Expert Elizabeth H. helps sort through it all in this guide!
Elizabeth H., Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Elizabeth H.

Photo by Jack Sloop

Camping mattresses are crucial for comfort and warmth while camping. Scroll down for a breakdown of the types of camping mattresses, what features to look for, and tips on choosing the best camping mattress!

I’m Elizabeth, a Camping & Hiking Expert here at Curated.com and a lifelong sleeper under the stars and a tent too. I’ve been camping and backpacking since I was a few weeks old and have spent hundreds of nights on camping mattresses from the backcountry to the floors of my friends' dorm rooms. I have back problems, so being comfortable is crucial to a good night of sleep for me. I know the struggles and want to help everyone enjoy the outdoors as much as I do. Message me today for help finding your perfect camping mattress!

What Is a Camping Mattress?

One of many beautiful sunsets I’ve seen while camping. Photo by Elizabeth H.

A camping mattress is a piece of camping equipment that cushions and/or insulates you from the ground. They can also be called a sleeping pad, camping pad, sleeping mat, or camping mat, but all refer to the item that you sleep on top of while camping. Camping mattresses are the key to a comfortable night’s sleep no matter where you are and are a crucial piece of insulation for cold-weather camping.

Camping mattresses come in many styles, such as closed-cell foam, self-inflating, and air mattresses. There are pros and cons to all types of mattresses. I’ll break down these options in detail later.

What to Consider When Buying This Product

What Type of Activity Am I Doing?

What you are doing is a huge factor. If you are car camping, packed size and weight don’t matter as much. If you have to carry this mattress thousands of miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, weight and portability are crucial.

What Is My Biggest Priority?

Do you seek comfort, weight, packed size, price, or something else? This is the most personal question to ask yourself. Sometimes your activity might dictate your top priority, but often you have the choice of what you want the most.

When/Where Am I Going?

Sleeping pads come in a wide variety of insulation levels. They are rated industry-wide by their R-value (how well the material resists heat transfer). Higher R-Values mean more insulation and less cold transferred from the ground to you. Pads rated for colder temperatures won’t overheat you in the summer, but too low of an R-Value will leave you chilled on cold nights.

What Size Do I Need/Want?

Camping mattresses come in several sizes. A standard sleeping pad’s dimensions are 20x72 inches. If you are over 6’, you should consider a long/large sleeping pad. If you are a side sleeper, you might want to look for a wide option (often 25”) for some extra wiggle room. If you are an ounce counter, you might pick a short pad that will only cushion your head and torso.

Sizing chart courtesy of Therm-A-Rest

How Much Should a Camping Mattress Cost?

A basic closed-cell foam pad should cost between $25 and $50. Self-inflating pads start around $70 but can be as expensive as $400 for a double wide. Air mattresses are usually between $100 and $200.

Different Types of Camping Mattresses

Closed-Cell Foam

Closed-cell foam pads are the most basic and affordable style of pad. They consist of a thin (about ½ inch) piece of foam that is flat or textured. Foam pads are rolled or accordion folded for storage and transport. Some campers use yoga mats as a mattress. Pros:

  • No risk of puncture
  • Inexpensive
  • Easy to use

Cons:

  • Not very comfortable
  • Not as compact as other options
  • Less insulating

Self-Inflating

Self-inflating mattresses are the most common style for car campers or luxury backpackers. They are very convenient as they inflate themselves about 90% of the way and are the most comfortable pad style, especially for side sleepers (at least in my opinion). In addition, the interior foam leads to a more cushioned feel than an air mattress. Self-inflating mattresses are filled with an open cell foam like a kitchen sponge. It compacts for transport and will puff back up when the valve is opened. Pros:

  • Comfortable
  • Takes very little work to inflate them—just open the intake valve and let it work its magic
  • Most insulating option
  • Come with a stuff sack for transportation

Cons:

  • Less compact than other options
  • Heaviest style of mattress
  • Risk of puncture

Air Pad

Photo by Elizabeth H.

Air pads are the most popular style of mattress for backpackers. They are relatively comfortable and pack down small. Air mattresses are also the most lightweight pad style, ideal for those counting ounces. These pads are fully inflated by your lung power or with a pump (a mini pump or the storage bag).

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Small packed size
  • Come with a stuff sack that often doubles as a pump

Cons:

  • Variable insulation levels—pay attention to the R-Value of air mattresses
  • Risk of puncture
  • Less comfortable than self-inflating pads

Other Types of Camping Mattresses

  • Memory foam: This large and bulky option is ideal for car campers with the room. Think of a mattress topper for at-home use.
  • Air bed: Bring your guest air mattress to the campsite. An air bed is a comfort-focused option for car campers as they require an electric pump to be inflated.
  • Camping cot: A cot is a great option for those who have difficulty getting up off the ground. Cots can be used alone, such as the Hest Sleep System, which consists of an air pad and inflatable base, or combined with another sleeping pad, such as the Therm-a-Rest Luxury Lite Mesh Cot.

Features to Look Out for When Buying a Camping Mattress

There are many features found in camping mattresses. Some are great, while others are gimmicky. This is a list of the most important features to look for.

Materials

Look for high-denier fabrics in your self-inflating and air mattresses. The higher the number, the more durable the fabric is.

Valves

The type of valve is crucial for easy inflation and deflation of your pad.

  • Two-Way Valves: Air can go in or out from the same valve. This basic technology requires some skill to keep the air in while you are inflating and to keep air from going back in while deflating.
  • Dual Valve Systems: This system is luxurious, with one valve for inflation and the other for deflation. Open one valve at a time for easy inflation/deflation.
  • Two-Step Valve: This is the newest valve technology. It combines the convenience of a dual valve into one singular unit. Open the first layer to inflate the pad, then both layers to deflate.

Inflation

Self-inflating pads do most of the work for you. Then you blow into or use a mini pump to get the pad to your desired level of firmness. Air mattresses can either be blown into or come with a pump system.

Repair Kit

My Exped Megamat came with a mini pump and repair kit. Photo by Elizabeth H.

Air mattresses should come with a repair kit for on-the-go fixes. Nothing is worse than ending up on the ground in the middle of the night.

Optional Features That Aren’t Necessary

  • Pillow Baffles or Pillow Locks: Many brands advertise things to keep your pillow in place. I put my pillow into the hood of my sleeping bag to keep it where I want it, so no special pad feature is required.
  • Specialty Face Fabrics: While the suede-like fabric of my Exped MegaMat 10 is very comfortable, I rarely touch it outside of deflating my pad. It feels unnecessary and is harder to clean than my other pads, which have a basic polyester face fabric.

How to Choose the Right Camping Mattress for You

So many factors go into finding the perfect camping mattress, and I hope this information has helped you understand what options are out there. Here are three real examples of past customers of mine who represent common needs that I see. I’ll break down their needs/wants and suggest some of my favorite products.

Dan: New Family Camper

Dan is a beginner car camper looking for comfort for the whole family. Dan and his wife have two kids and hope to introduce them to the outdoors this summer. His main priority is comfort, as he wants his family to want to camp again in the future.

Key features Dan should look for:

  • Self-inflating
  • Double size to share with his wife
  • Dual valve system

My recommendations: Exped MegaMat Duo, Nemo Roamer Double, Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp

Scott: Looking to Level Up

Scott is an intermediate backpacker looking to lower his base weight. He has made several backpacking trips in upstate New York and hopes to hike some sections of the Appalachian Trail in the next few years. He currently has a comfortable self-inflating pad, but larger and heavier than he would like to carry for two weeks. Scott wants something that packs down small but is still comfortable.

Key features Scott should look for:

  • Insulated air pad
  • Two-step valve system
  • Included pump sack

My recommendations: Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xlite, Nemo Tensor Insulated

Sara: Serious Backpacker

Sara is an advanced thru-hiker looking for the most reliable option. She has logged thousands of trail miles across the U.S. and is tired of repairing her air mattresses after they get punctured. Comfort is less important for her, and she mainly needs a pad for some insulation from the ground.

Key features Sara should look for:

  • Closed-cell foam pad
  • Accordion fold

My recommendations: Nemo Switchback, Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol

Do You Need More Than One?

Yes and no. It all depends on what you are doing. You need more than one if you own a ridiculous amount of camping gear, as I do. If you have the financial ability and would use a mattress in a variety of camping situations, then buy two! If not, start with an insulated air mattress and use that for all your adventures.

I own four different sleeping pads (two self-inflating and one of the others) and use all three styles throughout the year. I have my car camping pad, my backpacking air pad, and a closed-cell foam pad for winter camping when I need extra warmth.

Conclusion

4 inches of comfort! Photo by Elizabeth H.

I hope you feel more informed about your options for camping mattresses and know what style you want to buy to get the best night's sleep while camping. Whether you are looking to camp in your own backyard or are preparing to embark on a thru-hike, there is a sleeping pad for you. Please message me or another Camping and Hiking Expert here on Curated if you are still unsure what pad would best fit your needs. I’m always happy to chat about gear. Happy trails!

Curated experts can help

Have a question about the article you just read or want personal recommendations? Connect with a Curated expert and get free recommendations for whatever you’re looking for!

Shop Camping & Hiking on Curated

Nemo Roamer Double Sleeping Pad · Teal
$399.95
Therm-a-Rest BaseCamp Sleeping Pad
$114.95
Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xlite Sleeping Pad
$179.95

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Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite SOL Sleeping Pad
$57.95
Nemo Tensor Insulated Sleeping Pad (2022)
$159.95
Exped Megamat 10 Sleeping Pad
$239.95
Exped Megamat Duo 10 Sleeping Pad
$399.95
Therm-a-Rest - Luxury Lite Mesh Cot - LARGE
$199.95
HEST Sleep System Sleeping Pad
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