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How to Choose Your Sleeping Mats / Pads and Beds

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Last updated on June 23, 2023

Teenagers smiling after sleeping under the stars

Sleeping at ground level may not be everyone's cup of tea, but you might be surprised at how well you can sleep with some of the better quality inflatable air beds or self-inflating or foam pads on the market.

Need I say it again – you get what you pay for, so do your research, shop around for bargains and choose quality products for your camping setup.

Self-inflating mats / pads

Self-inflating pads are our personal preference – we'll declare that now! They are a combination of foam and air that traditionally haven't had a great reputation, but are becoming more comfortable. They suit our camping setup because of the following benefits:

  • They are usually light weight.
  • They provide an insulating layer between you and the ground.
  • They are much less likely to spring a leak than inflatable airbeds and lilo's, but if they do so during the night, the foam will still provide some form of comfort and insulation from the ground.
  • They are very quick to set-up and only need to be rolled out and, after a few minutes, given a few puffs of air to aid inflation before the cap is tightened. They can take a few minutes to deflate and roll up.
  • They can be used in conjunction with stretcher beds (see below) to provide extra comfort and insulation, space and weight permitting.
Several coloured self inflating sleeping mats

You don't necessarily need to go for the extremely compact and lightweight hiking style mats unless you have very limited space, such as if you have three passengers in the rear seat, or you are trying to keep the size of your car down. Definately though, steer clear of the bulkier and heavier versions, as they will be difficult to transport, both in terms of their size / bulk and weight. We would suggest going for something up to 8 cm high and up to 65 cm wide.

Hiking stores will have a better range of light weight and more compact products, but expect to pay more for the good quality and more comfortable products. Hiking pads will also give you more flexibility in your camping if you also want to do overnight bushwalking / hiking.

Inflatable airbeds

Image of inflatable lilo / airbed

Hiking stores are now selling extremely compact and lightweight "cell style" inflatable airbeds targeted to the overnight hiking market. While we haven't used them, they appear to have a good reputation in the hiking and cycling community but they are on the expensive side. They are extremely lightweight, they pack right down to next to nothing and can be inflated by breath or by a compact pump sack.

The less expensive traditional inflatable airbeds that we all grew up with are light and compact for travelling and are really quite comfortable and popular, especially for the kids. For our setup though, the disadvantages we see with them are outlined below:

  • They can be a little time consuming to inflate manually, and powered pumps, which take up car space, need to be charged.
  • In cold weather, you will need to place extra padding over the bed for insulation from the cold air circulating inside the airbed. This would be in the form of a thick blanket or a foam or self-inflating mat, which also takes up valuable car space.
  • Traditional airbeds are prone to spring leaks and deflate and are therefore unreliable, which in our experience is the most annoying thing about them. Recently we camped with two families with inflatable airbeds and no less than three of them leaked. Grumpy tired kids and frustrating attempts to find and patch holes – not much fun.

So your traditional inflatable airbeds aren't our choice of bed but it's entirely up to you of course. They are inexpensive, compact and lightweight and might be a good start for new campers, but don't say we didn't warn you.

Foam mattresses

Camping foam mattresses have their advantages in terms of comfort but we don't recommend them for our setup though as they tend to be bulky when packed up, and some can be heavy.

Stretcher beds / cots

Stretcher beds / cots seem to be growing in popularity, and have a number of advantages for our setup because:

  • They pack down fairly well into a long thin shape and can be transported with the chairs etc.
  • The area under the bed provides extra storage space in smaller tents for clothes and other items.
  • They provide somewhere to sit in the tent instead of just on the floor.

They tend to weigh over 10kgs each, and some larger ones may be bulky, so again we don't recommend including them in your initial setup. One or two of the more compact options on the market can be a valuable addition once you know how much space and / or weight you have available.

In cold weather, they will need some extra insulation from the cold air beneath the stretcher, and will work well with the more compact hiking style self-inflating sleeping mats to provide that extra insulation.

Image of stretcher bed and bunk beds

Camp bunk beds

Camp bunk beds are one way to better save on valuable floor space in smaller tents, especially for the kids, and some can also be turned into two single beds when the kids get older.

Camp bunk beds pose the following disadvantages for our set-up:

  • Their pack size can be bulky.
  • They tend to be heavy – weighing between 20 to 25 kg.
  • Setup and pack up times can be considerable.