Which Is Right for You: Air Mattress vs. Sleeping Pad for Camping

Camping is full of fun activities, from hiking to cooking hotdogs over the fire with your friends and family to having quiet time to reset. 

Every moment counts in nature, and peace of mind is what you are after. You do not want to have it ruined by having an uncomfortable night's sleep. 

We want to help you consider all that you will need to get the best rest that you can. 

This article will look at which camping bed type is right for you: an air mattress or a sleeping pad? But first, there are a few questions you will want to ask yourself.

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sleeping in tent

Questions You Will Want to Consider: Air Mattress vs. Sleeping Pad

The debate about which is better, a camping sleeping pad vs. an air mattress, changes from person to person depending on a few variables, including their size, weight, how well they usually sleep, budget, and how much they can bring with them camping. 

For instance: If you plan to hike far distances with only a backpack, what sort of bedding you can bring will be influenced.  

What you will want to ask yourself before making the right purchase for your next camping extravaganza might include: 

  • Which pad is most comfortable? 

  • Which pad is the warmest?

  • Which pad is the easiest to carry?

  • Which pad will last the longest? 

  • Which pad is the cheapest?

  • Which pad covers your most prioritized concerns?

Now that we’ve considered a few questions you will want to stew on, let’s look at the two options to find what’s best. 

All About Air Mattresses

Air mattresses are sleep beds that you will need to provide air to fill them. The air inside creates the cushion that you will be sleeping on. 

Sometimes, air mattresses require either an electric air pump or a manual air pump, especially if they take a great deal of air, which most do. Air mattresses are sized the same way that bedroom mattresses are. They come in twin, full, queen, king options, and beyond. 

Air mattresses are mostly kept on hand for visitors coming to town or camping near your vehicle. 

Pros

  • Comfort

  • Adjustable firmness

  • Portability

Cons

camping with the tent

All About Sleeping Pads

There are a few different types of sleeping pads to choose from, including: 

  • Air pads

  • Closed-cell foam pads

  • Self-inflating pads

Air pads are best used outside of your sleeping bag. They function in the same way that air mattresses do, yet require less air and can often be filled by using only your breath and with minimal effort. 

This inflation method comes in handy if you want to customize the hardness of your pad. 

This pad choice is best for warmer weather, as the air inside of the pad can be manipulated by the temperature around it, similar to air mattresses. 

Closed-cell foam pads require no inflation as they are constructed with foam. These pads are easy to store and can often be neatly rolled up. 

Self-inflating pads are easy-use sleeping pads that utilize air valves to suck in the air needed between a layer of compressible foam. 

Moving air out of self-inflating pads usually involves stepping on the pad with the valve open. 

Self-inflating pads combine the best of air pads and foam pads.

Most references to sleeping pads in this article will be about foam pads since they vary from air mattresses in most ways. 

Hammock Sleeping Pads

If you plan to use a pad for hammock sleeping, there are other considerations you will want to make, such as warmth and weight. 

Hammocks naturally allow cold air to circulate underneath you, so you will want a sleeping pad that provides insulation so that you do not spend each night of your dreamy camping trip lying awake, dreaming of a hotel room instead.  

For further alternatives to air mattress camping, you can find them here

Pros 

  • Easy to use

  • Lightweight

  • Durable 

  • Transportable  

  • Easy to inflate

  • Comfortable

Cons

  • A good sleeping pad is going to cost you

  • A cheap sleeping pad will likely not be waterproof

  • It will be thin and heavy

  • Foam pads are bulky

Next, let’s take a deeper look at comfort, warmth, durability, space, cost, and versatility to see which options are best.

For Comfort

This will be a priority for most shoppers as one of the biggest complaints about camping is how we sleep while we’re there. If this sounds like you, you will want to look at air mattresses.

Air mattresses are large, so large in fact that they can mimic the size of your home bed and can even fit your partner on it. The mattresses are thick and lift you higher off the floor, closer to where heat naturally settles. 

An air mattress allows for adjustments of stiffness to your exact comfort preference. 

On the other hand, sleeping pads are typically designed to fit just your essential body height and width (if that). If you are taller or wider than the average person, pads may be problematic to your camping sleep quality. 

Since sleeping pads are typically very thin in construction to make them a better choice for transport and warmth, they do not create a significant amount of comfort for sleeping in the tent.  

By simply bringing your standard bedding and pillows—or even using sleeping bags—it is possible to make your air mattress as close to a good night's rest at home as you will ever get. 

Best for comfort: Air mattress

For Warmth

Warmth also drastically affects the quality of sleep you get on the campsite, especially if you do not have a great sleeping bag or bedding. 

While air mattresses are most comfortable as far as softness is concerned, they are not as warm as sleeping pads. Air mattresses require air insulation which can mimic the temperature around it. So if you are camping on a cold evening, the air mattress is likely to cool down drastically as well. 

Also, air mattresses are typically not made of material that will give you extra separation between you and the air inside of it, which will affect your body heat while sleeping. 

If you are looking for the option that gives you the most insulation to reduce losing heat to the air and ground, foam sleeping pads are your best bet. And yes, the ground absorbs significant amounts of body heat, but the foam stops this transfer.  

If you are an all-season camper with serious concerns about warmth, the foam sleep pad is a must-have and can even be layered onto another pad type if you can bring multiple. 

Best for warmth: Sleeping pad (foam)

For Space

When planning your camping trip, space is always a factor. You do not want to overdo your capacity and leave something crucial out of your camping checklist. 

With that considered, air mattresses typically take up a good amount of room, much more than sleeping pads. Air mattresses also need to be rolled up or clumsily folded after deflating. On top of that, air mattresses can be cumbersome as they are made with more material than a sleeping pad. 

For backpacking and long-distance camping trips, you won’t be able to comfortably bring along an air mattress. Though, when you are camping near your vehicle or just a small distance away from it, an air mattress can be an excellent choice. 

On the other hand, sleeping pads are designed with mobility in mind and are typically less than five pounds each. 

Best for space: Sleeping pad

For Durability

This particular section will correlate with cost, as the longer-lasting and more durable air mattresses will cost much more. Air mattresses, in general, will eventually leak and take new forms and shapes as the material wears down and warps. It’s best to expect holes and repatching kits to be part of this sleeping method if you choose it. 

Sleeping pads are designed to last and take a good deal of beating along the way. Foam pads that are not dependent on containing air pockets will eventually wear out as well, but with less hassle along the way. 

So if you do not want to risk showing up to a campsite with a deflated bed, it’s best to avoid air mattresses unless you plan to keep a patch kit nearby at all times.

Most durable: Sleeping pad

For Cost

Now, for the variable that’s not always within our control, but the one that dictates much of what you will get from the above: cost. 

While air mattresses vary from criminally cheap ($20 or less to start) to unaffordably expensive, they are undependable and could potentially cost you more in repairs and replacements along the way. 

Many campers opt to save up for the more expensive air mattresses to spare themselves the headache or potential bad nights of sleep. But again, if size and weight are considerations, sleeping pads might be your best bet. 

Sleeping pads also have a high price point to start, just like air mattresses, but they will often last you much longer with little to no stress. 

Best for cost: Sleeping pad

For Versatility

The category we’ve all been waiting for in the Air Mattress vs. Sleeping Pad debate. Let’s look at the last few bits of consideration you will want to make before choosing one of the options we’ve already covered. 

Since air mattresses will only be useful to you when camping during the late spring through early fall (and even in that time, nights can drop dramatically in temperature), you will want to plan on the time of year that you will most likely be camping. Also, you will want to be near your vehicle as air mattresses are not friendly to move and inflate.

But if your camping routine is comfy and sounds similar to what I’ve just described, air mattresses are a good choice for you.

On the other hand, sleeping pads are suitable for all four seasons, especially if you camp in a region that gets all four of them in one day like my state does. Their insulation will keep you warmer, but again, you will be sacrificing comfort for their easy transport and low weight. 

Most versatile: Sleeping pad

Conclusion

With all of the information that we’ve covered in this article, hopefully, the sleeping pad that is right for your camping style is obvious by this point. 

But if it’s not, and you still want the golden answer to “which sleeping pad is the best in all of the categories above,” the answer is: get both!

Sometimes there is a good time for an air mattress, and other times it might be best to have a foam sleeping pad. You can even layer them on top of each other (typically pad on top of mattress) to supply you with the ultimate camping comfort. 

While I carry my pad in most situations, as I prefer to have a lightweight and small sleeping option when camping, there are times and places where I prefer a more comfortable air mattress, such as on longer trips where my truck is nearby. 

Then, if you happen to feel your air mattress deflating underneath you in the middle of a cold night near the lake, you will have the foam sleeping pad there to save the day and keep you warm

On the other hand, if you end up having to hike to a camp spot that you initially thought would be much closer to your car, then you will not sweat it because you will know the pad is there to easily strap to your bag. 

So, to wrap all of these considerations up into a nice and neat package (just like your backpack should be before a trip), it’s important to stay adaptable to unexpected discomforts that will inevitably arise. It’s part of the fun in camping in the end, and you will be glad you went for the high-quality sleep option that now seems right for you.

Andrew Mullen
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