Camping is a recreational activity and is not a one-type-fits-all situation.
An air mattress might be good for your backyard camp out but bad as you backpack into the wilderness.
There’s a big difference between sleeping pads and air mattresses, and in this article you will discover the pros and cons and which one is right for you and your trip.
What is a Sleeping Pad?
A sleeping pad is known by many names (roll pad, sleeping mat, ground pad, etc) but “sleeping pad” is the most common.
It consists of thermal technology to provide adequate warmth from the cold hard ground and a comfortable nights sleep.
Types of Sleeping Pads
The most simplest, rugged and cheapest of them all is the closed-cell foam sleeping pad.
Insulation consists of foam with an outer protective layer, and nothing more.
There are many available that come in all different shapes, sizes and comfort ratings, but at the end of the day they need to be strapped to the outside of your backpack since they aren’t compact enough to fit inside.
Self-inflating sleeping pads were created back in the 70s and one of the most common in the modern age.
It’s just a matter of unrolling the sleeping pad, opening the valve then watching the foam “absorb” air, which fully inflates in a matter of minutes.
There is no air pump needed with these types of sleeping pads.
They are more comfortable, compact and lighter than closed-cell foam sleeping pads; making them a good choice amongst hikers and ultralight backpackers.
Manual Inflatable Pads
These are the type of pads that have all the features and bells and whistles but typically weigh more, require manual inflation and have a big comfort/insulation ratio problem.
With manual-inflating sleeping pads you have to blow them up with your mouth or an air pump.
There’s a certain challenge when it comes to manual-inflating pads, the fact that it’s not easy to balance comfort and insulation together.
For example: A sleeping pad with baffles (for comfort) sacrifices some of its insulation abilities. On the other hand, the more air it has the less insulation it provides.
These types of sleeping pads usually require lots of research before purchasing just to ensure it is 100% right for you.
All sleeping pads are given a R-Value, and it’s very inaccurate at best.
Basically, they base their R-value off of an average man and woman, who they assume to be 25 years old and of average height and weight.
However, everyone has a different age, weight and size and it leads people to believe they are getting the correct sleeping pad for them when this is simply not 100% correct.
So R-value is just a baseline and by no means not to be taken in full effect.
As a rule of thumb: The higher the R-value the more warmth the sleeping pad provides and the higher the cost.
Pros and Cons of a Sleeping Pad
- Great for ultralight campers and backpackers
- Lightweight because they are not thick
- Foam and self-inflating pads cannot be punctured
- Highly compact and can pack down really small to leave room for other items
- Affordable – you can find foam sleeping pads for around $10!
- Versatile – they can be used for camping, sleepovers or just a camp out in the backyard with the kids
- The R-value is highly inaccurate
- Bigger people will likely need an expensive one due to the R-value only being calculated for average-size males and females of 25 years old
- Manual inflatable pads can be pierced (due to no foam inside) and can ruin your trip without a repair kit
- Pure foam mattresses are NOT compact and will need to be carried on the outside of your pack
Recommended Use of a Sleeping Pad
A sleeping pad is highly versatile and more common than air mattresses.
The fact that there are so many available, they are inexpensive and can be taken pretty much anywhere makes them a no-brainer when it comes to the outdoor world.
So many people use sleeping pads since they are lightweight, compact and affordable while offering great warmth from earths cold ground.
Best used for: Lightweight camping, ultralight backpacking, overnight hiking, wilderness camping
What is an Air Mattress?
An air mattress purely consists of air to provide a good distance between earths cold hard ground and your body.
There is absolutely no foam inside and the reason it is called an “air” mattress.
Other names known by include: blow-up bed, air bed, inflatable mattress.
They are very buoyancy, and as a result they are sometimes used as a flotation device. However, more times than not they are used for camping.
Due to the latest technology, most are self-inflating and only require a wall outlet to inflate (with an electric pump).
Cheaper ones will need to be inflated via orally or a hand pump though.
Pros and Cons of an Air Mattress
- Varying thickness sizes – good for people of different weights and sizes
- More comfortable than sleeping pads since they offer a more “cushioning” effect
- A lot warmer due to the thick size and increased distance from the ground and you
- A great choice for glamorous/luxurious campers
- More expensive since it requires materials with higher durability to create
- More maintenance required – If it gets punctured, it will need fixing asap or it simply won’t blow up
- More problems – I’ve seen lots, and I mean l LOTS of people complain about their air mattress deflating in the night. This is a common problem you should know because you may face it in the future
- Heavier than sleeping pads – not good for lightweight camping or backpacking
Recommended Use of an Air Mattress
Air mattresses are not as versatile as sleeping pads for the simple reason that they are much heavier.
They are at risk of deflating during the night and can be punctured.
Although that’s not to say they don’t hold their place in the camping world because they absolutely do.
They are AMAZING when weight won’t be an issue, so when you’re driving to your campsite or in your backyard.
They are also best suited for larger people since air mattresses have less chance of bottoming out.
Best used for: Public campsites, car camping, luxury camping, backyard camping
BONUS: Air Beds
An air bed is simply an air mattress which is designed to look like a real bed.
It has an increased height and creates a more luxurious feel while out camping since it feels like you’re sleeping on a real bed and not a mattress.
I’ve already reviewed 15 of the best air mattresses on the market!
There are many benefits to air “beds”.
- You can get on and off the bed much easier than a mattress that is lying on the ground
- Eases back pain since air pressure can be adjusted to ones desire
- An increased distance between the ground and your body (which keeps you warmer)
- More comfortable since there’s no bottoming out
- Usually more features than a simple air mattress
- Creates a sense of luxury camping rather than “roughing it”
How to Choose
When it comes to sleeping pads and air mattresses, the choice comes down to what you’re using it for.
I’ve placed recommendations under each one so you know what it’s “best recommended for”.
Basically, a sleeping pad is good for you when you need something lightweight, compact, versatile, easy-to-use and affordable.
This is great for wilderness excursions or anytime when weight is going to be an issue and every ounce matters.
On the other hand, an air mattress or air bed is more suited for you when weight doesn’t matter.
This is the better option when you’re driving to your campsite, family event, backyard camp out or something similar.
Well I hope I broke down everything so you understand the difference between the 2 mattress options (or 3 when you include the bonus).