Getting decent sleep can be the most challenging part of camping. Also, the ground gets harder when you age. Science may argue otherwise, but it’s a camping truth. Thus, even hardened, seasoned campers find themselves debating getting an air mattress or cot as middle-age rolls in.
Air mattresses are easier to transport, take up less storage space, can be shared by two, and have adjustable firmness. However, they take up more tent space than a cot, lack storage, are prone to deflating while you sleep, are hard to get off, and often require patching during the trip.
The air mattress vs cot debate depends on many factors, including your body and the specific equipment. Not only are all humans different, but the features and styles of air mattresses and cots also vary widely. For example, most cots take up more storage space than air mattresses, but not always.
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Pros And Cons of Air Mattresses When Camping
Air mattresses are like having a bed. Some people even pack sheets and use sleeping bags like quilts to bring that whole “hotel in a tent” vibe to their camping experience. Thus, an air mattress is the way to go if you want a true bed feeling.
However, if you get an air mattress, do yourself a favor and hook yourself up with a cordless, electric inflatable pump. Those cute foot-operated ones are fun for about 5 minutes, and then there you are, rethinking your life choices. So, save yourself grief, and just don’t.
Even if you have children, do not give in to manual inflatable pumps. Many think those young, energetic kids will happily pump away, keeping themselves out of trouble. But this is a fantasy. The kids will still find mischief, and the air mattress will not be inflated enough for your tired bones. Sure, it might look like it’s fully inflated, but it’s a lie.
There are self-inflating air mattresses out there. These can be an excellent solution, sparing you from worrying if the pump will stay charged or functional. However, self-inflating air mattresses cost more and are thicker, so they weigh more and take up greater amounts of storage and packing space.
Also, self-inflating air mattresses will still “lose” air at night. The reason is that warmer air is expansive; think hot-air balloons. Cooler temperatures cause the molecules to “huddle,” and thus, you lose some plumpness to your mattress. Nor are they immune to punctures or tears.
Lastly, many self-inflating mattresses still require you to top them up. Some models only inflate 60 percent of the way, and then you’ve got to add to it. Thus, you might not want to throw the pump out just yet. However, some have the pump built in, so you don’t have to pack a separate device (whew).
Pros Of An Air Mattress
Air mattresses (generally speaking) have many pros over a cot.
- Excellent for stomach sleepers
- Nice for side sleepers
- Stores smaller
- Less transport space
- Often lighter to transport
- Looks like a bed
- Easy to use regular bedding
- Can be shared with a partner or pet
Cons Of An Air Mattress
Air mattresses do have some cons.
- Must be inflated
- Are useless if the inflating device breaks
- Are prone to springing leaks and punctures
- Often “deflate” when the night air cools
- Require constant topping up
- Can wake the person next to you when shifting around
- Usually low to the ground
- Take up large amounts of tent space
- Little to no storage
What Are Good Air Mattresses?
Finding a quality air mattress requires reading tons of reviews and understanding your needs. For example, a camper only 5 feet tall will not have the same needs as a couple over 6 feet. However, there are general issues to look out for, including:
- Bulk when collapsed
Air mattresses are typically made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride), rubber, or textile-reinforced urethane plastic. The material quality can vary, and some are “louder” than others when shifting around at night.
The thickness of a mattress impacts bulk, weight, and cushion. But the mattress is also providing insulation between you and the ground. The thicker the mattress, the less likely to feel the chill from down below. Thickness can also impact how easy it is to get on and off it.
Bulk also needs to be considered for storage. For example, some mattresses use lower quality but thicker materials to achieve durability. These are often less expensive but will require greater storage and packing space.
Some quality air mattresses to consider include:
- ALPS Mountaineering Vertex Air Bed
- EnerPlex Air Mattress with Built-in Pump
- Exped Megamat 10
- Sierra Designs Queen
Also, for those that need an air mattress but need a cot, there is a nice compromise with Coleman Camping Cot and Air Mattress.
Is There Backpacker Friendly Air Mattresses?
A proper backpacker air mattress is difficult to find. Instead, they are typically marketed as self-inflating sleeping pads. Essentially, these are a cross between an air mattress and a traditional camping pad. Many of these also work in cots.
- Therm-a-Rest MondoKing 3D Self Inflating
- Big Agnes Insulated Air Core
- Therm-a-Rest Prolite Plus
- NEMO Tensor Insulated
Pros And Cons of Cots (Stretchers) When Camping
Camping cots remind people of the military and surviving natural disasters. They’re faux-beds that badly try to be hammocks. They also have a reputation for being narrow and short (true for some). Thus, they don’t scream “luxury,” and there is the added problem of where to store them.
But camping cots have come a long way. Modern materials allow them to be longer, wider, stronger, and collapse in various ways. There are even ultralight ones out there for backpackers.
Thus, it is essential to consider your needs and space when selecting a camping cot. It doesn’t help to have one that keeps you two feet off the ground if your tent isn’t even 3 feet high.
Also, you need to be honest about the weight this cot needs to hold. It doesn’t matter if you are under 200lbs if your two enormous Newfoundlands will climb on top of you. Same if you think you might temporarily be sharing the cot for some “athletic cuddle time.”
Some quality camping cots to consider:
- Alpha Camp Cot (up to 600 lbs)
- Teton Sports Outfitter XXL
- Disc-O-Bed (bunk bed cots)
- Coleman Trailhead II
As mentioned above, you can add comfort to a cot. Some people use a quilt or a memory foam topper. Others use a camping mat or air mattress. Some excellent camping mats to consider:
Pros Of A Camping Cot
Camp cots don’t look like they could win in the comfort arena. But add a good memory foam mattress, and they have some pros.
- Easy to get on and off
- Act as an indoor tent seating
- Provide underneath storage
- Pets can sleep under them
- Have storage pockets
- Take up less room in a tent
- You can shift in your sleep or get up without waking up the person next to you
- Rugged: don’t deflate or puncture
Cons Of A Camping Cot
As much as I am team “camp cot,” they do have drawbacks.
- Heavy and bulky to store
- Heavy and cumbersome to transport
- Usually cost more
- You can stub your toe on their feet, and it hurts
- Difficult to stomach sleep
- Not all fantastic for side sleeping
- You will have greater heat loss if you don’t get an additional mattress
- Not like a bed
Is There Backpacker Friendly Cots (Stretchers)?
There are backpacker-friendly cots, and these can be a savior when sleeping on certain terrain. However, you do lose some advantages of a regular camp cot, such as height. Thus, if you were looking for something that is easy to get on and off, these cots are not going to do the job.
However, if you are looking for a lightweight way of getting off the ground without requiring a hammock, these are excellent.
- Helinox Lite Cot Ultra-Light
- Therm-a-Rest Ultralite Cot
- ATEPA Ultralight Folding Camping Cot
- Naturehike Ultralight Heavy Duty (holds up to 330lbs)
Camping With Pets: Air Mattress Vs. Cot
Camping with pets is the best of times and the most chaotic times. What works for everyone at night depends on you, the pet, and the size of the tent.
Some pets are lovely and will stay on their bed. These are the easiest animals to use an air mattress around. However, the tent needs to be big enough for the air mattress and the pet’s bed. If space is a factor, then getting a camp cot will help, as they can sleep underneath.
Many others will find getting a wide camping cot is best. Then there is room for the human and pet, and nothing gets popped by nails or teeth.
Otherwise, if you have plenty of space, bring a pet crate. Then the pet can be inside the tent but off of your air mattress. Just remember to take down the bed during the day.
Lastly, there are tents with a separate section. These are also excellent solutions for sleeping with your bed of choice while also keeping your pet safe.
Camping When Pregnant: Air Mattress Vs. Cot
Camping when pregnant is a unique adventure. Glamping, with a proper bed in a tent, is the best way to tackle this particular period in a person’s life. But of course, there isn’t always that option available in that camping location, even if you’re willing to part with the cash.
Thus, the “obvious” answer seems to be an air mattress. They can be nice and wide, adjusted to the precise firmness, and are easier to sleep on your side. But you are going to need room between that mattress and tent sides. Also, it needs to be the best air mattress. It must not lose air. It must be designed so air can’t “squish” to one area.
For starters, a pregnant person’s “body weight” is centered in the hip and bum area and can create a “U” issue. It will also impact anybody else that’s sleeping on the mattress. Lastly, if the air can move around, it is tough to get up, even if you are strong.
Take our friend’s story. She has powerful thighs and excellent knees; thus, she did not fear “getting up” off the air mattress. The night began with good, comfortable sleep (hooray). But then, her preggo-bladder called. In addition, the air mattress had lost some air. Not a lot, but enough.
There wasn’t enough room next to the air mattress to roll off and stand up. She couldn’t get her feet under her because the mattress had too much air. But she couldn’t just stand up because the air mattress had created a “bowl” around her bum, sucking her backward. Also, she couldn’t scoot off because she’d hit the tent’s wall.
Eventually, the tent had to be unzipped, her partner stepping out, and he had to haul her out of the “dent” so she could get her feet under herself to stand.
They’ve been “team camp cot” ever since.
Camping With Chronic Illness Or Disabilities: Air Mattress Vs. Cot
Many people with chronic illnesses or disabilities find sleeping on the ground difficult. Thus, an air mattress must be thick to work, at least knee height. A nice, fat one that can hold up to 600lbs is the Englander Air Mattress. It also has a built-in pump for ease of use.
Camping cots with the right topper can be another excellent solution. Again, memory foam is often the best, but it is bulkier than a typical camping pad. Also, as mentioned above, there are dual systems, such as the Coleman Camping Cot Air Mattress. Another option is the Ivation EZ-Bed. However, for those that need to maximize warmth, Expend Megamat 10 (or the 15) is excellent. You can place a Megamat on top of a cot if you need the height. Also, an extra sleeping bag underneath you is a simple hack to keep the cold from reaching your joints and stiffening you up.