Before I ever got into camping, my biggest fears weren’t always about how safe it was or how I was going to cook my meals. No, I was worried about how I was going to get a good’s night sleep. After all, the ground is only so comfortable, right? Thankfully, you won’t be sleeping directly on the ground.
You just have to decide between an air mattress vs sleeping pad to find the best option for you. Both of these have some pros and cons and different situations when one is better than the other. A sleeping pad vs air mattress is an age-old debate in the camping world, and I’m here you help you pick the right one for you.
Maybe you don’t want to lug a heavy air mattress around while you’re backpacking, or maybe you want to be a bit more comfortable when you’re staying at a campground than a sleeping pad can provide.
We’ll take a look at all of this and more as we go, but here’s a quick overview that compares the two:
|Air Mattress vs Sleeping Pad Comparison|
|Size & Weight||Sleeping Pad|
|Ease of Use||Sleeping Pad|
I’ve personally spent countless nights sleeping on both an air mattress and a sleeping pad while camping, and I’ve talked to other camping enthusiasts to gauge their experience. Everything you’ll read comes straight from experts and outdoor lovers like you, so I’m confident you’ll find what you’re looking for.
Let’s dive in!
What is an Air Mattress for Camping?
An air mattress is an inflatable mattress or mat that’s used as a bed. Full-scale air mattresses are just like the mattresses you have in your home, except they’re filled with air instead of foam, cotton, or coils.
For the purpose of camping and this article, we’ll also be referring to inflatable sleeping mats as air mattresses. Basically, if it’s an inflatable bed that you fill with air and then sleep on, it’s an air mattress!
Air mattresses come in all different shapes and sizes depending on what they’re used for. They can be anything from roll-up single-user inflatable mats to full queen-sized air mattresses that accommodate multiple people, pets, and more. No matter how big they are, they create a cushion of air between you and the ground to help you stay comfortable and warm.
What is a Sleeping Pad for Camping?
A sleeping pad is typically a pad or mat made from a dense foam or other similar materials that you roll out and sleep on. These foam pads are usually lightweight and easy to carry, making them ideal for backpacking or primitive camping trips where you need to save on weight.
These foam sleeping pads are designed to be as quick and easy to use as possible while providing far more comfort and warmth than just sleeping on the ground. As mentioned above, you can also find inflatable sleeping pads that offer a thin layer of air like miniature air mattresses, but we’ll mainly focus mainly on the foam pads in this article.
Air Mattress vs Sleeping Pad: Camping Comparison
While I could go on for days about the details of air mattresses and foam sleeping pads and what makes them both tick, nobody is here for that. Let’s stack them up against each other and see how they compare by looking at five traits: comfort, size & weight, warmth, ease of use, and price.
How comfortable something is might be a bit of a subjective topic, but I think we can all agree on this one: an air mattress is almost always going to be more comfortable than a sleeping pad. After all, with air mattresses, you’re literally laying on a cushion of air rather than dense, closed-cell foam pads.
Don’t get me wrong, sleeping pads are great and they’re way better than sleeping on the hard, cold ground. But since they’re designed to be lighter, easier to carry, and take up less space, they usually just can’t provide the same level of comfort. Especially when we’re talking about a full-size air mattress you might use when you’re staying in a campground.
When you go camping and don’t have to worry about how much you’re packing, you can take the same kind of air mattress that you could put in your house for when you have guests over. This is exactly what I do when I stay in a campground, and it makes sleeping in a tent almost as comfortable as staying in your own bed!
Comfort Winner: Air Mattress
Size and Weight
I’ve touched on this one a couple of times already, but sleeping pads are usually designed to be lightweight, much more so than an air mattress. Excelling in portability due to being lightweight (often 2.0 pounds or less) and easy to roll up, sleeping pads are much better than most air mattresses when you’re trying to save weight or space while packing for your camping trip.
That said, the smaller size of a sleeping pad can also be a drawback depending on what you’re trying to get out of it. With an air mattress, you can take full-size queen or king mattresses camping with you, big enough for multiple people. With a sleeping pad, you’re typically limited to having space for just yourself, meaning you may need to pack multiple if you’re not on a solo camping trip.
Since you’re probably more concerned with weight and how much space your bed will take up in your backpack or in your vehicle, I’m going to go with sleeping pads here. Once it’s rolled up, a sleeping pad takes up a surprisingly small amount of space, making it easy to pack with the rest of your camping essentials.
Size and Weight Winner: Sleeping Pad
I’ll preface the topic of warmth by saying that no matter if you decide on a sleeping pad or an air mattress, you need to make sure you have a sleeping bag to actually sleep in, or at the very least some blankets.
The sleeping bag or blankets you bring will determine most of your warmth (in conjunction with your body heat), not the actual sleeping pad or air mattress. But the bed has one very important job: keeping you a little bit warmer by providing insulation between your body and the cold ground.
I can speak on this more than some other enthusiasts because of my background as a mechanical engineer and having to deal with insulation throughout my career. Insulation is usually measured in what’s called an R-value, which represents how resistant a layer of material is to heat transfer. A higher R-value means it’s a better insulator, which means it’s more resistant to heat loss and will keep you warmer.
But I digress. Enough with the lesson on heat transfer and thermal resistance, let’s get back to camping. What does this have to do with an air mattress or a sleeping pad?
While R-values are typically thought of more for the insulation in your house or office building, sleeping pads and air mattresses also have R-values, and the higher it is, the easier it’ll be to get a warm night’s sleep. In the vast majority of cases, a sleeping pad will have a much lower R-value than an air mattress, since the air inside the mattress is actually a very good insulator in itself.
Thickness affects R-values as well, and larger air mattresses are usually much thicker than sleeping pads and therefore much warmer as they resist heat loss better. In short, air mattresses have better thermal resistance and will keep you warmer than sleeping pads just about every time.
While you don’t always have to worry about staying warm while you’re camping since many people like to go camping in the summer, having a warmer bed will really come in handy during those cold nights of fall and winter camping.
Warmth winner: Air Mattress
Ease of Use
No matter if you’re planning on backpacking through the woods or staying at a campground, packing the right gear and being able to easily use it goes a long way towards a more enjoyable camping trip.
When it comes to setting up your campsite and getting ready to sleep, being able to quickly set up your bed can be a mood-saver. I’ve been on quite a few camping trips in my life where something went wrong while I was setting up the tent or I just arrived late at night and wanted to get some sleep, having to take the time to set up my bed can be frustrating.
This is where sleeping pads excel, since you really just have to find a flat spot clear of debris, unroll it, and you’re good to go. With an air mattress, you have to unfold it, find the power cord on the air pump, and have an easily accessible power source that can fill it up.
This is why an air mattress is really only suitable if you’re staying in a campground with an electric hookup or you have a generator like the Geneverse model I talk about in our guide to the best solar power banks for camping. If you have power, an air mattress is almost as easy as a sleeping pad thanks to an integrated air pump, but without power, it can be impossible to use.
Don’t even get me started on how much easier it is to pack a sleeping pad up when you’re done vs an air mattress. If you don’t get every ounce of air out of that air mattress, forget about it. Also, if you’re using an air mattress, make sure you bring a repair kit just in case, or you could be out of luck if it tears or gets punctured and won’t hold air.
Ease of Use Winner: Sleeping Pad
It’s tough to ever make a meaningful comparison that helps you decide on what to buy without looking at the price. After all, camping is one of the most affordable outdoor activities out there, and you might not want to blow your entire budget on a bed you’ll use for a night or two.
So what’s more expensive: an air mattress or a sleeping pad?
Like most things, it will really depend on what you’re looking for and what you want to get out of it. But in most instances, a sleeping pad will be far less expensive than an air mattress.
You can buy pretty much any level of sleeping pad for between $20 – $60. Air mattresses, on the other hand, can be as little as $35 for an inflatable sleeping pad, and as much as $200 or more for a king-sized unit. Note that price is not necessarily the same thing as value, and it might be worth spending more on the air mattress. But only you can answer that for yourself!
Price Winner: Sleeping Pad
Air Mattress vs Sleeping Pad: Which One Should You Buy?
At face value, you can see that I ranked the sleeping pad as the winner for three of the categories above, and the air mattress only took the crown in two of them. This must mean that I think sleeping pads are better, right? Not necessarily. This ties back into what I just mentioned above about value.
It will really come down to which categories you rank higher than others and which ones are less important to you. For example, if you want comfort and warmth more than anything else so you can get a good night’s sleep, then the air mattress is the clear winner. But if you’re going backpacking and want the lightest, easiest-to-use bed possible, then a sleeping pad is your best option.
If all you’re worried about is the price and getting something for as little as possible so you can head out the door on your next camping trip, then either a sleeping pad or a cheap air mattress will get the job done. That said, I would caution against buying the cheapest option you can find so you’re not left sleeping on an uncomfortable sleeping mat during your trip.
Personally, I have a few different sleeping pads and a couple of air mattresses, and I use them all regularly. If I’m going on a hiking or backpacking trip, I almost always opt for a sleeping pad since they’re lightweight and easy to use. But if I’m staying in a campground or going tent camping with friends or family, then I’ll take the air mattress.
Sleeping pad vs air mattress is a classic camping debate, but the choice ultimately is up to you, and you’ll be much happier with either one than if you were forced to just sleep on the ground during your next camping trip! Bringing either one is the easiest way to ensure you’ll get a good night’s sleep during the camping season.
- Air mattresses are any sort of inflatable pad, mat, or bed that gets filled with air with a built-in pump or a battery-powered air pump. Sleeping pads are usually made from dense foam or other similar materials that unroll for you to use.
- Always take a sleeping bag or blankets with you when you go camping no matter if you prefer sleeping pads or air mattresses, since they have much more to do with your overall warmth than the bed you sleep on.
- Air mattresses keep you warmer and more comfortable, but sleeping pads are cheaper, easier to use, weigh less, and take up less space. I prefer air mattresses in most cases, but sleeping pads provide a compact, lightweight option when you have very little space.
- Deciding which one is better for you depends on how you prioritize comfort, size & weight, warmth, ease of use, and price. With either air mattresses or sleeping pads, you’ll be much better off than just sleeping on the ground.