Do you think you are in the 60-70% of the population worldwide who experience back pain at some point in their life? Is the fear of exacerbating your back pain preventing you from a much-needed escape from reality to the beauty of the outdoors? It is no secret that you need a comfortable piece of bedding while you are out camping. This becomes even more important if you are part of the 37% of men and women who have a negative experience with sleep due to their back pain. Experts say that sleeping on the wrong mattress can lead to or worsen lower back pain. Therefore, you must choose the best option for your situation when you go camping.
In this article, we will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of self-inflating sleeping pads and air mattresses. We will compare both outdoor bedding options by their price, R-value, sleep system importance, comfort, portability, and ease of use. We will also share which camping situations each option is best for. By the end of the review, you will be able to choose which option, sleeping pad or air mattress, is best for you and your needs.
What is An Air Mattress
An Air Mattress is a functional bed that is heavier and bulkier than a sleeping pad but gives utmost comfort even in the wilderness. If you aim for the best comfort regardless of weight and size, then the air mattress is the best choice for you. Manufacturers tend to create it by combining fabric, rubber, and plastic to create a functional bed in the size that you need. Because they inflate and deflate as needed, they are usually in use when traveling or expecting more house guests than you have bedrooms for. Although air mattresses are common in a lot of situations, there are also times when a self-inflating sleeping pad is a better option.
What is A Self-inflating Sleeping Pad
Chances are, you already know what an air mattress is, and you or someone knew has slept on one before. What you might be less familiar with is a self-inflating sleeping pad. What is a self-inflating sleeping pad? Ultimately, a self-inflating sleeping pad is a layer of compressed foam sandwiched between airtight fabric with a valve that is usually fastened. Once you open the valve the foam expands, which sucks air into the mat without any extra effort on your part. After a couple of minutes, the mat will be semi-firm and ready for you to sleep on in no time. Let’s take a look at our categories to see where this option beats out an air mattress.
Ease of Use
Sleeping in vehicle
Winner: Self Inflating Sleeping Pad
While the price is not always a primary factor, it plays a major role in the buying process. While hiking and camping are fun hobbies, you do not want to spend too much on extra gear. Sometimes, this results in wasting your hard-earned money on sleeping equipment and accessories that are not useful for your situation.
After completing the appropriate research, set up a clear budget before buying any sleeping equipment. This strategy helps you find certain bedding material within your price range and saves you money in the long run.
Self-inflating sleeping pads are the winner in this category. On average, you will pay at least $35 for a low-end, but functional self-inflating sleeping pad. Since sleeping pads use fewer materials and are more lightweight, they tend to be cheaper than your average air mattress.
A wonderful self-inflating sleeping pad maintains its lightweight pack-ability but often costs anywhere from $65 to $80. This puts it in a similar price range to a low-quality air mattress. While an air mattress at this price might be equal in comfort to its self-inflating sleeping pad brethren, it will likely be lacking in quality. Because high-quality self-inflating sleeping pads seem to be at a much cheaper price than air mattresses, sleeping pads are a better choice for the hiker that is on a budget.
Winner: Air Mattress
R-value measures the capacity of an air pad to resist heat loss to the ground. Technically, R-value is a measure of thermal resistance. In general, R-value falls within the range of 1 – 7. The higher the number, the more thermally resistant the material or structure is, and the better your sleep pad will keep the warmth of your body throughout the night. Generally, the thicker the sleeping pad, the higher the R-value. The material of the sleeping pad also plays a role in the R-value rating. For this reason, air mattresses have a greater R-value than self-inflating sleeping pads.
The ground will pull warmth and so energy from your body if your sleeping pad is not adequate for the temperature. R-value is an important bit of information to have when planning your sleep system for a camping trip. For example, if you are going to spend the night at a higher elevation, you should expect some chilly temperatures. The R-value of your sleeping pad and bag makes all the difference in your sleep comfort.
Sleep System Importance
Winner: Air Mattress
A camping sleep system includes all the things you would use to achieve a good night's sleep outdoors. These items include sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and pillows. Camping shelters do not fall directly into the sleep system category, but whatever you are sleeping in will play a huge role in your sleeping experience.
Your sleep system increases in importance when you are using a sleeping pad. Because people usually use self-inflating sleeping pads in the backcountry and have a lower R-value than an air mattress, you must plan appropriately for the temperatures you will be experiencing. This means that you will have to consider your tent and sleeping bag rating. The temperature rating of your sleeping bag and tent might make the difference between having a comfortable sleep or shivering throughout the night.
Luckily, when you are sleeping on an air mattress you are often more than a few inches from the ground. You are also usually not far from the car, so piling on the warm and fuzzy blankets might just do the trick on a chilly night! You do not have to take much else into consideration if you are sleeping on an air mattress, which is why it is the winner of this category. If you are not in the mood to care about what season your tent or what your sleeping bag is appropriate for, we suggest sticking with the air mattress when sleeping outside in the front country.
Winner: Air Mattress
Air mattresses serve as an alternative bed. While self-inflating sleeping pads are comfortable, they simply do not have as much supportive padding as an air mattress does. For instance, the design of self-inflating sleeping pads is usually lighter and more mobile. This means they tend to have less width and depth than your typical air mattress. A self-inflating sleeping pad simply has fewer features designed to benefit the comfort of the user. An air mattress is almost like a mattress you would sleep on in a hotel room.
Campers who require or prefer a higher level of comfort should opt for an air mattress. This will be most like your bed at home. Some higher-end air mattresses come with a zone firmness setting feature. This feature allows users to adjust how plush or stiff the bed feels. With or without this feature, campers tend to sleep better on air mattresses than on self-inflating sleeping pads. Air mattresses win in the comfort department almost every time!
Winner: Self Inflating Sleeping Pad
The most convenient option is a self-inflating sleeping pad because it is easy to carry or move from one place to another. Whether this means 20 feet (6.1 meters) from the car to the tent or 20 miles (32.19 km) in your backpack, a self-inflating sleeping pad is popular due to portability in mind. They roll up small and compact, fitting into any piece of luggage or backpack with ease. Even when they are ready, sleeping pads take up a fraction of the space that an air mattress does making it easy to move it around your space.
Air mattresses are often heavy and bulky, even when folded up. They also require a power source to inflate fully and are much larger than a sleeping pad. Transporting an air mattress in your pack would take up a majority of the space you have in there, which simply is not ideal. Depending on the size of your air mattress, it might not even fit through the door of your tent while it is fully-inflated! That makes moving an air mattress, deflated or inflated, less than ideal.
Ease Of Use
Winner: Self Inflating Sleeping Pad
Seriously, what is worse than finally getting to your campsite and then taking forever to set up? Whether you are a few steps from your mode of transportation and you are simply excited to start your campfire, or you just spent most of the day hiking, and you cannot wait to relax, ease of use is key.
Most self-inflating sleeping pads fold up to be small and compact. Sleeping pads range in thickness from 1-3 inches. The pads fold or roll into a compact size to fit into your backpack. Sleeping pads are easier to pack and do not need an air pump to inflate it fully. Once you take them out of their carrying bag or case, you simply unfold them and start the inflation process. If you are using an inflatable sleeping pad, you can use your lung power; if you are using a self-inflating sleeping pad as described in this article, all you have to do is simply open the valve for airflow to begin.
An average camper can set up a manual (using a lung power) sleeping pad in less than 5 minutes. A self-inflating sleeping pad can take up to 30 minutes, but you can leave it to inflate on its own while you tend to other things. An air mattress can take anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes to start and will require your full attention throughout the inflation process. A sleeping pad reduces the amount of time it takes to create a safe resting area and is very simple to use. To store your self-inflating sleeping pad after use, you simply open the valve and squeeze the air out by rolling your pad up.
Based on the categories above, we have gone ahead and provided you with an idea of which sleeping arrangement is best for specific outdoor situations. Taking all of the facts into consideration outlines each sleeping pad's best qualities. This helps us to justify which type of trip they might come most in handy for.
Winner: Air Mattress
Car camping consists of loading up your gear, driving to a campground or campsite, and setting up your tent and other belongings on a designated tent pad close to your vehicle. When you do not have to travel very far with your sleeping gear, an air mattress would be the ideal option.
An air mattress is more comfortable than a self-inflating sleeping pad in many ways. Especially if you are traveling with your family we suggest you use the air mattress. It is more comfortable to use an air mattress because of its great size for sharing with other people. Yet, this comfort comes with a price; an air mattress is not the most portable.
If you are only moving your sleeping gear a couple of feet from your parking spot, lack of portability is not a concern. Comfort outweighs the bulky air mattress in this situation.
Air mattresses require air pumps to inflate them. It is important that you make sure you have a way to power your air pump or that you have a battery-powered air pump. If you need to plug in your air pump, you are in luck. Many newer model vehicles have electrical outlets in them, but if yours does not, you can find an automobile auxiliary power outlet converter.
Winner: Self-inflating Sleeping Pad
Hiking into a campsite in the woods with everything you need on your back is an empowering feeling. If your pack is too heavy, you will probably be feeling a very different emotion. Because self-inflating sleeping pads are lighter than their air mattress cousins, they win as the top choice when heading out on a backpacking trip.
Remember, backpacking can last from a day to a few weeks at a time. Traveling light is important and crucial if you want a successful hiking excursion. While those few extra pounds feel nonexistent during the first hours of your backpacking trip, those extra pounds start to weigh down on you as you continue through your hiking activity.
Air mattresses are heavier to use and to carry around than a self-inflating sleeping pad. For instance, air mattresses need a valve pump to inflate it into a functional bed. This pump not only adds extra space to your backpack, but you might not be able to use the pump unless you also carry something that you can plug it into.
Sleeping in your Vehicle
Winner: Air Mattress
The beauty of an air mattress is that it will blow up to fit almost any area you can think of. If you are sleeping in the back hatch or trunk area of your vehicle, an air mattress will blow up to just the right size. You must consider the size of your vehicle when choosing an air mattress.
Companies also make air mattresses designed for sleeping in the back seat of a vehicle. They fill in the legroom space to create a perfect, flat sleeping platform. These specialty air mattresses would be worth looking into if you're looking to camp out of your car, as opposed to a truck or an SUV.
Winner: self-inflating sleeping pad
Using a self-inflating sleeping pad in a hammock is an absolute game-changer. You’ll have to wonder if you’ve ever had a more comfortable sleep outdoors after your first night using a sleeping pad and a hammock together. Generally, hammock setups are lighter and take up less space than a tent. Keeping that in mind, you’ll want a sleeping pad that will help you on your journey to a light pack. A self-inflating sleeping pad is arguably the only option when hammock camping.
You can choose to hammock without a sleeping pad at all. If you’re doing this, you will want to make sure the temperature where your sleeping isn’t dropping too low at night. If you want to hammock without a sleeping pad in cool conditions, we suggest using an under the quilt. An under quilt acts in similar ways to a sleeping pad as far as providing warmth. The under quilt hands under your hammock, trapping the air between you and the ground by providing you with warmth. It’s a great product, but it will not help your sleeping surface to be flatter or cushioned as a sleeping pad would.
Conclusion of Self-inflating Sleeping Pad vs Air Mattress
To sum up, air mattresses are great for car camping or sleeping in your vehicle. They tend to have higher insulation than self-inflating sleeping pads. Also, they are more comfortable as you can easily share them, and if you are running out of space in your car, you can choose how to inflate them to fit the space. In case you are struggling to choose between self-inflating sleeping pads or air mattresses you need to choose what amenities do you for your trip. Self-inflating sleeping pads could be a better choice to occasional camper because they are affordable, more portable, easier to use, and some of the higher-end models match air mattresses in comfort post. Consider buying whichever option works best for your camping needs.
Do you have any experience using an air mattress or a sleeping pad during your camping trip?
Leave a comment below and let us know what you think.