Wouldn’t it be nice if sleeping, while you’re camping, didn’t involve feeling roots and rocks in your back, or tossing fitfully all night long trying to find a comfortable position? If this is something you’re dreaming about… or rather, if this is something you’re tossing fitfully about, you have come to the right place.
Is an air mattress good for camping? Air mattresses are very popular among car campers, and they are one of the easiest ways to make camping on the ground comfortable. Air mattresses have a couple of downsides for camping, such as poor insulation, but these downsides can be mitigated easily by providing your own insulation.
Before you go and buy an air mattress for your tent, let’s talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of using one, and perhaps by then, you’ll have a better idea of what you want to do for your own sleeping situation.
Advantages of Using an Air Mattress for Camping
Before we jump into different pros and cons, let’s define a couple of things:
A sleeping pad is usually laid under the sleeper, and can be made out of foam, self-inflating air chambers, or be inflatable, like a miniature air mattress.
An air mattress is generally one air chamber, but it is much thicker and resembles the size and shape of a regular mattress that you’d use. They are typically either twin-sized or queen-sized.
Comfort: Sleep on a Bouncy Cloud
The biggest advantage of using an air mattress is a comfort. If you remember sleeping on an air mattress last time you visited your friend’s house, and when you compare it to the last time you slept on the hard ground, there really is not much comparison.
Especially as we get older, we tend to prefer beds that give just a little bit at our points of highest pressure. When sleeping on the ground, there is no such love from mother earth (unless you’re lucky enough to sleep on a bed of roses or that appealing green grass without ants).
An air mattress, on the other hand, can be inflated or deflated to reach the firmness that works for you! This is the reason why it is so common for many people who camp to use an air mattress.
You would never see a backpacker using a typical air mattress because they are quite heavy and they are so large they need an electric pump to (practically) inflate, but for a car camper, you have the electricity of your campsite (sometimes), and if not the campsite, your car.
Protection From Rocks and Roots
Sleeping on a flat surface is something you take for granted until you’ve tried sleeping on bumpy ground. Sleeping pads have the tendency to migrate and it’s pretty common to find yourself right on top of that root in the middle of your back. If you’re in the wilderness, miles away from your car, this is almost inevitable (unless you use a hammock!)
But car campers can bring an air mattress–and those problems melt away. With a broad air mattress, you have a much easier time staying on, and because there is a huge air gap between you and the ground, all of the pokey objects are impossible to detect.
Lift: Get a Little Extra Help In and Out of Bed While Camping
If you’re young and spry, and around 20 years old, you might not understand this, but if you’re getting older, you may notice that getting off the ground isn’t as easy as it once was.
Air mattresses can be very thick when fully inflated, standing around 12 to 22 inches above the ground making it much easier to get in and out of bed.
Reasons You Don’t Want to Use an Air Mattress for Camping
So, those were the reasons why you want to use an air mattress for camping, but there are actually some reasons why you might want to skip getting one specifically for camping (or using the one you have).
Blow-Up Ice Cube: The Case of the Cold Air Mattress
One of the biggest disadvantages of an air mattress is that the air in the mattress can get cold. The air in the mattress will eventually lose its heat to the ground, and thus you will be lying on top of a really chilly, if comfy, cloud. Not exactly relaxing!
I’ve experienced this syndrome even when sleeping on an air mattress indoors! When you’re camping, the situation can be a lot colder.
Fortunately, there are ways to make this better, check out the section, below for more details.
Leaky Air Mattress
Even if an air mattress doesn’t pop, a problem that plagues air mattresses and inflatable sleeping pads alike is the slow leak.
My last inflatable sleeping pad I used for camping had a slow leak. So slow, in fact, that even after three attempts to find the leak with soap and a bathtub, I still could not find it. Yet, when I was sleeping on it in a tent, I would inevitably have to re-inflate it up at least once during the night.
It’s a gamble buying an air mattress or an inflatable sleeping pad because you never know if you’re going to get the one with the slow leak.
As I was doing research for this article, I was reading reviews for an Intex air mattress, and while most people didn’t have issues, many people experienced a slow leak with the mattress losing enough air that it needed to be re-inflated several times throughout the night. Even though everyone was reviewing the same model of the air mattress.
You could get lucky, or you could get a lemon. Try out your mattress right away to see if you have a slow leak.
Tent Footprint (too small for an air mattress)
Big tents are expensive! If you’re like us, my wife and I only have a small 2-man tent. The tent is big enough to fit both of us but not much more. If we tried to put our queen air mattress inside, there would be no room for anything else! We like to sleep with a few things in our tent, like water bottles, car keys, flashlights, etc.
Check out your tent dimensions, and remember that air mattresses are tall! The walls of the tent slope towards the center of the tent. So even if your tent’s floor would fit the air mattress, the air mattress might be pushing against the sloping walls of the tent.
Give yourself a couple of feet of wiggle room from the edges of the air mattress to the edges of the tent to make sure you have enough room for the air mattress, and whatever else you want to bring into the tent.
What Happens if it Pops?
One big advantage foam sleeping pads have over inflatable sleeping pads or air mattresses is that they don’t pop. If an air mattress is seriously punctured, whether from a pocketknife, a rock, or a stick, that air mattress is completely unusable.
While this isn’t a huge deal if you are only camping for one night (we can put up with anything for one night), if you discover you can’t inflate your air mattress on the first night of a week of camping, and the hole is too big to patch (if you brought your patch kit) there is nothing you can do.
Noisy: Announcing Your Arrival With the Air Mattress
One downside to air mattresses is that because the air chamber is so big, they require (for practical purposes) to be filled up with an electric air pump.
This typically isn’t a problem if you arrive at your campsite at 4 PM with the entire evening to fill up your air mattress. But, if you get to your campsite late…(which we’ve been unfortunate enough to experience) you’ll be “that” guy/gal who gets to wake up the campground with the really loud air pump.
Air Mattresses in Hot Weather
Another interesting side effect of an air mattress is that because the surface is a non-breathable vinyl or other plastic, air mattresses can become really hot and unpleasant. That plastic is meant to be non-porous, so it can keep the air inside the air mattress as well as water out.
In the dead of summer, sleeping on the air mattress might make you even more sweaty and miserable.
Again, fortunately, there are ways to make this better. Check out the section, below for ideas to keep your air mattress cool.
How to Make an Air Mattress Warmer to Sleep On
The comfort of an air mattress is hard to part with, and fortunately, there are some ways to make it even more comfortable, especially in colder conditions.
Make a Barrier Between Yourself and the Mattress
The key is that the same principle applies as if you were sleeping on the ground. You need to add insulation between yourself and the air mattress. From my research in some forums, many people will put 1 to 2 blankets and maybe a sleeping bag underneath them, with a blanket on top.
These blankets and sleeping bags serve as an insulation barrier! The blankets will trap the heat escaping from your body and keep you warmer through the night.
Another idea for an insulation layer is to use a heat shield. Reflectix, which is essentially bubble wrap coated with a reflective substance that helps trap heat. Reflectix is available at most hardware stores or you can buy it on Amazon here.
You would put the Reflectix on top of the air mattress, and then your own blankets on top of the Reflectix (adds to the comfort, and removes some of the crinkles)
Yet another option is to use the egg crate style foam pad right on top of the mattress to give you some extra cushion as well as some insulation.
The key is to put something between you and the air mattress that can trap the heat.
Find an Air Mattress with an Insulated Topper
Another option is to find an air mattress that has some of the insulation you want built-in! Rather than you having to provide your own insulation, some air mattresses actually come with insulation right on the cover of the mattress itself. Super convenient! I found a highly rated example from Coleman here on Amazon. It even has a battery-powered pump so you can camp at a campsite without electrical outlets.
Why Do Air Mattresses Get so Cold?
One reason why this happens is that since air mattresses are (commonly) one big air chamber, there is a lot of air movement inside. Your body does heat up the air directly underneath, but since the air chamber is so big, the air will move away to be replaced with colder air. You’ll never get ahead! The air will always feel cold inside the air mattress.
When it comes down to it, besides insulating the mattress and yourself, there’s not much more you can do to make an air mattress a better insulator. By the time you add enough insulation to the air mattress to be warm, you might have enough soft padding to not need an air mattress in the first place!
That being said, it still is convenient to have an air mattress for the reasons I mentioned above, but it’s clear that the colder it is outside, the less beneficial an air mattress can become. If it’s colder than 45 degrees outside, you will have a more difficult time keeping your air mattress warm. If you’d like some more tips on how to stay warm while camping in colder weather, check out our article on this subject here.
Lastly, we did an article on using heaters inside your tent here, as well as some safer alternatives. It turns out there’s quite a bit you can do to stay warm! Check it out for some ideas.
How to Make an Air Mattress Cooler to Sleep On?
The cheapest air mattresses do not have a topper at all, and are just plain plastic, while many air mattresses have a type of suede or a synthetic material that provides a little bit of comfort.
These materials are usually thin (except for the insulated mattress covers I mentioned above, and are meant to repel water. Because the surface of these air mattresses are not porous, your body can make a seal against them and trap your sweat.
This is only a problem when sleeping in very hot weather. We live in Southeast Texas, and I’ve had experiences here sleeping in a tent where I slept on top of all my blankets, or else I would have roasted.
One way to combat the sweaty air mattress problem is … guess what… a barrier between you and the air mattress! Some use pillows, blankets, or even a sheet will help–these more porous materials will absorb your sweat, which is trying to take heat away from your body.
The last thing you want when you are trying to keep cool is for your sweat to pool. You want your sweat to wick away from your body which will take the heat along with it. Put a porous material like pillows, sheets, or blankets between you and the air mattress to stay cool.
Which Types of Air Mattresses Are More Ideal for Camping?
An air mattress will always be an air mattress, but there are actually lots of different types and features that you might consider.
As mentioned in the previous section above, an insulated topper is ideal for colder weather (below 55 degrees or so).
Can You Use an Aerobed for Camping?
Yes! Even those are built for home-use, they will work for camping. You might want to look for an air mattress that is taller and thicker.
This goes both ways, actually. Unless you bring an extension cord and your campsite has an electrical outlet, you will not be able to inflate your air mattress inside your tent. Thus, having a built-in pump doesn’t help you as much here. However, it is still convenient because you know you can’t lose your pump since it’s built directly into the tent.
Still, to be on the safe side, finding a DC (cigarette lighter) powered pump will save you some headache if you land at a campsite without electricity.
This isn’t a must-have feature, per se, but many air mattresses come with a carrying bag. While you’re camping, it’s really nice for carrying your air mattress to your tent (if you can inflate it in your tent that is), and for packing it. Air mattresses can be bulky, so it helps to contain the bulkiness with a carrying bag.
Find an Air Mattress with 15-Gauge Vinyl Thickness
This number means how thick the vinyl is. The lower the gauge number, the thicker the vinyl.
Air mattresses in a house are exposed to some sharps, but while you’re camping, you are sleeping on top of rocks, roots, and sticks, which are all prime suspects in many punctured air mattress cases. Getting an air mattress with thicker vinyl will make it more resistant to damage.