One of the most important items for a good night’s sleep when you are backpacking in the woods or just camping at a campground with your car is a decent mattress or pad to sleep on. To see just how important it is, try sleeping without some sort of pad. I know I wake up with one heck of a sore back with the wrong mattress and that is why I think it is so important to find the right one for you.
Today’s camping sleeping pads and mattresses come in four main categories. For those who like to car camp and don’t worry about bulk or weight, there are full sized air mattresses and open celled foam mattresses. These tend to be very bulky, quite large and usually are pretty weighty when compared to other options. These are not the kind of mattresses you would generally be bringing with you on a backpacking trip to sleep on. However, they do make a good choice when you are camping out of a car, where bulk and weight really do not matter. The other two types of mattresses have been designed with backpacking in mind. Those are the self-inflating mattresses and the closed cell foam pads.
Car Camping Mattresses
Coleman makes several different versions of the inflatable mattress. They come in all different shapes and sizes from a small single mattress type to king sized mattresses. Mind you, you would need a pretty large tent in order to fit a king-sized mattress in it. In addition to the weight and the bulk, these air mattresses must be inflated either by hand or with a machine, which makes them that much more difficult to use if you were actually backpacking with the mattress.
The same thing goes with the open cell foam mattresses. These tend to be fairly thick to provide enough cushioning for the person sleeping on them. They are not as bulky as an inflatable mattress, but compared to other backpacking options, these are like lugging a full-sized mattress on your back. They also don’t compress that well, tend to stay moist when they get wet and in general, are better suited to car camping than backpacking.
For backpackers there are two main options. The cheapest and easiest are the closed-cell foam pads. The more expensive and more comfortable option are the self-inflating air mattresses.
Closed-Cell Foam Pads
These closed-cell foam pads are made out of high density foam that really doesn’t compress. They can be submerged in water and will dry quickly. They provide good insulation between you, your sleeping bag and the cold ground. In addition, they are very lightweight, easy to roll and easy to carry on the outside of a backpack.
A number of companies make these mattresses. There’s the generic pad you’ll find at almost any department store, Coleman makes several models, as do several other outdoor gear retailers.
The closed-cell foam pads come in a number of widths and lengths. I find at 6’2”, I need to get the long pad to completely fit on it. Otherwise, I end up having my pillow off the top of the pad and my feet resting off the bottom.
I have found another use for these pads. I tend to bring them car camping and use them as insulation and cushioning underneath whatever other mattresses I am using. The closed-cell foam is very good at providing enough insulation, even on cold ground and it also prevents any moisture that may be on the floor of the tent, from getting on the mattress that I’m sleeping on top of.
Comfort? Well, the pads do provide a certain level of cushioning between you and the ground. However these are not the most comfortable sleeping pads in the world. In my mind when backpacking, if I have no other options, these work. I will be able to sleep on them, but I may be slightly sore after a day or two of sleeping on them.
Cost wise these are the cheapest option for backpackers. You can find them in most department stores for less than $10 and even the most expensive are usually less than $25.
For all the various sizes and shapes of the closed-cell foam pads though, the number and types of self-inflating mattresses, dwarf them. There are literally hundreds of different models that come in different lengths, widths and thicknesses. It can all be pretty overwhelming when you go to start looking for a mattress.
I’ve tried several different brands over the years and they all seem to have some common features.
The self-inflating nature of these mattresses is somewhat overblown. Yes, they will inflate, but for most people, they will have to add some air with a few puffs on the valve themselves to get a mattress that is firm enough for their liking. These mattresses can be somewhat fragile, even with tough materials. Two out of the three self-inflating mattresses I have had, ended up with holes in them. In this case, a repair kit is essential since a flat mattress won’t provide any support. The thickness and firmness of the mattress are more important to sleeping comfort than the width. I have found that while a wider mattress is nice, I’m more interested in how much cushioning it gives me, and that’s a measure of its thickness and how inflated it is.
You want to find a mattress that fits your length. Because there is a certain amount of thickness to the mattress when it is inflated, you do not want your legs hanging off the end, or your head at a weird angle because the pillow is not on the pad. The self-inflating mattresses are available from a number of different retailers. REI and EMS sell their own brands of the mattresses, Coleman is in the market too and Cascade Designs with their Thermarest line of self-inflating mattresses is an ever-present option.
I’ve run through an EMS, REI and Thermarest self-inflating mattress over the years and they have all been decent mattresses to sleep on. I would have to say that my current, REI pad is my favorite. It has a non-slip surface which is great because your sleeping bag stays on it. The only problem though is that the first pad I had gotten at REI had a leak that I didn’t discover until my first trip hiking with it. I returned it and made sure the one I picked up did not have a leak before I went into the woods. The EMS pad was a quality pad all around and I passed it along to a family member. The Thermarest pad I have is an oldie, but it has survived for about a decade and a half of some pretty regular use. My only complaint about it is that it didn’t have a non-slip surface, so I often find myself and the sleeping bag, sliding off the pad.
Because the pads inflate and deflate, they are quite easy to roll and pack away. They are also able to be fairly light, depending on the exact size and model you get. Some models are specifically made to be extra light, though they tend to not be that big and don’t offer as much comfort as the full sized models.
Make sure there are no sharp objects under the pads when you are using them in your tent. This is an easy way to tear or pop the mattress.
Comfort wise, nothing but a full-size air mattress or a real bed mattress beat them for comfort. They are not perfect, but after a long day of hiking, it sure feels like a little piece of heaven as you lay down on the mattress and go to sleep.
These mattresses are more expensive. You will generally not find any for under $50. The store brands (such are REI and EMS) tend to be the least expensive, while the branded ones like Thermarest tend to be more expensive.
Buying a camping mattress
For the backpacking options, I think it is quite important to try out the demo models that the stores have available. As with most outdoor gear, unless you already have experience with items, I would highly suggest purchasing these in a brick and mortar store where you can try out different models instead of buying directly off the internet.
For the closed-cell foam pads, lay down on them, roll on your side, see if they provide enough support for you to sleep. For the self-inflating pads, see how long they take to inflate. See if they inflate enough to be comfortable or will you have to add air? Lay on them to see the differences between different widths and thicknesses. Consider the coatings. I think a non-slip surface is essential, otherwise you’ll spend the night trying to stay on the pad.
Make sure you take care of your mattress, especially the self inflating type. When you aren’t camping with them, the mattresses should be unrolled and if it’s a self-inflating model, the air valve should be left open. I tend to wash down my pads and the self-inflating mattresses after each camping trip with a damp sponge. This gets rid of any loose dirt and keeps the fresh.
If you notice a hole in a self-inflating pad, the easiest way to find it is to put the inflated mattress in a tub of water and see where the bubbles are coming from the pad. Mark it with a marker, allow the mattress to dry and then use a repair kit to seal the leak.
It also makes sense to carry an emergency repair kit with you, especially on longer trips. Therm-A-Rest has a Fast and Light Repair Kit that is a good choice. It will solve your problem while you are in the woods and then when you get back, you can use a more permanent repair kit.
It is possible to sleep comfortably when hiking. It just takes a bit of planning and a bit of a monetary investment. For the basic, occasionally, short backpacking trip, a closed-cell foam pad may be all you need. For those of us who crave a bit more comfort, the self-inflating mattress is probably a better option. They are a bit pricier, but with careful use and good maintenance, they can last for many years. For car camping, the sky is literally the limit when it comes to comfort, but that does come at a rising cost.
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