Getting a good night's sleep starts with your bed. Whether it's a comfortable mattress for your bedroom at home or a mattress and sleeping bag duo you've picked out for a weekend in the woods, comfort is key. Before you make a decision, as with anything involving outdoor gear, you need to know what you're looking for.
Types of sleeping mats
Inflatable sleeping air mattresses
Air mattresses come in a variety of styles, from lightweight models for backpacking to extra-thick models for camping. Most air mattresses now include insulation and/or reflective materials for added warmth. Many air mattresses have alternative methods of inflation, so you can save on breathing.
Benefits: Air mattresses are very comfortable and lightweight, and are the most compact type of mat available in a package. You can customize the firmness of the mattress by releasing or adding air from a valve. Design and intended end use vary widely. Make sure you choose the right R-value for the conditions you expect.
Disadvantages: The lighter and more compact the air mattress, the more expensive it tends to be. They can get punctured or torn (this is most common when sharing a tent with a dog), but can be repaired in the field if you carry the proper patch kit.
Air mats tend to feel as if they are losing air if the outside temperature fluctuates, so check and adjust the firmness before you go to sleep. Moisture from breathing can get trapped inside and can eventually lead to decreased performance or bacterial or mold problems. Using a hand pump will help prevent moisture buildup, as will storing an unfolded mat with the valve open.
Self-inflating sleep air cushions
Self-inflating mats provide a combination of open-cell foam insulation and air. Opening the valve allows the foam to expand and automatically introduce air. Some are designed for backpacking and can be folded lengthwise, then rolled up to fit your backpack. Others are designed for car camping and can be rolled up without folding. Self-inflating mats offer you a wide range of warmth, size and cost options.
Benefits: They are comfortable and fairly compact, provide excellent insulation, and you can adjust their firmness by adding or releasing air. They are generally more durable than air mattresses.
Cons: They are heavier and more expensive than simple foam mats and are not as compact as air mats. Although not difficult to repair in the field, they can be punctured or torn.
Closed-cell foam camping mats
These basic backpacking and camping mats are made of dense foam filled with tiny closed-cell air chambers. They are usually rolled up or folded into a Z shape.
Benefits: They are lightweight, inexpensive, durable, and provide consistent insulation in all conditions. You don't need to worry about punctures or leaks. They work well under other types of mats to improve insulation and prevent punctures. These are the only mats that can be placed outside of your pack without fear of damage. They can also double as a cushion in camp.
Disadvantages: They are not very comfortable. They are relatively stiff and sturdy, and tend to be bulky.
Inflatable Sleeping mat Features
Sleeping Mat Weight
Ultralight mats are great for backpacking, but they cost more. You can reduce the weight by choosing to reduce the volume and packing smaller mummy or tapered shapes. Short lengths of closed-cell foam mats are also light in weight. If you are backpacking with a partner, a lightweight sleeping mat for two can save ounces.
Sleeping Mat Length
At a minimum, your shoulders and hips need to fit the mat. Regular (usually 72 inches long) and long (usually 78 inches) mats will provide insulation for your legs and feet - a big advantage for cold fall and winter travel. A short or 3/4-length mat (usually 47 or 48 inches) is lighter in weight and packs less (you can put folded clothes or a backpack under your legs and feet for some insulation).
Sleeping Mat Width
Almost every mat is available in a standard width of 20 inches. If you're a big guy or roll around a lot, you may need a 25 or 30 inch width (but consider the size of your tent to make sure you can fit two wider mats side-by-side). Usually, the "long" version of the mat is also wider by default, but in some styles you can get a wide mat that is still the "regular" length.
Sleeping Mat Inflation
Some mats have a high-capacity inflation valve and a deflation valve to speed up the inflow or outflow of air. Some newer mats have larger "neck" openings that allow for quicker inflation with less breathing. mats with separate inflation chambers or layers can give you peace of mind; if one layer fails, the other will still give you some cushion.
Sleeping Mat Surface
If you're a restless sleeper, look for a mat with a textured or brushed fabric surface. This helps prevent you and your sleeping bag from slipping off during the night. It may also be quieter.
Other sleeping mat considerations
Mat Cover: Some sleeping bags have an integrated cover to hold the mat in place. This can prevent you and your sleeping bag from slipping off at night. Check the width of the sleeve before buying a mat.
Hand pump: If you don't feel like breathing after a long day of hiking, look for a mat with an integrated hand pump or purchase a pocket hand pump (sold separately) that rolls up and weighs just a few ounces.
Patch Packs: A great idea for backpacking. Find out if they come with the mats or are sold separately. Be sure to learn how to patch a perforation before you leave home in case you have to repair one in the dark.