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How to Choose a Car Camping Mattress

Tuesday November 5, 2019
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Camping no longer means squirming through the night on a thin backpacking sleeping pad, or shivering on a slow-leaking air mattress. Car camping mattresses are plush and warm and the best way to up your camping game. While these comfortable mattresses are far too big for backpacking, they're perfect for short walks from the car to the tent or for a cozy sleep under the stars. Many are thick enough to use as a back-up when unexpected visitors are in town. However, while they look and feel like luscious bricks of comfortable foam, they are not created equal. Some of these are expensive, so we will walk you through some of the most important considerations as you make your choice of a deluxe camping mat. A good night's sleep means you can play that much harder during the day, so a comfortable camping mattress might just be the most essential piece of gear to bring on your next overnight adventure.

Why Buy a Car Camping Mattress?


Depending on the mat, sleeping on a car camping mattress can be the next best thing to sleeping in your own bed (and maybe even better considering that you are probably out in the woods or the desert). Car camping mattresses are designed with the same basic concepts in mind as other camping mattresses: cushion for sleeping that is portable and has a reasonable packed size. To accomplish these goals, virtually all camping mattresses are inflatable. But where car camping mattresses differ from other types of sleeping pads is that they place comfort as the most important feature over other considerations, such as weight or bulk. Sleeping pads for backpacking, on the other hand, are designed to be light and packable first and foremost, at the detriment of comfort. Without the limitations of weight or size parameters, designers of the car camping mattress can focus on comfort, resulting in a portable mattress that's as comfortable as a memory foam bed.

Some of these mats were more comfortable than our beds  but still pack down to fit in the trunk  or stow away in the closet.
Some of these mats were more comfortable than our beds, but still pack down to fit in the trunk, or stow away in the closet.

Types of Camping Mattresses


We've identified four different types of camping mats in our main review article, but here we'll go in-depth about the differences, advantages, and disadvantages between air beds, backpacking sleeping pads, self-inflating air mattresses, and adaptable mattresses.

Air Beds


We slept on a number of air mattresses for this review. These air beds look sort of like a real mattress, ranging in size from six to eight inches thick. Some are made of TPU laminates (short for Thermoplastic Polyurethane), a material that can best be described as slightly elastic plastic. Others are made of plasticized PVC, a tough material that is difficult to dispose of and very harmful to the environment. Most of these options are double beds, designed for two people, although one person can happily starfish on them as well. While large, if these pads lose a little bit of air, the edges can collapse, leaving you on the floor if you toss, turn, or roll around in your sleep. Additionally, we tested the lightweight Nemo Nomad, and air mattress construction of polyester that has an integrated foot pump for inflation.

The construction, and feeling, of lying on these beds is not unlike that of an inflatable raft. There is nothing but air on the inside, meaning that they lend themselves to the bounce house effect. If one person moves about, you can bet that the other person is going to feel something of the "shockwave" of air and material bouncing around underneath them. With no foam filling, they are capable of insulating you from the ground, but not from the temperature of the air inside the mattress. In our experience, these did not keep us very warm, limiting their usefulness to summer (or indoors).

While they are heavy, they tend to pack down relatively small, and come with inflation options, either battery-powered or manual, saving you from the unpleasant task of blowing up a massive mattress with your mouth. Keep in mind that these motorized pumps can be loud, making it difficult to make friends with your neighbors and generally detracting from everyone's wilderness experience. While they are the most affordable options in the review, they were also rated the lowest compared to the competition.

Inflating the mattress with the included mini air pump that runs off of four size D batteries. Good thing we looked at the pump before driving out to the remote campsite! Inflating with this pump was easy and took about four minutes.
Inflating the mattress with the included mini air pump that runs off of four size D batteries. Good thing we looked at the pump before driving out to the remote campsite! Inflating with this pump was easy and took about four minutes.

Backpacking Sleeping Pads


Check out our Best Sleeping Pad Review for an incredibly in-depth and thorough look at this category. In general, these pads are designed to offer some padding from the ground, while being as light as possible and packing down into tiny sizes for carrying with you in the wilderness. They range from simple, old-school foam pads, to thermal insulated inflatable single person mattresses. These pads tend to be smaller, narrower, and thinner, and lack extra foam padding on top or inside the construction of the mattress. As technology advances, some of these pads have begun to approach the comfort levels found in the camping mattress category, but none of them have the same amount of room to roll around. All these attributes serve to keep them light and packable. This is the direction you want to look if you are planning to carry your pad on your back. None of the products in our camping mattress review fit into this category. A four-pound mat on your back will ruin your backpacking trip real quick.

Adaptable Mattresses


Adaptability in this category means that these mattresses can be used either for car camping or backpacking in the wilderness. They are essentially backpacking sleeping pads paired with a slab of memory foam and a soft, protective cover. By removing the cover, you have access to the sleeping pad within, which you can remove and use by itself on a backpacking trip, thus saving bulk and weight. The flexibility of being able to use these adaptable mattresses in either the car or the wilderness is nice, meaning you don't need multiple sleeping pads. However, this comes with a price, as they are the most expensive in the review. Luckily, that price pays off in comfort and performance, as these are rated among the best in the test.

Even if we had paired it with a 25 inch wide QCore mattress (we paired it with a narrow 20 inch wide)  the Sleeping Giant would still be about five inches narrower than the NeoAir Dream on the left.
Even if we had paired it with a 25 inch wide QCore mattress (we paired it with a narrow 20 inch wide), the Sleeping Giant would still be about five inches narrower than the NeoAir Dream on the left.

Self-Inflating Insulated Air Mattresses


A self-inflating, insulated air mattress means that it is inflatable, as well as being filled with insulating foam. The foam inside the mattress serves a couple of purposes. First of all, it directly insulates your body from the temperature of the ground, which will almost always be colder than your body. The second benefit is that it provides more stability and support to the mattress, ensuring that it is also more comfortable. When you only have air filling a mattress, it feels quite bouncy when you move around. Foam combined with air dampens this effect. With their insulating properties, these mattresses are the best choice for colder weather and for people who run cold.

These self-inflating mattresses also tend to be the most comfortable. Those that we tested received high scores in the comfort metric. Some of them have so much foam that they are still comfortable, even if they lose air through a puncture, tear, or leak. The downside of these foam insulated air mattresses is that they are heavier and hard to pack down into a small size; they are among the bulkiest in our test. They are also among the most expensive. However, for dedicated car campers, the added comfort and warmth may be well worth the cost.

This mattress does not come with a pump  and so requires some good old fashioned manual inflating. The good news is that if you leave it unrolled with the valves open for a few minutes  the foam interior helps it self-inflate enough that we were able to completely top it off with only 11 breaths. Not too much work.
This mattress does not come with a pump, and so requires some good old fashioned manual inflating. The good news is that if you leave it unrolled with the valves open for a few minutes, the foam interior helps it self-inflate enough that we were able to completely top it off with only 11 breaths. Not too much work.

How to Choose Which Mat is Best for You


How will I use this mattress? How much can I spend? How much space do I have to store one or more multiple camping mats? These are all good questions to start with. Also, consider the fact that many of the mats in our selection double as excellent guest beds, adding some value to a product you thought you'd only use a few times a year.

How Much Do I Want to Spend?


The mattresses in this review range in price, but there are products for every budget.

If you are looking for a double mattress and money is no issue, then your decision has just been made — the Exped MegaMat Duo 10, which we awarded our Top Pick for Couples. On the other hand, if you are not keen to spend $350 on the best double mattress you can buy, you are limited to the air beds. The prices on these range from $100 to $130, and they are all reasonably close in terms of performance, although we liked the REI Relax Airbed slightly more than the other two. The Klymit Insulated Double V is a light and packable option for two, actually light enough for short backpacking trips.

If you are looking for a single mattress, then you have a wide range of price points to choose from. If money is again no option, then we recommend choosing the best pad available, the Exped Megamat 10, which costs $219. This is an incredibly comfortable mattress for that low price. A happy compromise; the super comfortable Sea-to-Summit Comfort Deluxe SI in its regular size is $169.

What Size Mat Do I Want?


This question essentially boils down to whether you want a single person mattress or a double mattress. If you are one half of the world's most perfectly matched couple, and you always camp with your significant other, then you may want to go the route of a double mattress.

The Exped Megamat 10 sits on top of the Duo for a comparison of their sizes. These are essentially the exact same mat  but the Duo is wide enough for two people.
The Exped Megamat 10 sits on top of the Duo for a comparison of their sizes. These are essentially the exact same mat, but the Duo is wide enough for two people.

If a double mat is too big for you to travel with or to fit in the back of your vehicle, or if you like the flexibility of having a smaller mattress, then we recommend looking at many of the options for one person. Most are available in regular or extra long/wide, giving you the option of being practical or really treating yourself.

Another upside to single mattresses, even for a couple, is that each person can choose the mattress that they prefer. Downsides to this approach can be that they are not the same height, creating an awkward ledge, or are too wide together to fit in the tent, so take these things into consideration while shopping.

Do I Want the Most Versatile Option?


Adaptable mattresses are called that because they are constructed in such a way that a standard inflatable sleeping pad can be removed from the inside and on its own is small enough to take on a backpacking trip without the bulk of the foam cover. If you are searching for a single-person mattress, and like the idea of flexibility, then this style of pad is worth considering. Be warned, though, that they certainly come with a price.

The insides of this mattress are accessed by a zipper that runs along the full length of the side. This allows easy removal of the air mattress should one want to use it separately  or both of these pads can be removed if you want to launder the cover.
The insides of this mattress are accessed by a zipper that runs along the full length of the side. This allows easy removal of the air mattress should one want to use it separately, or both of these pads can be removed if you want to launder the cover.

If you already have a lighter weight sleeping pad that you use for camping or backpacking, however, some of these systems allow you to use the existing pad that you own. This means you can add the comfort of a camping mattress without the expense and extra storage that most of these mattresses require.

Does Warmth Matter in My Mat Selection?


There is still one more thing to consider that may affect what mattress you buy, and that's warmth. Insulating properties in your mattress are essential for a good night's sleep, especially if you are sleeping outside in temperatures lower than about 60 degrees. If you're primarily shopping for an indoor guest mat, don't worry so much about R-values. But for most car camping excursions, the foam core mats come out on top, and many of these mats offer an R-value of 5 or higher, plenty to keep you warm in all but the coldest, bleakest camping conditions.

Air mats like the Nomad don't insulate as well as mats with foam in them because free circulating air is harder to keep warm than air trapped by foam or smaller air chambers.
Air mats like the Nomad don't insulate as well as mats with foam in them because free circulating air is harder to keep warm than air trapped by foam or smaller air chambers.

A Short Explanation of R-value

R-value is a term that is used by the construction industry to describe a material's thermal resistance. While calculating a material's exact R-value is more complicated mathematically than we are capable of explaining, it is enough to understand that R-value describes resistance to heat (or cold) transfer. The higher the R-value, the better the material is at insulating.

Where this comes into noticeable effect when choosing a mattress is with the air beds in the test. All of them have a stated R-value of 1.0. According to Wikipedia, this makes them more insulating than hardwood, bricks, or concrete, with roughly the same insulating properties as wood chips or snow. The rest of the mattresses in the test have an R-value range of 5 - 9.5. While 5 is certainly lower than 9.5, in our hands-on testing, we found that we stayed plenty warm sleeping on any mattress that wasn't an air bed, and felt pretty chilled sleeping high in the mountains of Colorado on an air bed, even in the summer. If warmth is a priority for you, we recommend passing on the air-beds and going with an insulated mat for all but the warmest climates.

Final Thoughts


We can't emphasize enough how much more comfortable these mats are than most sleeping pads designed for backpacking. While expensive, we feel it's worth it for the person in your life that is a reluctant outdoorsman or the battle-hardened athlete of advanced age who just can't seem to get a good night's rest on a small backpacking pad anymore. So keep in mind your constraints, be they finances, climate, or storage space, and don't hesitate to purchase a camping mattress. It will greatly enhance your car camping experience, and having one of these on deck will bring a smile to the face of your next overnight guest.

The Megamat Duo perfectly fits in the back of a pickup truck  making for a wonderful night's sleep in a wonderful location!
The Megamat Duo perfectly fits in the back of a pickup truck, making for a wonderful night's sleep in a wonderful location!


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