Comparing Sleeping Mat Options for Camping

Many people spend a lot of time, energy and money ensuring they have a sleeping bag which will keep them snug but then give little thought to their sleeping mat or pad. Some people don't realise that the relationship between a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat is totally symbiotic. The right combination ensures an incredibly efficient team effort to keep you cosy, comfortable and warm all night long. Unless you equip yourself with the right sleeping mat for your nights under canvas then all the insulating properties of that top of the range, somewhat expensive, goose down sleeping bag you have invested in will count for next to nothing.

A good sleeping mat is the insulating layer between a sleeping bag and the ground – an incredible amount of heat can be lost this way. Down-filled sleeping bags in particular will require something working efficiently between it and the ground as, during the night, down compresses quite a bit, thereby losing some of its heat retaining properties.

There are three main choices when it comes to sleeping mat options – closed cell pads, self-inflating open cell and air mattresses.


Closed cell mats

Often referred to as a 'pads', this type of sleep mat is made up of a dense foam, inside of which are lots of tiny, sealed bubbles. This trapped air provides a good level of insulation.

Because the foam is dense, closed cell pads can't be rolled up very small but they are incredibly light, maintenance free and almost impossible to damage. They are often the first choice for back packers and hikers looking to keep weight to a minimum and who need their kit to be able to withstand a bit of rough treatment and remain fully waterproof. The other major bonus with closed cell pads is that they are ridiculously cheap with prices starting at around the £5 mark.

However, closed cell mats are not for everyone as their cushioning ability is minimal. Those of a slighter build with less natural padding may find them particularly uncomfortable and all but the smallest of ground irregularities will be felt through the pad. Some people get round this by using two or even three pads on top of each other.

Summary – good insulation, extremely light, waterproof, cheap, highly durable but bulky and offer little cushioning


Self inflating open cell mats

Self inflating mats contain many linked air pockets within an outer shell usually made of either polyester or nylon. They provide excellent insulation from the ground and provide a higher level of cushioning than closed cell pads. There are various thicknesses to choose from starting at around 3 cm and up to a luxurious 10 cm or so and this type of mat is rather good at eliminating even quite substantial ground irregularities.

Mats are inflated by opening an integral valve which pulls in the air. You can dictate the firmness of the mat by adding a few breaths yourself. Deflation is achieved by opening the valve and rolling up the mat to push out the trapped air. The foam within self inflating open cell mats is highly compressible and certain models and a little practice can ensure a fairly small pack size. Good quality purchases will often include a stuff sack and/or compression straps to reduce packed size as much as possible, typically around the 52 cm x 32 cm mark but can be much bigger or smaller.

Self inflating open cell mats can be damaged or punctured although this is unusual with the better quality ones especially where a little care is taken to ensure you prepare your pitch by removing twigs and stones. Furthermore, many open cell mats will come with a repair kit should the worst happen.

There is an enormous amount of variety available with self inflating open cell mats which can be a little bewildering. One way to narrow down your choice is to decide what is a priority for you – price, weight, size or comfort? Self inflating open cell mats come in a wide variety of sizes with regard to both width and length to accommodate taller or more heavily built individuals and are also available as a double size. They can be rectangular or mummy shaped which helps reduce bulk and weight and can have extra padding in certain areas such as the head which creates an integrated pillow area. Good quality mats will come with a season rating which works the same way as with sleeping bags. They may have rip-stop outer fabric to increase durability or have a non-slip surface to prevent your sleeping bag sliding off. Weights vary widely from around 0.8 kg to well over 2 kg.

Although prices can start at around £15 beware cheap goods – they may have low quality air valves which leak air during the night or have a thin shell which is easily punctured. Expect to pay around £40 for a good quality mat.

Summary – excellent insulating properties, good to excellent cushioning, eliminate ground irregularities well, can be light weight and pack small but cost more than closed cell pads with less durability and can be punctured and damaged.


Air mattresses

In the not too distant past any committed camper would have sniffed at this option but of all the sleeping mat choices this one has made the largest innovation leaps in recent years, making it all of a sudden a serious choice for serious campers.

The old style air mattresses had absolutely no insulating properties, were a lot of hassle to inflate and deflate, prone to regular punctures, extremely heavy and bulky and that's before considering the trampoline/bottoming out effect created by two people of unequal weight sleeping on them. This made them only suitable for casual summer campers arriving by car.

The newest air mattresses on the market are lighter and far less bulky than the traditional types with some ultra light models weighing just over 500 grams and compressing to the size of a drinking bottle. Furthermore, the latest innovations have made improvements with regards to an air mattress's biggest weakness until now – insulation. It is also possible to get models which are a combination of air mattress and insulation pad giving the buyer some of the advantages of both. Other options are mummy shapes and much smaller, separated inflation areas as well as different sizes and lengths including single and double options. Bottom end prices start at about £10 while the latest type will cost £50+ for something of good quality with new and improved features.

Perhaps at last the air mattress is a viable option for serious campers particularly where the cold or more extreme conditions are not such an issue.

Summary – traditional air mattresses can offer good cushioning but are heavy, bulky, prone to damage and have no insulating properties whatsoever. The newer type are compact, lightweight and have some insulating properties although less than the two other options.