Buying Guide for Air Mattresses, Mattress Pads, Hammocks, and Cots

I truly believe that there is nothing more important than a good night’s sleep. This guide is designed to help you figure out which type of sleeping arrangements best suit your personal camping needs. Once you have decided whether you would prefer an air mattress, a mattress pad, a hammock, or a cot, this guide will also give you pointers on how to choose the right one for your particular needs.

Which Type is Best For You?

Start by asking yourself a few simple questions. How big is your tent? Will you be taking this sleeping accessory with you on backpacking trips or will you only use it for car camping? What time of year do you usually camp? What is the weather like when you camp? Do you camp near trees all of the time or do you occasionally camp in the desert or on a beach? Do you have any back problems? Will you need to share your sleeping arrangement with anyone else?

Camp Pads

Hammocks

Camp Cots

Each of the questions outlined above will be very important in your decision-making process. Take some time to consider them carefully before moving forward. The rest of this article will look at the pros and cons of different types of sleeping arrangements based on the types of needs described above.

Air Mattresses

Most people find air mattresses to be the most comfortable of all the options mentioned in this guide. This is likely because they best mimic the feeling of actually sleeping on a mattress. They offer a significant amount of cushioning to ease pressure on various parts of your body. They also lift you high enough off the ground to insulate your body from the cool dampness of the ground. There are, of course, some things to consider if you are thinking of purchasing an air mattress.

Comfort Level – Some air mattresses are more comfortable than others. It can be difficult to assess how comfortable a mattress will be without testing it first. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to test an air mattress, whether you are purchasing it online or in a store. One trick I use to assess the comfort level is looking at the shape of the air mattress. One look at it should reveal the type of support you will receive.

If the mattress features long, tube-like air chambers it will be somewhat comfortable. The ridges of the chambers running from the head of the bed to the foot of the bed will offer some support and will stop you from rolling from side to side. This is great if you will be sleeping with someone else, and it will also stop you from rolling completely off of the mattress as you sleep.

Personally, I find that horizontal air chambers offer the best support and would recommend that anyone with a bad back select this type of mattress. You will be able to position yourself in such a way as to use the horizontal air chambers as extra support for your lumber spine or neck.

Air mattresses which do not feature lengthy air chambers often feature air pockets which resemble the typical pocket coil mattress. This offers the most even support and is best for someone who prefers a relatively flat sleeping surface.

Inflation Considerations – If you are considering purchasing an air mattress you should be sure that you will be able to inflate it. If you always camp near electricity or bring a car with an electricity converter or outlet, you will be able to purchase a mattress which comes with a corded, electric air pump. If you camp from your car but do not have access to any type of electricity, you may want to consider a battery-operated air pump. Backpackers should consider an air mattress which can be blown up by mouth or using a lightweight hand or foot pump, because a battery-operated pump will add a considerable amount of extra weight to their backpacks.

Mattress Pads

Mattress pads were traditionally just large pieces of foam measuring about a half an inch to two inches thick. There really wasn’t much to them when they first came out. These days, you will find that there are many different types of mattress pads available on today’s market. Let’s take a quick look at three of the most obvious options.

Basic Foam Pads – A basic foam pad is simply a long, thin foam rectangle designed to give minimum support and insulation. Some are better than others – I recommend choosing one which is rather dense so that you know it will not flatten too quickly. Also, you may want to look for one which has been treated to make it water resistant. Not only will this help you sleep on a dry, warm surface, it will also stop mold from growing inside your mattress if it ever does get wet.

Formed Foam Pads – Though you may suspect that a formed foam pad would be shaped to support specific parts of the body, you would be wrong. Formed foam pads are specially designed with ridges or in egg-carton patterns to trap heat near the body and stop it from escaping. These pads are known to keep you warm better than a basic foam pad. As always, ensure that the pad you choose is made of water-resistant materials.

Inflatable Foam Pads – Inflatable foam pads offer an interesting mixture of a foam pad and an air mattress. Unlike an air mattress, an inflatable foam pad will never leak and cannot be destroyed with puncture holes. Though it will not add as much cushion as an air mattress, it will offer more warmth than a basic or formed foam pad, as it will create air pockets within itself which insulate you from the cold. Most inflatable foam pads are self-inflating, but some allow you to blow them up by mouth in as little as 10 to 20 breaths.

Special Consideration For Backpackers – If you are planning to take your mattress pad on a backpacking trip, you should consider three things. First, it will be best to select a pad which folds up rather than one which rolls up. Roll up pads can be very bulky and difficult to fit inside your pack or strap to the outside of your pack. Second, if you are planning to strap it to the outside of your pack, you should select one which is relatively waterproof. Finally, if you are planning to travel in cool weather you should consider purchasing a pad with a reflective side, so that you can face that side toward your body as you sleep and reflect your own body heat back to yourself.

Hammocks

Hammocks are a very simple-to-use, easy-to-store, and comfortable way to sleep on your camping and backpacking adventures. As an occasional backpacker, I must say that hammocks are my preferred sleeping arrangement whenever the terrain and weather allow for their use. Their compactness and light weight make them very easy to slip inside my pack without worrying about having to remove something else to make up for their size or weight.

If you are thinking of purchasing a hammock for your stationary camping or backpacking adventures, you may want to consider the following.

Size and Weight – As I have mentioned, you will want a small, lightweight hammock if you are planning to bring it with you on a backpacking trip. I suggest finding something made of nylon or taffeta which comes with its own small stuff sack and straps. You will definitely not want to bring a hammock with a stand on a backpacking trip.

Will There Be Trees? – If you are planning to camp in the desert or on the beach you should be aware that there is a very low likelihood of two, sturdy, well-spaced trees growing in the vicinity. In these circumstances, you may want to consider purchasing a hammock which comes with some sort of stand so that you do not find yourself having to sleep on the ground. If you are planning a backpacking trip a hammock may not be your best choice since the stand will add considerable weight to your pack.

Mayan or Spreader Bar? – There are many different names for the different types of hammocks which exist on today’s market. I would like to draw your attention to two types of hammocks – the Mayan-style hammock and the spreader bar hammock. Of course, each of these types of hammocks often goes by a different name, but names aren’t important here. What is important is that you know the difference between these hammocks so that you can choose the one which best suits your preferences.

Mayan hammocks are usually made from rather thin, breathable, water-resistant fabrics such as nylon and taffeta. These hammocks are rather wide but bunch together at either end. When shared between two people they usually become nearly flat. When used by an individual, this type of hammock will wrap around you like a cocoon, offering extra insulation on cool nights but simultaneously detracting from your ability to look around yourself.

People often complain that spreader bar hammocks are not as comfortable as Mayan-style hammocks, as the spreader bar pulls the fabric tightly flat at each end which reduces the fabric’s ability to comfortably support just the right spots. However, for afternoons lounging in the sun, or even the shade, these do tend to be the preferred choice.

Cots

Cots are considered a luxury in most camp circles. Allow me to begin by stating that a cot is probably not your best choice if you are backpacking. Though it will offer a very comfortable night’s sleep it will be so heavy that you will likely be in pain by the time night falls.

If you are planning on car camping or any other form of stationary camping, you may find that a cot is an excellent choice. Most cots are rather comfortable and can be quite versatile. Here are some things to consider as you look into purchasing your next cot.

Size – Of course, you will want to consider the size of your cot in comparison to the size of yourself. Is it long enough for you? Is it wide enough for you? Can it support your weight? One thing many people forget to consider is the size of their cot in comparison to the size of their tents. You should always be sure that your cot will fit in your tent in terms or its length, width, and height.

The Ability to Attach a Tent – Some cots feature special spaces along their frames where the fabric has been cut out to allow you to strap on a small one-person tent. Attaching your tent to your cot allows you to maintain comfort while simultaneously maintaining a somewhat minimalist campsite.

Sleeping Surface – There are a few different types of sleeping surfaces you can choose from when looking into buying a camp cot. Traditional canvas and cotton cots, while offering some of the best insulation, are known for stretching the fastest and not being very water resistant. Newer materials such as polyester tend to hold their form for longer, but aren’t usually as warm. If you choose one of these cots and plan to camp in cool months, however, you can always choose to add a mattress pad to the top of the cot.

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