A man and woman in a tentImage

photo credit: Gabe Rogel/Marmot

Camping Mat Buying Guide

A sleeping mat is a key piece of camping equipment as it stops the ground from sapping your body heat. Camping mats offer you more comfort than you would have if you were sleeping directly on the ground. There are four different types of sleeping mat available: closed cell foam mats, self-inflating mats, air mats and air beds. Each excels in their own areas of camping. When choosing your sleeping mat, keep in mind exactly what type of activity you want to use it for and how you’ll be getting it to your overnight location.

Closed Cell Foam Mats

Types of camping matTypes of camping mat

Closed cell foam mats can probably be considered the ‘original’ camping mats. They have a tendency to be quite bulky but are very durable and relatively cheap. As they are bulky they are generally stored on the outside of a rucksack with lash straps when heading out for the night. so won’t take up space on the inside of your pack.

They don’t offer much by the way of comfort, especially if sleeping on rough, uneven terrain. However, they do offer excellent thermal properties to keep you protected from cold floors. They also stack easily with themselves and other mats for extra protection in cold temperatures.

Different brands use different textures and depths of foam. Some feature reflective materials to increase thermal protection. Most are simply rolled up, while others utilise reinforced scores in the foam to create a ‘Z’ folding mat.

Self-Inflating Mats

self inflating mats of different coloursself inflating mats of different colours

Self-inflating mats use open-cell foam that is encapsulated in airtight fabric. They have a valve that opens and closes, allowing you to seal the airflow in and out of the foam. Like other mat designs, they come in all shapes and sizes depending on the model you opt for. Bulkier ones are usually designed for car camping. Others that are more geared towards multi-day backpacking will take up less rucksack space.

Due to the increased technology, materials, and parts involved in these mats, they can be more expensive than closed cell foam mats. However they are rapidly becoming more popular due to their excellent comfort. Once the valve is open and the mat is rolled out, the open-cell foam expands from its compressed state and draws air into the mat to fill in all the tiny spaces. Closing the valve traps the air inside to provide a comfortable mat for you to sleep on. If you like a firmer sleeping surface you can add a couple of breaths through the valve before you close it.

When packing the mat away, it’s important you open the valve and roll it tight to compress the foam and allow the air to escape through the valve. 

It is possible to get women’s specific self-inflating mats. These are often a little shorter in length and a little wider in the torso area of the mat. They also have a little more insulation in the torso and feet areas. So, if you know you feel the cold and are 5’5” or shorter whether you are male or female, consider a women’s sleeping mat for better performance.

For minimalist explorers who strive to keep weight to a minimum, there are half-length self-inflating mats available. These are long enough to ensure core comfort and warmth but leaves the legs on the ground, this can be offset with an empty rucksack or clothing.

When in between trips and you need to store your self-inflating sleeping mat, it’s important that you store it flat and with the valve open. This ensures the open cell foam doesn’t lose its loft-ability something that can happen if stored compressed over a long period of time.

Air Mats

thermarest with a water bottle and some weigh scalesthermarest with a water bottle and some weigh scales

Air mats are often considered the lightest type of sleeping mat and will pack down very small. They are made with lightweight, durable materials and are inflated by blowing them up or by a compatible pump sack. A pump sack is often considered the best way to avoid a build-up of moisture inside the mat.

They offer a thick and comfortable sleeping surface when inflated, perfect for uneven ground. They also often feature reflective detailing to aid thermal resistance in cold temperatures.

Air Beds

air bedair bed

Air beds are durable, heavy and large but comfortable. They are best suited to car camping in mild conditions or when you have house guests. They require a pump (electric or manual) to be inflated and can be used with normal bedsheets and quilts as well as sleeping bags.

Due to their lack of insulation and bulky size, they are not suitable for cold weather, backpacking or use in small tents. But they are extremely comfortable and available in both single and double sizes.

Things To Consider

Will my sleeping mat keep me warm in winter?

The main function of your sleeping mat is to stop the ground sapping your body heat leaving you cold. If you're camping in cold temperatures make sure you have a mat that has reflective detailing to help reflect your body heat back towards you.

You could choose to double up on sleeping mats. If you usually use a closed cell foam mat then adding another of the same style mat is easy and will offer more warmth. If you use a self-inflating or air mat then adding a closed cell foam mat underneath will make all the difference in below zero temperatures.

What is R-Value?

The R-Value of a product measures how resistant that product is to heat flowing through the material. The higher the R-Value is, the better the resistance and the warmer the sleeping mat will be.

While you may find the R-Value information on some products there is no agreed test to rate exactly how warm each sleeping mat is. Brands who do their own testing will do the same test for each mat in their range. It's helpful to choose a mat from within their range, but it wouldn’t be reliable to compare this to the R-Value of a different branded mat.

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