Many air mattress models sold today are ideal for camping because they provide the comfort, support and temperature neutrality required for sleeping on rough outdoor terrain. These models are also relatively inexpensive and highly portable, since they can be easily inflated and deflated, packed, and stored in a backpack or the back of an automobile.
Today’s camping-friendly air mattress options range from low-tech pads to state-of-the-art designs. This guide will look at important factors to consider when shopping for and comparing inflatable air mattress for camping, as well as some common pros and cons associated with these products and our picks for the top-rated models.
The term ‘air mattress’ refers to any inflatable sleeping pad designed for short-term use; these products may also be referred to as ‘blow-up mattresses.’ Air mattresses are considered suitable for camping on the ground or in an RV, as well as floor bedding for guest rooms.
It’s important to note the differences between inflatable air mattresses and ‘airbeds,’ which are standard-size mattresses built with adjustable air chambers in the support core, and are designed for long-term use. For more information about airbeds, please visit our Airbed Reviews page.
Also, camping style is another consideration. Some people prefer hiking to a campsite with all of their provisions stored in a backpack, while others prefer to ‘car camp,’ or camp at sites that are accessible to vehicles.
- Backpackers typically prefer lighter, lower-profile air mattresses because they are easier to store and haul in backpacks.
- Car campers have more options, and many choose higher-profile mattresses because they can be easily transported in a vehicle.
Although designs and features vary by brand and model, today’s air mattresses designed for camping generally share the following characteristics:
Construction: Most air mattresses sold today are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), also known as polyvinyl or vinyl, a synthetic plastic polymer that is also used to make bottles, food packaging, and an assortment of other goods.
PVC has raised some pollution and human health issues in recent years, largely due to the use of chlorine in the PVC production process. As a result, some air mattresses are made from ‘eco-friendly PVC,’ which refers to PVC that has not been made with chlorine.
In addition to the PVC shell, some air mattresses feature microcoils for added support and comfort. Some self-inflating models are insulated with polyfoam. Unlike other air mattresses, foam-padded models often do not carry a weight limit.
Inflation: As a rule, air mattresses must be inflatable, but the inflation method varies from model to model. An air mattress may feature a built-in internal pump, or an external pump.
The pump mechanism also varies by brand and model; generally, four different mechanisms may are used with today’s air mattresses:
- A manually powered pump, often designed to be operated with feet to help users avoid back strain. These are almost always external pumps.
- An electric pump with a built-in electrical main that can be programmed and adjusted using buttons, switches, and other external controls.
- A battery-powered pump, which can be programmed and adjusted in the same fashion as an electrical pump, but these are typically external models that can be easily detached from the mattress.
- A self-inflating pump, which can be operated by flipping a switch or twisting the external nozzle. These models can be customized for firmness by simply stopping the self-inflation process when the mattress reaches a certain thickness.
The table below explains air mattress pump mechanisms in greater detail.
||Built-in inflation system operated using switches and/or knobs
No extraneous parts
|No risk of losing spare parts
Inflate at a faster rate
|Prone to breakdowns
||Pump is a separate component that attaches to an outside nozzle
|Time- and energy-consuming
Risk of losing spare parts
Cover: Most air mattresses designed for camping have flocked (or textured) sleep surfaces to help maintain warmth, and also to provide resistance and prevent sleepers from slipping off. Many of these covers are waterproof and/or antimicrobial, as well, which may be useful for sleeping outdoors.
Thickness: In terms of thickness, air mattresss fall into two general categories:
- Standard elevation models (also known as ‘single high’ mattresses), which measure 10 inches or shorter. These tend to be the best choice for backpacking campers, since they are lighter and take less time to inflate.
- Raised elevation models (also known as ‘double high’ mattresses), which are thicker than 10 inches. While some backpackers prefer to haul raised elevation mattresses on camping trips, these models are heavier and take more time to inflate, making them more suitable to car camping.
Some models may feature legs or fold-out cots for additional height. Please note that the heights of some mattresses may differ by inflation/deflation level.
Size and weight: Unlike standard mattresses, air mattresses typically come in three different sizes: Twin, Full, and Queen. An air mattress model available in all three of these sizes is somewhat rare; most come in one or two. In lieu of these standard sizes, some mattresses come in specialty sizes.
When completely deflated, most standard elevation air mattresses will weigh less than 10 pounds. Raised elevation models tend to weigh more, but rarely will they exceed 30 pounds when fully deflated. Weight is an important consideration for backpackers, since they are required to haul the air mattress on their back; for this reason, a standard elevation model is typically most preferable. Car campers are less restricted with regard to mattress weight.
Weight capacity: Standard inflatable mattresses can support at least 300 pounds, and some models may be able to support up to 600 pounds. While this is sufficient for most single sleepers, those who weigh more than 230 pounds may experience uncomfortable sagging. Additionally, regardless of the listed weight capacity, couples should avoid sleeping on the same air mattress (see ‘Cons’ below for more information).
Collapsibility: Because air mattresses are used in backpacking and camping so frequently, most models sold today are designed to be easily folded, packed, and stowed or attached to backpacks. Models will easily fit into the trunk or backseat of a standard vehicle, as well. Packing equipment, such as cords and a carrying sack, may be included with purchase or sold separately.
Some benefits associated with using air mattresses for camping include:
- Temperature neutrality: Most air mattresses — particularly those with flocked surfaces — provide adequate warmth for campers when used with a sleeping bag and/or blanket. Waterproof and antimicrobial surfaces provide added protection against the elements too.
- Portability: Air mattresses can often be broken down and stowed in a backpack and/or vehicle storage area, making them a convenient accessory for camping trips and backpacking excursions.
- Customizable firmness: By inflating or deflating the air mattress, users can usually adjust the firmness until the sleep surface meets their personal needs and preferences.
- Few odor complaints: Unlike standard mattresses that produce off-gassing, very little odor has been reported from air mattress owners apart from fleeting, rubbery smells that dissipate rather quickly.
- Low cost: With few exceptions, inflatable air mattresses cost no more than $150 to $200. Additionally, a wide range of models are available at $100 or less for shoppers on a budget.
Drawbacks linked to air mattresses for camping include:
- Short lifespan: Most air mattresses will perform for no more than two years of regular use; when used occasionally, they may last three to four years, but rarely longer. This is due to factors like malfunctioning air pumps and air leakage due to punctures and/or split seams.
- Noise potential: Air mattresses may produce squeaking or rustling noises when sleepers shift positions, and many can be noisy when pumping air or self-inflating.
- Minimal support for heavy sleepers: Some sleepers who weigh more than 230 pounds report sagging and discomfort on air mattresses, regardless of the listed weight capacity. This is especially common with lower-profile models.
- No double-occupancy: Inflatable air mattresses are not usually designed to support more than one person, and tend to sag on one side (depending on who is heaviest). Inflatable air mattresses are considered poor for sex, as well.
- Little to no warranty coverage: With few exceptions, inflatable air mattresses come with no more than one year of warranty coverage, and many do not offer warranty coverage at all. Sleep trials are rarely — if ever — available.
In addition to the pros and cons listed above, let’s look at three performance factors that tend to vary from model to model:
- Comfort: How comfortable an air mattress feels often comes down to its ability to hold air for long periods of time. Some models tend to deflate during the night due to pressure from the sleeper’s body, while others are designed to maintain full inflation. The cover may also be a factor for comfort.
- Support: As is the case with comfort, escaping air can negatively affect how supportive the air mattress feels. Models that hold air longer tend to provide better support.
- Ease of movement: Generally speaking, higher-profile air mattresses are easier to get on and off of than lower-profile models. Other factors, including sleeper weight, may also affect ease of movement.
When choosing an air mattress that will be primarily used for camping and backpacking, here are a few factors to keep in mind:
- How heavy is the mattress when fully deflated? Weight is especially important for those who plan to haul their air mattress in a backpack, and less of a concern for those who prefer to car camp and transport their supplies to the campsite via vehicle.
- What is the mattress size? Twin- and Full-size air mattresses will fit into most single-person tents, but Queen-size models may be too wide/long.
- How thick is the mattress? Air mattresses will — regardless of height — fit into most standard tents, but smaller tent models may be too cramped for high-profile mattresses. Alternatively, low-profile models may not provide enough cushioning for sleeping on rocky or uneven surfaces.
- Is the pump external or internal? Keep in mind that external pumps often require campers to haul additional parts in their backpack, whereas internal pumps do not feature separate components.
- What is the pump mechanism? Every camper has different preferences, but a manual pump may present difficulty after long hikes.
- Is the cover flocked? Flocked covers tend to keep sleepers warmer than non-flocked covers, and also provide traction that prevents them from slipping off the surface.
- Is the cover waterproof and/or antimicrobial? Treated covers provide better protection in adverse camping conditions.
Punctures and air leaks are to be expected when using an air mattress, but proper home storage and pre-trip preparation can greatly mitigate the risk of these issues.
Storing an air mattress: Air mattresses should never be stored in areas that are excessively hot or cold, or humid spaces that are prone to dampness and moisture buildup. Additionally, owners should ensure that there aren’t any sharp objects under, on top of, or in physical contact with the mattress. They should also keep dogs, cats, and other clawed pets away from the mattress. Even superficial knicks can cause significant air leakage.
Air mattresses should be fully deflated when stored. This will help preserve the integrity of the internal air chamber, and is also helpful for conserving space.
Carrying cases can be quite handy for home storage, and many models come with these accessories. They provide extra protection against moisture and sharp objects. If the mattress does not come with a case, they are widely available through outdoor and sporting goods retailers.
Maintaining inflation: Air mattress owners should plan to inflate the bed every time they plan to use it, although full inflation may not be necessary. More importantly, users should avoid over-inflating the mattress; this can lead to tears, leaks, and undone seams. Most self-inflating air mattresses will never over-inflate, but other air pumps are susceptible to this issue because they are owner-operated.
Many air mattress manufacturers recommend inflating and deflating the mattress at least once before using it. This will break in the air chambers, and can also help owners identify any leakage issues before they plan to sleep on it.
Fixing leaks: Many air mattresses come with vinyl leak repair or patching kits. If not, they are widely sold in outdoor and sporting goods stores, and are usually sold for $10 or less.
To repair an air mattress leak, follow this step-by-step process:
- Find the source of the leak by feeling the surface or listening for hissing sounds.
- After locating the leak (there may be more than one), fully deflate the mattress and allow it to rest for several minutes. This will help ensure all of the air is gone.
- Apply sealant from the repair kit to the leak on the exterior of the mattress, and then let the sealant set for at least five minutes.
- Administer at least one additional layer of sealant; when in doubt, add more. Three layers is sufficient for most leaks.
- Place a patch over the leak; it should stick to the sealant. Press the patch down to remove air bubbles.
- If the leak persists, repeat steps 2 through 5, adding more sealant and another patch to the same spot. This may work in the short-term, but owners may want to consider having the air mattress inspected and professionally repaired when they return home.
One important note: never submerge the air mattress in water in order to find the leak. This may cause irreparable damage to the air chamber, nozzle, and/or other internal and external mechanisms. However, applying liquid soap to the surface may be helpful for locating the leak, as air bubbles will form wherever a puncture occurs.