Last Updated on May 10, 2021
Many people think of camping as “roughing it,” but if you come prepared with the right gear, you can sleep just as well outside as you do at home. The key, of course, is ensuring that you have a quality sleeping system set up so you can catch some Zs in your tent at night.
One of the many challenges that campers face when packing their gear for an upcoming trip is deciding between a cot vs air mattress vs sleeping pad for camping.
Although these pieces of gear might all seem similar, they each have a specific set of advantages and disadvantages for your adventures.
To help you decide which of these three great sleeping systems is right for your needs, we’re going to take a deep dive into the pros, cons, and best uses of cots, air mattresses, and sleeping pads.
Let’s get to it!
What Is A Cot?
A cot is an elevated sleeping surface that can be folded down for storage or transport. They normally have a durable steel or aluminum frame with a thick piece of canvas or ripstop polyester stretched over the top.
Cots are used in many different situations, including during overland camping trips, for family sleepovers, at cabins, and even in the military. However, in the world of outdoor adventure, cots are most commonly used during car camping trips and any outing where you stay fairly close to a car or road.
What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Using A Cot Vs Air Mattress?
Sleeping cots are versatile pieces of gear, which is one of the reasons why they’re so popular among campers. However, like any piece of outdoor equipment, cots have their own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s what you need to know.
When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, cots come with no shortage of benefits, including:
- Elevated sleeping surface. One of the key benefits of using a cot vs a pad is that you get to sleep on an elevated sleeping surface that’s about 11 to 18 inches (28 to 46 cm) off the ground. This raised platform is much easier to get in and out of than a sleeping pad that’s placed on the ground, which can be particularly advantageous to folks with limited mobility. Plus, most of us sleep on mattresses at home that are raised on a bed frame, so a cot is more similar to what we’re used to in our daily lives.
- Air Circulation. As a result of being raised off of the ground, cots allow for ample airflow under our body at night. This is helpful on hot days when air can circulate under you, keeping you cool as you sleep.
- Extra Gear Storage. Since camp cots are raised off of the ground, you can also store extra gear underneath them at night. Doing so helps to de-clutter your tent, providing you with extra space to kick back and relax. Many cots come with storage pockets that keep your smaller bits of gear organized on the go.
- Seating Space. Even if you’re not lying down on your cot, you can still use it as a bench for sitting down and relaxing. This versatility is helpful if you have a small tent and limited space for extra gear, like a camp chair.
- Comfort. Are camping cots comfortable? Many campers find cots to be very comfortable to sleep on, particularly if you like to sleep on your back, as cots tend to be fairly taught sleeping surfaces. Comfort is subjective, of course, but it’s also fairly easy to increase the comfort of a cot just by placing a pad or small air mattress on top.
- Can Be An All-In-One Shelter. Some cots, known as tent cots, are actually all-in-one shelter systems that you can use to get out and explore. Using a tent cot can help you keep your gear to an absolute minimum because you can pack just one piece of equipment for all your sleeping needs. These come in standard tent cot and also in light and ultralight tent cot versions that are better suited for backpacking.
While cots are incredibly popular in the camping world, it’s important to remember that they do have their disadvantages. These include:
- Weighty and Bulky. Perhaps the biggest drawback to using a cot vs air mattresses or camping pads is that they're big and heavy. While you certainly can get some lightweight and highly portable cots out there, these are the exception, rather than the rule.
- Can Be Expensive. Camp cots tend to be fairly expensive, especially if you’re looking to get a double cot or a tent cot. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, especially if we start to look at the world of high-end inflatable sleeping pads. In general, though, cots tend to be fairly pricey.
- Not Ideal For Winter. Due to the fact that cots are elevated off of the ground, they’re not ideal for winter camping, unless you take some special precautions to ensure that you stay warm at night. Often, you simply need to place a pad on top of your cot for added insulation, but on very cold nights, you may need two pads, instead. Check out this video from Kullcraven Bushcraft & Survival on winter camping on a camp cot for some ideas:
When Should I Use A Cot For Camping?
Camping cots, like all pieces of gear, are designed for a specific purpose, namely, car camping and overland adventures.
While cots are comfortable and convenient, they are a bit heavy and bulky, which limits their usefulness in a backcountry context. Therefore, if you’re looking to plan a family camping trip at your local campground or you’re road-tripping, a cot might be a solid choice.
What Is An Air Mattress for Camping?
An air mattress, as the name suggests is an inflatable mattress. They’re commonly used both in campgrounds and at home for guests or children’s sleepovers, as they come in a wide range of sizes, from a standard twin mattress all the way up to a king.
It’s important to note, however, that air mattresses and inflatable sleeping pads are not the same thing. In standard camping jargon, the term ‘air mattresses’ refers to a larger mattress-esque sleeping system that requires a pump to blow up.
These air mattresses tend to be much larger and heavier than their inflatable camping pad counterparts. Indeed, inflatable sleeping pads are more commonly used by backpackers and mountaineers and we’ll talk about them in more detail when we discuss the benefits and drawbacks to using them.
What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Using An Air Mattress Vs A Cot?
Air mattresses are very common in many car camping environments, but, like all pieces of gear, they come with their own set of pros and cons. Up next, we’ll break down the advantages and disadvantages of using a cot vs an air mattress.
Air mattresses are fantastic for use in certain camping situations. Here’s why:
- Comfort Is King. Although comfort is subjective, many people, including side sleepers, back sleepers, and folks that like to sleep on their stomach, find that air mattresses are the most comfortable option. Why? Well, it’s generally because they are quite thick - usually about 2 to 8 inches (5 to 20 cm). Moreover, you can often adjust their firmness as you pump them up. Overall, they provide the most in terms of bed-like comfort at night.
- Relatively Portable. Although they’re not as portable as pads (more on that in a minute), air mattresses are generally much more portable than cots. This is because most of them are designed to fold down to a compact size that’s just not possible with a rigid cot.
- More Sleeping Space. Depending on the size that you purchase, you often get more sleeping space with one of these than a cot. Indeed, your standard single cot is generally smaller than your standard twin size air mattress, which might be a concern for larger campers or anyone that tosses and turns in the night.
- Increased Insulation. Air mattresses actually do a surprisingly good job of insulating you from the cold ground. This is helpful if you’re camping at higher elevations or in colder locales, as the ground can quickly and efficiently conduct heat away from your body. Keep in mind, though, that the thicker the mattress, the better it’s likely to be at insulation.
- No Annoying Center Bar. Many (but not all) double cots have a bar running down the middle of the sleeping area for added structure and rigidity. This is great from an engineering point of view, but not so great from a sleeping comfort perspective. Unlike double cots, however, full, queen, and king size air mattresses have no bar running down the middle, so you can lie down wherever you want on the bed without affecting your comfort levels.
Although air mattresses have their benefits, when it comes to comfort and insulation, there are some drawbacks to using them while camping, such as:
- Leaks & Punctures. Air mattresses, by virtue of being filled with air, are prone to leaks and punctures in rugged outdoor environments. Thankfully, most high-quality mattresses are quite durable, though leaks and punctures are just a fact of life.
- No Gear Storage Options. Since air mattresses are placed directly on the ground, they don’t offer much in the way of gear storage. This can also be problematic if you’re camping in a small tent that doesn’t have much extra floor space for storing your gear.
- Often Require Electricity. Unlike inflatable sleeping pads, which can often be blown up manually with the breath, and cots, which just need to be unfolded, most air mattresses require some sort of electricity source for set up. Unless they come with a battery-powered pump, you’ll usually need access to an electrical hookup in order to inflate them. This can be problematic at some campgrounds, as many tent sites don’t have electricity available.
- Heavy. Although mattresses are usually more compact than their cot cousins, they do tend to be quite heavy. This is partially due to the weight of the thick mattress fabric, but also because you often need to pack a pump, which can be quite hefty, depending on the model.
When Should I Use An Air Mattress For Camping?
Air mattresses are ideal for campers that plan to stick close to the road since they’re fairly heavy pieces of gear. Moreover, they’re best used in campgrounds where you have access to electricity for the setup process.
When deciding if a cot or an air mattress is best for your camping trip, however, your biggest consideration is often whether you’d like the added comfort that comes with a mattress or the extra versatility and gear storage inherent in a cot.
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer as to whether an air mattress or a cot is better for car camping or overland adventures. It all comes down to the specifics of your trip and your unique camping needs.
What Is A Camping Pad?
The final option for camping is the sleeping pad. These are essentially pieces of padding and insulation that are placed directly on the ground. They are designed to be highly compact, particularly when compared to cots and air mattresses, though some are more portable than others.
There are three main types:
- Foam Sleeping Pads. Perhaps the simplest camping sleeping solution, a good foam pad is made from a thick layer of dense, closed-cell foam, apart from self-inflating models. These pads are generally quite affordable, relatively lightweight, and surprisingly durable. While they’re not the best in terms of comfort and they are quite bulky, they are pretty good at keeping you warm at night.
- Inflatable Sleeping Pads. Inflatable pads, which are also called air pads, are sort of like a more compact version of an air mattress. Like an air mattress, they are designed to be, well, inflated. However, they are usually blown up with your own breath or with a very compact hand pump. These tend to be quite pricey, but in terms of insulation, comfort, and portability, they take the cake.
- Self-Inflating Sleeping Pads. Self-inflating pads are basically a hybrid between the foam and inflatable pads. They have a central layer of open-cell foam in the middle for insulation and comfort, but they can also be partially inflated for increased warmth and better control over the firmness of your sleeping surface. These pads offer a good mix of value for money and comfort, though they are usually heavier and less compact than their air pad counterparts.
What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Using A Sleeping Pad Vs Cot Or Air Mattress?
Despite being a common part of any backpacking or mountaineering packing list, it’s important that you know the advantages and disadvantages of picking a sleeping pad vs a cot. This is what you need to keep in mind.
Although each of the three types of camping pads has their own unique advantages, there are some benefits of using a sleeping pad vs a cot or air mattress that are nearly universal, including:
- Lightweight. A near-ubiquitous benefit of using a pad over any other sleeping system while camping is that they are lightweight. Even the heaviest of them are generally substantially lighter than the lightest of cots or mattresses, sometimes by upwards of 1 to 2 pounds (450 to 900g). Now, this might not seem like a lot of weight, but it does make a difference if you’re backpacking or if you have to carry your gear over a long distance. Indeed, the lightest inflatable pads on the market weigh just 6oz (170g), while still being surprisingly comfortable.
- Compactness. In addition to being lightweight, the vast majority of them are very compact and highly portable. This is particularly true among the inflatable and self-inflating versions, but it is also a fair assessment of the foam ones. Many inflatable and self-inflating models pack down to the size of a 1L water bottle, while others are just about the size of a can of soda. Meanwhile, the most compact of foam pads are about 4x12 inches (10x30cm).
- Versatility. These pads have the added benefit of being highly versatile. In reality, there’s no situation where it’s impractical to use them, as they’re portable enough to be taken into any terrain. Of course, you may find that an air mattress or cot is more comfortable, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them in these situations. In fact, they can be used to provide extra padding or warmth on a cot or for increased insulation when hammock camping.
Despite all of these great advantages, sleeping pads do have their drawbacks. Here are some of the ways that they don’t quite stack up to air mattresses and camping cots:
- Comfort. While there are certainly some very comfortable models out there (especially if you opt for an inflatable one), it’s hard to argue that they’re more comfortable than an air mattress or a cot in most situations. Since pads tend to be quite small, they just don’t offer as much in terms of wiggle room, particularly for larger campers.
- Warmth. Unless you purposefully buy one with a high R-value (a measure of insulation in sleeping pads), an air mattress is likely to be the warmer option in the winter months.
- No gear storage. Unlike cots, which are elevated off the ground, pads are traditionally placed onto the ground. This means that you lose out on the gear storage space that comes with using a cot.
- Leaks & Punctures. Just like an air mattress, inflatable and self-inflating camping pads are prone to leaking and puncturing. So, if you’re going to camp with one of these models, be sure to bring a small repair kit with you on your travels.
- Difficult to get in and out of bed. One of the most common issues that people have with sleeping pads is that they’re difficult to get in and out of. Although this is also partially true of air mattresses, most of these pads are only 1 to 4 inches (2.5 to 10cm) thick, which means they can be tricky to get up from in the morning. For folks with limited mobility, a low-profile pad just might not be the best option.
When Should I Use A Sleeping Pad For Camping?
Overall, they are best used in situations where you need to carry your gear or whenever weight savings are of the essence. Since they are compact and highly portable, these pads are a nice choice for backpacking, mountaineering, canoe trips, or any other backcountry adventure.
They’re also a nice option if you’re looking to buy just one sleeping system for all your camping needs. While you’ll likely find that a camping cot or an air mattress is the more comfortable option for car camping, sleeping pads are versatile enough to be used in any context.
At the end of the day, there’s no one answer to whether a cot vs air mattress or sleeping pad is the best choice. Although you’ll hear plenty of people give their opinion on this matter, it all comes down to what’s best for your unique situation.
If you’re looking to maximize your sleeping comfort while car camping, an air mattress might be your best choice. Alternatively, cots are best for folks that want an elevated sleeping surface. Finally, if portability is your chief concern, a sleeping pad is likely the right option.
Now that you understand the difference between these three pieces of gear, however, it’s up to you to determine which option is the best for your needs. Happy camping!