The Best Car Camping Mattress
What is the best car camping mattress available on the market today? To find out, we tested nine of the most popular and highly regarded mattresses for car camping head-to-head to determine the best one. We tested these mattresses by sleeping on them in our car and in our tent at campgrounds and bivy spots throughout the mountain west. We loaned them out to friends and family so that we could hear opinions from many different people, rolled them out in the living room when guests came over to visit, and were sure to inflate them all at the same time so they could truly be tested side-by-side. Throughout our tests we graded each mattress based on five metrics – comfort, ease of use, warmth, versatility, and packed size – to best determine which is the very best one.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
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Analysis and Test Results
Car camping mattresses are not your everyday sleeping pads. While sleeping pads for backpacking are designed to be small and lightweight, providing just enough comfort to keep you happy in your tent without being a b*@ch to carry, these mattresses are designed for excess. After all, if you don't have to carry it anywhere, why would you want just the basics? These mattresses are huge, both in terms of size and loft. In many cases they are nicer than what people use in their own homes, especially compared to dirtbags sleeping on a bouldering pad. These contenders are the pinnacle of inflatable luxury. This level of comfort is worth its weight in gold if you live in a vehicle, often camp in your car or close to it, or are over the age of 26, when perfect recovery just doesn't happen if you are lying in the dirt.
We mentioned these mattresses are huge. Indeed, we tested only the XL versions of the leading manufacturers' highest end mattresses, because if we're looking for luxury, why would we choose anything less? The mattresses we tested are generally around 77 inches long by 30 inches wide for a single (6.5 feet by 2.5 feet). Inflated, they range from three to eight inches thick. With their giant size also comes a relatively high weight. While the lightest mattress tested was around three pounds, the heaviest were pushing ten. It is obvious that nothing was spared to make these mattresses as comfortable and rejuvenating as can be.
Types of Car Camping Mattresses
We tested nine of the best and most popular contenders in order to be able to recommend the best to you. In our selection, we noticed that these mattresses fit into three broad categories, described below.
Self-Inflating Single Mattresses
Three of the mattresses that we tested were self-inflating, single person mattresses. These generally conform to the standard inflatable mattress design, but on steroids. They tend to be 30 inches wide, which is a healthy amount of space for one person, but not enough for two. Their extra width means it can be a challenge to fit two of them into a two-person tent. They are self-inflating, meaning that if you open one of their valves and leave them stretched out on the ground, they will inhale much of the air needed to inflate themselves on their own. This typically takes a bit of time, and works because they are not simply filled with air, but also foam cushioning that makes them more comfortable, and also provides great insulation for warmth. With the valve or nozzle open, the compressed foam in a recently rolled out mattress will begin expanding to its normal density and fluffiness, sucking air into the mattress as it does. One must nearly always top them off by manually blowing into them at the end.
These mattresses tend to be ideal for almost any car camping situation, such as camping in a truck or van, throwing out on the bare ground, sleeping in a tent, or as a guest bed in a home. The mattresses that fit into this category are the Exped Megamat 10, the REI Camp Bed 3.5, and the Therm-a-Rest Luxury MAP.
Double Mattresses and Air Beds
Not wanting to discriminate against couples, we also chose four beds that are double person width. For the most part, these mattresses are of the air bed variety, although one mattress, the Exped SIM Mega Mat Duo, is a double width self-inflating mattress, just like those described above.
Air beds are the thickest and also most affordable car camping mattress option. They are huge inflatable mattresses that use a battery powered or manual pump to inflate and are filled only with air. Without foam filling, they are lacking in warmth and the dampening effect of the foam, meaning they are much squishier than insulated self-inflating mattresses. These options are great for summer time camping or as an extra guest bed around the house. We have also known plenty of people who have and do use them as their primary mattress at home due to the low cost. The models we reviewed are the REI Relax Airbed, the Lightspeed 2-person, and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed.
Adaptable Air Pads with Foam Covers
Two of the car camping mattresses we reviewed fit into this category, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream and the Big Agnes Sleeping Giant. Essentially, these mattresses consist of a lightweight, inflatable backpacking air mattress paired with a piece of memory foam on top and a zip over soft cover. They are adaptable and versatile because you can remove the backpacking mattress and use it by itself should you want to, and then use the cover for added comfort and warmth when camping at the car. It is worth noting that the while the NeoAir Dream comes as one complete package (sleeping pad and cover), Big Agnes sells the Sleeping Giant and the air mattress to go inside it separately.
Criteria for Evaluation
In order to most accurately decide which is the best car camping mattress, we tested and rated each one based on five metrics: Comfort, Ease of Use, Warmth, Versatility, and Packed Size. For each metric we awarded between one and 10 points, mostly based upon comparing them to the other products in the review. Then we weighted the score of each metric to reflect what considerations are most important to the use and function of a car camping mattress. These considerations, how we weighted each score, and the best and worst performers for each metric are described in more detail below.
If a mattress isn't comfortable, why would you even consider using or buying it? With this question in mind, we rated comfort as the most important metric in our tests, weighting it 40 percent overall. Comfort is a subjective thing; some people like a very firm sleeping surface, while others want a fluffy down pillow top to rest on. With this in mind, we made sure that it was possible to adjust the firmness of every mattress, and it was, although a couple of them were difficult to inflate full enough that they felt very firm. Besides simply sleeping on them for a night and then deciding whether it felt comfortable or not, we also thought about whether each mattress felt good lying on the back and the sides, whether they held their air all night or deflated a bit with time, and whether there was ever any chance of pressuring through to the ground (there wasn't).
To test for comfort, we used each product while car camping, either in the back of a van, truck, or in a tent, and also loaned them out to as many different testers as we could find. We also had house guests sleep on them inside on the floor of the living room, to get more opinions on which mattress is truly the most comfortable. Lastly, we lined all of the mattresses up side-by-side and spent an afternoon rolling around from mattress to mattress, closely comparing the merits and detractions of each so as to make sure we got the decisions correct.
After a bit of debate, we felt that the Exped Megamat 10, our Editors' Choice Award-winner as the best car camping mat, was the most comfortable. The Exped Megamat Duo, which is essentially the same mat but twice as wide, felt equally as comfortable. Least comfortable, compared to the other products in the test, was a tie between the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed and the Lightspeed 2-person, although they still provided a relatively good night sleep, much better than without the bed!
Ease of Use
We considered ease of use to be the second most important metric behind comfort, and weighted it 20 percent of the products' final score. Who wants to wrestle with deflating and packing up a huge mattress when all you want to do is get out of camp and go have fun? Likewise, nobody wants to spend an hour manually blowing up a giant mattress with the power of their lungs – that is not an easy task! So ease of use is meant to rate how easy it is to set up the mat, get it inflated, and then deflate it and stow it away again in the morning. To test this metric, we simply used each of these mattresses a number of times in different situations, and then again set them all up at the same time, one after the other, to more closely analyze the nuances between each one.
It was quickly apparent what mattresses were a total breeze to inflate and deflate, and which other ones we literally (at times) spent 10 minutes, or more, wrestling with. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream was very simple to roll out, quickly inflate, and then deflate and roll up again. Likewise, the Lightspeed 2-person air bed and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed, with their battery operated inflation pumps, were very simple to set up and take down. On the opposite end of the spectrum were the two Exped Megamat mattresses. They didn't self inflate quickly, and the manual mini-pump included required a lot of time to fully inflate these behemoth pads. But setup is a breeze compared to the battle required to get them deflated and rolled up properly, especially in the case of the Megamat Duo.
With a goose down or synthetic insulated sleeping bag around you, warmth should not be any concern. But what about underneath you, where your body weight crushes out the heat-trapping loft needed to keep you snuggly warm? Although easily overlooked, the thermal properties of your sleeping pad play a large part in how warm, or cold, you will be sleeping out in the wilderness. Not convinced? Try sleeping outside with 8 inches of un-insulated 40 degree air under your body and see how it feels. For this review, we did, and it was cold!
The truth is, we didn't realize just how important the insulating properties of our sleeping pad was until two particular early fall nights camping in near freezing temperatures at high altitudes. The first night we slept on an un-insulated inflatable air bed, and despite being cocooned in 800-fill goose down, we were awake and cold all night long. The next night we shifted beds and chose a mattress with an R-value of 6, and boy did it make a difference! We slept like a dream that night, and understood by morning the difference that insulation can make. With this experience in mind, we assigned warmth as 20 percent of a product's final score.
To rate for warmth, we started with our anecdotal experiences like the one described above. But memories and feelings weren't quite enough to truly rate which mattresses were the warmest of all, so we relied heavily on the manufacturers' stated R-values. R-values are described in greater detail in our Buying Advice Article, but suffice it to say that the larger the number, the greater ability that material has to insulate against both heat and cold. The warmest, and most insulated car camping mattresses were the two Exped Megamats. The coldest, least insulated mattresses, which did indeed cause us a bit of suffering outside in the mountains, even in summer, were the three air beds – ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed, REI Relax Airbed, and the Lightspeed 2-person.
Versatility is a metric that takes a lot of different factors into consideration, including some of the other things we rated for. In a nutshell, the most versatile mattresses are the ones that best answer this question: Can I use this pad right now, no matter what the activity or season? Our Top Pick for Convenience, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream, makes an excellent case for always answering that question with a yes. It packs down very easily into a relatively small bag, making it easy to carry around. Its setup and take down is very simple, it has good insulating properties, and it has the ability to separate into solely a compact, lightweight, backpacking sleeping pad. It also has some qualities that other mattresses don't, like straps designed specifically to help marry two single pads together to form one. The Big Agnes Sleeping Giant system, paired with a QCore SLX backpacking air mattress, proved to have the same level of versatility.
From the above description of what a very versatile mattress has, you can probably imagine what the opposite end of the spectrum looks like. Heavy, bulky, difficult, un-insulated, etc. causing one to carefully consider whether conditions and activities are appropriate for bringing the car camping mattress. And the reality is you only want one mattress, so you don't want to think, "Maybe I can't use it this time." The least versatile car camping mattresses, compared to all the others that we tested, were the trio of air beds, in part because they absolutely depended on their various methods of battery, mechanical, or electrical inflation systems. We can't imagine having to blow one of those babies up with our lungs alone. Their total lack of insulation was also a large part of this assessment. Overall, we weighted versatility as 10 percent of a product's final score – a nice boost for those products with extra advantages, but not too punishing for those without.
The last and final metric that we assessed each of these products for is packed size. Even in your car there is only a limited amount of room for lugging all the camping gear around, especially if you have a family. While it is reasonable to expect that the pinnacle of luxury is not going to pack down to the size of peanut butter jar, a person has to be practical when considering how large of a camping mattress they can actually bring with them. For that reason, we lined all the mattresses in their stuff sacks up side-by-side and rated them based on what was the largest (lowest score) and smallest (highest score).
As you can see by the photo, the Exped Megamat Duo was far and away the largest packed up mattress, almost so big as to seem preposterous. It is pretty much double the size of the next largest packed mattress. The smallest was the Lightspeed 2-person Airbed, and considering its double width, that is a good size to sleeping comfort ratio. We weighted Packed Size as 10 percent of a product's final score.
Choosing the right car camping mattress for your needs can be challenging, and there are many things to consider. After deciding whether you prefer a single or double mattress, the most difficult decision may revolve around how much you would like to (or are willing to) spend on your bed away from home. Like real mattresses, some of the choices described here can be pricey. But keep in mind: you like to play hard (otherwise you wouldn't be browsing this site), and the most important aspect of playing hard is being able to recover. A decadently comfortable mattress will help you get the best night sleep you can while on the road, and help ensure you wake up refreshed enough to go at it again the next day. With this in mind, isn't a little added expense worth it? We hope that this review has helped you narrow down the selection to choose what is best for you, and we encourage you to check out our Buying Advice Article for more in-depth information about the buying process or these products in general.
— Andy Wellman
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