How to Choose the Best Car Camping Mattress

Testing mattresses one after the other to more easily compare the differences in how they feel. Hard not to drift off to sleep!
Article By:
Andy Wellman
Senior Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Monday

How do you choose which car camping mattress is the best for you to buy? After putting nine of the best and most popular models to the test over six months of relentless camping, we feel like we have a pretty good idea of what are the best options. Check out our findings in our Best Car Camping Mattress Review. In this article we will further describe the different categories of car camping mattresses in our test, and then lead you through a process of narrowing down the field for your specific needs.

Why Buy a Car Camping Mattress?


Sleeping on a car camping mattress is the next best thing to sleeping in your own bed. Since you can't take your bed with you when you travel on a camping trip, don't you want the next best thing? Car camping mattresses are designed with the same premises in mind as other camping mattresses: portability and reasonable packed size. To accomplish these dual goals, virtually all camping mattresses are inflatable. But where car camping mattresses differ from other types of sleeping pads is that they place comfort first, and make it the most important design consideration, at the expense of ideals such as weight or bulk. Compared to regular sleeping pads, which tend to place great emphasis on weight and size, making them easy to carry on a backpacking trip, car camping mattresses represent the luxurious upper end of the spectrum. Simply put, they are the Cadillac of sleeping pads.

Comparison testing the row of five single-person mattresses in this review  one after the other. Tested in exclusion for a whole night's sleep  we thought all of these mattresses were very comfortable. Only when laid out like this could we get very picky about which ones were truly the best.
Comparison testing the row of five single-person mattresses in this review, one after the other. Tested in exclusion for a whole night's sleep, we thought all of these mattresses were very comfortable. Only when laid out like this could we get very picky about which ones were truly the best.

Car camping mattresses are ideal for sleeping in the back of a truck, van, or camper. It is the optimal choice for tent camping near the car, especially in large family sized tents, and also as a spare mattress or extra sleeping option for house guests. As long as you are not the one carrying it on the way, it is also a great choice at base camps where an extended stay is inevitable. To be very clear, a car camping mattress is not practical for backpacking. They weigh a ton and generally only pack down into a roll the size of an army wall tent, i.e. not small at all! These mattresses are so much more comfortable than normal sleeping pads that they provide a much better quality of sleep, and will greatly enhance recovery from the long hard days of outdoor playing that you are partaking in when not sleeping. In general, they are XL sized, meaning they are considerably wider and longer than a normal sleeping pad. In short, unless you are carrying your sleeping pad a long ways into the wilderness or up a steep mountain face, we think you will be happiest sleeping on a car camping mattress.

Types of Camping Mattresses


There are a number of different types of camping mattresses, which we have briefly outlined in our main car camping mattress article. Below we will go into more detail on the features and strengths, or weaknesses, of each type, to better introduce you to what is available.

Backpacking Sleeping Pads


Check out our Best Sleeping Pad Review for an incredibly in depth and thorough look at this category. In general, these pads are designed to be as light as possible and pack down into very small sizes for carrying with you in the wilderness. They range from the simple, old-school foam pad, to thermal insulated inflatable single person mattresses. These pads tend to be a bit smaller, narrower, thinner, and lack extra foam padding on top or inside the construction of the mattress. All these attributes serve to keep them light and packable. This is the direction you want to look if you are planning to carry your pad on your back. None of the products in this review fit into this category.

Self-Inflating Insulated Air Mattresses


Four of the car camping mattresses in this review fit into the self-inflating insulated air mattress category. What this means is that they are inflatable, and they are also filled with insulating foam. The foam inside the mattress serves a couple of purposes. First of all, it directly insulates your body from the temperature of the ground, which will always be colder than your body. The second benefit is that it provides more stability and support to the mattress, ensuring it is also more comfortable. With only air filling a mattress, it can tend to feel a bit like a bouncy castle when you move around. Foam combined with air dampens this effect. These mattresses are more reliably comfortable than air beds, and are among the highest rated in this review. With their insulating properties, they are also the best choice for colder weather. The downside of these foam insulated air mattresses is that they are heavier and hard to pack down into a small size; they are among the bulkiest in our test. They are also among the most expensive. The mattresses that fit in this category are the Exped Megamat 10, the Exped MegaMat Duo 10, the REI Camp Bed 3.5, and the Therm-a-Rest Luxury MAP.

This mattress does not come with a pump  and so requires some good old fashioned manual inflating. The good news is that if you leave it unrolled with the valves open for a few minutes  the foam interior helps it self-inflate enough that we were able to completely top it off with only 11 breaths. Not too much work.
This mattress does not come with a pump, and so requires some good old fashioned manual inflating. The good news is that if you leave it unrolled with the valves open for a few minutes, the foam interior helps it self-inflate enough that we were able to completely top it off with only 11 breaths. Not too much work.

Air Beds


There are three air beds featured in our car camping mattress review, the REI Relax Airbed, the Lightspeed 2-person and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed. These air beds look like a real mattress (sort of), ranging in size from six to eight inches thick. Two of them are made of TPU laminates (short for Thermoplastic Polyurethane), a material that can best be described as slightly elastic plastic. The other one is made of plasticized PVC. All three of these options are double beds, designed for two people, although one person can happily starfish on them as well. The construction, and feeling, of lying on these beds is not unlike that of an inflatable raft. There is nothing but air on the inside, meaning that they do indeed lend themselves to the bouncy castle effect. If one person moves about, you can bet that the other person is going to feel something of the "shockwave" of air and material bouncing around underneath them. With no foam filling, they are capable of insulating you from the ground, but not from the temperature of the air inside the mattress. In our experience, these mattresses kept us cold in cold weather, making them best for summer use or inside the house. While they are heavy, they tend to pack down relatively small, and come with inflation options, either battery powered or manual, the save you from the unpleasant task of blowing up a huge mattress with your mouth. While they are the most affordable options in the review, they were also rated the lowest compared to the competition.

Inflating the mattress with the included mini air pump that runs off of four size D batteries. Good thing we looked at the pump before driving out to the remote campsite! Inflating with this pump was easy and took about four minutes.
Inflating the mattress with the included mini air pump that runs off of four size D batteries. Good thing we looked at the pump before driving out to the remote campsite! Inflating with this pump was easy and took about four minutes.

Adaptable Mattresses


Adaptability in this instance means that these mattresses can be used either for car camping or for backpacking in the wilderness. Two of the mattresses in this review fit into this category, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream and the Big Agnes Sleeping Giant. The construction of the mattress is what makes it adaptable, they are essentially backpacking sleeping pads paired with a slab of memory foam and soft, protective cover. By unzipping the cover, you have access to the sleeping pad within, and can remove it and use it by itself on a backpacking trip, thus saving bulk and weight. The versatility of being able to use these adaptable mattresses in either the car or the wilderness is nice, meaning you don't need multiple sleeping pads, but also comes with a price, as they are the most expensive in the review. Luckily, that price pays off in comfort and performance, as we rated these two pads among the best. While the NeoAir Dream is purchased as one unit, and then an extra stuff sack must be acquired to house the internal inflatable pad if it is removed, the Sleeping Giant is an add on unit that must be paired with a Big Agnes QCore sleeping pad (or any other inflatable sleeping pad for that matter) that is purchased separately or already owned.

Even if we had paired it with a 25 inch wide QCore mattress (we paired it with a narrow 20 inch wide)  the Sleeping Giant would still be about five inches narrower than the NeoAir Dream on the left.
Even if we had paired it with a 25 inch wide QCore mattress (we paired it with a narrow 20 inch wide), the Sleeping Giant would still be about five inches narrower than the NeoAir Dream on the left.

How to Choose Which Car Camping Mattress is Best for You


The simplest way to choose a car camping mattress is by pondering a few questions about how and where you intend to use this mattress, thereby narrowing down the selection. Consider the questions below and let us make our recommendations based on what you need.

What Size Mattress Do I Want?


This question essentially boils down to asking yourself whether you want a single person mattress or a double mattress. If you are one half of the world's most perfectly matched couple, then surely you will want a double mattress. Or, perhaps you are flying solo for now, but want the universe to know you are ready to meet your match? Double mattress. The four double mattresses in this review are the Exped MegaMat Duo 10, the Lightspeed 2-person, the REI Relax Airbed, and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed.

The Exped Megamat 10 sits on top of the Duo for a comparison of their sizes. These are essentially the exact same mat  but the Duo is wide enough for two people.
The Exped Megamat 10 sits on top of the Duo for a comparison of their sizes. These are essentially the exact same mat, but the Duo is wide enough for two people.

For everyone else who doesn't fit into the group above, you are probably looking for a single mattress. Maybe you are traveling solo and don't need the extra bulk of a double wide. Or perhaps your partner already has a car camping mattress, and you are so jealous that now you need one too, and so you are reading this review to make sure that you get one that is even better than theirs? Maybe you just don't have room in your custom van or tiny tent for more than a single. No worries! Rock one of these singles: the REI Camp Bed 3.5, the Exped Megamat 10, the Therm-a-Rest Luxury MAP, the Big Agnes Sleeping Giant, or the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream.

How Much Do I Want to Spend?


The mattresses in this review range in price from $120 all the way up to $350. That is a large range, but luckily the products are fairly evenly spaced out in between those two numbers.

If you are looking for a double mattress and money is no issue, then your decision has just been made — the Exped MegaMat Duo 10, which we awarded our Top Pick for Couples. On the other hand, if you are not keen to spend $350 on the best double mattress you can buy, you are then limited to the three air beds. The prices on these range from $100 to $130 and they are all fairly close in terms of performance, although we liked the REI Relax Airbed slightly more than the other two.

If you are looking for a single mattress, then you have a wide range of price points to choose from. If money is again no option, then we recommend choosing the best pad available, the Exped Megamat 10, which costs $219. However, if you are looking to make your money go as far is it can, consider the REI Base Camp 3.5, our Best Buy Award winner, which retails for a mere $129. This is an incredibly comfortable mattress for that low price. The curveball in this decision could be whether you wouldn't prefer one of the adaptable mattresses, which we discuss in the next paragraph.

Do I Want the Most Versatile Option?


There are two car camping mattresses in this review that we labeled and described as adaptable mattresses. They are called that because they are constructed in such a way that a simple inflatable sleeping pad can be removed from the inside and taken on a backpacking trip separately. If you are searching for a single-person mattress, and like the idea of adaptability, then these two pads are worth considering. Be warned, though, that they certainly come with a price.

The insides of this mattress are accessed by a zipper that runs along the full length of the side. This allows easy removal of the air mattress should one want to use it separately  or both of these pads can be removed if you want to launder the cover.
The insides of this mattress are accessed by a zipper that runs along the full length of the side. This allows easy removal of the air mattress should one want to use it separately, or both of these pads can be removed if you want to launder the cover.

The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Dream is our Top Pick for Convenience specifically because of its great adaptability. It also is very easy to blow up, deflate and pack up, and has one of the smallest packed sizes in the review. If you are interested in an adaptable pad and do not already own a backpacking sleeping pad that you are happy with, then this is the one that we recommend.

On the other hand, the Big Agnes Sleeping Giant is a mattress pad and cover that is added on to a backpacking sleeping pad that you already own. For our testing, we paired it with a Big Agnes QCore SLX pad, but the Sleeping Giant comes in many different sizes so you can pick a size that matches your pad and pair it with any pad you like. If you already own a sleeping pad that you are happy with, then this is the choice we would recommend. Buying both a Sleeping Giant and a QCore SLX new would cost you about $340 and would be by far the most expensive single pad in this review, but the Sleeping Giant pad and cover alone only costs $120.

Does Warmth Matter in my Mattress Selection?


By this point you probably already have a pretty good idea what mattress you are looking to buy based upon your personal needs, but there is still one more thing to consider that may affect what mattress you buy–warmth. In our experience, insulating properties in your mattress are essential for a good night's sleep if you are sleeping outside in temperatures lower than about 60 degrees. If this describes the weather that you will likely encounter when using your mattress, then choosing one with a higher R-value gains importance.

The Lightspeed 2-person perfectly fit in the back of our minivan  where we typically sleep while out camping. These inflatable beds are good options in the house  but we found them to be a bit cold for outside sleeping.
The Lightspeed 2-person perfectly fit in the back of our minivan, where we typically sleep while out camping. These inflatable beds are good options in the house, but we found them to be a bit cold for outside sleeping.

A Short Explanation of R-value
R-value is a term that is used by the construction industry to describe a material's thermal resistance. While calculating a material's exact R-value is more complicated mathematically than we are capable of explaining, it is enough to understand that R-value describes resistance to heat (or cold) transfer. The higher the R-value, the better the material is at insulating.

Where this comes into noticeable effect when choosing a mattress is with the three Air Beds in the test. All three of them have a stated R-value of 1.0. According to Wikipedia, this makes them more insulating than hardwood, bricks, or concrete, with roughly the same insulating properties as wood chips or snow. The rest of the mattresses in the test have an R-value range of 5 — 9.5. While 5 is certainly lower than 9.5, in our hands-on testing, we found that we stayed plenty warm sleeping on any mattress that wasn't an air bed, and felt pretty chilled sleeping high in the mountains of Colorado on an air bed, even in the summer. While we realize that air beds have some advantages, like double width and low cost, we would recommend you choose a different option if you intend to use this mattress frequently outside in any but the very warmest climates.

Final Thoughts


There are nine car camping mattresses described in detail in this review, and by now, after reading this article, we believe you probably have a pretty good idea of which one is best for you. We hope the questions and answers posed above have helped clarify the process for you, and you are happily on your way to car camping decadence with your new mattress. If you are still unsure, and want the most direct and simple advice that we would give to a friend, here it is: Oh great friend, choose one of the four award winning mattresses we recommend at the beginning of our Best Car Camping Mattress Review article, and we are sure you will not be disappointed.

The Megamat Duo perfectly fits in the back of a pickup truck  making for a wonderful night's sleep in a wonderful location!
The Megamat Duo perfectly fits in the back of a pickup truck, making for a wonderful night's sleep in a wonderful location!

Andy Wellman
About the Author
Andy Wellman is a mountain runner, backcountry skier, rock climber, mountain biker, hiker, and fly fisherman who lives in Ouray, Colorado, one of the most beautiful mountain towns in America. When not playing outdoors, he is usually writing, reading, sleeping, eating, or practicing yoga.

 
 

Follow Us




Unbiased.


You Might Also Like