The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How to Choose the Best Car Camping Mattress

By Matt Bento ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Thursday October 25, 2018

What should you consider when purchasing a camping mat? After a lot of inflating, deflating, and even more sleeping, our testers have it pretty figured out. For a side-by-side rundown of the top 18 camping mats we tested, check out our Best Camping Mattresses Review. Here we'll discuss some of the finer points of mattress selection to help you choose the right pad. Study up! Some of these mats are expensive, but the right mat is a great investment in your sleep, health, and your future enjoyment of the outdoors.

Why Buy a Car Camping Mattress?


Sleeping on a car camping mattress is the next best thing to sleeping in your own bed, maybe even better depending on the mat. 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. Sleeping pads for backpacking are designed to be light and packable, at the sacrifice of comfort. Without such stringent weight or size parameters, designers can focus on comfort, resulting in a portable mattress that's as comfortable as a memory foam bed.

Some of these mats were more comfortable than our beds  but still pack down to fit in the trunk  or stow away in the closet.
Some of these mats were more comfortable than our beds, but still pack down to fit in the trunk, or stow away in the closet.

Camping mats 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! If your mat is being transported by a helicopter or a mule, then you can expect the best sleep anyone has ever had in the backcountry. 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 during your waking hours. 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 way into the wilderness or up a steep mountain face, we think you will be the happiest sleeping on a car camping mattress.

Types of Camping Mattresses


We've identified 4 different types of camping mats in our main review article, but here we'll go in depth about the differences, advantages, and disadvantages between backpacking sleeping pads, self-inflating air mattresses, air beds, and adaptable mattresses.

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 pads, 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. As technology advances, some of these pads have begun to approach the comfort levels found in the camping mat category, but none of them have the same amount of room to roll around. 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. A four-pound mattress on your back will ruin your trip real quick.

Self-Inflating Insulated Air Mattresses


Five 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. With their insulating properties, they are the best choice for colder weather. These mats also tend to be the most comfortable, all the ones we tested received high scores in the comfort metric. Some of these pads have so much foam that they are still comfortable, even if they puncture or tear and lose air. 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, Exped Megamat 7.5, the Exped MegaMat Duo 10, the Sea-to-Summit Comfort Deluxe SI, the REI Camp Bed 3.5, the Therm-a-Rest Dreamtime, and the Alps Mountaineering Outback.

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 five air beds featured in our car camping mattress review the REI Relax Airbed, the Lightspeed 2-person and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed and the Soundasleep Camping Series. 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 two are made of plasticized PVC, a tough material that is difficult to dispose of and very harmful to the environment. All four of these options are double beds, designed for two people, although one person can happily starfish on them as well. While large, if these pads lose a little bit of air, the edges can collapse, leaving you on the floor if you toss, turn, and roll around in your sleep. Additionally, there's the lightweight Nemo Nomad, a polyester constructed mat with an integrated foot pump for inflation. 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 did not keep us very warm, 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. Keep in mind that these motorized pumps can be loud, making it difficult to make friends with your neighbors and generally detracting from everyone's wilderness experience. 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 Dreamtime 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 Mat is Best for You


How will I use this mattress? How much can I spend? how much space do I have to store 1 or multiple camping mats? These are all good questions to start with. Also, consider the fact that all of the mats in our selection double as great guest beds adding some value to a product you thought you'd only use a few times a year.

What Size Mat 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. The five double mattresses in this review are the Klymit Insulated Double V, Exped MegaMat Duo 10, the Lightspeed 2-person, the REI Relax Airbed, and the ALPS Mountaineering Rechargeable Air Bed. Additionally, the Sea-to-Summit Comfort Deluxe is available in a double size, though we only have experience with the single size we tested.

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.

If a double mat is too big for you to travel with or to fit in the back of your vehicle, then 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 Dreamtime. The Megamat and the Sea-to-Summit Comfort Delux SI are available in regular or extra long/wide, giving you the option of being practical or really treating yourself.

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 air beds. The prices on these range from $100 to $130 and they are all reasonably close in terms of performance, although we liked the REI Relax Airbed slightly more than the other two. For $160, the Klymit Insulated Double V is a light and packable option for two, that is light enough for short backpacking trips.

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. A happy compromise; the super comfortable Sea-to-Summit Comfort Deluxe SI in its regular size is $169. 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 Dreamtime gets our top pick for convenience because its so easy to inflate, roll up, and store, plus you can remove the foam topper for a lighter but less comfortable pad for backpacking. It has 2 compression straps and a carrying strap connected to the underside, useful accessories that you won't lose.

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 Q-Core 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. This is a great way to add some comfort to the sleeping system you already own while saving a few bucks Buying both a Sleeping Giant and a Q-Core 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 Mat Selection?


There is still one more thing to consider that may affect what mattress you buy, and that's 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 you're primarily shopping for an indoor guest mat, don't worry so much about R-values. Again, the foam core mats come out on top, and many of these mats offer an R-value of 5 or higher, plenty to keep you warm in all but the coldest, bleakest camping conditions.

Air mats like the Nomad don't insulate as well as mats with foam in them because free circulating air is harder to keep warm than air trapped by foam or smaller air chambers.
Air mats like the Nomad don't insulate as well as mats with foam in them because free circulating air is harder to keep warm than air trapped by foam or smaller air chambers.

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 Air Beds in the test. All 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. If warmth is a priority for you we recommend passing on the air-beds and going with an insulated mat for all but the warmest climates.

Final Thoughts


We can't emphasize enough how much more comfortable these mats are than most sleeping pads designed for backpacking. While expensive, we feel it's worth it for the person in your life that is a reluctant outdoorsman, or the battle-hardened athlete of advanced age who just can't seem to get a good night's rest on a small backpacking pad anymore. So keep in mind your constraints, be they finances, climate, or storage space, and don't hesitate to purchase a camping mattress. It will greatly enhance your car camping experience, and having one of these on deck will bring a smile to the face of your next overnight guest.

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!


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