A good night’s sleep part three. Sleeping mats and camp beds.
No matter how amazing and warm and fluffy your sleeping bag may be, if you are lying directly on the ground, then you will be cold, uncomfortable and sleepless. The surface under your bag should provide insulation from the cold and cushioning to smooth the bumps from the hard surface. There are three main options to look at and most people will have used a couple of these at some point in their camping lives. All of these categories have options for both family camping at a site and backpacking over mountains and some people like to combine different things to give the most luxurious mattress possible. Just bear in mind that ‘roughing it’ is voluntary. With the right gear nobody has to wake up from a cold, restless night feeling like they were badly beaten whilst asleep.
Lots of people use airbeds and they can certainly be the cheapest way to improve overnight comfort and get yourself up off the deck. Traditionally these were made by gluing thin sheets of rubber together and adding a cotton or polycotton outer. These days the, more expensive, rubber has given way to heat bonded vinyl and the cotton has been replaced by a polyester flock finish which cuts production costs and keeps the price down. Airbeds suffer from a couple of major drawbacks and these go a long way to explaining why lots of people trade up to other options but very few trade down to go back to airbeds. One problem is that they have very poor insulation properties. Air circulates freely within the airbed through convection. Warm air isn’t trapped against the body of the sleeper but moves away through the action of convection. This means that the sleeper is lying on top of a reservoir of endlessly replenished cold air. The lack of support is a feature of airbeds also, making them firmer is just a very expensive thing to do so virtually no company bothers. Kids don’t seem to notice or care but lots of adults aren’t so lucky. The biggest weak spot of most airbeds though is their ability to lose air overnight. Lots of us have woken prematurely to find ourselves flat on the floor. Some beds have built in pumps to combat this but electricity isn’t always available. Kids using them for trampolines is sometimes the problem, as our demo stock would testify, but really there are just limits to the strength of the vinyl bonding process and leaks can occur.
Pros. Cheap, easy to find, packable.
Cons. Cold, unreliable, need a pump, unsupportive.
Self-Inflating mats. (SIMs)
The first self-inflating mat hit the market in 1972. Designed by three Boeing engineers who were fed up sleeping on the thin, closed cell foam, mats that were all that was available to backpackers and climbers at the time. It was inspired by a gardening mat and was dubbed the “Therm-a Rest.” Essentially this is a big flat bath sponge stuck between two layers of airtight fabric and with a valve in one corner. The original Therm-a-Rest went on to become a staple of the outdoor adventure world and completely changed the market. They have been used on every continent and every mountain range, desert, glacier and forest you could think of. These first mats and the copies that followed were all aimed at the lightweight, backpacker and so they were all between three and five centimetres thick. Warmer and more comfortable than a foam mat but hardly luxurious. Incredibly it was many years before companies started bringing out much thicker versions that felt more like a home mattress, for those people who did their camping at serviced sites and who transported their gear in a car rather than a rucksack.
Oh! But when they did! We now have mats over fifteen centimetres thick with all kinds of foam up to the highly thermally efficient, memory style and you can choose from single, XL or double size versions. There are budget options for kids at scout camp and plush ones for parents who want to wake up feeling like a ray of sunshine. The insulation level, even on the thinner ones, is good enough to use for camping on snow. The support is good but if you prefer a softer mattress then just squeeze some air out of the valve. All in all, these are hard to beat for a simple comfort solution for campers. When you inflate one of these for the first time, they take a long time to inflate as they have generally been compressed for ages. Ideally, they shouldn’t be stored compressed but as most houses don’t have a spare room for camping mats this is not always possible in the real world. After purchasing and before heading off on a trip it is good to open the valve and leave them to inflate from the day before. This means that the inflation time on the day is much reduced.
Pros. Warm, supportive, reliable, prices start quite low.
Cons. Bulky in the thicker versions, high end ones can be pretty expensive.
Originally used by armies as portable bedding for soldiers, mainly officers, these have evolved into different types from the fairly spartan original template and offer a bed height that is closer to normal. Being off the ground gives a bit more spring under you and for anyone with back issues it makes camping possible where sleeping at ground level wouldn’t be an option. As with SIMs there are loads of options now and loads of prices so it is just a case of picking to suit your budget and your needs. The basic design like the Vango Hush comes in at under twenty-five euro. It is perfectly adequate but is a little restrictive for bigger adults. Outwell have the Posadas in a more substantial XL as well as a double bed option. For those looking at the most minimal option both Helinox and Therm-a-Rest have incredibly lightweight camp beds that pack away into very small bags. These are ideal for backpacking but also for anyone whose car is already stuffed to the limits on a trip away to a campsite. Be aware that if your tent has quite sloping walls then the higher beds like the posadas, may bring your face up to the fabric or press the inner walls of the tent against the flysheet. If this happens then a lower bed or evicting people from your tent may work better.
Few camp beds, apart from the Robens Tala, are insulated in any way. For reasons of breathability in hot conditions and keeping the pack size down as much as possible the sleeper usually lies on an unlined sheet of fabric or even mesh. Many people get around this by simply putting a SIM on top of the camp bed. This certainly adds a bit to the bulk and the expense but can make for a very comfortable set-up. Normally though I would recommend starting out with one or the other and seeing how you get on rather than buying two of everything right from the outset. When using a camp bed, it is worth putting something under the feet to protect the groundsheet.
Pros. Higher bed height. Lots of options, prices start quite low.
Cons. Not usually insulated, can take up a lot of space, prices don’t stay low.
The original backpacker’s mattress and, in basic form, unchanged in decades. Known to me throughout my youth as a Karrimat this is a length of dense, closed cell foam that provides insulation from the cold ground. Cheap ones would be less substantial and less effective than the better options but the technology was the same. They tend to lose some insulation over time as the foam compresses but that is really only an issue for regular campers. Historically they would rise quite a bit in price as the performance improved but as SIMs grew to dominate the backpacking market, the better ones began to disappear and this is an area which tends towards the budget end of things.
Ironically most of the innovation in this area comes from the company that took away most of their market share. Therm-a-Rest have a couple of mats, the Ridgerest and Z-rest that make clever use of shape to create pockets in the foam which trap air and improve insulation for no weight penalty. These mats are made from non-absorbent closed cell foam which shouldn’t be confused with that used for yoga mats which use a highly absorbent open cell foam. The latter is designed to absorb sweat from your skin to prevent you slipping during exercise. This is the polar opposite of what you require from a sleeping mat. The last thing you need is a mat that ends up getting ever more damp throughout the night.
Pros. Simple, reliable, cheap.
Cons. Not great cushioning, not great insulation.
The only significant development in airbeds in decades came with the introduction of incredibly lightweight, blow up mats with a tiny pack size, by Sea to Summit and Therm-a-Rest. These incorporated inflation channels and extremely thin, high quality fabrics to give comfortable camping mats that would fit into a jacket pocket. Inevitably the competition increased and there are now lots of “Me too” versions on the market, not least the Vapor range from Outwell which starts at around sixty euro compared to the Sea to Summit option at almost double the price. There is no doubt that the dearer one is better you just have to decide how much “better” you are willing to pay for.
These are aimed squarely at the fast and light market. People who want to cover ground but don’t want to carry a heavy load or who don’t have much room for bulky gear. They are popular with hikers, cycle tourers, kayakers and motorbike riders. If you are not camping in this kind of company then these, good though they are, may well not be relevant.
Pros. Light, tiny pack size.
Cons. Standard size can be quite small, no low budget option available, may need a pump.
The first two parts of this series can be found here;