Welcome to the great cot vs. air mattress debate! Campers and backpackers have long argued over which one is best.
For some, sleeping on a cot is the only option. Cots are durable, easy to set up, and they get you off the cold hard ground!
For others, air mattress camping is the only way to go. Air mattresses provide adjustable firmness, and they’re more versatile for families.
We’ll admit, we’re fans of cots for most situations, but that doesn’t mean air mattresses have no place. Below we’ll dive into this ageless debate and let you be the final judge. By the time we’re through, you should know precisely which one you want on your next outdoor adventure!
What is a Cot?
A camping cot, or camp bed, is a relatively lightweight and portable bed that people use when real beds aren’t available. You’ve probably seen cots in emergency shelters or military encampments. They have a wood or metal frame with fabric stretched over the top, usually nylon, canvas, linen, or polyester.
Many link cots and emergency or military shelters together in their minds, but cots are also ideal for recreational camping. They’re relatively easy to pack up and carry to outdoor destinations and provide a better night’s rest than sleeping on the ground.
The best camping cots feature easy-to-clean and durable material. Though camping cots of the past were often built of wood with canvas coverings. Today’s top-notch cots have rust-resistant aluminum frames and nylon or polyester coverings.
Aluminum is lightweight and does well in outdoor spaces. You don’t have to worry if it gets wet, and it’s inexpensive, keeping the price of the cot relatively low.
Technically speaking, canvas is more durable than either nylon or polyester, but it’s challenging to keep clean. So, aluminum frames with polyester or nylon coverings strike a happy balance between durability and ease of care.
Beyond that, the best cot will have either x or u-shaped construction. X-shaped models support more weight than their u-shaped counterparts. However, u-shaped models are gentler on tent bottoms. They distribute the sleeper’s weight more evenly, protecting the floor of your tent.
Advantages of Camping Cots
- Foldable and relatively lightweight designs make cots easy to carry when camping
- Keeps you off the ground, providing pest-free comfort
- Doubles as a bench, making it easier to lace up your hiking boots
- Suitable for rugged environments
Disadvantages of Camping Cots
- More expensive than other sleeping options (like air mattresses)
- Bulkier to store than other sleeping options
What is an Air Mattress?
An air mattress, or air bed, is an inflatable mattress. It’s usually made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), but sometimes they’re made with rubber.
Because they’re inflatable, air mattresses don’t take up much space. That makes them popular for camping and even home use. You can use them in a tent for your next outdoor adventure, as well as for overnight guests, without taking up too much real estate in your closet.
Air mattresses are generally affordable, though they’re not as durable as cots. Like any inflatable, an air mattress can pop!
Many models also require an air pump to blow them up. However, some of the best air mattresses are self-inflatable. Open a valve on the side, and they’ll blow themselves up. Of course, they’ll only reach a certain pressure point. So, you may need to adjust the firmness of the mattress with a hand pump or with your lungs.
Advantages of Air Mattresses
- Feels similar to your regular mattress
- Easy to store and pack
- You can customize the feel of your air mattress by inflating it more or less
- Very affordable
Disadvantages of Air Mattresses
- Prone to popping
- Might take up too much space in your tent
- Must be inflated to use, which may require extra equipment or serious lung capacity
- Not breathable, can be hot to sleep on in warm weather
Camping Cot vs. Air Mattress
At this point, you understand the fundamental differences between camping cots and air mattresses. You even know the general pros and cons. Still, you might not know which one is best for your next camping trip. So let’s dig a little deeper and give a complete comparison of these two sleeping configurations.
When it comes to setting up camp, there’s no doubt that cots are the better pick. All you have to do is unfold them! You may want to add a camping cot pad for extra comfort, but the set-up is minimal even then.
An air mattress, however, is a little more involved. Many air mattress models require a pump, and it will take time to inflate them. If you arrive at your camp after dark or later than expected, the extra time it takes to blow up your mattress can be frustrating. And the pump is often noisy, which many campers find infuriating.
That’s assuming you remember to bring the pump or have a self-inflating mattress. If you forget the pump when you need it, you could be in for a long night!
Even if you’re able to get your air mattress inflated using lung power alone, air mattresses are notorious for losing pressure overnight. That means you’ll waste time blowing your bed up throughout your trip! No outdoor enthusiast wants that!
Preferred Sleeping Position
Most adults prefer to sleep on their sides. Sleep position matters because different levels of mattress firmness work better with different positions.
Side sleepers typically prefer a mattress of medium firmness. Medium firmness keeps pressure off side sleepers’ hips and shoulders by allowing joints to sink into the bed just a bit.
Stomach sleepers do well with a soft or medium-firm mattress as well. It provides comfort while supporting their spine.
For back sleepers, an extra- firm sleeping surface is less of a problem. In fact, back sleepers do exceptionally well on extra-firm mattresses where their hips, spine, and shoulders can easily stay in line.
With a cot, you can’t really adjust the firmness. You can add a cot pad for extra comfort, but it’s going to be a firm bed overall. That means cots are ideal for back sleepers and some stomach sleepers, but they don’t work well for most adults.
The majority of adults sleep on their sides and will find more comfort with an air mattress, especially some of the newer models. An air mattress that features a foam-top will provide medium-firm support for side sleepers, alleviating pressure points and providing better sleep.
When you’re camping, bed storage space is often scarce. You have to bring food, water, clothing, and shelter into secluded locations. Sometimes you have to carry it all on your back! But even if you have a vehicle with you, everything you bring needs to be compact.
In this area, air mattresses win again. Inflatables are easy to roll up and carry. They take little trunk space, and they’re lightweight.
With a cot, you have to deal with a rigid frame. Even though aluminum is relatively light and cots are always foldable, they’re harder to pack than a deflated air mattress.
Of course, there are cots made with backpacking and hike-in camping in mind. They weigh as little as two pounds and sit very low to the ground. That keeps their frames from becoming too bulky and makes it so you can carry them in a pack.
Air mattresses still win for storage overall, but if you wanted a cot that’s easier to store and carry than most, this one by ALPS Mountaineering is an excellent option.
This may be obvious, but air mattresses and cots come in a range of sizes. Air mattresses are available in twin, double, queen, and king sizes. That means you can pick a size that works with your tent and situation.
If you’re camping with kids or simply a partner or spouse, sleeping on individual cots might not work well. A queen or king-size air mattress is probably the better option.
Cots are only available in single-widths. They’re made for one sleeper at a time, though they do come in a few different lengths, and there are double camping cots available. Don’t get confused, though. A double cot isn’t meant for two sleepers side by side; it looks more like a bunk bed and tends to work better with children and smaller adults.
So, a cot is excellent if you’re camping alone or with friends– anytime you don’t want to share a bed! An air mattress is better for families or camping with your significant other.
Durability is essential when it comes to camping equipment. Not only do you need a sleeping option that stands up to harsh and rugged elements, but you also need one that can handle long-term storage.
Camping cots are the clear winner in this regard. Sturdy aluminum, or even steel, frames, and tough fabric coverings can stand up to the elements. The most they’ll need is a little lubrication to keep the joints from squeaking after periods of disuse.
An air mattress, however, is prone to punctures and rips. All it takes is one ill-placed stick, and your air mattress is ruined! Unfortunately, puncture-promising sticks and sharp rocks that easily rip through PVC material are common in campgrounds.
Though many air mattresses come with a patch and glue to repair a one-off tear, they’re still not the most durable option. A cot will last longer without much in the way of special care and handling.
Air mattresses sit directly on the ground, which can be a problem. It makes for hot sleeping in some situations, and in others, it can be frigid and miserable.
Being in contact with the ground means there’s no air circulation, leading to sweaty sleeping in the summer heat. However, the ground can also be freezing during storms when water can easily pool under your tent. Sleeping on an air mattress at times like that can be an uncomfortable experience.
Cots avoid the ground problem by being elevated. Most cots sit somewhere between 4 and 22 inches off the ground. That space allows for airflow, keeping you cool in the summer and dry in the winter.
Being off the ground also keeps you away from pests that live in the ground. You’re less likely to be bitten or bothered on a cot than on an air mattress.
It’s also easier to get into a cot for many people. If you or anyone you’re with has trouble getting down on the ground due to arthritis or any other reason, an elevated cot is a great solution.
That said, there are workarounds for the air mattress elevation problem. Some air mattresses are self-elevating and sit on a 3-4 inch (7-10 cm) base, which lifts the actual mattress off the ground. Foam padding placed beneath the air mattress can also help.
As we touched on above, camping cots allow for better airflow, which helps with temperature regulation, and therefore heat retention.
A cot lifts you off the cold ground during winter, which can help you stay warm. That’s especially true if the soil is snow-covered or wet. By keeping you off the ground in the summer, you experience better airflow, which may help you stay cool.
In contrast, an air mattress will sleep hot in the summer and may be cold or even wet in the winter months. There’s no place for your body heat to escape on a PVC air mattress, making hot weather uncomfortable. Yet, if the ground is wet, your air mattress can quickly become cold.
The only time a cot faces problems with heat loss is when it’s both cold and dry. In that sort of environment, the increased airflow can make sleeping cold. However, it’s nothing a foam pad and wool blankets can’t combat.
Additional Things to Consider
There are a few more things to consider in the great debate between air mattresses and camping cots.
Air mattresses are better at preventing and possibly relieving back pain. That’s because you can adjust the firmness to fit your preferred sleeping position. However, they may have other health risks and downsides we often fail to consider, such as:
Mattresses made from PVC may emit VOCs. VOCs are volatile organic compounds that polyurethanes can emit. In large quantities, we know they can cause cancers, but VOCs can cause headaches, throat irritation, and other allergy-like symptoms even in smaller amounts.
Plastic surfaces tend to squeak with every movement. That can be incredibly annoying when you’re trying to sleep! Camping cots, on the other hand, tend not to have plastic in their construction. So, there’s no risk of VOCs or squeaks.
Air Mattresses Take Up More Space
Air mattresses tend to take up your entire tent. A cot, however, creates more usable space. The bed is raised so that you can place shoes or other things beneath it. And, cots usually have a hanging pocket, convenient for storing a flashlight or other at-hand necessities.
When To Use a Camping Cot
You should use a camping cot if:
- You’re camping alone or with friends, rather than a family or spouse
- You’re camping in a wet climate, where being elevated is ideal
- You want a sleeping option that will last a long time
- You’re camping in a hot environment where you want good airflow to sleep
- You want to avoid all possible pests and bugs
- You need a place to sit down while getting dressed
- You want a streamlined set-up
- You sleep on your back
Camping cots are ideal in many situations, especially if you’re camping on your own and in challenging terrain. They’re a little bulkier than air mattresses, though, and a little harder to pack and carry thanks to their rigid frames.
Looking for a lightweight, modern model will give you the best of both worlds. Some cots today weigh as little as two pounds. And with a cot pad, they can be comfortable, even if you’re a back or stomach sleeper.
When To Use an Air Mattress
You should use an air mattress if:
- You’re camping with a partner, spouse, or family
- You’re camping in a warm and dry climate
- You want a sleeping option that will work for overnight guests at home too
- You want adjustable firmness
- You sleep on your side or stomach
- You want the feel of a traditional bed while camping
- You want something that takes up minimal trunk space
- You want something exceptionally easy to transport
Air mattresses are perfect for campers who want to share a bed with family or a partner. They’re also the most comfortable option for back and stomach sleepers. The ability to adjust the firmness on an inflatable mattress makes all the difference when it comes to getting quality sleep.
They do make air mattresses that are VOC-free if that’s a concern. And, many of today’s models have tougher surfaces to help them resist punctures and tears. Finding one with extra-thick PVC means it will be durable, even when camping on stick-covered soil.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the answers to some common questions when it comes to air mattress vs. cots.
Can I Put An Air Mattress On A Cot?
Some of the widest cots can accommodate a twin-size air mattress. However, it’s risky to set up a bed like this. By adding an air mattress to a cot, you’re raising your bed height without increasing the width, which can be unsafe.
It’s better to use an inflatable cot, which is essentially a thin air mattress stuck to a frame. An inflatable cot gives you the benefits of both a camping cot and an air mattress in a safe way.
What Is The Best Thing To Sleep On When Camping?
We love cots for camping, but we also love sleeping pads. A sleeping pad usually uses foam, air, and polyester to create a thin mat. It can go on a cot or directly on the ground with a sleeping bag.
Is It Warmer To Sleep On A Cot Or On The Ground?
If the ground is cold, it’s warmer to sleep on a cot than on the ground. In hot weather, though, a cot allows for better air circulation. The air circulation will keep you cooler than if you were directly on the ground.