How to Decide Between a Sleeping Pad or an Air Mattress

Is an air mattress the best kind of bedding to get for your camping trips? Or should you look into buying an air pad? It can be tough to choose between these two portable bed types if you haven’t tried too many of them just yet. 

In our sleeping pad vs air mattress guide, we discuss the main advantages and disadvantages of these different sleep solutions so you can find one that suits your vehicle, tent or any other sleep needs perfectly. 

What Is an Air Mattress?

sleeping pad vs air mattress

An air mattress is a type of bed that needs to be inflated. They are made from polyvinyl chloride and usually have a unique interior design that creates lots of air pockets so the air will be evenly distributed, even as someone lies down on the mattress. 

These mattresses usually come with some type of air pump, which can be either a separate or built-in pump. The mattress pumps can also be electric or manual like a foot pump. 

Air mattresses come in various sizes, like twin, full, queen or king, and are quite popular camping gear accessories for tent camping expeditions, as well as for general household use to accommodate overnight guests. 

What Are Sleeping Pads?

sleeping pad vs air mattress

There are quite a few different types of sleeping pads available on the market in the following categories.

Air sleep pads

These are a lot like air mattresses for camping, but they have a more compact size and are slimmer in design. 

Closed-cell foam sleeping pads

Foam sleeping pads are made of a sheet of foam that can be rolled up.

Self-inflating sleep pads

These are a combination of air pads and foam pads, since they contain a layer of foam but can also be inflated. 

Sleeping Pad vs Air Mattress: A Quick Comparison

Both sleeping pads and air mattresses are mostly used as temporary bedding solutions, and they are a lot lighter and more portable compared to your average mattress. Each of these bed types has a couple of advantages and disadvantages that you should consider before you buy. 

Here is a quick comparison of the two mattress types that might help you find the right one for your body type and your sleeping needs. 

Which Is the Easiest to Use?

Ease of use is important because it can be very annoying to struggle with a mattress that’s hard to fold or difficult to set up. This feature is especially important if you’re backpacking and need to set up a different sleep spot every day.

Foam sleep pads are often the quickest to set up since you only have to unroll them and you’re all set. They are just as easy to put away since you only need to roll them up again after sleeping.

Self-inflating sleep mats are also very convenient. You only roll them out, open the valve and the foam inside starts to expand, so the mattress inflates itself. When it is time to go, you can roll it up and squeeze the air out as you roll it. With these mattresses, you don’t have to struggle with annoying rolling edges either.

Air mattresses with electric pumps are also virtually self-inflating and very convenient to use. You can also find some battery-operated air pumps, but if you are planning on using a manual pump, your setup is going to take quite a bit of effort. 

Which Is the Warmest? 

The warmth of the mattress may depend on its construction. Cheaper air mattresses or inflatable sleeping pads are not insulated and won’t offer much warmth, but those that are insulated can provide you with plenty of comfort, even in cold weather.

The insulation properties of these beds are usually indicated by R-value, which stands for thermal resistance. These values usually range from 0 to 7, with the higher number indicating higher thermal benefits. 

Levels up to 3 are perfect for 3-season use, but for winter camping, you might want to consider something with an R-value higher than 5.

Which Is the Most Comfortable?

sleeping pad vs air mattress

Air mattresses for everyday use are a lot thicker and excel in terms of comfort. A quality air mattress will keep you properly elevated from the groundsheet, and proper built-in air pockets offer a comfort level that often competes with that of a normal mattress.

Sleep pads, on the other hand, are pretty thin and usually don’t offer quite as much comfort. If you have back problems, then it might be best to avoid sleep pads altogether. 

 Which Takes Up Less Space?

Sleeping pads are designed for backpacking trips and are usually a lot more lightweight compared to air mattresses. They usually weigh around one to four pounds and can be rolled into a compact, packed size, so they won’t take up much space either.

Air mattresses, on the other hand, are heavy, and the packed sizes can be bulky even when deflated and folded. They also come with a pump that can also take up quite a bit of space. 

Which Is More Durable?

With inflatable beds like air mattresses or air sleep pads, you always run the risk of puncturing the mattresses. These holes can be patched up, but patches only hold up for so long. 

If you are worried about durability, then it is best to stick with a foam sleep pad for camping. These can’t be punctured and the foam materials can last for many years. 

Which Is More Affordable?

Sleep pads are usually a lot more affordable compared to larger air mattresses. Winter models can be a bit pricey but will also offer a little bit more protection from the cold compared to an air mattress that isn’t properly insulated.

Most people do, however, choose to invest in an air mattress that costs a little bit more because they offer more comfort and functionality. 

If you are a keen, wild camper, then it’s best to invest in something affordable with a low R-value. But, if your portable bed will double as bedding to accommodate overnight guests, then it is always better to get a quality air mattress. 

Which Is More Versatile?

Air mattresses can be more versatile because they allow you to sleep comfortably in the wild and can double as guest bedding at home. 

Sleeping pads are, however, sometimes preferable because they’re more portable and more suitable for winter expeditions. 

In the end, the versatility may depend on your main sleeping needs. 

Bottom Line

Both sleep pads and air mattresses can be terrific investments for a camping trip or portable bedding. Here’s a quick summary of the best mattress type in each category:

  • Easiest to use: Sleep pads
  • Warmest: Sleep pads are more suited for colder weather
  • Portability and space: Sleep pads
  • Durability: Either one depending on the use
  • Affordability: Sleep pads
  • Comfort: Air mattresses
  • Versatility: Either one
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