Camping Cots and Air Mattresses: What’s Best for You? (2022)

A tent with an air mattress in it and a green hammock in the woods.
Table of Contents

    Camping trips are always a whole lot of fun during the day time when campers are out on the trails backpacking, playing guitar at their base camp or any of the other fun things campers can do out in the backcountry. Then when night falls, the camping trip can be ruined by campers who don’t prepare with the right camping gear for a good night’s sleep. For one or two nights sleeping directly on the tent floor with nothing but a sleeping bag is tolerable and perhaps even enjoyable as a marked change from the comfy bed at home. After more than a few nights campers might start to experience back problems or a loss of sleep that could sabotage their ability to enjoy the outdoor activities that define camping trips or their ability to profit from the sleeping benefits camping can provide. 

    Camping cots and air mattresses can remedy this problem readily, but there are some factors to consider before you can decide whether a camping cot or an air mattress is the best choice for you. There are some problems that can arise from prolonged sleeping directly on a hard surface such as a tent floor, especially for side sleepers. Camping gear such as a sleeping pad or foam pad can help prevent such pain, but the surest way to make sure you can stand a long trial of campsite sleeping is to pack an air mattress or camping cot with the rest of your camping gear.

    An air mattress has some qualities that might affect campers’ willingness to bring one along on a camping trip. Even with an air pump or a self-inflating air mattress, it will take some amount of time to inflate it and deflate it at the end of the trip. If it inflates with a pump, having a source for electricity at the campsite will be necessary. Ensuring an inflatable mattress has the correct amount of air inside is essential to making sure you don’t sink into it, which could allow your spine to curve and cause soreness in your joints in the morning. 

    Camping cots are better-suited for low-tech campers who still want to be comfy during the night. They still take some time to assemble, of course, but they won’t put you out of breath. Foam pads can be paired with camping cots a little more comfortably than with air mattresses, as could additional camping gear for lying comfort such as memory foam or an inflatable pad. A tent cot will have aluminum frames or some sort of similar structure that needs to be assembled. However, in terms of heat loss, camping cots put some distance between campers and the tent floor, which should preserve some warmth for them. 

    There are many pros and cons to both camping cots and air mattresses, but once you have an idea about each piece of camping gear, you’ll be able to tell which one suits your needs better. Read through our guide comparing camping cots and air mattresses so you can decide on the piece of camping gear that will get you the good night’s sleep you need to be energized all day long on your next camping trip.  

    Note: Looking for the best air mattress on the market? Browse the best air mattresses for camping here.

    A person in a hammock in the snow.

    A camping cot or an air mattress is generally preferred over hammocks by campers in cold temperatures.


    What about just sleeping on the tent floor?

    There are some practical reasons and some health reasons why sleeping with nothing between you and the ground but a sleeping bag and the tent floor will likely be unpleasant if attempted over an extended period of time. Sure, campers often have the construct of a hard-scrabble rugged outdoorsman in their mind and sleeping on the ground might play into that perception. Trust that your camping trip will be much more enjoyable when that stereotype fades and you can concentrate on doing what you want to be happy with your fellow campers. Sleeping on a camping cot or an air mattress doesn’t take that much additional effort and it will greatly improve your sleep. 

    The human spine suffers various effects from sleeping habits over our lifetime. While to some extent it is unavoidable, there are things you can do to avoid chronic back pain and stay fit enough for hiking, biking, and backpacking. For one thing, sleeping directly on the tent floor can lead to a compressed joint over time. If this continues, then the muscles and ligaments and nerve functions can be affected. Soft tissues around the joint can compress as well, potentially causing bruising and pinched nerves. Side-sleepers are even more at risk, as their spine will not be in a straight position and their hips can bruise from sleeping too long on one side. 

    On a practical note, heat retention is much more difficult when you sleep directly on the ground. Heat loss will plague you and there’s no way you’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep. It might seem that sleeping up off the floor on a camping cot would expose the underside to cold air, but in fact, it’s the ground that will lead to the most heat loss. Foam pads and a high-quality sleeping bag can lessen the effects, but the best way to prevent heat loss while you sleep at a campsite is to get up off the tent floor with a camping cot or an air mattress.


    A person in the woods with a red backpack.

    A sleeping mat or foam mattress doesn’t need time to inflate and deflate but may add extra unwanted pounds to a rucksack.


    Camping cot advantages

    If pitching a tent doesn’t intimidate you, then assembling a camping cot will be a cinch. The aluminum frames of most camping cots are fairly lightweight and the body fabric is rugged enough. The best tent cot will get you up off the tent floor completely, preventing heat loss to the cold ground. Another advantage of being up off the tent floor is that space underneath you can be used to store camping gear or other supplies. Many major tent cot manufacturers such as Therm-A-Rest include gear storage pouches on their camping cots as well. Since the aluminum frames are mostly extremely easy to collapse, a tent cot can generally be folded up or stored on its side so campers can use the space in their tent for other activities, which should be nice for those out in the backcountry in the wintertime. 

    Camping cots are often better for the spine than other methods of campsite sleeping. Since the body is generally firmer and there is more ergonomic design in a camping cot than other camping gear designed for sleeping, camping cots often give a good night’s sleep and plenty of replenished energy for the next day’s outdoor activity. As many elder campers know, it is literally easier to rise and shine with a camping cot, as getting up from lying down directly on the tent floor can be difficult. Some common models of camping cots, such as the Teton Sports 120 Outfitter XXL, come with a carry case and are specifically designed to fit foam sleeping pads designed by their manufacturers. Teton Sports has several sleeping pads and foam mattresses that can sit atop a camping cot. 

    One pro tip lots of campers don’t think of is the ability to combine many pieces of outdoor gear for maximum benefit. For example, rather than packing a large tent and placing a camping cot inside, campers can stack a solo-camper tent on top of a camping cot and place an air mattress or sleeping pad inside for maximum comfort and some distance between the ground and the entire tent. This gets rid of the need for a tarp or tent footprint and avoids sticks, rocks, and insects on the ground. The tent floor will be saved from abrasions and last longer this way. Heat loss will be minimized; with the right sleeping bag that will retain body heat, solo campers can be snug and comfy in a setup like this using a camping cot. 

    Another obvious advantage of camping cots is their durability. The aluminum frames can take some damage from general wear and tear or from transportation. The canvas bottom of the sleeping cot is usually waterproof and designed to last a long time. Plus, there’s no risk of punctures, deflation, or a malfunction in the self-inflating mechanisms that other campsite sleeping equipment might face. As long as the canvas is protected to prevent any large holes from forming, camping cots are usually able to last for years and won’t face any issues if stored properly.


    Air mattress advantages

    At this point, it might seem like camping cots are superior to air mattresses in every way, especially since campers can simply add an air mattress to a camping cot and get the best of both worlds. Withhold a final judgment for now, because there are plenty of situations where an air mattress alone is more beneficial than a camping cot. For alternatives to classic tent camping trips, for example, air mattresses are fantastic options. Campers who enjoy car-camping in a truck bed or the back of a van probably don’t need to bother setting up anything more than an air mattress. Plus, the availability of electricity in the car usually means self-inflating mattresses are super-easy to set up. Car campers can also bring extra blankets along to keep in body heat and prevent heat loss. 

    Campers who are out in the backcountry in a large group and are testing the capacity limit of their tent would probably do well to stick to air mattresses as well since they generally take up much less space. Ultralight backpackers generally prefer to only bring a sleeping pad or an air mattress because they are so much more lightweight and portable than camping cots. It’s also possible to combine a foam mattress and an air mattress if you’re creative with them. A sleeping bag with plenty of insulation will keep body heat in and cold out in average environments, although campers going to subzero temperatures and facing snow will probably want as much warmth as they can get. 

    It might look a little bizarre if you lug an entire camping cot in and out of a tent to use as a sitting place at the campsite or around the campfire, but an air mattress is easily maneuvered and placed on existing rocks or logs to make a comfy seat. Some campers also invest in a closed-cell foam mattress pad to couple with their inflatable mattress for a really comfy campsite rest. The closed-cell foam and also be used as a seat, for heat deflection in warmer climates, as a cooler liner, or as a yoga mat for those yogi and yogini campers.  


    Beige Toyota SUV covered in dirt next to a tent.

    Extra camping gear like inflatable air mattresses and heavy camp beds can be brought along if you’re going car camping.


    Who makes the best camping cots?

    If your camping trip calls for extra storage space or you enjoy the added protection from heat loss gained from sleeping on a camping cot, many of the most well-known outdoor gear manufacturers also offer solid camping cots with lots of neat design features. It should be no surprise that Coleman is in the market, alongside Therm-A-Rest and Teton Sports Outfitters, who we’ve already mentioned once. Cabelas camping cots are very lightweight and durable generally speaking. REI Co-op has a fairly wide variety of camping cots with what is arguably top-of-the-line ergonomic design for a good night’s sleep. ALPS has a mountaineering camp cot available, and at least Coleman, Therm-A-Rest, REI Co-op, ALPS, and Big Agnes have closed-cell foam mattresses available as well. It’s a wide market, but the usual suspects make the best camping cots. 

    Who makes the best air mattresses?

    Coleman is unsurprisingly once again a mainstay in the camping air mattress market, as it so often is with so many outdoor gear categories. They make every iteration from air mattresses with electric pumps to hand pumps and self-inflating mattresses. That’s not to say Coleman has the market cornered, though. Therm-A-Rest, REI Co-op, Cabela’s, and ALPS have their own competing models, while Teton Sports has an inflatable sleeping pad available. Many have queen size models available for couples or campers who just like to have the extra space to spread out at night. There are also some ultralight versions that deflate and pack down to a super-small size for maximum portability. 


    Final Verdict:

    It’s difficult to say absolutely and without reserve that either a camping cot or a camping mattress will suit every single camper in any camping situation. Everything depends on the personal preference of the camper and the specific camping trip they’re undertaking. Mountaineering adventures aren’t usually as enjoyable with tons of gear along, so in that case, an ultralight air mattress or even just closed-cell foam pad would do just fine. Solo camping trips into the backcountry that are planned to last longer than a few days are probably much better spent with a camping cot along, especially in colder weather where heat loss through the ground can be a huge problem. Car camping can go either way, with some gearheads preferring to take a sleeping cot, air mattress, and sleeping pad along to combine them, since there isn’t much carrying required. Then again, some car campers prefer to just take an air mattress and some extra blankets. 

    In terms of comfort, the surest way to ensure a good night’s sleep at a campsite is to try and have a camping cot along that’s tricked out with a nice air mattress and perhaps even a foam pad. A well-designed sleeping bag is a must-have in any case and all of these things combined will make for a very happy camper. Overall, the most important thing to remember is that when you’re out camping destroying your spine trying to be a hardened outdoorsman and sleeping on the tent floor with nothing but a sleeping bag is not going to impress anyone and is more likely to hinder your ability to participate in far more beneficial pursuits like hiking, climbing, and swimming. Individual taste and body types are likely to benefit from camping cots and air mattresses in different ways. Age is likely to be a factor, not only because of general bone and joint decay but also because getting up from the tent floor isn’t always feasible for elder campers.  

    Even though it is hard to make a blanket statement that will apply to all campers, it’s not so hard to decide for yourself whether you prefer a camping cot or an air mattress. Now that you’ve read through this guide, you should have some idea about all of the various considerations you need to make for yourself. Either option should greatly improve your rest and energy levels on your next camping trip, so make sure to pack your camping cot or air mattress on your next camping trip so you can have a good night’s sleep in the great outdoors. 


    Bonus tip: Check out these tips for how to stay warm at the campsite in the winter!


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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.