How to choose a camping mattress?

If you’ve already found yourself in front of the shelf in a store, you might have wondered how many different shapes, colors, materials and prices. But what is the difference between the mattress to 5 euros and the one to 129 euros? What is the difference between the small thick and the big all end?

To begin with, here are two main functions:

The first is quite obvious for a little bit that you have already slept on the floor: comfort . There are few bivouac sites without stones, branches, roots, bumps, holes, etc. The mattress thus serves to improve the sleeping comfort to try to recover as best possible efforts of the day.

The second is thermal insulation . This is probably the most important reason. If it was only a comfort story, we would often see hikers without a mattress. Contrary to what many people think, it is not enough to have a good sleeping bag so as not to be cold at night. The part of the sleeping bag that is crushed under our body insulates little from the cold from the ground because there is very little trapped air. This is why it is essential to have a hiking mattress to ensure a good thermal insulation.

In addition to these two main uses, the mattress also protects the sleeping bag from moisture, can be used as a reinforcement in some ultra-light backpacks and other ancillary uses.

So do not overlook the choice of your hiking mattress and do not think a vulgar bit of foam or an inflatable pool mattress can do the trick.

Choice criteria

You have to choose your mattress according to your practice . To begin with, consider the conditions under which you will use them (climatic conditions, duration, frequency, soil type, etc.). Determine your preferences and priorities.

Once your criteria of choice are identified , you will have no problem choosing your hiking mattress by reading the rest of this article.

Here are some criteria to consider.

Thermal insulation

Often, mattresses can be distinguished in three seasons (spring, summer, autumn) from winter mattresses . Attention, this definition is valid for temperate regions. Even in summer, it may be essential to have a winter mattress in some cold areas.

The 3-season mattresses are often finer and insulate less well from the cold. They are lighter, less voluminous and often cheaper. In winter, it is possible to combine several 3-season mattresses or to invest in a special winter mattress.

For those who have never had the unpleasant sensation of being lying on an ice cube, believe me, the mattress plays a very important role for a good night without being cold. If it does not insulate well enough, you will feel the cold on the parts of your body in contact with the mattress – even with a good sleeping bag – and you will have a bad night. I was able to test this with a foam mattress too thin in the Queyras Natural Park in early November, a few years ago.

So find a good compromise between a good thermal insulation for the thermal conditions in which you intend to hike and a reasonable weight . Most importantly, take into account the temperature of the ground, which may be different from the temperature of the air depending on the conditions during the day (sun, shade, etc.). The nature of the soil also plays an important role. The denser the soil, the more it will lead the cold to your body.

How to know if a hiking mattress isolates well or not?

It is not easy. This depends on many features such as materials, thickness, trapped air volume, and so on. There is a measure of the thermal resistance of mattresses: the R-value (or R-value) . The higher it is, the better the thermal insulation of the mattress. Unfortunately, this measurement is not indicated on all models. Typical values ​​of R-value for a good 3-season hiking mattress are 2 to 3 . For cold conditions, there are mattresses with R-values ​​up to 8 or more.


There are different sizes of mattress depending on your morphology. There are different lengths, widths and profiles (right, sarcophagus). We even find models especially feminine.

The goal is to have a mattress as light as possible and that is adapted to your morphology and your needs . It’s always better to sleep on a wide mattress but still have to wear it.

Do not be surprised to see very short mattresses (about 1.20 m). These mattresses are made only for the upper body – where the majority of heat losses occur. With this type of mattress, you can stack clothes, your backpack or both under your legs to protect them from the cold. It is a less comfortable alternative and a little less insulating but lighter and cheaper.

For foam mattresses, just take a cutter to reduce the size of your mattress if you prefer lightness to comfort.


If the comfort of sleeping is your priority , it is not the mattress that will make a huge difference, it is especially the choice of the location of your mattress . Well, it’s certain that a 2.5 cm thick self-inflating mattress is more comfortable than a 0.7 cm thick foam mattress and that this first lessens the small irregularities of the ground (pebbles, small bumps, etc.). But there will be very few differences for large irregularities.

This is why you must choose your location before you set up your tent . If possible, put the mattress on the floor and lie on it to test if it is comfortable. Without that, you will realize too late (once the tent is up) that the terrain you chose and that looked flat forces you to sleep in an uncomfortable position.

Do not hesitate to try the mattresses in store to test the sleeping comfort and compare the different models. If the comfort of sleeping is really your priority, read the article ” make these 2 mistakes of beginners in great excursion ” so as not to neglect your comfort during the march by favoring too your comfort to the bivouac.

Other criteria

I have presented some criteria for choosing a hiking mattress, but there are many others . Some hikers prefer, for example, weight, price, ease of maintenance, durability, reliability, compactness, etc. Often it is necessary to make compromises: for example, if lightness is your priority, then it may not be too much to look at comfort or price.

My main criteria are: thermal insulation, lightness and reliability. Moreover, thermal insulation should be the first criterion of everyone – unless it is warm enough to do without mattresses.

Even if it is not as important as for hiking shoes, try as much as possible before buying. Lie on the mattress, store it, inflate it, deflate it, and so on. Test it as if you were at the bivouac . This will help you choose the right size, test its comfort and see if it meets your criteria.

In the following of this article, I introduce the main types of hiking mattresses as well as the pros and cons of each . You will be able to choose the hiking mattress that best suits your needs.

Foam mattress

Foam mattressThere are a multitude of foam mattresses, with very different qualities and characteristics.

For hiking, it is generally advisable to choose foams with closed cells. They are stronger and waterproof. Avoid using basic models that have open cell foams that are much less dense, less solid and absorb water.

You will find sleek foam mattresses and others with cavities . These cavities serve to trap air to improve thermal insulation without increasing the weight of the mattress.

Foam mattress that fits in accordion styleMost foam mattresses roll, but some models fold in accordionto reduce the size. Some mattresses have two faces to improve the thermal insulation – one to put in contact with the ground and another in contact with the sleeping bag – much like survival blankets. Some mattresses even have a variable foam thickness to optimize the weight (thicker at the hips and shoulders).

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a foam hiking mattress.

Advantages :

  • Cheap.
  • Indestructible.
  • Reliable and durable (except for basic models).
  • Raincoat.
  • Lightweight.
  • Fast and easy to install.
  • Easy to maintain.
  • Good insulation (except for basic models).


  • Not very comfortable.
  • Low insulation (especially for basic models).
  • Bulky (some accordion models have better compactness).

Self-inflating hiking mats

Self-inflating hiking mattressAs the name suggests, a self-inflating mattress inflates itself . When you open the valve, the open cell foam contained in the mattress inhales the air to return to normal. Just close the valve and your bed is ready. This process may take longer or shorter depending on the quality and age of the mattress.

It is possible to blow into the mattress to inflate it faster or more firmly, but it is not recommended because it introduces moisture into it – which can freeze or cause mold inside.

To deflate the mattress , just open the valve and roll it to chase the air that is in it. The valve must then be closed again to prevent the mattress from buckling.

Pay attention to where you are installing your mattress as thorns or other rough edges can pierce the outer envelope. That’s why most of the time, a repair kit comes with the mattresses. They are also often guaranteed. But the guarantee will not change the bad nights you spend on a “flat” mattress.?

Attention: To keep your mattress self-inflating and insulating, it should be stored flat with the valve open in a dry place when not in use.

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of a self-inflating hiking mattress.

Advantages :

  • Compact.
  • Comfortable.
  • Good insulation.
  • Easy to install.


  • Pretty expensive.
  • Heavy.
  • Little durable.
  • Fragile (crevable).
  • Requires proper maintenance and storage.
  • Ask for a little time for it to swell.
  • May absorb moisture.

Inflatable hiking mattresses

Inflatable hiking mattressThere are two main types of inflatable mattressesfor hiking: those that are empty and those that contain a down fill or synthetic fibers .

The second type was created to address the thermal insulation problem of the first type . The air trapped inside an inflatable mattress without packing circulates very easily and the exchanges of heat are therefore very good (by convection). The cold of the ground is therefore very well transmitted to the body – not the ideal as insulator . That is why (among others) I do not advise you to use a rubber air mattress or inflatable pool mattress.

The inflatable mattresses that contain a filling (down or synthetic fibers) do not have this problem and provide excellent thermal insulation while keeping main advantages of inflatable mattresses. To inflate these mattresses, simply use the storage bag that incorporates a pump or can be used directly as a bellows pump. This avoids blowing directly with the mouth , which would introduce moisture into the mattress which could freeze, facilitate the formation of mold or reduce the thermal performance of the packing.

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of an inflatable hiking mattress.

Advantages :

  • Comfortable.
  • Compact.
  • Lightweight (for models without lining).
  • Low cost (for models without packing).
  • Good insulation (for models with lining).


  • Slow to install.
  • Requires an effort (you have to pump or blow).
  • Low insulation (for models without lining).
  • Heavy (for models with lining).
  • Costly (for models with lining).
  • May absorb moisture.

What I use

I always had a preference for foam hiking mats . I currently use a honeycomb model that has good thermal insulation (R-value: 2.8). I have already tested self-inflating mattresses and have highly appreciated their comfort. But I have seen several times a teammate reinflate his self-inflating mattress at night or wake up on a “flat” mattress because of leaks. I prefer the reliability and lightness of my foam mattress even if the comfort is not optimal.

And you, what are you using? Tell me in the comments, and do not hesitate to ask questions if you have any.

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