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Choosing a Sleeping Mat

Why mats really matter... By Cotswold Outdoor
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Selecting the right type of mat can be a bewildering process given the huge array of shapes, sizes and styles, so we’ve put together a guide to help you pick out the perfect mat for your outdoor adventures. We’ll help you find the right balance in warmth, comfort and weight to match your chosen activity.

Self-inflating mats, air-filled mats, foam mats or airbeds, whichever you choose, if you get it right a mat will allow your sleeping bag to perform optimally and can be the difference between a comfortable night’s sleep and a cold, miserable night. Read on to find out the best camping mats for every activity…

Why Do I Need a Sleeping Mat?

Insulation from the ground is essential because the ground conducts your body heat away from you far more quickly than through the air via convection. Your sleeping bag insulation protects you from air cooled convection but a mat is vital to provide a barrier to stop the ground from stealing your precious body heat.

Comfort is perfectly possible when you camp. Mats come with varying levels of cushioning, and in many shapes and sizes, so you can choose something to match your preferences and get a great night’s sleep.

Now we’ll look at the main types of mats available and weigh up their strengths and weaknesses.

Self-Inflating Mats

Self-inflating mats are filled with foam containing tiny air pockets that expand and pull in air when the valve is opened. The foam traps the air and acts as insulation from the ground as well adding extra comfort through cushioning. They come in many different shapes and sizes to help you find the perfect balance of warmth trapping foam insulation, packability and cushioning from the floor.

Pros Cons Suitable for
They’re versatile, lightweight and require minimum effort to inflate.

They offer great warmth to weight ratio.

More expensive than standard foam and air beds and not as well cushioned as air filled mattresses/beds.

They can puncture but are easily repaired.

A huge variety of activities from car camping to ultra lightweight adventure racing, depending on the foam configuration and dimensions.

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Tip
  • A couple of puffs of your own breath after giving the mat time to self-inflate can help to achieve the desired pressure, however try to limit moisture blown inside the mat (this can reduce the durability of the mat). When it comes to deflating there’s a knack to it, first fold your mat in half as pictured above, then open the valve and roll toward the valve end to expel the air. Remember to close the valve once you’ve rolled out all the air.
  • It’s best to store self-inflating mats with the valve open and flat. Long term storage rolled up can limit the mat’s ability to self-inflate when you come to use it.

Air-Filled Mats

The latest generation of outdoor sleeping mats, these mats use air to provide cushioning and sometimes include additional insulation such as down or reflective materials. They’re the ultimate in packable and lightweight sleeping but you provide the puff to inflate them.

Pros Cons Suitable for
Comfortable and thicker than self-inflating, great for people that prefer to sleep on their sides.

They offer amazing packability and are beautifully lightweight.

Unless extra insulation is added then air circulates freely making them cooler than foam filled self-inflating.

A pump is required if you are tired/want to save effort.

Fast and light activities where space and weight are at a premium, such as adventure racing, long distance treks and touring.
Tip
  • Pick where you place air-filled mats carefully as the lightweight materials are best protected from puncturing by a groundsheet or footprint.
  • A lightweight pump sack fills mattresses with clean, dry air which helps preserve the mat’s durability and save your puff, these can even double up as a stuff sack.

 

Foam Mats

Also known as roll mats, or closed cell foam mats, these are foam mats that either roll or fold away.

Pros Cons Suitable for
Very light and durable, they cannot be punctured and are cheap. Poor packability (often strapped to the outside of a rucksack).

Less warm and lower comfort.

Cheap and cheerful for most camping activities in warmer temperatures.

Airbeds

Your traditional inflatable mattress is the closest thing to your home bed in terms of feel. They’re large, high volume, and filled with air.

Pros Cons Suitable for
Comfortable, thick and most like your bed at home. Heavy, large packsize.

Requires a pump.

No added insulation.

Car camping in warmer temperatures

Additional Considerations

Mat Dimensions

Pack size is commonly high up on the list of requirements for a sleeping mat but don’t get so caught up in this that the mat isn’t fit for purpose. The mat needs to be at least wide enough to fit your shoulders on it whilst lying flat on your back. It is possible to buy ¾ length mats where your feet and lower legs are not insulated but these should only be considered if you want ultimate packability and are sleeping in comfortable temperatures.

Gender Specifics

Some manufacturers produce female specific mats which have certain benefits. In general they are a little shorter and contain more insulation around the torso and feet area. With the reduction in length, offset against the extra insulation, these pads tend to end up a similar weight and packsize but it is definitely worth considering one of these if you are below 5’5 and looking for a little extra warmth, male or female.

R-Value

On some sleeping mats you’ll note an R-Value in the product description or on the product. This is a measure of the mat’s ability to resist heat flow. Put simply, the higher the R-Value, the more thermally resistant a mat is, and therefore warmer. There is currently no industry standardisation of this measurement so it provides a useful guide but shouldn’t be treated as the perfect comparison method between brands.

Doubling Up

If you’re heading out in particularly cold temperatures it’s well worth adding an additional mat to provide additional insulation. Standard foam mats are perfect for this and are relatively cheap.

Decision Making

In order to make a decision of which mat suits your needs it’s helpful to prioritise what is most important to you. The main factors to consider are comfort (cushioning), packsize, weight and warmth (insulation). If you can rank these in order of importance to your chosen activity then your decision will be simpler.

It’s also helpful to try before you buy so why not pop into one of our stores where you’ll find a large selection of mats that you can lie down on and see how the dimensions and cushioning feel.