The Best Camping Mattress
Camping is about ‘roughing it’ - it's about sleeping on cold, rock hard ground and waking in the morning and pinpointing every stick and pebble under your bed - from the indents in your back. Camping is about living like the old timers and suffering like they did - isn't it?
Well for one night, that may be acceptable, but by and large a nights sleep in the bush should be more enjoyable than in your regular bed.
If the day has been smooth then heading for sleep will normally see you feeling pretty relaxed and probably a little worn out. Hopefully you aren’t hearing the highway or traffic noise and without the usual street hum of suburbia there shouldn’t be a whole lot to disturb your slumber. The air you are breathing will be cleaner and without artificial heating and cooling and the confines and smells of your domestic abode, chances are you will wake feeling petty refreshed.
Assuming you will be dry, warm and reasonably level then your choice of camp mattress is likely to be the one factor affecting sleep quality.
There are plenty of choices around at plenty of price points and some work great and some don’t. We’ll try and give you a brief run down on what we have tried and liked and what we don’t.
What’s The Best?- $2000 Innerspring Lumbercare Bed
No arguments here, but if you are going to sleep night after night on rock hard ground then the type of mattress you sleep on at home will provide the most physically comfortable bed you can get.
With a quality innerspring mattress being fairly expensive, fairly awkward and also fairly heavy there a few people who will drag their new domestic $2000 bed into the bush and slap it down on the dirt.
What Works Nearly As Well– Caravan Mattress
We like to use a 6 inch thick High Density Foam mattress with a cotton washable cover. These mattresses are often sold as caravan mattresses. The major problem with these is their size. Unlike other camping bedding these aren’t manufactured to roll or fold up or deflate and consequently take up a fair bit of room. A double mattress is flexible enough to bend to manoeuvre onto a shelf or into a tent but that’s about it. They also need replacing fairly regularly as the foam packs down and its supportive quality migrates.
But, if you can manage to fit one into the camping equipment they really are good to sleep on.
At anywhere from $100 - $200 they are pretty good value.
What Works OK– Self Inflating 4WD Mattress
When we talk about self-inflating mattresses we aren’t referring to the old fashioned plastic blow up jobs (they come next) but the newer style of camping bed that still uses a foam core as the mattress section. Often sold as 4WD mattress they are manufactured with a thick outer PVC cover and a velour top.
A clever design means that multiple valves are located at the foot of the bed. These valves are opened when rolling the bed up and air is forced out as the foam compresses. When the bed is unrolled, air is drawn back into the foam cells and the mattress appears to ‘expand’ or ‘inflate’ slightly. By closing the valves the cover becomes a sealed unit and provides a degree of ‘inflation’.
In fact this type of bed is in its natural state when it is ‘inflated’ and is essentially a piece of foam 80mm – 100mm (3 – 4 inches) thick. While these camping mattresses are quite comfortable they same caveats apply regarding the nature of foam mattresses mentioned earlier. This style of bed needs a bit of a practise to roll up and isn’t as small as other types and can be quite bulky and heavy. Care needs to be taken in storing them with the valves open to prevent expansion and splitting but with a price tag of between $100 - $250, depending on make and size, they represent pretty good value with a reasonable comfort factor
What Works OK Sometimes– Blow Up Mattress
Blow up, inflatable mattresses have been around forever. They are cheap, they pack up small and are reasonably light and they give the kids something to do for the first hour upon arrival.
If you have ever owned one you will know the secret is to get the inflation just right so the mattress is firm, with enough ’give’ to be comfortable and not so highly inflated you could play a tune on it like a Caribbean drum.
Modern versions of this bed come with a padded velour top for comfort. Terrific, it’s still essentially a plastic bag full of air that you have to put into it. If you sleep on one regularly, at some stage you will wake up cold and sore - flat on the ground. Most inflatable beds come supplied with a patch and repair puncture kit…mmm.
Anywhere from $30 - $150 and be warned – they are bitterly cold in winter.
What’s Nearly As Bad As An Inflatable– Camp Stretcher
We all know that life in the Army is supposed to be tough. Everyone has seen the old movies - marching for days on end, eating slop at mealtimes and then sleeping on the army supplied stretcher at night.
Stretchers were and are cheap to make. Best described as a hammock with a frame, all the fancy aluminium and padding in the world, doesn’t alter the fact that stretchers are a canvas or polyester type material that has been stretched tightly between 4 points.
Stretchers don’t really allow you stretch out. If you don’t like sleeping in the confines of a sleeping bag then being constrained by the frame of a camp bed is probably not for you. Likewise, if you are tipping the bathroom scales over 80kg then a not-so-new stretcher is probably not going to inspire confidence in making it through the night. If you think waking up because your inflatable mattress went down was horrible, then you will positively hate having your camp stretcher implode at 3am.
Stretchers are ideal for sleeping in mud or water prone areas or for the squeamish who don’t enjoy sharing the ground with the bugs.
Reportedly very comfortable with a swag thrown on top (what’s the point) camp stretchers have the ability to drive the cold right into your bones. $70 - $150 depending on quality and size.
What’s Convenient and Tough– Swag
Swags are great. Swags make you feel good about being in the bush and help generate a terrific earthy feel that has got nothing to do with comfort. Swags are part of the Australian landscape and owning one is a right of passage. Traditionally a cover made of heavy waterproof canvas containing a bedroll, modern swags are usually a poly/canvas ‘wrapper’ with a light foam mattress inner, rolled up and tied. With a myriad of options including insect protection or tent like abilities the modern swag has truly evolved.
Swags roll up reasonably compact and are generally pretty user friendly and you’ll probably lose a good one by lending it to someone rather than wear one out.
However there are more comfortable options available. Any real ringer, stockman or jackeroo (cowboy) will scoff at the idea of sleeping outside on anything other than a swag, swearing that nothing is as comfortable or appropriate.
Spend 10 hours mustering on a horse or a motorbike and very few people would climb into their swags in favour of a regular bed. As long as no one was looking, that is.
Usually handmade and available anywhere from $150 - $500.
What’s Necessary Or Stupid– Camping Mats
There are some people in the world who take enormous pleasure in hiking or mountaineering. There is a complete separate camping industry just for these people. This market sells tiny lightweight gas stoves and toothbrushes that turn into hiking poles or knifes and forks that double as tent pegs – anything to minimize weight or bulk.
These people get all the best stuff. In the camping stores their equipment is hidden behind locked glass. It’s always made from the rarest metals and incorporates the cleverest designs and it always looks the cutest.
You just want to buy their stuff because it looks so good even though you know you cannot possible cook in that little, foldaway pot or possibly fit everything into that NASA designed backpack.
The price these people pay for these wonderful toys is MASSIVE DISCOMFORT.
Make no mistake. An inch thick mat on the ground is always going to be just - an inch thick mat on the ground. There is no science that is ever going to make a bed that rolls up and fits into the inside of a toilet roll - comfortable.
When you look at all the clever stuff the hikers and mountaineers get don’t be tempted by the camping mats and think that they actually make good camping beds.
Starting at $30 and going up to several hundred dollars for a NASA design.
We've had to reassess our attitude towards camp stretchers after recently spending a couple of weeks on one. Read about it at Laidback - Camp Stretchers
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