While camping, being able to get a good night’s sleep is crucial. The best sleep system depends on a number of factors including the type of camping you’re doing, your sleep position (side, back, or stomach), and your personal preference. This guide outlines the pros and cons of sleeping on a camping cot vs air mattress. We’ll cover comfort, ease of use, packed size, weight, durability, setup time, warmth, and much more. We’ll also outline some different types of cots and air mattresses to help you choose the best one for your next camping trip.
Over the years, I have mostly used air mattresses. After experiencing a couple of punctures, I decided to give a cot a try and really enjoyed it. I still use both sleep systems. In this guide, I’ll share my experience.
Camping Cot Pros and Cons
- Cots are faster and easier to set up and put away. They fold and unfold.
- Cots can keep you cooler while camping in hot weather. They allow more airflow.
- Better durability. Cots can handle more weight. They last longer.
- It’s easier to get in and out of a cot because it sits higher.
- You can store gear under your cot and sit on your cot like a bench.
- Cots perform well in all climate and weather conditions.
- Cots can be too firm. This is uncomfortable for side and stomach sleepers.
- The sleep surface is smaller. Most models measure 30″ x 75″.
- Cots are heavy and bulky due to the metal frame. This makes them harder to transport and store.
- You may need to pair a sleeping pad with your cot to improve comfort or warmth.
- More expensive.
Air Mattress Pros and Cons
- Air mattresses are more comfortable because the firmness is adjustable.
- The sleep surface is larger. Twin, full, queen, and king sizes are available. This is ideal for couples.
- Air mattresses are lighter and more compact. This makes them easier to pack and transport.
- Air mattresses provide more insulation and keep you warmer.
- Air mattreses make excellent guest beds.
- You can make the bed with standard sheets and blankets.
- Air mattresses take more time and effort to set up because they must be inflated and deflated.
- Air mattresses can get punctured and deflate. They are less durable.
- Air mattresses can’t handle as much weight.
- It’s harder to climb in and out of an air mattress because they sit closer to the ground.
- Air mattresses take up more tent floor area.
- Some people are allergic to PVC air mattresses.
- Air mattresses can sleep too hot during the summer.
A camping cot is a narrow, lightweight, and portable bed that folds up. Cots consist of two main components: a frame and a sleep surface.
The cot frame is usually made from either aluminum or steel. It is designed to fold up or disassemble so the cot can be easily stored and transported.
The frame supports the sleep surface and elevates your body off the ground. The sleep surface on most cots sits 12-18 inches (30-45 cm) high.
On basic cots, the sleep surface is made from a piece of fabric that stretches tightly over the frame. The tension on the fabric creates a firm and supportive sleep surface. You sleep in a sleeping bag directly on the sleep surface.
Ideally, the sleep surface of a cot should be comfortable, washable, and durable. Polyester and cotton are comfortable and easy to wash. Canvas is durable but a bit harder to wash.
The frame should be made from a corrosion-resistant material that is lightweight and durable. It should also be easy to fold and unfold. These days, most cots come with a folding aluminum frame.
The sleep surface on a standard cot is slightly smaller than a twin-sized bed. Most measure around 25” wide by 75” long (around 64 cm x 190 cm). Oversized and double wide cots are also available.
Due to the heavy weight and large packed size, cots are best suited for car camping. Some models are compact and light enough to be used for backpacking.
Cots are designed to be used in situations where a normal-sized bed is not practical. They are commonly used by recreational campers as well as by militaries and in hospitals. Cots are also used in emergency situations.
An air mattress is an inflatable mattress that sits on the ground. Most air mattresses are made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), rubber, or some type of urethane plastic reinforced with fabric. They are also known as air beds or blow-up beds.
Air mattresses can be inflated with either a hand pump or an electric pump. Most air mattresses are too large to inflate with your breath. Some models partially inflate by themselves when the valve is opened. You can adjust the firmness of an air mattress by changing the air pressure inside.
When deflated, air mattresses compress down and roll up into a small, portable bundle that can easily fit in the trunk of your car or a closet.
Air mattresses come in a range of sizes that match standard home mattresses. You can buy an air mattress that has the same dimensions as a twin, full, queen, or king-sized bed.
Due to the size and weight, air mattresses are best suited for car camping. Ultralight and compact models are available that are suitable for backpacking.
The standard size of air mattresses allows you to use regular-sized sheets and blankets that you would use on a normal bed at home. You can also sleep on an air mattress in a sleeping bag.
Air mattresses offer a number of uses. They work great for camping. Air mattresses also make great guest beds.
Camping Cot Vs Air Mattress
Ease of Setup
Camping cots are usually easier to set up than air mattresses. The reason is that the cot frame simply unfolds and locks in place. Kind of like a folding camping chair. On most models, the sleep surface stays attached. After the cot is unfolded, it’s ready to use. The exact setup time depends on the cot design. Most models can be set up in just 30 seconds to a minute.
Cot designs vary. Some models are a bit more difficult to set up. For example, you may have to attach the sleep surface after unfolding the frame. This involves pulling a crossbar to stretch the fabric sleep surface taught then attaching the crossbar to the frame. This can require some muscle. Some ultralight models disassemble. These can take 5-10 minutes to assemble at camp.
Cots are also easy to fold up and put away. You simply unlock the frame and fold it up. On some models, you may have to remove the sleep surface and fold it up first. Some models need to be taken apart, which takes longer.
Air mattresses take more time and effort to set up because they need to be inflated before they’re ready to use. This involves rolling the mattress out flat, attaching a pump to the valve, and pumping the mattress full of air.
The inflation time and difficulty depend on the kind of pump you’re using and the size of your air mattress. Inflating an air mattress with a hand pump is a time-consuming and exhausting task. You may have to pump for 10-20 minutes depending on the type of hand pump you’re using.
Inflating an air mattress with an electric pump takes just a few minutes and no effort on your part. Of course, you need electricity in order to use an electric pump. Many campgrounds don’t have electrical outlets. Battery-operated electric pumps are available.
If you forget your pump, you’ll have to inflate the mattress with your breath. This could take well over an hour and leave you lightheaded and gasping for breath.
When you’re ready to leave camp in the morning, you’ll have to deflate your air mattress and fold it up. This can be an annoying job. It takes a few minutes to get all of the air out so you can fold the mattress up efficiently. If air gets stuck inside, the mattress won’t fold compactly. You may have to use your body weight to push all of the air out. Most electric pumps can be reversed so they suck the air out. This makes deflation much faster and easier.
Winner: Cots are faster and easier to set up and take down because they simply fold and unfold. Air mattresses are harder and more time-consuming to set up because they need to be inflated and deflated.
Comfort and Quality of Sleep
When choosing your sleep system, comfort should be your top priority. Choosing the right sleep system for your sleep style can increase your quality of sleep. When you get a good night of sleep, you feel more rested when you wake up and you feel more alert throughout the day. Getting a quality night of sleep is good for your health as well. If your back and neck are properly supported, you’ll wake up without pain.
If you choose the wrong sleep system, you may wake up with a stiff neck, sore back, or simply not get a good night of sleep. When this happens, you won’t enjoy your trip as much. You’ll feel too tired and stiff during the day. Poor quality sleep can also pose a safety risk. You can’t think as clearly and you make more mistakes when you’re tired. You need to be able to think clearly if you’re doing a potentially dangerous activity such as climbing or hunting.
A number of factors determine the comfort of a cot or air mattress including your sleep position, the firmness of the sleep surface, the size of the sleep surface, and personal preference. Most campers find air mattresses to be more comfortable than cots.
Sleep Position and Sleep Surface Firmness
When choosing between a cot and an air mattress, you’ll want to consider your sleep position. Are you a side sleeper, back sleeper, or stomach sleeper?
For side sleepers, a soft to medium sleep surface is preferable. This is the case because a softer sleep surface can conform to the curves of your body without putting too much pressure on your shoulders or hips. These high-pressure points can sink into the mattress. For this reason, side sleepers usually find air mattresses to be more comfortable. The taught fabric of a cot can be too firm for side sleepers. It can put pressure on your hip bone and cause pain.
For back sleepers, a firm sleep surface is preferable. A firm surface supports your spine, neck, and head so they remain properly aligned in a neutral and healthy position while you sleep. Camping cots are better for back sleepers because the frame holds the fabric taught. This makes the sleep surface more firm. Your body won’t sink in. It will rest on top. A low-profile camping pillow can help you keep your neck aligned.
For stomach sleepers, a medium-firm sleep surface is ideal. This is necessary so the body doesn’t cave into the mattress and bend the spine into an unnatural and uncomfortable position. Air mattresses are generally preferable for stomach sleepers. Some stomach sleepers find that an air mattress or cot with a memory foam topper is ideal. The foam can conform to the body to provide sufficient support for the spine.
Most campers find that an air mattress offers the most comfort. The main reason is that you can adjust the firmness of an air mattress by adding or removing air. For example, if you find that your body sinks into the mattress too much, you can pump in some more air to firm it up a bit. If you find that the mattress puts too much pressure on your hips or shoulders, you can let some air out to make it softer. Higher-end air mattresses also feature an internal coil system that improves back support and prevents sagging.
One problem you may encounter is that some air mattresses leak a bit. The sleep surface may become softer throughout the night. Temperature changes can also cause the firmness to change as the air expands and contracts. If you inflate the mattress during the warm part of the day, it might become too soft when it cools off at night because the air contracts in the cold.
Camping cot comfort depends on the sleep surface design and your sleep position. A cot can be very comfortable if the sleep surface is properly tensioned. It can cradle your body almost like a hammock.
If the sleep surface sags, the cot can feel uneven and uncomfortable. If your cot is too firm, you can place a lightweight foam or inflatable sleeping pad on top to improve comfort. Higher-end cots often feature a built-in padded topper. This can also increase comfort.
Some cots also come with an adjustable head end. This allows you to raise your head without the need for a camping pillow. This can improve comfort by helping you align your neck and spine.
Winner: Air mattresses are more comfortable than cots for most campers because they are softer and more adjustable. If you’re a back sleeper, a cot may be more comfortable.
Sleep Surface Size
Air mattresses have a larger sleep surface than camping cots. The smallest air mattress size is a twin. Twin air mattresses measure 38” wide by 75” long. To compare, an average camping cot measures 30” wide by 75” long.
The larger sleep surface gives you more space to spread out and move around in your sleep. You feel less constricted while sleeping on an air mattress. You can easily roll over in your sleep without having to worry about falling off. This makes air mattresses the better choice for active sleepers.
Larger air mattresses are also available including full, queen, and king sizes. These have the same sleep surface size as standard mattresses of the same size. The larger-sized air mattresses are ideal for couples who camp together. Two people can comfortably sleep on the same mattress. You can even choose an air mattress that matches the size of your mattress at home. Larger air mattresses are also ideal for big and tall campers.
Most cots are designed for one person. Two-person cots are available. These usually measure around 50” wide by 75” long. Two-person cots usually aren’t as comfortable as two-person air mattresses. The reason is that many models have a bar running down the center between the two sleepers. This is necessary to provide structural support for the sleep surface so it doesn’t sag. Without the bar, the surface would sag and both campers would roll into one another.
Extra-wide single-person cots are also available. These usually measure 40” wide by 84” long. These can work well for big and tall people as well as those who toss and turn in their sleep.
Winner: Air mattresses offer a larger sleep surface than cots.
A Note About Bedding
Because air mattresses are the same size as standard mattresses, you can use normal sheets and blankets instead of a sleeping bag if you prefer. Many campers find this to be more comfortable because sheets are less restrictive than sleeping bags. They allow you to spread your arms and legs and move around while you sleep.
When you sleep on a cot, you pretty much have to use a sleeping bag. Most cots are too small for sheets.
Cot and Air mattress Weight
Air mattresses are almost always lighter than cots. Most air mattresses weigh somewhere between 6 and 15 lbs (2.7-6.8 kg) depending on the size. Larger models weigh more because they contain more material. The heaviest air mattresses weigh in at about 20 lbs (9 kg). Ultralight models are available that weigh in at around 4.5 lbs (2 kg).
To compare, a one-person cot typically weighs between 13 and 20 lbs (5.9-9 kg). Particularly heavy or double-sized cots can weigh upwards of 50 lbs (22 kg). Ultralight backpacking cots are available that weigh as little as 2.6 lbs (1.2 kg).
Cots are heavier because they have a solid metal frame. Even though the frame is typically made from lightweight aluminum, it still adds a considerable amount of weight. Metal is dense and heavy. Air mattresses are made from lightweight plastic or rubber and fabric. These materials are far lighter.
The weight difference is even greater if you’re camping with multiple people. For example, an average full-sized air mattress can sleep two people and might weigh 10 lbs. Two separate cots might weigh 30 lbs.
When you use an air mattress, you do have to take into consideration the weight of a pump. An average electric pump or hand pump weighs around 1 lb or 450 grams.
Winner: Air mattresses are usually lighter than cots.
Packed Size and Storage
Air mattresses pack down smaller than camping cots. This is possible because air mattresses can be deflated and folded or rolled up. There is no internal frame. When deflated, an average-sized air mattress rolls up into a bundle that measures around 20” long by 10” in diameter. Ultralight models pack down as small as 8” x 9”.
An air mattress doesn’t take up much space in your vehicle. This allows you to pack more camping gear. Some air mattresses are even small enough to use for backpacking and hiking. Most models are better suited for car camping. The small packed size also means that your air mattress won’t take up much space in your home when it’s not in use. You can easily store it in a closet or under your bed.
Camping cots, on the other hand, are much bulkier than air mattresses due to the rigid frame. When packed, a folding cot might measure around 30” x 30” x 6”. Ultralight collapsible backpacking cots that pack down smaller are available. These measure around 20” x 8” x 6” when collapsed. These are a bit more manageable but are still kind of bulky.
Due to their size, cots are best suited for car camping. Most models are far too bulky to use for backpacking or hiking. It’s not practical to carry a cot around. A cot also takes up more space in your home when not in use. If you live in a small apartment, you might not have space to store a couple of camping cots.
This size difference is also important to consider when you’re camping with multiple people. A two person air mattress is only slightly larger than a one person model. Two cots take up much more space. Your cots alone could take up your entire trunk space.
When you choose an air mattress, you do have to take into consideration the size of the pump. Air pumps, in particular, can be pretty bulky. For example, this Intex Double Quick III S Hand Pump measures 4.5” x 7.25” x 14.5”. Electric pumps are a bit more compact.
Winner: Air mattresses take up less space than camping cots.
The most important function of your sleep system is to keep you warm. Your air mattress or cot provides insulation from the cold ground to prevent body heat loss. This is actually the primary function of your sleep system. It’s the reason campers don’t just sleep directly on the ground.
Insulation is necessary because your sleeping bag can not insulate the underside of your body. This is because it compresses under your body weight. The down or synthetic insulation in your sleeping pad cannot provide insulation when it’s compressed because there are no air pockets to trap body heat. Your sleep system must provide the necessary insulation to help you stay warm.
Most camping sleep systems use air as an insulator because air is a poor conductor of heat. Air makes an excellent barrier to prevent heat transfer through radiation or conduction. In other words, air provides good thermal resistance. The thermal resistance of your sleep system mostly depends on its thickness, material, and height off the ground.
On its own, an air mattress provides more insulation and keeps you warmer than a cot. Most air mattresses elevate your body 6-12 inches off the ground. In most cases, the air inside provides plenty of insulation to keep you warm. Heat has a hard time transferring through the air mattress and into the ground due to the thermal resistance of the air.
That said, due to the large volume of air inside, the body heat that gets trapped in the air mattress dissipates quickly. Your body can’t heat that much air. Some air mattresses also have baffles. These are vertical pieces of material that are designed to stabilize the mattress. These can conduct heat from your body and transfer it into the mattress and ground. This can cool you off.
When camping in cold weather, you may find that your air mattress doesn’t keep you warm enough. You can increase the warmth by layering a foam pad on top of your mattress. This increases the insulation to help you stay warmer. Air mattresses with built-in insulation are also available. These come with a layer of foam or down insulation. These are a bit bulkier but work great for cold weather use.
In some cases, a cot can keep you warmer than an air mattress. The reason is that cots raise you off of the ground. This means you don’t have to deal with losing body heat to the cold ground through conduction.
The problem is that most camping cots don’t provide insulation from the cold air under the sleep surface. The sleep surface itself is made from a thin piece of fabric. It provides very little insulation. You can lose body heat to the cold air underneath through the process of convection. Heat transfers from your body to the air under your cot.
In cold weather, you’ll need to layer a sleeping pad on top of your cot for extra insulation. You could use a CCF foam sleeping pad or an inflatable pad. Some cots come with a built-in foam sleep surface. This provides insulation from the cold air under the cot. On top of the pad, you would sleep in a sleeping bag or under a warm blanket or quilt. For most campers, this is the best all-weather sleep system.
Another issue you can encounter with cots is drafts. Because the sleep surface is smaller, cold air can sometimes enter from the sides. This is really only an issue if you sleep under a quilt or blanket. You can prevent drafts by using a large blanket that goes to the ground or simply using a sleeping bag that surrounds your whole body.
Some cots and air mattresses list their r-value. R-value is a standardized rating that measures how resistant a sleep surface is to heat flow. A higher r-value means the cot or air mattress has more insulating power.
For warm weather camping, an r-value of 1 is fine. For winter camping, you’ll want an r-value of at least 5. If you layer a sleeping pad on top of your cot or air mattress, you simply add the r-values. For example, if your air mattress has an r-value of 3, you can layer a sleeping pad with an r-value of 2 on top for a total r-value of 5. This is helpful for cold weather camping.
Winner: On their own, air mattresses generally provide more insulation and keep you warmer. When paired with a sleeping pad, cots provide more insulation.
Camping on Hot Nights
Cots keep you cooler than air mattresses on warm nights. The reason is that a cot holds you off the ground. This allows for airflow underneath your body, which helps you stay cool through the night.
The sleep surface is made from thin fabric. Heat easily escapes through the fabric and dissipates. You might even feel a cool breeze through the fabric. On hot nights, you’ll sweat less and stay much cooler and more comfortable while sleeping on a cot.
Air mattresses, on the other hand, don’t allow as much heat to transfer away from your body. They retain heat. During the night, your body heats the air inside of the mattress. The mattress will be warmer than the outside air. This makes you hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable.
Winner: Sleeping on a cot keeps you cooler when camping in hot weather.
Camping gear takes a beating. Your sleep system needs to hold up to hard use in a wide range of weather and ground conditions. It needs to be able to handle being transported, packed, and unpacked many times and stored long term during the off-season. It needs to be long-lasting as well. You don’t want to have to buy a new sleep system every couple of seasons.
Cots are much more durable than air mattresses. They have sturdy aluminum frames that can handle weights of up to 300 lbs (136 kg). Heavy-duty steel-framed cots are available that can handle weights of up to 500 lbs (226 kg). The fabric sleep surface is made from rugged and abrasion-resistant material that lasts for many years. Cots are incredibly durable and long-lasting.
One problem you can run into is that the cot feet can tear your tent floor. This happens because your body weight is concentrated on the small surface area of the feet when you lay down. This puts a lot of pressure on your tent floor, which can cause tears.
The solution is to place something under your cot’s feet. You can use pieces of cardboard or carpet. You can even buy ‘cot coasters’ that are specifically designed for this purpose. Some cot feet have a large base to better distribute the weight and prevent tears.
Air mattresses aren’t very durable. The reason is that they are easy to puncture. A thorn, sharp stick, rock, twig, broken piece of glass, or other sharp objects can easily puncture your air mattress. When this happens, the air will leak out and you’ll wake up on the ground. You’ll end up having a cold night if you can’t repair your mattress.
Before you set up your tent, you need to thoroughly inspect the area underneath to ensure that there are no sharp objects. You’ll want to use a groundsheet for additional protection as well. Due to the possibility of puncture, air mattresses aren’t ideal for environments where sharp objects are common, such as desert environments.
Air mattresses can also develop leaks over time. For example, the valve can wear out and develop a slow leak. You may find that your mattress loses a bit of air throughout the night.
After enough use, a seam will split and your air mattress will fail. At this point, the mattress needs to be replaced. Split seems can’t be repaired. This is how most air mattresses fail.
The weight capacity of air mattresses is often a bit lower than cots as well. Twin models often have a capacity of around 200 lbs (90 kg). Full and queen models often max out at around 300 lbs (136 kg). King size and heavy-duty models can usually support 400-500 lbs (180-226 kg). Before you buy an air mattress, you’ll want to make sure it can support the weight of you and your partner. If you’re a heavy camper, you may need a large or heavy-duty air mattress.
Modern air mattresses are designed to be fairly puncture-resistant. They include a thick PVC layer on the bottom. The seams are reinforced. Higher-end models also feature a baffle or coil system. These help to stabilize the mattress and can also improve durability by reducing stress on the seams. Models with a baffle system tend to last longer than those without.
Most air mattresses also include a repair kit with patches and glue. If a thorn pokes a hole in your mattress, you can usually repair it pretty easily. Of course, it’s not very fun trying to find a puncture and make a repair in the middle of the night.
Winner: Camping cots are more durable than air mattresses because they feature a durable metal frame and thick fabric sleep surface. Air mattresses are less durable because they can suffer from punctures.
Elevation from the Ground
The sleep surface of most cots measures around 16-22 inches high (40-55 cm). Air mattresses are much lower, measuring around 8-12 inches high (20-30 cm), on average. A more elevated sleep surface is preferable. There are several reasons for this.
Most importantly, a higher sleep surface makes it easier to get into and out of bed. You don’t have to bend down quite as far when climbing into bed. This puts less strain on your knees and back. When getting out of bed, you don’t have to use as much effort to get up because you’re already in a seated position. Older campers, heavy campers, and those with back and knee problems appreciate the extra height of cots. Cots put less strain on your body. This allows people to camp who otherwise Wouldnt have the ability.
The height of cots also makes them a comfortable place to sit. You can sit on your cot while getting dressed, organizing gear, cleaning yourself off, reading your map, etc. You can also use your cot as a bench for multiple campers. Place it by your campfire or camp stove and sit on it while you cook and eat.
Sleeping raised off the ground makes it easier to regulate your sleep temperature. You can stay cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. While camping in hot weather, air can flow under the cot fabric and remove heat. In this way, cots are similar to hammocks. This extra airflow helps you stay cooler. In cold weather, a cot can keep you stay warmer because you don’t have to deal with your body heat transferring into the cold ground. You can place a foam sleeping pad on top of the cot to provide extra insulation. As a result, you’ll stay warmer.
The extra height can also help you stay dryer. While camping in wet weather, the floor of your tent can get wet. You can track water or snow in when entering and exiting. Rainwater can pool in your campsite and flow into your tent if you choose your campsite poorly. Condensation can also make the inside of your tent wet. A cot holds you off of the wet floor so you and your sleeping bag stay dry.
Sleeping raised off of the ground can also provide some protection from insects and pests. Ants, ticks, slugs, snakes, mice, and other critters may be less likely to climb up the metal cot legs and into your bed. Of course, if you sleep in a fully enclosed tent or bug net, pests aren’t usually a problem.
It’s important to note that cots aren’t always taller than air mattresses. Ultralight packable cots usually only raise you about 4 inches off the ground. Extra tall air mattresses are available that measure around 20” high.
Winner: Cots raise you further off the ground. This makes it easier to get in and out of bed. It can also keep you cooler and dryer.
The hinges on cots can become squeaky over time. When you set the cot up or move around in your sleep, you might hear a hinge squeaking. If your cot has springs, they can squeak too. This sound is caused by metal parts rubbing against other metal parts. The squeaking can get annoying. To prevent squeaky noises, be sure to lubricate all moving parts on your cot. WD-40 works well for this.
Air mattresses can make also make squeaky noises when you move around. This noise is caused by your body rubbing against the plastic surface of the mattress. If you roll around in your sleep a lot during the night, this could annoy your camping partner.
If you use an electric pump to inflate your air mattress, you’ll also have to deal with the sound of the electric motor. These can be as loud as a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner. This noise can annoy your fellow campers. Particularly when you’re using your electric pump late at night or early in the morning to inflate or deflate your mattress. Luckily, you’ll only have to run the pump for 5-10 minutes at a time. You don’t have to worry about this loud noise if you use a hand pump.
Winner: Cots are quieter because they don’t require a noisy electric pump.
In the mid-range and high-end, cot and air mattress prices are comparable. An average air mattress or cot costs somewhere between $80 and $150 depending on the brand, design, and features. Premium models with additional features such as an ultralight weight, extra insulation, or a compact design go for around $300.
If you’re on a really tight budget, you’re better off going with an air mattress. Entry-level air mattresses start at around $20-$30. Entry-level cots start at around $40-$50.
Another thing to take into consideration is that most cots only sleep one person. Full size and larger air mattresses can sleep two people. If you’re buying a sleep system for two people who are going to sleep in the same tent, it will be cheaper to buy one air mattress rather than two separate cots.
For example, you could buy a nice queen-sized air mattress for $100. Two cots of similar quality sell for around $160. Two-person cots are also available but they tend to be more expensive because they are a bit less common. These start at around $150. In this case, you’ll save around $50 by going with an air mattress.
If you choose an air mattress, you’ll also have to consider the cost of a pump if you don’t already own one. Electric pumps go for around $10-$25. Manual pumps cost around $10-$20.
Winner: For one person camping alone, it’s a tie. Cots and air mattresses are comparable in price. For two people camping in the same tent, an air mattress will be cheaper, even when adding in the cost of a pump.
One nice feature of cots is that they free up more space for storing gear. This is because cots are raised up off of the ground. The space under an average cot is large enough for you to store your entire pack and hiking boots. Storing your gear underneath your cot frees up more space for you to move around inside of your tent.
Some cots also come with built-in storage pockets. These pockets are sewn onto a flap of fabric that hangs off of the side of the cot. These small pockets work great for organizing small pieces of gear that you need to access often while camping such as a flashlight, a pocket knife, toiletries, gloves, a book, sunglasses, bear spray, etc. It’s almost like having a built-in nightstand. This helps you stay organized and frees up even more space on your tent floor.
An air mattress takes up most of the floor space inside of your tent. If your tent is small, the air mattress may occupy the entire floor space. This leaves you little room for storing and organizing your gear. You may have to leave some items outside or in your tent’s vestibule. You also won’t have as much space to move around inside of your tent. Of course, you could use a larger tent with more interior space.
Winner: Cots provide much more space for storing gear. You can store gear under the cot and inside storage pockets. Air mattresses take up most of your tent’s floor space.
Camping cots tend to be a better choice for all-weather use. While camping in cold weather, you can layer a warm sleeping pad on top of the cot during the winter to increase insulation. While camping in warm weather, you can sleep directly on the fabric sleep surface and take advantage of the cooling airflow under the cot. Air mattresses provide good insulation during the winter but can feel too hot during the summer.
Both air mattresses and cots make for excellent guest beds. If you don’t have a guest bedroom or if you need a spare bed for friends and family who are staying over, you can set up your cot or air mattress in your living room. This gives your guests a much more comfortable place to sleep than on the couch or floor.
Air mattresses make better guest beds than cots. The reason is that they offer a larger and more comfortable sleep surface. A full-size or larger air mattress can accommodate two people. You can use regular sheets and blankets on an air mattress. Your guests can also adjust the firmness to improve their comfort. Air beds also take up less space in your home when they’re not in use.
You can also use your air mattress to float in a lake or pool. This could put some wear and tear on the mattress. You also won’t want to do this if your mattress includes a built-in pump.
Winner: Cots are more versatile in a range of weather conditions while camping. Air mattresses make better guest beds.
Odor and Allergies
Some air mattresses give off a plastic or chemical odor. This is due to the PVC material that the mattress is made of. Some air mattresses emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These can cause an allergic reaction in some people who are sensitive to chemicals.
Some people are very sensitive to plastic odors and VOCs. Exposure to these chemicals can cause nausea, headaches, and generally make them feel sick. For others, the smell is just an annoyance.
If you’re sensitive to PVC, you’ll have to be careful about which air mattress you use. Higher-end air mattresses are made from materials that don’t give off as much odor.
Cots are made from materials that have less odor and generally don’t cause allergies. The aluminum frame has no odor. The fabric sleep surface has very little or no odor.
Winner: Cots usually don’t have a plastic smell.
Considerations When Choosing a Camping Cot
- Frame material- Most cot frames are made from either aluminum or steel. The main benefit of aluminum frames is that they will be lighter and corrosion-resistant. A steel frame can typically support more weight but are heavier.
- Sleep surface material- Most cots have a sleep surface made from a piece of fabric stretched taught. Common fabrics include polyester, nylon, and canvas. Some cot sleep surfaces are breathable and some are waterproof. Some cots also come with a foam mattress and springs.
- Sleep surface size- Most cots measure around 28″ wide by 75″long. If you’re a heavy or tall camper, you’ll need an extra large cot. If you plan to camp with your partner, you may choose a double cot.
- Cot fold design- Some cots are easier to set up than others. If you need a cot that sets up quickly, a folding model will be your best option. A military-style cot is slightly more difficult to set up. Ultralight packable cots are the most time-consuming to set up.
- Cot weight- If you plan to use the cot for car camping or as a guest bed, the weight doesn’t matter all that much. If you plan to use the cot for backpacking, fishing, bicycle touring, or travel, weight becomes much more important because you’ll be carrying the cot around.
- Cot packed size- If you drive a small vehicle or live in a small home you’ll want to choose a foldable cot or a military-style cot. These pack down to around the same size as a folding camping chair or a mid-sized tent. If you plan to carry your cot around you’ll want to choose a compact ultralight cot.
Considerations When Choosing an Air Mattress
- Mattress material- Most air mattresses are made out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Some are made from urethane plastics or rubber that have been reinforced with textiles. TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) mattresses are becoming popular. Some campers prefer PVC-free air mattresses because PVC contains chemical additives that may be hazardous to your health. For example, PVC contains chlorine and phthalates. Phthalates can release into the air in the form of a gas. These chemicals are believed to be cancer-causing. For more info, check out this interesting article.
- Stability- Most modern air mattresses come with some kind of internal stabilizing system. This prevents the mattress from trying to roll over on itself when you lay near the edge. It also provides extra support and reduces sagging. This improves comfort. It’s also better for your back.
- Inflation method- Air mattresses must be inflated with air. Most models have a couple of different valve sizes. The smaller valve allows you to inflate the mattress with a standard pump.
- Mattress size- Are you going to sleep on the mattress alone or with a partner? If you’re sleeping alone, a twin or full-size mattress will be ideal. If you plan to sleep with a partner, a full, queen, or king-size will be preferable. For those who sometimes sleep alone and sometimes with a partner, a full size is the perfect compromise.
- Packed size- An average air mattress packs down small enough to easily fit in a car trunk or closet. When deflated and folded, they’re around the same size as a sleeping bag. If you plan to go hiking with your air mattress, you’ll want to choose a compact model.
- Weight- For most campers, the weight of the air mattress isn’t an issue. Most models weigh 10-25 lbs depending on the material, design, and size. If you plan to use your air mattress while backpacking, you’ll want to choose an ultralight model.
Camping Cot Recommendations
This classic military-style camping cot from Coleman features a strong steel frame that can support up to 300 lbs and a durable fabric sleep surface. It has a classic cot design. The frame unfolds and the crossbar locks into place to hold the sleep surface taught. The cot measures 73 x 35 x 17 inches. The max height is 6’2”.
This affordable cot is perfect for car camping. It folds down small enough to fit in the trunk of most cars. It’s also a great choice for those who are on a tight budget.
This ultralight cot from Therm-a-Rest weighs just 2.6 lbs, making it one of the lightest cots on the market. It’s incredibly compact as well. The cot assembles quickly and easily without tools.
The sleep surface features ThermaCapture material. This helps to prevent heat loss through radiation so you stay warmer. When set up, it measures 72 x 4 x 24 inches. A large size is available as well for big and tall campers. This cot is perfect for backpacking, fishing, motorcycle or canoe trips, and more.
This folding cot from Coleman features a spring design and a thick foam mattress that provides excellent support for the hips and shoulders. For even more comfort, you can upgrade the mattress to a thicker model. The cot frame is made from durable steel. It can support up to 300 lbs.
The Coleman ComfortSmart cot folds up into a package that fits in most car trunks. When unfolded, it measures 80 x 30 x 15 inches. The max height is 6’6”. This cot would make an excellent guest bed. It’s also perfect for car camping. The cot is fairly heavy at 8.9 kg.
This folding cot sets up in a matter of seconds. It unfolds and locks in place similar to a folding camp chair. When unfolded, the cot measures 28” x 75“ x 18.5”. The frame is made from durable tubular carbon steel and can support up to 300 lbs. The sleep surface is made from 600D PVC coated waterproof polyester fabric that prevents moisture buildup and resists mold.
The cot features an elevated headrest. This allows you to sleep with or without a pillow. A built-in 3 compartment accessory pocket hangs off of the side. This is a great place to store a water bottle, your phone, bug spray, and other items you need to access regularly. When packed, the cot measures 5” x 8” x 40”. That’s about the size of a folded camp chair. The cot weighs 13 lbs.
Air Mattress Recommendations
This affordable air mattress from Sierra Designs is made from abrasion, puncture, and crack-resistant TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) material. It is PVC and Phthalate free. The mattress measures 77.9” x 55.9” x 10.2” when inflated. It is designed to sleep two people comfortably.
The Sierra Designs air mattress features a built-in pillow and a Boston valve for easy inflation and deflation. A battery-powered pump and a carrying case are included. This would be a perfect air mattress for car camping or even travel.
This affordable air mattress features an extra-wide valve for easy inflating and deflating, a 600 lb weight capacity, and a comfortable velvety finish on top. It offers a unique construction with thousands of polyester fibers connecting the top and bottom layers of material. These add durability, stability, and support.
This air mattress is available in twin, full, and queen sizes. It is also available with a battery pump or a built-in foot pump. This entry-level mattress would be a good choice for someone who is on a tight budget.
This premium air mattress from SoundAsleep features a double-height design. It is available in twin, full, queen, and king sizes. When inflated, the queen size mattress measures 78” x 58” x 19”.
Inside the mattress, there are 40 air coils. These increase durability, stability, and comfort. The bottom features a nonslip surface. This mattress is designed to be used in-home as a spare bed. It can also make an excellent camp mattress. You do need access to electricity to use the built-in electric pump.
Who Should Choose a Camping Cot?
Cots are ideal for those who camp in a wide range of climate and weather conditions. The raised sleeping surface allows for good airflow during the hot summer months and protects you from the cold ground during the winter months. For extra insulation, you can easily layer a sleeping pad on top.
A cot is also a great choice for those who only take overnight trips or those who move camp frequently. The quick setup time makes it easy to set up and take down camp. Folding cots set up in just a matter of seconds.
Those who camp in rugged conditions may also prefer the durability of a cot over an air mattress. You can camp on thorny or rocky surfaces without having to worry about punctures or leaks. This brings peace of mind.
Those with mobility issues will also prefer sleeping on a cot. Being raised off the ground makes it much easier to climb in and out of bed. You don’t have to get up from the ground. Those with a bad back may also be better off with a cot. The firm sleeping surface provides plenty of support for back sleepers.
In addition, those who use a small tent or carry lots of gear will also prefer using a cot due to the additional gear storage that they provide. You can store your pack and boots under your cot and leave more room in your tent.
Who Should Choose an Air Mattress?
Air mattresses are ideal for those who value comfort. The large sleep surface offers plenty of space for you to spread out and move around in your sleep. You can adjust the firmness by adding or removing air. Air mattresses provide plenty of support for back, side, and stomach sleepers. As an added bonus, you can use your favorite sheets and blankets from home because the mattresses are standard-sized.
Air mattresses are also perfect for those who like to sleep next to their partner while camping. Full, queen, and king sizes are large enough to accommodate two people comfortably. This is nice for couples who camp together.
If you camp in cold climates often, you’ll probably prefer using an air mattress. The air inside provides insulation from the cold ground. It acts as a thermal resistor to prevent body heat loss to the cold ground. Insulated winter air mattresses are also available.
Air mattresses are also perfect for use in cases where space and weight are an issue. For example, if you drive a compact car, you probably don’t have space to carry two bulky cots with heavy metal frames. An air mattress is ideal because it packs down much smaller and takes up less space.
In addition, air mattresses make excellent guest beds. If you live in a small home or apartment and don’t have a spare bedroom, you can just inflate your air mattress. Your guests will get a comfortable night of sleep.
I own both a cot and an air mattress. In most cases, I prefer sleeping on a cot. For whatever reason, being raised off the ground just feels more comfortable. I also really enjoy being able to easily climb in and out of bed. The cot also provides a comfortable place for me to sit and put my shoes on in the morning.
The durability of a cot also brings peace of mind. When I sleep on an air mattress, I’m always paranoid about punctures. The quick setup time is also nice. Having to pump up and deflate an air mattress is a hassle. One of my least favorite parts of camping is setting up and taking down camp.
Having said this, there are a couple of cases where I prefer an air mattress. If I’m going to camp in one place for multiple nights, I often prefer using my air mattress. The reason is that an air mattress allows me to spread out a bit more and more easily move around in my sleep. I don’t mind having to inflate and deflate the mattress if I’m only doing it once per trip. I also prefer using an air mattress if I’m camping with a partner. It’s nice being able to sleep next to one another.
Air mattresses also make nice guest beds. If I have a guest staying over, I’ll set up the air mattress for them.
Cots and air mattresses are both solid choices for car camping and guest beds. The best sleep system for you depends on a number of factors including the climate you camp in, the terrain you camp on, how many nights you camp, who you camp with, as well as personal preference.
When choosing a sleep system for your next camping trip, the most important consideration is comfort. As long as you can stay warm enough and get a decent night of sleep, you’ll have a good trip. If you get too cold in the night or can’t find a comfortable sleep position, you’ll wake up feeling tired and stiff. This can ruin your whole trip.
The best way to choose between a cot and air mattress is to choose the one that you find to be the most comfortable. Whichever sleep system you end up choosing, I hope this guide has helped you in making your decision.
Do you prefer sleeping on a cot or air mattress while camping? Share your experience in the comments below!
More from Where The Road Forks
- 3/4 Length Vs Full Length Sleeping Pad
- The Complete Guide to Hot Tent Camping
- Bivy Sack Vs Tent: Pros and Cons
- Is Camping Safe? Avoiding Animals, Insects, and Injury
- Tarp Vs Tent for Camping: Pros and Cons
- Truck Camper Vs Camper Van: Pros and Cons
Zachary Friedman is an accomplished travel writer and professional blogger. Since 2011, he has traveled to 66 countries and 6 continents. He founded ‘Where The Road Forks’ in 2017 to provide readers with information and incites based on his travel and outdoor recreation experience and expertise. Zachary is also an avid cyclist and hiker. Living as a digital nomad, Zachary balances his professional life with his passions for hiking, camping, cycling, and worldwide exploration. For a deeper dive into his journey and background, visit the About page. For inquiries and collaborations, please reach out through the Contact page. You can also follow him on Facebook.