Knowing how to keep your air mattress warm when camping will go a long away in keeping you comfortable at night. Even in the summer, nighttime temperatures can dip below the freezing mark in some areas of the country.
You could have the warmest down sleeping bag on the market, and still feel cold on the back or side of your body that’s resting on your sleeping pad. This is because the down of your sleeping bag loses its insulation power when it’s crushed—making you more susceptible to feeling the cold of your air mattress.
So how do campers stay warm on an air mattress? Well, an air mattress isn’t insulated the same way as a sleeping bag, so you’ll need to take extra care to make sure you don’t get cold during the night. It all starts with choosing the right one.
Tip #1: Make sure your air mattress has an appropriate R-value rating
When we first started backcountry camping, I bought two air mattresses for a super cheap price off of Amazon. I thought, hey, they have great reviews! What could go wrong?
It turns out you get what you pay for. Those cheapo mattresses didn’t last long, and we eventually decided to invest in some good ones so that we could sleep comfortable and stay warm at night.
Back then, I didn’t know what an R-value was, but I quickly learned that it’s one of the most important metrics to consider when buying an air mattress for camping.
R-value is a measure of how well insulated something is—the higher the number, the better.
For three-season camping, you want an air mattress with an R-value of 3 to 4 or higher. If you’re more of a four-season camper or winter camper, you’re going to want an air mattress with an R-value of at least 4.5.
Paying attention to the R-value of your air mattress will ensure that your body heat isn’t conducted away from you and into the ground. If a manufacturer doesn’t list the R-value of an air mattress, it’s not worth purchasing.
We have two Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite air mattresses, which have an R-value of 4.2 and love them. They keep us super warm in cold weather, but need some beefing up once the temperatures drop well below freezing.
Tip #2: Create a barrier between your mattress and the ground
The average camper will typically use some kind of a groundsheet (like a tarp) underneath their tent and leave it at that. But even the best three-season and four-season tents with thicker floors aren’t going to do much to insulate you from the cold ground if your air mattress is close to it.
One of the best things you can do to add extra insulation to your air mattress is to use something that acts as a barrier between it and the ground. This would involve lining the floor area of your tent where you plan to put your air mattress.
Some common things you could use include:
- A tarp
- Wool blankets
- Reflective bubble insulation like Reflectix
- Foam mats or pads
- Closed-cell foam pads like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
Adding an extra layer of insulation will help to keep the cold from seeping up through your mattress and make a big difference in how warm you sleep at night. If you’re camping on public land (not in a park or campground), you could also use pine or balsam boughs as an insulator.
Tip #3: Place a closed-cell foam pad on top of your air mattress
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s one of the best camping hacks we know of thanks to the many experienced winter campers we’ve watched on YouTube.
You’d think that placing your closed-cell foam pad underneath your air mattress would do the trick by stopping the cold from coming up from the ground. And it’s certainly a great idea, which is why we listed it as an option above, but if you’re camping in really cold weather—freezing or below—you’re going to want to put it on top.
Here’s why we think this makes a huge difference. When the temperatures plummet below freezing, the air inside your air mattress is going to be really cold. We think it’s the cold air inside your mattress that makes for a really cold night’s sleep.
By placing your closed-cell foam pad on top of your air mattress, you’re essentially creating a barrier between the frigid air inside your mattress and the cold ground. This hack has worked like a charm for us on many hot tent camping trips when we’ve woken up to find our water bottles and boots frozen solid.
Again, we recommend the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol for its heat-trapping design and how lightweight and packable it is. The great thing about placing it on top of your air mattress is that you don’t sacrifice comfort at all—it’s just as cushy as if you were sleeping on the mattress alone.
If you don’t have a closed-cell foam pad, or you’d rather use it underneath your air mattress, you could also use a wool or fleece blanket. We don’t recommend using Reflectix or tarps on top of your air mattress because they’ll be super noisy when you shuffle around at night.
Tip #4: Make sure the rest of your sleep system is maximized for warmth
Your air mattress is only as good and warm as your overall sleep system, which includes your tent, sleeping bag, clothing, and other optional items. Here’s what we recommend:
- Know the difference between a three-season and four-season tent
- Understand all the different ways you can insulate your tent without electricity
- Choose a sleeping bag with an appropriate temperature rating
- Warm your feet, hands, and whole body up first before getting in your sleeping bag
- Consider using a portable gas-powered heater in your tent before bed
Tip #5: Don’t forget to take care of your air mattress
Taking good care of your air mattress will help to extend its lifespan. Here are a few tips:
- Always check for obstacles (jagged rocks, tree roots, etc.) before choosing a spot on the ground to sleep on
- Avoid over-inflating your air mattress
- Avoid jumping on your air mattress or stepping on it with shoes on
- Deflate your mattress when not in use
- Store your mattress in a cool, dry place when not in use
- Repair holes and leaks as soon as possible
- Clean your mattress regularly with a mixture of mild soap and water and a washcloth, allowing it to dry fully before storing it away
Understanding how to keep your air mattress warm when camping is key to a comfortable night’s sleep in the great outdoors. By following the tips above and matching your sleep system to the nighttime temperatures of your trip, you’ll be sure to enjoy many cozy nights under the stars.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
Can you use an air mattress in cold weather?
Yes, you can use an air mattress in cold weather as long as you take the necessary steps to keep it warm. We’ve used our Therm-a-Rest air mattresses in temperatures of -35°C (-31°F) along with all of the insulation tips listed above.
Can you put an air mattress on top of a camping cot?
Yes, you can put an air mattress on top of a camping cot as long as the size is right and your mattress isn’t going to catch on anything when you sit up or lie down. This is an excellent way to get yourself off of the cold ground and stay extra warm.
Is a thicker air mattress warmer?
No, a thicker air mattress is not necessarily warmer, but it will provide more cushioning and support. If you want your air mattress to be as warm as possible, pay attention to its R-value.
Do I have to spend a lot of money on a good air mattress?
Not necessarily. While it’s true that more expensive camping gear is generally of better quality, there are plenty of great air mattresses out there that won’t break the bank. For instance, check out this AIRELAX air mattress that’s under $100 USD and has an R-value of 12. Not bad! Just be sure to do your research and read reviews before making your purchase.
Is Therm-a-Rest the best brand?
Therm-a-Rest is certainly one of the biggest and most popular brands for sleep gear—known for its high quality and innovative designs. However, it’s not necessarily the best. You can find comparable air mattresses with just as good (or even better) warmth retention properties. It really depends on your budget and what you’re looking for in an air mattress.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).