Self-inflating mattresses vs. air beds: Which one is best for camping?

by | Aug 23, 2023 | Gear

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Sleep is one of the most important aspects of a good camping trip.

But when considering the type of support and comfort you need while sleeping outdoors, the choice can be a tough one.

Popular options include self-inflating air mattresses, air beds, foam pads, cots, and hammocks.

If you’re set on getting a camping mattress, however, you’re probably looking at either a self-inflating air mattress or an air bed.

Here’s what the difference is between the two and what they have to offer.

Self-inflating mattresses

A green camping air mattress lying on the grass.

Self-inflating mattresses are designed with an internal foam core that expands and fills with air when you open the valve.

This eliminates the need for an external air pump or manual inflation.

They’re typically made with durable materials and provide excellent insulation from the ground.

Self-inflating mattresses are easy to set up and pack down into a compact size for storage and transportation.

However, they may not be as comfortable as air beds due to their thinner design.

Air beds/mattresses

A super thick camping air mattress inside a tent with two sleeping bags.

On the other hand, air beds, also known as air mattresses, require air to be manually pumped in using a manual or electric pump.

They offer a highly customizable sleeping surface, as you can adjust the firmness of the mattress by controlling the volume of air being pumped into it.

Air beds are often thicker and more comfortable than self-inflating mattresses, providing a more luxurious sleeping experience.

They’re great for guests or temporary sleeping arrangements but might be less convenient for camping or backpacking due to their bulkier size and the need for a separate air pump.


A man blowing up a camping mattress with an air pump

Self-inflating mattresses

When it comes to inflating a self-inflating mattress, it’s a total breeze.

As the name suggests, these mattresses have a built-in inflation process that uses open-cell foam technology.

Simply open the valve, and the foam will begin to expand, drawing in air and inflating by itself.

You won’t need to manually pump air into the mattress, which saves you time and effort.

However, if you want a firmer surface, you can still add a few breaths of air to reach the desired level of firmness.

Air beds/mattresses

On the other hand, air beds require some form of air pump or manual effort to inflate.

You’ll either use an electric pump, a hand pump, or your own breath to fill the air bed with air.

This can be more time-consuming compared to self-inflating mattresses, but it allows you full control over how firm or soft the air bed is.


Rolled up air mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses

Deflating a self-inflating mattress is also straightforward.

You’ll need to open the valve and start rolling the mattress from one end to the other, applying pressure as you go.

This will force the air out through the valve, and once all the air is expelled, you can close the valve, fold or roll the mattress, and store it away.

Air beds/mattresses

Air beds, on the other hand, have a slightly different deflation process.

You usually open a larger valve or plug, allowing the air to escape more quickly.

Sometimes, you might need to use the same pump used for inflation in reverse to help deflate the air bed faster.

Once the air is fully released, you can fold or roll the air bed and store it in its carrying case.


A man trying to sleep inside a tent.

Self-inflating mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses provide a good balance between comfort and portability.

They usually have a layer of foam inside, which expands and inflates the mattress when you unroll it and open the valve.

You can adjust their firmness by adding or releasing air, offering you some level of customization.

Thinner self-inflating mattresses are great for hiking and camping, while thicker ones can be more comfortable.

Keep in mind that self-inflating mattresses might not be as plush as air beds, which could matter if you’re looking for maximum comfort.

Air beds/mattresses

Air beds, also known as air mattresses, are inflatable beds shown to be quite comfortable and customizable for their users.

Their support and integrity mainly come from air chambers, which can be inflated or deflated according to personal preferences, granting you control over the bed’s firmness.

In general, air beds can be more comfortable than self-inflating mattresses, especially when they’re double-height.

These provide adequate separation from the ground, making them feel more like traditional mattresses.

Air beds can also be designed with built-in pumps or internal coil beam constructions, which improve their durability, support, and overall comfort—making them ideal for couples, side sleepers, and heavier people.

However, air beds can be bulkier and take longer to inflate and deflate, making them less suitable for situations where portability is key.


A person setting up their air mattress inside a tent.

Self-inflating mattresses

While some air beds may have a higher R-value, self-inflating mattresses are generally better insulated, making them suitable for colder conditions.

If temperatures will be consistently low during your camping trips, a self-inflating mattress may be the better choice.

Air beds/mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses may be better insulated, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay warm with an air bed with a higher R-value.

However, if you plan to camp in warmer climates or want a mattress that can easily be adjusted for firmness, an air bed might be more suitable.

Durability and lifespan

A man blowing up an air mattress at a campsite

Self-inflating mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses usually have a longer lifespan, thanks to their durable materials such as foam and heavy-duty fabric.

Additionally, they often feature a puncture-resistant surface that prevents leaks.

On average, you can expect a self-inflating mattress to last for several years, even with regular use.

Air beds/mattresses

On the other hand, air beds can last up to eight years with occasional use and about two years with constant use.

The key to extending their lifespan lies in choosing an air bed with high-quality, durable materials, such as thermoplastic urethane (TPU) and internal structural components like air coil chambers.

Also, selecting an air bed with a weight capacity of at least 600 pounds can make a significant difference in durability.

Some quick tips to prolong the life of both self-inflating mattresses and air beds include:

  • Properly cleaning and storing them after each use
  • Avoiding over-inflation, which can strain the mattress material
  • Using a protective cover or groundsheet to minimize contact with sharp objects and rough surfaces

Portability and storage

A man packing an air mattress away into a backpack

Self-inflating mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses offer a decent level of portability for campers and travelers.

They’re relatively lightweight, making them easy to carry in a backpack or duffle bag.

Most self-inflating mattresses can be rolled or folded into a compact size, saving precious space in your luggage or vehicle.

To make packing even easier, many self-inflating mattresses come with compression straps or bags to help squeeze out any remaining air and keep the mattress compact during transportation.

One downside, however, is that self-inflating mattresses can be a bit bulkier and heavier than air beds when rolled up, as they include foam and insulation materials.

Air beds/mattresses

Air beds are also portable, making them a popular choice for camping trips or overnight guests.

One of the key advantages of air beds is that when deflated and folded, they take up very little space and can be easily stored in a small carrying bag.

This allows them to fit into tight spaces, such as car trunks or backpacks.

Lightweight materials like PVC and nylon used in the construction of air beds keep the overall weight low, making them easier to transport.

However, keep in mind that you’ll need to bring along an air pump, be it manual, electric, or battery-operated, to inflate the air bed once you reach your destination.

Some air beds also have built-in pumps, which add convenience but may increase the bed’s weight and packed size.

Cost comparison

A man using a credit card to make an online purchase.

Self-inflating mattresses

When it comes to the cost of a self-inflating mattress and an air bed, you’ll find a range of prices depending on factors like size, materials, and features.

Here’s a clearer picture of what you can expect to pay for each type.

Self-inflating mattresses can be a bit pricier than air beds, mostly because of their built-in inflation mechanism and higher quality materials.

You can find budget-friendly options starting at around $100, but for more advanced, lightweight, or warm models, you may need to shell out anywhere from $150 to $300.

Keep in mind that splurging on a good self-inflating mattress is often worth it if you plan on using it frequently for camping or backpacking trips.

In summary, self-inflating mattresses may cost more upfront, but can offer advantages like better insulation, durability, and convenience for longer outdoor trips.

Air beds/mattresses

Air beds, on the other hand, tend to be more affordable.

Basic single-height models can be found for as little as $25.

However, if you’re looking for a double-height air bed that mimics the feel of a real mattress and offers extra comfort or support features, you may need to spend anywhere between $50 and $200.

Remember that air beds often require a separate pump, so factor in the cost of buying or renting one if it’s not included.

Air beds are generally cheaper and can provide a comfortable sleep experience for temporary use or occasional guests.

Maintenance requirements

Tent and camping gear in their stuff sacks/storage bags.

Self-inflating mattresses

Keeping your self-inflating mattress in good condition is pretty straightforward.

First and foremost, be sure to store it properly by rolling it up and securing it with straps.

Avoid storing it while it’s damp, as that could lead to mould or mildew growth.

If it gets dirty, you can simply wipe it down with a damp cloth and mild soap.

Inspect your mattress periodically for signs of wear or leakage.

If you find a leak, most self-inflating mattresses can be easily repaired using a patch kit that is often included or can be purchased separately.

Additionally, don’t overinflate your self-inflating mattress.

Applying too much air pressure could cause the seams or valves to give way, shortening its lifespan.

Air beds/mattresses

Air bed maintenance requires a bit more attention than self-inflating mattresses.

First, always use an appropriate pump for inflation—manual or electric, depending on the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Make sure you keep your air bed clean by washing the surface with a mild detergent solution and then rinsing it thoroughly.

Allow it to dry completely before deflating and storing.

Regularly check the air bed for leaks, and patch them as soon as they are detected.

This will help maintain its durability and ensure a comfortable sleep.

It’s essential to store your air bed in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight or excessive heat, which could cause the material to break down.

As with self-inflating mattresses, don’t overinflate your air bed.

Excessive air pressure can strain the seams and valves, leading to leaks or even a burst mattress.

Environment and health impacts

A red air mattress lying on the grass.

Self-inflating mattresses

Self-inflating mattresses are often made from more eco-friendly materials, like polyurethane foam.

This foam can provide insulation and support, without requiring as many synthetic materials as traditional air beds.

However, some self-inflating mattresses might contain chemicals, such as flame retardants, which can have negative health effects.

It’s important to research the materials used in the specific mattress you’re considering to ensure it’s free of harmful substances.

Air beds/mattresses

Traditional air beds, on the other hand, are usually made from PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic.

PVC is not the most environmentally friendly material, as it takes a long time to break down and can release toxic chemicals when it does.

However, there are some air beds on the market that use alternative materials, like TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), which is more eco-friendly and less likely to contain harmful chemicals.

Durability is another factor to consider when looking at the environment and health impacts of both air beds and self-inflating mattresses.

A more durable mattress will last longer, reducing the need for frequent replacements and lessening your overall environmental impact.

In general, self-inflating mattresses tend to be more durable than traditional air beds, which can be prone to punctures and leaks.

Air quality can also be a concern when using these types of mattresses.

With both air beds and self-inflating mattresses, it’s possible for them to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air.

These chemicals can cause irritation and discomfort, especially for those with allergies or respiratory issues.

To minimize these risks, make sure to properly air out your mattress before using it, especially if it’s brand new.

In summary, self-inflating mattresses tend to have a lower environmental impact and can be more durable than air beds.

However, it’s important to research the specific materials used in the mattress you’re considering to ensure it’s free of harmful chemicals.

Which one should you choose?

A woman inflating a camping mattress with an air pump

When it comes to choosing between a self-inflating mattress and an air bed, it really depends on what you’re looking for in terms of comfort, convenience, and purpose.

Let’s explore the ideal users for each type of mattress.

Self-inflating mattresses are great for those who prioritize convenience and ease of use.

If you’re into ultralight camping or backpacking, a self-inflating mattress might be a better option for you.

They’re typically more compact and lighter, which is perfect for carrying around on outdoor adventures.

Additionally, they provide decent insulation and can keep you warm during colder nights or during the shoulder seasons.

Air beds are appealing to people who want the feel of a traditional mattress at home or are hosting guests.

They’re best for car campers or RVers who don’t have to worry about cutting down on weight or bulk.

Double-height air beds can give you that extra elevation and support, mimicking a regular mattress, which makes them suitable for your guests or even as a temporary sleeping solution.

Some air beds also come with adjustable firmness settings, allowing you to personalize your sleeping experience.

So, choose a self-inflating mattress if you value portability and ease of use, especially for outdoor activities.

Go for an air bed if you’re after a more substantial feel with customizability options when it comes to comfort.

It’s all about finding what works best for you and your specific needs!

Next up: What size air mattress fits a 2, 3, or 4-person tent?

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Which is more comfortable: A self-inflating mattress or an air bed?

Comfort can vary according to individual preferences, but self-inflating mattresses generally offer a firmer sleeping surface than air beds.

The thickness and quality of the mattress you select will have a direct bearing on the comfort of the mattress.

Most self-inflating air mattresses are very comfortable.

Do self-inflating mattresses provide better insulation than air beds?

Yes, self-inflating mattresses typically provide better insulation than air beds because they have a layer of foam inside, which helps retain heat and provides insulation from the cold ground.

Air beds, on the other hand, often allow cold air to circulate within, leading to a less insulated and chillier sleeping surface.

What are the main differences between a sleeping pad and an air mattress?

A sleeping pad is a thin, lightweight cushion designed for camping, offering a basic level of comfort and insulation from the ground.

Air mattresses are thicker, provide greater cushioning, and have air-filled chambers that can be adjusted for comfort.

They’re often used for both camping and home use.

Air mattresses can also be used as flotation devices or water toys.

Are self-inflating mattresses more durable than air beds?

Self-inflating mattresses are generally more durable than air beds because they are made with thicker, puncture-resistant materials and consist of a combination of foam and air.

Air beds, being made primarily of air-filled chambers, are more susceptible to punctures and air leaks.

How does the weight and packability of self-inflating mattresses compare to air beds?

Self-inflating mattresses tend to weigh more than air beds due to the foam insulation inside but are often more compact when deflated and rolled up.

Air beds may be lighter in weight but can take up more space when packed, especially if you need to carry around a separate air pump.

Can you use a self-inflating mattress in a hammock as you would an air bed?

While you could try using a self-inflating mattress in a hammock, it may not conform as well to the shape of the hammock as an air bed might.

Air beds can be more flexible and adjustable in terms of firmness, making them more suitable for use in a hammock.

However, your comfort will depend on the specific mattress and hammock combination, as well as your personal preferences.

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About Us

Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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