When it comes to camping, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is how you’ll sleep.
Two popular options are sleeping bags and air mattresses.
Ideally, you want to have both.
But if you only of the budget for one or the other, we’ll help you make an informed choice.
Sleeping bags are a classic choice and offer a cozy, snug sleeping experience.
They’re easy to pack and transport, making them a great option for backpacking trips.
However, they don’t offer much padding from the ground, so you’ll need to choose a good campsite with soft ground or bring along a sleeping pad for extra cushioning.
On the other hand, air mattresses provide more cushioning and can be adjusted to your preferred level of firmness.
They’re a great choice for car camping or RV trips where weight and size aren’t major concerns.
Of course, they can be bulky and difficult to pack, and they’re not as warm as sleeping bags.
Let’s take a closer look at each option to help you make an informed decision for your next camping trip.
What you should know about sleeping bags
Sleeping bags are designed to keep the user warm and comfortable in cold or damp conditions by trapping body heat within the bag’s insulation.
Sleeping bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and materials.
Here are some of the most common types of sleeping bags:
Rectangular sleeping bags: These bags are spacious and comfortable, but they are not very efficient at retaining heat.
They’re best suited for car camping or indoor use.
Mummy sleeping bags: These bags are designed to be lightweight and compact, making them ideal for backpacking and other outdoor activities.
They have a snug fit that helps to retain heat and keep you warm.
Double sleeping bags: These bags are designed for two people to sleep in together, making them great for couples or families.
They’re available in both rectangular and mummy styles.
Sleeping bags offer a number of benefits, including:
They’re insulated with materials like down or synthetic fibres to help retain heat.
Comfort: Sleeping bags are designed to be comfortable, with soft materials and a snug fit that helps to keep you cozy.
Portability: Sleeping bags are lightweight and easy to pack, making them ideal for outdoor activities like camping and backpacking.
While sleeping bags offer many benefits, there are also some drawbacks to consider:
Limited mobility: Sleeping bags can be restrictive, making it difficult to move around or change positions while you sleep.
Temperature regulation: Sleeping bags can be too warm or too cold, depending on the temperature outside.
It can be difficult to regulate your body temperature inside a sleeping bag.
Maintenance: Sleeping bags require regular cleaning and maintenance to keep them in good condition.
Down sleeping bags, in particular, can be difficult to clean and dry properly.
What you should know about air mattresses
Air mattresses are portable, easy to inflate, and can be adjusted for firmness to suit individual preferences.
There are three main types of air mattresses:
Double-height air mattresses are the most common type and are designed to mimic the height of a traditional bed.
Self-inflating mattresses have a foam core that expands when the valve is opened, and they require less effort to inflate.
Convertible air mattresses can be used as a chair or a bed and are great for small spaces.
One of the biggest benefits of air mattresses is their portability.
They can be easily deflated and packed away when not in use, making them ideal for camping trips or for use as a guest bed.
Additionally, air mattresses can be adjusted for firmness, providing a customizable sleeping experience.
They’re also relatively affordable compared to traditional mattresses.
One of the main drawbacks of air mattresses is their potential for leaks.
While most air mattresses come with repair kits, a puncture can still be a frustrating and inconvenient experience.
Air mattresses also tend to be less durable than traditional mattresses and may need to be replaced more frequently.
Additionally, some people may find that air mattresses do not provide enough support for their back or neck, leading to discomfort or pain.
How comfortable is a sleeping bag vs. an air mattress?
When it comes to camping, comfort is key to a good night’s sleep.
Both sleeping bags and air mattresses offer different levels of comfort.
Sleeping bags offer a cozy and snug sleeping experience.
They’re designed to keep you warm and comfortable throughout the night.
Sleeping bags come in different shapes and sizes, so you can choose one that fits your body type.
They also come with different insulation levels to keep you warm in different weather conditions.
One of the advantages of sleeping bags is that they’re lightweight and easy to carry around.
They can be compressed to take up minimal space in your backpack.
Sleeping bags are also very durable and can last for many years with proper care.
However, sleeping bags can be uncomfortable if you don’t choose the right one for your body type.
They can also be restrictive, making it difficult to move around while you sleep.
Sleeping bags are also not as thick as air mattresses, which can make sleeping on hard ground without an air mattress very uncomfortable.
Air mattresses offer a luxurious sleeping experience that mimics a bed.
They’re thicker and provide more cushioning, making them ideal for sleeping on hard ground.
Air mattresses also come in different sizes, so you can choose one that fits your body type and is designed to support your preferred sleep position—such as sleeping on your side.
They provide a soft and cushioned sleeping surface that is ideal for people who have trouble sleeping on hard ground.
Although they’re known for comfort because of their cushioning effect, you can still get stuck with an uncomfortable one if you skimp on quality or choose one that isn’t very thick.
You can also suffer from heat loss throughout the night if your air mattress isn’t insulated for the weather.
The thicker and higher the R-value (insulation factor) your air mattress has, the more cushioning and warmth you’ll get out of it.
Which is more portable?
When it comes to camping gear, portability is a crucial factor to consider.
You’ll want to make sure that you can easily carry your gear to your camping destination without too much hassle.
Sleeping bags tend to be more lightweight than air mattresses, however they may take up more space or bulk.
Most sleeping bags come with a stuff sack that compresses the bag to a smaller size.
The size and weight of a sleeping bag will depend on the type of insulation used.
Down sleeping bags are lighter and more compressible than synthetic sleeping bags.
However, down sleeping bags are more expensive and require more care to maintain their loft and warmth.
Air mattresses tend to be heavier than sleeping bags and can be bulkier, although this is not necessarily the case if you’re using an ultralight air mattress like the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite, which packs down to 9 by 4 inches and weighs just 12 ounces.
Standard air mattresses and luxury air mattresses, however, are a different story.
They’re not as easy to pack and carry, especially if you’re backpacking or carrying a larger mattress made for couples.
However, air mattresses are more comfortable than sleeping bags and provide better insulation from the ground.
If you’re car camping, an air mattress may be a good option as you can easily inflate it with a pump.
Some air mattresses come with a built-in pump, while others require a separate pump.
How durable are sleeping bags vs. air mattresses?
Your gear should last and be able to perform in a variety of conditions.
Here’s what you can expect in terms of durability from sleeping bags and air mattresses.
Sleeping bags are generally more durable than air mattresses for the main reason that they’re not blown up with air—so they’re not at risk of being punctured.
They’re made from tough materials that can withstand wear and tear, and they don’t have any moving parts that can break or malfunction.
However, sleeping bags can still be damaged if they’re not taken care of properly.
For example, if you stuff a sleeping bag into a small stuff sack repeatedly, you can damage the insulation and reduce its effectiveness.
Additionally, if you don’t store your sleeping bag properly, it can develop mould or mildew, which can be difficult to remove.
Air mattresses are generally less durable than sleeping bags.
They’re made from thin materials that can puncture or tear easily if placed on rough terrain or has a heavy load placed on it, and they have moving parts (the air valve) that can break or malfunction.
That being said, there are some steps you can take to increase the durability of your air mattress.
For example, you can choose a thicker, more durable material for your air mattress, or you can use a protective cover or pad to prevent punctures and tears.
Additionally, you should be careful when inflating and deflating your air mattress to avoid putting too much stress on the air valve.
Which ones is more affordable?
When it comes to camping gear, price is always a factor to consider.
Both sleeping bags and air mattresses come in a range of prices, so it’s important to understand the differences in cost and what you’re getting for your money.
Sleeping bags can range in price from around $20 for a basic, low-end model to well over $500 for a high-end, specialized bag.
The price of a sleeping bag is largely determined by its temperature rating, fill material, and features.
Here are some general price ranges for sleeping bags:
- Budget: $20-$50
- Mid-range: $50-$150
- High-end: $150-$500+
Keep in mind that a higher price tag doesn’t always mean a better sleeping bag for your needs.
It’s important to consider the temperature rating and fill material of the bag to ensure it will keep you warm and comfortable in your camping conditions.
Air mattresses also come in a range of prices, with basic models starting around $20 and high-end models costing upwards of $200.
The price of an air mattress is largely determined by its size, thickness, and features.
Here are some general price ranges for air mattresses:
- Budget: $20-$50
- Mid-range: $50-$100
- High-end: $100-$200+
When considering the price of an air mattress, it’s important to also factor in the cost of an air pump if one is not included.
Additionally, thicker air mattresses tend to be more comfortable but also more expensive.
Can you use one without the other for camping?
The short answer is yes, but there are some things to keep in mind.
Using a sleeping bag without an air mattress
Sleeping directly on the ground can be uncomfortable and may not provide enough insulation.
Sleeping pads are lightweight and easy to pack, and they provide insulation and cushioning.
Cots are more comfortable than sleeping pads but are bulkier and harder to pack.
Using an air mattress without a sleeping bag
Using an air mattress without a sleeping bag is also possible, but it may not be the best option—especially if you’re camping in cold weather.
Two of the best alternatives to sleeping bags are camping quilts and wool blankets.
A quilt is a variation of a sleeping bag, which covers your body and attaches to your air mattress.
Wool blankets are also good insulators, however there’s no guarantee they’ll keep you warm enough if the temperature drops.
Which one is best to upgrade first?
If you’re planning on upgrading your camping gear, you might be wondering which one to invest in first: a sleeping bag or an air mattress.
The answer to this question depends on your the way you camp and the condition of your current bag or mattress.
Your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag should keep you warm and dry in the weather you’re camping in, fit your body comfortably, and match your camping style—such as being lightweight for backpacking.
Consider upgrading your current sleeping bag first if it meets at least two of the following criteria:
- It’s a budget/low-quality sleeping bag
- You’ve had it for longer than 10 years
- It has tears or holes in it, or it has broken zippers
- It doesn’t keep you very warm
- You have no idea what it’s temperature rating is (or it’s too low)
- It isn’t comfortable or doesn’t fit your body
- It smells funny or shows signs of mould or mildew growth
When choosing a new sleeping bag, consider the following factors:
- Temperature rating: Look for a sleeping bag with a temperature rating that matches the conditions you’ll be camping in.
- Insulation: Choose a sleeping bag with high-quality insulation to keep you warm and comfortable.
- Size: Make sure the sleeping bag fits you comfortably and has enough room to move around.
- Weight: Choose a lightweight sleeping bag if you plan on backpacking or hiking.
Your air mattress
Similar to your sleeping bag, your air mattress should keep you warm and comfortable from the cold and rough ground, fit the length and width of your body, and match your camping style.
You may want to consider upgrading your current air mattress if it meets two or more of the following criteria:
- It’s a budget/low-quality air mattress
- It’s less than two inches thick when blown up
- You’ve previously punctured and repaired it
- It doesn’t hold air very well (deflates over time)
- It has a low R-value or doesn’t keep you very warm
- It’s too short, narrow, or has features that you don’t like (such as a built-in pillow)
- It doesn’t comfortably support your body and/or preferred sleep position
- It smells funny or shows signs of mould or mildew growth
When choosing an air mattress, consider the following factors:
- Size: Choose an air mattress that fits your tent or camping area comfortably.
- Thickness: Look for an air mattress that is thick enough to provide adequate support.
- Pump: Consider whether you want a built-in pump or a separate pump for inflating the mattress.
- Durability: Choose an air mattress made from durable materials that can withstand wear and tear.
Which one should you spend more on?
If you’re looking to upgrade both your air mattress and sleeping bag, you may be wondering if you can get away with a cheaper version of one or the other.
You might be able to, but it depends on a lot of things.
Your sleeping bag
If you’re planning on camping in colder temperatures or during the shoulder seasons, you’ll want to invest in a sleeping bag with a lower temperature rating, which are typically more expensive than sleeping bags with a higher temperature rating.
Down insulated sleeping bags are also often more expensive than synthetic ones, so keep that in mind if you prefer down.
In general, the more insulation you need, the more prepared you should be to buy a more expensive sleeping bag.
Your air mattress
If you’re backpacking and looking to save as much weight as possible, you may be able to get away without using an air mattress altogether and instead opt for a foam pad, which is much more durable and portable.
However, if you’re car camping or camping on rough terrain or in very cold conditions, you’re going to want a high-quality air mattress that’s at least two inches thick and has an R-value of at least two.
The thicker, warmer, and more lightweight you need your air mattress to be, the more you’ll need to set aside in your budget to pay for it.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs)
Can an air mattress replace a sleeping bag?
No, an air mattress can’t replace a sleeping bag.
While an air mattress can provide additional comfort and insulation from the ground, it doesn’t provide the same level of warmth and protection as a sleeping bag.
It’s recommended to use both an air mattress and a sleeping bag for optimal camping comfort.
Which is better for camping: an air mattress or a sleeping pad?
Neither one is better—they both serve their own specific purpose and are best used together.
Air mattresses tend to provide more cushion and comfort, but can be bulkier and heavier to transport.
Sleeping pads are typically lighter and more compact, but may not provide as much cushion.
You’ll want the best of both worlds, so consider getting one of each if you can.
What’s the difference between an airbed and an air mattress?
The terms “airbed” and “air mattress” are often used interchangeably, but generally refer to the same type of inflatable sleeping surface.
However, some may use the term “airbed” to refer specifically to larger, more permanent inflatable beds used in homes, while “air mattress” may refer to smaller, more portable options for camping or travel.
Are sleeping pads more effective than air mattresses in cold weather?
It all depends on the R-value of the sleeping pad or air mattress.
The higher the R-value, the better insulated it is.
You can also use both together and essentially “stack” each R-value for a combined level of insulation.
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).