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Cot vs. Air Mattress: Which is Best for Your Camping Trip?

Sleeping on the ground is not for everyone. If you’re not used to it, sleeping on the ground can be uncomfortable and lead to a poor night’s sleep.

You have a few sleeping options when you go camping, including sleeping on a cot or an air mattress.

This article will take a deep dive into camping cots vs. air mattresses to help you decide which option is best.

Cots and air mattresses each have pros and cons. Many factors such as portability, comfort, and your sleeping style can play a role in the best option for your next camping trip.

So, let’s get to it.

What is a camping cot?

A camping cot is a lightweight, easy to set up bed for camping. In addition, a cot can be used for other purposes, like an extra bed when your mother-in-law visits (LOL).

Cots are usually made with a foldable metal frame with an X or U shape design for stability. Cots have a fabric top like nylon or canvas material stretching across the frame when assembling the cot.

Blue cot setup on the grass

Because cots have a fabric top, they can be cleaned, but the fabric is also prone to collecting dust and staining.

Cots are great for people who don’t like sleeping on the ground when they are camping.

For the most part, cots are pretty easy to store and transport, making them a solid option for camping.

One common complaint about cots is how narrow they are, making it difficult for larger-bodied individuals to sleep comfortably.

Types of cots

There are different types of cots available including:

  • Bunk cots
  • Double cots
  • Backpacking cots
  • Ultralight cots

Benefits of cots

  • You can pack gear underneath the cot
  • It can keep you cool in warmer weather
  • Foldable, compact, and lightweight for car camping
  • You are not sleeping on the ground with bugs and other critters
  • You can sit on it when you are not sleeping on it
  • No pump needed
  • You can fold it up and tuck it away when you are not using it

Cons of camping cots

  • Can lead to losing body heat
  • The fabric can tear
  • Could potentially puncture the floor of your tent (been there)
  • The bulky nature makes them cumbersome for minimalist camping

What is an air mattress?

Not trying to offend anyone’s intelligence here, but we certainly want to make sure everyone knows what an air mattress is. An air mattress is an inflatable bed. Some folks also refer to air mattresses as “air beds.”

The material used in the construction of the mattress can vary, but most mattresses are made of polyvinyl chloride, commonly known as PVC.

Green air mattress setup on the grass

It’s important to note that not all air mattresses are ideal for camping because they use electric pumps that require power sources such as generators or outlets.

Air mattresses can give you a more comfortable sleeping surface, similar to your bed at home. Air beds come in many shapes and sizes, from singles to king sizes.

It’s important to note that air mattresses are different sleeping pads. Sleeping pads are smaller and lighter and great for backpacking, whereas air mattresses are larger for car (truck or SUV) camping.

Pros of air mattresses for camping

  • Feels more like sleeping in your bed at home
  • You can adjust the firmness
  • Available in a variety of sizes
  • Pretty inexpensive and widely available

Cons of air mattresses for camping

  • They can puncture
  • You need a pump to inflate the air mattress, which means packing extra gear
  • It can be very noisy when you move around at night
  • It can also be very bouncy if you are sleeping with someone else on the mattress
  • They can leak during the night
  • If your pump breaks or you forget a pump, you might be sleeping on the ground

Camping Cot vs. Air Mattress

Before you set out on your camping trip, it’s essential to think about what type of sleeping arrangements will work best for your needs. Cot and air mattresses are great for different reasons. Next, let’s compare the two based on several criteria.

Durability

The durability of a camping cot depends on the quality of its construction; some can last years with proper care, while others will wear down after just one season.

Cots are made with robust frames and thick, durable fabrics, which helps them last a long time. Overall, cots are very durable and extremely sturdy.

Air mattresses can puncture or leak as a result of wear and tear.

Camping air mattresses are constantly inflated and deflated, which causes stress on their rubberized material and eventually leads to leaking or deflation over time.

You have to be a lot more careful with an air mattress than a cot, so cots tend to be a lot more durable.

Air circulation

One key difference between camping cots and air mattresses might not seem intuitive at first, but when you think about it logically, an air mattress offers less airflow than a camping cot does.

If you are camping in warm conditions, a cot allows airflow underneath your sleeping space. This is crucial for keeping you cool and avoiding heat buildup at night.

On the other hand, an air mattress doesn’t allow for airflow, leading to a warmer night of sleep in warm conditions.

If you are camping in hot conditions, an air mattress might not be the best choice.

On the flip side, camping in cold conditions, a cot might not be the best because due to the extra airflow and cause you to get cold at night. On the other hand, an air mattress can help you retain some body heat that would otherwise be lost.

Setup

Setting up an air mattress requires one vital piece of equipment, a pump. There is some fancy (sarcasm) alternatives to using an air pump, but nothing will quite do the job like a pump.

Some air mattresses come with a built-in pump, while others require you to pack your own pump. If your pump breaks or you forget the air pump, you might be sleeping on the hard ground.

An air mattress folds down nicely but can be a behemoth once it’s inflated. However, setting up an air mattress can be as simple as flipping a switch if everything goes smoothly and as planned.

A battery-powered air pump is great, but some require an electrical outlet that can be hard to come by when camping.

Setting up a camping cot is about as simple as it gets. You just need to unfold your cot, extend the legs and attach the fabric sleeping surface. Voila, you now have a bed. No pump is required.

Bottom line: Cots are easier to set up than air mattresses because there is no need for an extra piece of equipment (pump).

Length

Whether you choose to sleep on an air mattress or a cot, it’s essential to have the right length. Sleeping on a bed that is too short can strain your body and result in poor sleep.

I hate sleeping with my legs dangling over the end of the bed, whatever kind of bed that may be.

Fortunately, air mattresses and cots come in different sizes and lengths, so you should find one that will work for you.

An important tip about cots. Some cots have crossbars at each end of the cot. So, there is a crossbar at the foot and the head of the cot. These crossbars are incredibly uncomfortable to sleep on if the cot is too short (been there).

You need to make sure that the cot is long enough for you so you can avoid waking up with a splitting headache from sleeping with a metal bar under your head.

Weight capacity

When choosing a cot or an air mattress, it’s essential to consider the weight capacity. If you are over the weight limit, the cot or air mattress might not be able to hold your weight, and you could end up sleeping on the ground anyway.

Many cots and air mattresses can support up to 600 pounds, suitable for sleeping solo or with a partner. Or you can toss multiple kids on an air mattress too.

Another thing to consider when it comes to weight capacity is the size of the cot or air mattress. If you are a bigger person, you might want to go with a bigger cot or air mattress that can hold more weight.

Heat retention/loss

People don’t really think about how warm it will keep you when deciding between a camping cot vs. an air mattress.

It can get really cold at night when camping in the mountains, especially after the sun goes down.

Cots are durable and easy to pack and leave you exposed to cold. But you can lose a lot of body heat sleeping on a cot because you are elevated/suspended in the air, with cold air circulating all around you.

Granted, in warm weather camping, sleeping on a cot gives you extra airflow, which is nice, but it sucks when the weather is cold.

To combat this, you can add blankets, or a sleeping pad with an r-value to the cot, to help you retain some of your own body heat.

Generally speaking, an air mattress will be better at helping to keep you warm than a cot will.

Variety of options available

With either a cot or an air mattress, there are many different options to choose from. Some cots fold down into a small package and come with straps for easy carrying.

Some cots are heavy-duty, with robust aluminum frames and a sturdy capacity.

For the most part, cots are for a single person, although some cots come as a bunk, so you can save space and sleep two people.

You can also find air mattresses designed for two people to share so you can sleep side by side.

In addition, there are lots of different kinds of air mattresses available these days: self-inflating air mattresses, double high air mattresses, and even inflatable beds with covers and heaters.

Bottom line: Both options can work well for camping.

Portability and packability

There is a lot of debate about how portable a cot is vs. an air mattress. First, an air mattress generally packs up smaller and deflates for easier storage/packing.

But, it’s also true that cots are easy to carry without worrying about inflating and deflating them. In addition, some cots come with their own carrying cases, which helps with transporting the cot.

Also, because of the compact nature of an air mattress, it can be easier to store than a cot, so if you have limited storage space, an air mattress might be the better option for you.

Mostly, cots fold down pretty small for transporting in a car, truck, or SUV. However, there are some lightweight cots designed for backpacking.

Air mattresses also fold down pretty small, but they can be pretty heavy. You might not realize how much a deflated air mattress weighs, and it might surprise you.

If you are car camping, either an air mattress or a cot is pretty easy to pack with you.

Convenience

From a convenience standpoint, this one is up to you. If you are camping on your own, a cot is more convenient because it’s easy to set up and get in/out of.

Plus, there is nothing to inflate or deflate, so the initial setup is super quick.

An air mattress with the proper pump is also very convenient, as you can inflate and deflate very quickly. But, of course, inflating the mattress on your own with a manual pump is going to be more complicated than just rolling out a cot and popping it open.

Also, if space is an issue, you might prefer a cot because they pack down small and give you room in your tent for other things.

Cots are nice because they don’t take up nearly as much space as an air mattress.

Of course, there is also the very cumbersome air mattress that inflates with a foot pump which, quite frankly, will never be as easy as rolling out a cot and opening it up.

What is your sleeping position?

Straight up a cot is more firm than an air mattress, which can impact your sleeping position.

If you sleep on your side or your stomach, an air mattress might be better for you. It’s hard to sleep on your side on a cot because it puts a lot of pressure on your hips and shoulders.

If you tend to move around a lot during the night, a cot can be tough. I am speaking from experience here as I am kind of a wild sleeper. I feel like I am sleeping in a coffin when I sleep on a cot.

If you find yourself tossing and turning during the night because of your cot, consider putting pillows behind your knees this will help you get comfortable.

An air mattress gives you a lot more freedom with different sleeping positions.

Storage

Storing a cot is pretty easy because it can be folded into an excellent little package.

Most cots come with a carry case, making it easy to pack your cot around and store it when you are not using it.

You can store a cot just about anywhere, and you don’t have to be super careful like you do with an air mattress.

You have to be careful when you store an air mattress. You don’t want to puncture it. But, unfortunately, any sharp objects can poke a hole, and you might not realize it until your next camping trip.

If you keep your camping gear on a shelf in your garage, be careful with an air mattress. If the mattress catches or snags a sharp corner, that’s bad news.

This is why some people prefer cots over air mattresses for camping.

Other considerations

We mentioned this previously, but it’s worth noting again. Watch out for cots with crossbars at the end for your head and feet. Make sure the cot fits you without having to sleep with a metal bar under your head or heels.

Another thing to consider is how large a fully-inflated air mattress is compared to the size of your tent. For example, if you have a smallish tent, an air mattress can take up 90% of the space, leaving you with very little room for anything else.

A cot is excellent because they are compact, and you can store camping gear underneath the cot, helping to save space and keep you organized.

FAQ’s

Can I put an air mattress on a cot?

It depends. You can put a sleeping pad on a cot, but as for a large, bulky air mattress, you can’t put that on top of a cot. So for stability purposes, don’t try to put a super tall air mattress on top of a cot. You may end up flat on the ground as a result.

Is it better to sleep on a cot or on the ground?

A cot will provide you with the support you will not get by sleeping on the ground. Also, a cot helps to keep you elevated off the ground where bugs and critters are dwelling.

Are cots comfortable to sleep on?

It really depends on the individual. For example, a cot might not be a great option for a wild sleeper because you have limited space to wiggle around.

A cot is pretty firm. So, if you are a side sleeper, sleeping on a cot can put extra stress on your hips and shoulders.

Is a cot or an air mattress warmer?

Generally speaking, an air mattress is warmer to sleep on than a cot. This is because when you sleep on a cot, you are elevated, with air circulating all around you.

This is great in warm weather camping, but not so good when it’s cold as you can lose your body heat.

An air mattress will provide you with some insulation to help preserve your body heat.

Conclusion

Choosing the right sleeping surface for your next camping trip can be a daunting task, especially if you’re not sure what factors to consider when looking at cots vs. air mattresses.

This blog post is packed with valuable information about these two different products and how they compare in size, comfort level, warmth, and storage capacity.

If you’re in the market for a cot or an air mattress, hopefully, this guide has helped answer any questions.

If you have questions or comments, be sure to leave them below.

Steve and Kris
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Steve and Kris are avid campers, outdoor lovers, and founders of Camp S'more Worry Less. When they are not camping, they enjoy other outdoor activities, including fishing, kayaking, and hiking with their family. Read more.

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