Air Mattresses: The Beginner’s Guide

Air Mattresses: The Beginner's Guide

Having an air mattress can often solve a lot of problems when you have a friend unexpectedly staying over in your small apartment, or if your kid has a sleepover in their bedroom. If you get the best king size air mattress, they can’t complain since they sleep much better than on the couch.

But you can also use an air mattress for camping. Of course, that means considering more factors aside from just picking among the right air mattress sizes. You need to check how bulky they can be when you’re packing your car. Their weight must also be considered especially on a long hike to your camping site.

So how do you choose the best air mattress for camping? Here’s a guide that can help you make an informed decision.

What’s an Air Mattress?

An air mattress is an inflatable sleeping pad, and it’s designed for short term use. This makes it different from an airbed which also has adjustable air chambers in the support core. This type is designed for long-term use. It’s not really an air mattress, and you certainly can’t use it easily for camping.

Different Types of Air Mattresses

Air mattresses come in different types, with their own set of pros and cons.

  • Inflatable pads. You will need to inflate this with an air pump, though theoretically you can just blow them up with your mouth. These are generally quite lightweight and they can be extremely compact. On the other hand, this need to inflate these pads yourself can be annoying, plus it doesn’t really provide a good level of insulation as other camping air mattresses.
  • Self-inflating pads. If you hate having to pump air into an air pad or mattress, then you get this type. Basically, when you open its valve the air pad expands to accept air all on its own. Once you close the valve, the air stays in. While these pads can be a bit bulky and heavy, at least they offer good insulation.
  • Closed-cell foam. This is the cheapest type, and they’re easily available in many camping or sporting goods store. They offer rather high insulation levels considering the size and weight, although that aforementioned size and weight numbers aren’t really the best. A pad like this doesn’t really fold well, and they take a lot of room even when you settle on the smallest size.

Choosing by Circumstance

One way of picking an air mattress is to determine how you will use it.

  • Indoor users. If you have the budget, you can buy as big an air mattress as you can afford as long as you can fit it in your room. You won’t have to worry about weight and bulk since you just trot it out when you have a house guest.
  • Car campers. You just need to make sure that the air mattress you pick fits in your car along with the rest of your camping gear. You should be able to get a mattress with a higher profile as you have a vehicle to carry the mattress with you to your camping site.
  • Backpackers. What you want is an air mattress that’s easy to carry and store in your backpack. That generally means you want something lightweight and you typically should go with a lower profile to minimize the bulk.

Air Mattress Materials

In general, an air mattress is made from PVC (vinyl). This is synthetic plastic that is sometimes used for food packaging and bottles. Some types of PVC used are referred to as earth-friendly or environmental PVC because the PVC doesn’t contain chlorine. Chlorine is associated with issues concerning human health and pollution.

In some cases, the PVC shell comes with microcoils that provide extra comfort and support just like regular mattresses also have coils. Some of the mattresses (especially the self-inflating ones) offer greater insulation due to the use of polyfoam.

How to Blow Up an Air Mattress

The only practical way to do this is to use an air pump to inflate the mattress. This can be an external pump, which means the pump is a separate part and you attach it to a nozzle on the outside of the mattress. This is a more affordable option, and you even get fewer breakdowns of your equipment. On the other hand, it takes a lot of time and energy to inflate the mattress and there’s always a chance that you’ll lose some spare parts.

There’s also an internal pump option. This means the mattress comes with a built-in inflation mechanism, and you just use a switch or a knob to activate the feature. This works faster and there’s no risk of losing any spare parts. But it’s more expensive, and a complicated design like this tends to lead to more breakdowns.

Here are some types of pumps you should look at:

  • Manual pumps. These are typically external pumps, and generally you use your feet to operate this to avoid back sprain. With this you can inflate your mattress without any electrical power.
  • Battery-powered pumps. This is also generally an external pump, and in some models you can program or adjust this pump with controls like switches and buttons.
  • Electric pumps. This requires an electrical socket. You may have an external pump or it can be built-in with the mattress. You also can make adjustments with switches and buttons.
  • Self-inflating pumps. You just twist a nozzle or turn a switch and these pumps inflate the mattress for you right off. You can just turn them off when they’ve inflated the mattress at the firmness level you want.

Thickness of Mattresses

Air Mattresses Thickness

You generally have 2 options when it comes to air mattress thickness.

  • The standard elevation mattresses are also called “single high” mattresses, and they’re 10 inches thick or less. They’re lighter and take less time to inflate, so they’re better suited for backpackers.
  • The raised elevation or “double high” measure more than 10 inches thick. They’re better for car campers. Some of these mattresses are raised because they feature fold out legs.

Air Mattress Sizes

In general, you can find air mattresses are only available in Twin, Full, and Queen sizes. For the most part, a particular model of air mattress is only available in 2 of these sizes instead of all 3.

For single high mattresses, expect a weight of no more than 10 pounds. The double high mattresses will weigh more, but they shouldn’t weigh more than 30 pounds while they’re still deflated.

Weight Capacity

The good news is that even a standard air mattress should be able to accommodate your weight even if you weigh 300 pounds. Some of the more robust ones can even handle 600 pounds, so theoretically they’re good for couples.

But realistically, air mattresses can sag if you weigh more than 230 pounds. That’s why not very many couples enjoy air mattresses.


If your air mattress is for camping, then it should have a textured or flocked sleeping surface. This keeps you warm in the cold outdoors, and they texture also keep you from slipping off the surface.

Look for antimicrobial and waterproof covers too if you’re going to use the air mattress for camping.


This is another factor you need to consider. It just won’t do when you have an air mattress that you can’t fold and pack easily. Fortunately, most of the good ones are very easy to pack away.

Is Your Air Mattress Suitable for Camping?

Here are some considerations to keep in mind to help you make this determination.

  • Weight. If you’re backpacking, then you better make sure you can carry this air mattress while you’re hiking.
  • Size. You can’t just pick a size that suits your own size. You also have to make sure that it fits in your camping tent.
  • Thickness. Double high mattresses may not fit in with most of the smaller tents, but in general they should be okay with standard size tents. A single high mattress may be more affordable, but they may not be comfortable if you’re going to use it on an uneven or rocky sleeping surface.
  • Pumps. If you need an external pump, keep in mind that you will have to bring along a separate pump. Manual pumps are also inadvisable, as they just take too much time and effort. After a long hike, these manual pumps will just annoy you.
  • Cover. A textured (flocked) sleeping surface is a great feature. It should also be antimicrobial and waterproof to suit outdoor conditions.

Final Tips

  • When storing an air mattress, make sure they’re fully deflated.
  • Store it in an area that isn’t humid, too cold, or too hot.
  • Keep it away from sharp objects.
  • Pick one that comes in a carrying case for better portability and storage.
  • Avoid over-inflating the mattress.
  • When using the air mattress for the first time, inflate then deflate the mattress before you inflate it again to use it.
  • Buy a vinyl leak repair or patching kit.

Don’t submerge the mattress in water to find the leak. Just apply liquid soap instead, and you will see an air bubble where the leak is.