The humble blow-up mattress has been with us in some form for the best part of half a century...
Regardless of where and how you like to go, getting a good night’s rest is one of the biggest contributors to health and happiness. And, throughout time, a good night’s rest is usually dependent on three simple factors: shelter from the elements, some method of staying warm, as well as having a comfortable place to rest.
A big canvas swag might be able to take care of all three of these needs, depending on the environment, but rolling all this function into one product means a lack of flexibility. For the first two factors (shelter and warmth), then tents and sleeping bags are the way to go. As it comes to a soft spot to lie on, then you’ll be looking at sleeping mats.
And we’ve come a long way from those roll-up foam jobs, too. Even the humble blow-up mattress has been with us in some form for the best part of half a century. Today, there’s a multitude of options, weights, thicknesses and warmth ratings for you to consider. While this may make your decision making a little harder, it also means you’re more likely to find an option that’s perfect for you. Even if you have a reputation for being like The Princess and the Pea when it comes to bedtime.
The first step before perching on your perfect platform is to begin narrowing down what subcategory of mattress you’re looking for. In order to do this, there are a few simple questions you might ask about your personal preferences and uses to help you whittle down the competition.
Is warmth a consideration? Sleeping mats, much like sleeping bags, can be insulated with down or synthetics. They may also include reflective materials or specialised baffles designed to trap warm air. Why is this? The ground beneath you is stone cold, and this acts as a heat sink, drawing out your body warmth. Yes, your bag will help fight this effect, but a warm layer of air between you and the ground is even better. If you’re planning on spending nights in the cold, then have a close look at whether or not your mattress is rated for low temperatures (see note on R-values below).
Is it big enough? Perhaps not as critical as finding the perfect fit for your shoes, sleeping mats still come in a variety of thicknesses, widths and lengths. Not only should you take your comfort into consideration, but also whether or not it will fit comfortably in your sleeping space along with whatever gear, partners, children and pets you may wind up bunking with. Likewise, consider the packed size of the item and whether its suitable for your backpack, luggage or car boot.
How light does it need to be? A common issue when designing outdoor gear are the unavoidable trade-offs that occur when trying to balance things like size, weight and warmth. As you might expect, the warmer, more comfortable mats are going to be the heavier ones. That being said, if you’re not intended to sleep in cold environments, you can find a comfortable night’s rest on a very lightweight mat.
How quick and easy is it to inflate and deflate? This may not be a consideration for some types of mat. However, a large number of available options will be inflating or even self-inflating, and in these cases, it’s worth paying some attention to the technical difference. Not only can the method of inflation/deflation impact how long or easy it is to set up and pack down, it may also mean the mat comes with special care instructions. Be sure to read the fine print on each product, or as your knowledgeable Rays staff member for some of their insight.
Here are the major kinds of sleeping mats you might encounter:
Inflatable: From heavier, more comfort-oriented products, to ultralight hiking solutions – this family of products rely on pumps or lungs to provide cushion.
Self-inflatable: Usually skewed towards the lightweight end of the market, these mats are designed to suck in air of their own accord. Some models may be pumped up as well, while others would prefer to do all the work on their own.
Air bed: Maximum comfort, maximum weight. These options are great for family camping adventures when you’re not expected to physically lug the item around with you all day.
Closed-cell foam: The time-tested, absolute basic roll-up foam mattress that everyone’s used at some time. Highly affordable and lightweight, but that’s about all you can expect. Be warned, if you don’t secure one of these guys to your pack properly, you’ll end up littering the bush with tiny pieces of polluting foam.
HOT TIP: The R-value of a mattress indicates its level of thermal resistance. In short, the higher the R-value the better the product will be for use in cold temperatures. Keep in mind that, on average, women and children tend to sleep colder than men, but also that everyone is unique.
Find Your Mat
SLEEPING MAT CONSTRUCTION
The way a sleeping mat is made dictates its use and comfort. Understanding some basic principles will help you decide which mat is right for your purposes, as well as how to best care for your purchase.
Construction: Foam cells and baffles
While these terms sound highly technical, they basically relate to the way in which air is trapped within the mat to cushion your body from the ground.
The earliest types of mats, the classic closed-cell foam mat, are a simple rubber foam consisting of a honeycomb of air bubbles. These bubbles are called ‘closed cells’ as each is separate, preventing the movement of air between them. This results in a mat that will compress over time as the material degrades, with no way to push the air back into them.
Inflating mats or airbeds in their simplest form are essentially one large air bubble. These tend to require a pump or human effort to fill them with air, and they can therefore be filled to a required comfort level. However, one large air pocket results in a mat that moves and bounces – not ideal for a stable sleep.
Finally, the most advanced kinds of inflating and self-inflating mats on the market are constructed of multiple baffles. These are air pockets that allow air to be pushed into them, but with barriers between them to prevent easy air transfer. This means they offer a more stable platform for sleeping on, and many are anatomically designed for superior comfort without the bulk and thickness of a large air bed.
Construction: Filled sleeping mats
A subcategory of inflating or self-inflating mats, these products feature baffles filled with down or synthetic fibres designed to increase their insulating properties. While they may be slightly heavier than a non-filled mat, they make up for it in warmth. Any sub-zero environment calls for this type of mat.
HOT TIP: Denier (D) – As with many outdoor products, sleeping mats are often made with waterproof fabrics, which is usually defined by a denier rating. This is the material weight rating, with higher numbers resulting in heavier, more waterproof materials. You may not plan to sleep in a wet environment, but if you do a waterproof mat will keep you more warm and comfortable than one that gets soggy.
Many people will buy a sleeping mat without thinking about the added extras that will help extend the life of the purchase, or enhance the experience of using it. While accessories are ‘optional’ extras, it’s still worth thinking about whether or not you’d be better off by spending a little extra to get a lot more.
The following are some examples of the accessories that go hand-in-hand with a sleeping mat purchase.
Repair kits: A tear or puncture in your mat can render it useless. Some products may include a basic patch and repair kit, while others don’t. Some are for use with a specific type of mat, while others are general purpose. Most experienced hikers will always have some all-purpose repair tape that can be used on tents, jackets, sleeping bags and mats.
Air pumps: If your sleeping mat requires a large amount of air to fill it, then you might consider picking up a small pump to make your life easier. One thing to keep in mind: the smaller the pump, the longer it will take to fill your mat with air.
Stuff sacks: Many sleeping mats will include their own stuff sack for when they’re not in use, but this isn’t always the case. As mentioned, traditional closed-cell foam mats are prone to flaking and shedding pieces of foam and they often don’t come with a bag to store them in. A conscientious adventurer might consider getting a protective sack for such a mat, with the added bonus of helping to keep it dry in wet weather.
Pillows: Just because you’re roughing it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a few creature comforts. Several outdoor brands now offer inflatable and even insulated pillows to ensure you have an appropriate place to rest your head.
Chairs: There are a few nifty products on the market that can transform your sleeping mat into a comfortable, lightweight camp chair. These accessories tend to be brand and model specific, so if this is a feature you want, make sure to ask your Rays staff member about it before you take the plunge.
TAKING CARE OF YOUR MAT
After you’ve returned home from a trip, there are several things you can do to ensure your sleeping mat is in perfect condition next time you head out.
Firstly, you’ll want to ensure your mat is clean and dry. If stored wet, you’ll likely find your mat is musty or covered in mildew when you come to use it again. Wipe it down with a damp rag and allow it to air out as soon as you get home.Also, most technical sleeping mats benefit from being stored open and relaxed. This means having it completely unrolled and unfolded, with the valves open to allow easy air transfer. By doing so, you’ll ensure you achieve premium comfort for the life of your product.
Non-recommended usage: A nice, thick air bed has an unintended use – it floats on water! Many adventures have been had going with the flow at the beach or on a river by employing this feature, but this isn’t the intended use for these products. While customers are welcome to use their purchases in whatever way they see fit, be aware that unintended uses such as this will likely void your warranty. You may also be risking your own safety. Buyer beware!
From beach camping to a multiple days hiking, there’s a sleeping mat to suit your body and your activity. With such a huge range to choose from, you’re bound to find just right option if you’re willing to put a little time into research.
Ask a Rays staff member for their advice and you’ll be quickly directed to a product that’s right for you.