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In a hurry? If you are looking for an air mattress for car camping and just want to know what our top pick is, we recommend the Etekcity Upgraded Camping Air Mattress.
What makes a good camping trip? For us it is good eating, good playing, and good sleeping! And if you ask me in the wee hours of the morning it would be the good sleeping that I find most important. Unfortunately, the cold hard ground can make it difficult for us to get that quality sleep. With experience we have found that a superior air mattress can make the difference between a good night’s sleep and the need for a nap the next day. So, what are the best air mattresses for car camping? We have several options for you to consider.
Note: We stuck to twin size mattresses for this article so that we could compare apples to apples.
- Top Pick: Etekcity Upgraded Camping Air Mattress
- Upgrade Pick: ALPS Mountaineering Vertex Air Bed
- Budget Pick: Intex Dura-Beam Standard Pillow Rest Classic Airbed Series with Internal Pump
- Other Picks:
We really like this mattress for several reasons, the number one reason is that the materials it is made with pass the California Proposition 65 tests on lead, cadmium, and phthalates. The second reason we like it is this twin can support up to 450 pounds just on the one twin sized mattress. And those reasons are just the beginning we like this air mattress.
- Comes with rechargeable pump with AC/DC adapters
- Fast inflation
- Top is puncture-resistant and waterproof
- 2-in-1 valve
- Inner valve for quick inflation
- Outer valve for topping off to desired firmness
- Requires topping off regularly
- It can be difficult to get both valves completely closed
This PVC-free mattress uses a coil system for a more solid sleeping experience and it comes with a pump. Luckily if you leave it at home, the mattress can still be inflated with “lung power” or a generic pump as it uses a standard Boston type valve.
- Pump can be plugged into the wall, the car, or use rechargeable batteries
- Inflates and deflates quickly and easily
- Only supports 250 pounds
- Pump doesn’t have a charge indicator to know when fully charged
This mattress has been rated to support 300 pounds and comes with an internal pump which is both a pro and a con. While the pump is internal, so it won’t be lost, it does require electricity.
- Has built in pillow rest
- Internal electric pump
- Doesn’t come with carry bag
- Internal pump requires electricity
This mattress is only rated to support 250 pounds but it comes with two separate air chambers which allows one to fill the bottom full for protection against the ground and the upper one only as full as your desired firmness.
- dual air chambers with separate air valves
- any standard camping air pump can be used to inflate
- no pump included
- one-way valve makes deflating difficult
This mattress has been rated to support 300 pounds and comes with an external pump that uses a heavy-duty rechargeable battery. We recommend charging the battery at home but it can be charged with a car charger if necessary.
- full inflation in under 3 minutes
- extra thick material to handle sticks and stones
- No charge indicator on pump
- Rechargeable batteries take a long time to recharge
What we looked at while researching:
The three most important factors, outside of price and type, we find in researching any air mattress would be:
- Inflation mechanism
Mechanism for inflation:
The first thing we consider is how the mattress is going to inflate. Mattresses can use either external or internal pumps. External pumps include electric, battery operated, and manual pumps. There are also foot (or hand) pumps and self-inflating mattresses which use internal structures to add air.
External pumps are more affordable and will last typically last a long time, but they can get lost and require more energy to inflate the mattress. Internal pumps typically inflate faster and are have no risk of losing parts, but they also tend to be more expensive and if they break, they are almost impossible to repair.
Electric pumps will require a campsite with power or an adapter that allows you to use your car’s battery to power the pump. Battery powered pumps typically use D batteries which can get pricey over time. There are also rechargeable pumps which combine the benefits of electric and battery. Plus, if you own a bicycle pump and have the correct adapter you can pump it manually.
Some mattresses have internal mechanisms which allow you to use your foot or hand to inflate the mattress. Others are self-inflating which means that they will, upon opening, inflate to a certain level and then can be inflated even more if you prefer additional support. They do weigh a bit more but since we are car camping that is not a concern.
The vast majority of air mattresses out there are going to be made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), a type of plastic, because it is able to withstand being inflated and deflated multiple times. It can also handle some of the abuses that we put it under while camping. Unfortunately, some of the chemicals used to make the older PVC mattresses are known to be harmful. One alternative to the PVC air mattress would be one made from TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane). This is a mixture of hard plastic and soft silicone and they are both more flexible and more durable. However, that does come at a price. If this is a priority to you, you will want to do your own research. We always look for the California Prop 65 label before we make our final decision. While this law continues to be controversial, we do believe it has helped reduce emissions and toxic exposures.
Now, the top of the mattress can be made from a variety of materials. There are those with the classic vinyl top, there are those that have a velvet type texture, and there are those that have the sleeping bag attached on top. Premium air mattresses can also come with antimicrobial and waterproof covers which can help, especially if your tent leaks. As long as our sleeping materials don’t slide off the top of the mattress, we aren’t too picky about the fabric there.
The last concern we have regarding the materials which make up our air mattresses would be their ability to resist puncturing. There is nothing more deflating (pun intended) than waking up on the ground because of a slow leak in your mattress. And if you plan on camping with your four-legged fur baby of the canine or feline variety you will definitely want to look at mattresses which are puncture resistant.
While most manufacturers talk about mattresses coming in twin, full, queen, etc. we find that, similar to clothes and shoes, one company’s full is another company’s twin and if the mattress is smaller or shorter than your sleeping bag it can be hard to be comfortable. And if you can’t be comfortable what’s the point in bringing along an air mattress?
Additionally, they come in single-height and double-height versions. Single-heights tend to be 9-11 inches tall and double-heights tend to be 17-25 inches. Single-height mattresses are more practical when it comes to camping.
You might think that it is best to “go big” with a mattress to ensure that your sleeping bag will fit on top of it however don’t forget to consider the size of your tent’s floor. You will want to have room to walk around the air mattress instead of walking over it, especially if you have young ones who might think that it will make a great surface for bouncing. Spoiler alert: they do not!
Other Factors to Consider:
Comfort is probably the number one reason we pack an air mattress when we go camping so in some ways this sounds like it should be the first thing we consider. However, we are defining comfort in this article as the following: support, firmness, durability, ability to stay inflated, and if it has padding built in, all of which are important but are fairly common amongst the mattresses we recommend. Don’t forget that many of these can be affected by adjusting the inflation level which means comfort can be customized.
It might not seem like a big deal to transport an air mattress when we are car camping but some of them come with parts such as an external pump and a patch kit. These can easily get lost if there is not a logical way to keep them all together both in your camping supplies at home and in a safe place at the campsite. We prefer those that come with a reusable carrying case to store all the components.
Most air mattresses are rated to hold up to 300 pounds which is great but what if you want to snuggle up with your loved ones and your combined weight is higher than that 300 pounds? Luckily, there are mattresses out there with the capacity to hold higher weights and we did take that into account in our research.
Insulation Aspect (R-Value):
What exactly is R-Value? It is the standard measure for thermal resistance and is used in all manner of products. It ranges from 1 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest) which means the higher the number the better the insulation. Unfortunately, most air mattresses sleep cold because they don’t have much in the way of insulation. If they have a chambered design this will help, but it is more likely you will find the insulation coming from your bedding and clothes.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Can you place the mattress directly on the ground?
We would never place our mattresses directly on the ground. In fact, not only would we not put them directly on the ground, but we also take multiple steps prior to getting them out of their carrying cases. First thing we do is make sure there are no sharp rocks or sticks/twigs in the area we are going to place our tent. This is to help protect the tent floor and air mattresses from tears and punctures and to help us be more comfortable while relaxing in our tent. Next, we always place a tarp down prior to setting up the tent for the same reasons. Once the tent is erected, we like to place some foam tiles on the floor of the tent for some cushioning as well as temperature control. Only then do we place our air mattresses “on the ground” and set up our sleeping area.
How full should the air mattress be filled?
You will not want to completely fill the mattress to capacity as this can cause undue stress on the seams of the mattress. Most manufacturers recommend filling them to no more than 90% of capacity, especially the first time it is inflated*. Then, even if you prefer a softer mattress, you will want to continue filling to 90% and then add a topper for softness. Those who prefer a firm mattress will be okay with the 90% fill. While you might think that just adding less air will be more comfortable this is not the best idea as they will lose air overnight.
*Before your first camping trip, we suggest that you inflate it to 90% capacity, wait three hours, then deflate it. Then do this again. This will allow the mattress to become accustomed to expanding prior to placing weight on it. It may seem counterproductive but being slightly worn in is best.
Why do they deflate overnight?
Sometimes they deflate overnight because of a leak around the pump valve or a small puncture somewhere that needs to be located. Those are simple fixes to make. However, even under perfect conditions, you will still find high-quality mattresses that tend to lose air overnight and this is to be expected. I’m going to bring science back into play again but don’t worry, it won’t be too technical. I want you to think about your tire air pressure for a moment. When it gets colder, it is recommended that we add air to our tires*. Why? Because the air molecules are moving more slowly which means they require less space which means that there is room for more of them. So we add air to the tire to keep it fully inflated which helps our tires last longer and we get better gas mileage.
Now imagine filling your air mattress completely while out camping and in the colder air. As that air warms up through the night with you sleeping on it, those molecules will start moving faster and taking up more room. It is conceivable that a seam will burst under the increased pressure. Luckily, all pressurized containers made from polymers will lose air over time so the trick is to figure out which air mattresses works best for you and have a plan for reinflation same as you do for your tires in the winter.
*If you live in an area in which you have very little temperature deviation throughout the year, this might not apply to you personally. Here where we live though, we definitely need to inflate our tires come cold weather.
I’m going to be honest with you. As much as I hate to admit it, you are probably going to have a puncture or a leaky seam at some point if you do choose to use an inflatable air mattress camping. If you already own a bicycle repair kit or you have Krazy Glue in the house, either of them can be used in an emergency but it wouldn’t hurt to have a dedicated repair kit kept with your camping supplies. Luckily, many of these kits are small and easy to pack along with the rest of your supplies.
Another good gizmo to have is a power inverter. What is a power inverter you ask? A power inverter plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter and use the battery power of your car to convert that energy to power an electrical pump to inflate a mattress. A bonus is that they typically also can recharge your laptops, cell phone and other electronics. The downside is that now you will be using gas and running your vehicle’s engine but for a short duration that should be okay. Having the option to use your car’s battery to pump up an air mattress can be nice.
At the end of the day not everyone needs a mattress to have fun camping but for those of us who do enjoy a bit more between us and the ground, the Etekcity Upgraded Camping Air Mattress is the one we recommend. It met all of our criteria for inflation, materials (including meeting Prop 65 standards), and size, and provides the most value for the price.