How to Pick Out a Sleep System for Car Camping

How to Pick Out a Sleep System for Car Camping

Campfire Guy here.  The season for gearing up continues with the next installment of, “How to Gear Up For Car Camping”.  Aside from a tent, your sleep system is the second most important step in the path to camping bliss and a good night’s rest.  A sleep system consists of some sort of mattress or pad on the ground with something to cover up with on top.  

Don’t use a 20 degree bag when it’s 80 degrees outside.

Put Something Between You and the Ground

If you ever camped out in the backyard as a kid, chances are your sleep system consisted of an old sleeping bag that smelled like mothballs.  A thin tent floor was probably the only thing separating your sleeping bag from the ground.  Whatever roots, rocks or pinecones happened to be hiding under the tent earlier in the day would rear their pointy little heads when you lay down.  As a kid, chances are you didn’t care.

See, kids can sleep anywhere.

Air Beds

If you intend to only camp in warm weather, air beds are a cheap option.   They are cheap and can pull double duty for guests back at your full-time house.  If you go that route, have a backup plan for power, just in case, the campground has an outage.  

Make sure to bring a pump and an extension cord when using an air bed.

A DC/AC converter will plug into the cigarette lighter if your car is lacking a fancy outlet.   If you bring that converter, make sure the fuse is good before you leave home.  Any takers on who has made that mistake before?

Handy if your car lacks a fancy power outlet, just be sure the fuse is good.

I would recommend sticking to a twin size.  Queen and king size mattresses sound great for two people.  The problem is, if one person moves, the other person feels it.  It’s almost like a double bounce on a trampoline, but without the broken arm.  The twin size Coleman Soft Plush Top Inflated Quickbed is one that we use every once in a while.

Great for warm weather camping when you have access to power. Not good for cold weather.

Better Options for Three Season Camping

If your goal is to “three season” camp (Spring, Summer, and Fall), avoid bulky air beds.  I would recommend something lighter and more versatile.  The next three categories are packed with different brands and designs.  They don’t require pumps or power and can be found at most of your big box retailers, or Amazon, because who wants to put on pants to go shopping?

Closed Cell Foam Mattress

Closed cell foam is a noninflating mattress.  They are a similar to the old “egg crate” foam you may have put on your college dorm room bed to make the mattress more bearable.  Closed cell foam is denser and considerably more rigid.  Closed cell foam mattresses are especially popular with hikers wanting to cut their pack weight.  Cutting weight when car camping is usually not a concern, so for adults, I wouldn’t recommend using one by itself. 

It doesn’t get much cheaper or simpler than the Therm A Rest Z Lite Sol.

 However, for kids who tend to weigh much less, be less careful with gear, and have much lower standards of comfort, they work great.  They are cheap and usually pretty durable.  Closed cell foam cannot be punctured.  The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is a very popular example of these mattresses.  I reviewed this mattress a while back.

Reminiscent of the egg crates of old, but much more suited for camping.

Self Inflating Mattress

Similar to how I haven’t found a Roomba that will wash my dishes, I have yet to find a “self-inflating mattress” that will fully inflate on it’s own.  Self-inflating mattresses have foam inside that expands when a valve is opened.  A few deep breaths will usually firm them up.  They are generally about an 1” thick when fully inflated, which will keep you off the ground a little bit, especially if you are a back sleeper.  If you are a side sleeper though, chances are your shoulder or hips may poke the ground.   They are susceptible to puncture.  My son likes his Therm-a-Rest Trail Scout Mattress .  I’m a side sleeper, so I fall into the next category.

Therm A Rest Trail Scout is an affordable self inflating mattress.

Air Pads

Air pads come in a variety of sizes, thickness, and R-values.  While they are going to be more comfortable and warmer than anything above, they are more expensive and more prone to puncture than self-inflating mattresses.  If you intend to purchase gear that can be used for both car and back country camping, I would highly recommend an air pad.  They range in thicknesses of 2”-4”.  My biggest piece of advice is to go to REI and try out several different pads.  Some have baffles that may not work for side sleepers.  Others may be noisy when you toss and turn at night.  Here are a few tips on air pads to help you out.

Air Pad Tip Jar

Get an air pad that is at least 25” wide.  Sure you’ll pay a little more money, and add a little more weight, but for a side sleeper, your knees won’t hang off the side like they might with a 20” pad.

All four variations of a mattress theme. Coleman Air Bed on the bottom is a twin size.

Higher R-Value Equals More Warmth

R-value, as defined by Professor Google, is “the capacity of an insulating material to resist heat flow”. The higher the R-value, the greater the insulating power.  Effective insulation in a pad is going to reflect more body heat which will keep you warmer in cool weather.  I use the same pad in warm weather that I do in cold weather.  I’ll just open up my sleeping bag if I start to get warm.

My older model of the Big Agnes Q-Core Insulated pad has been my go to for most trips.

If you are a light sleeper, make sure the pad is not too noisy.  Some of the highest rated pads take a few hits for being too crunchy sounding when you move.  If you don’t roll around like a hog in a waller at night, you’ll probably be OK.

Before you take it out on a trip, at least take a nap on the air pad at home.  If it’s comfortable at home, chances are it will be in the woods as well.  Get comfortable with how you inflate the mattress.  Some air pads come with an internal foam inflator that work OK.  I had one of these for a short time but found the hand pump system to be tiresome so I returned it. Keep in mind that it usually takes more breaths to inflate air pads than what the manufacturers state.

That light fluffy dusting on the ground is cottonwood, not snow.

I would also keep in mind that the old saying, “Cotton Kills” can be officially modified to “Cottonwood Kills”.  For the photo shoot, as I was taking a big old breath to blow up my Big Agnes Q-Core, I managed to inhale some cottonwood dander / seed / fluffy killing machines.  The hacking and coughing that followed was really spectacular.

Beware the cottonwood when inflating an air pad by mouth.

My Current Setup

Of the dozen times, I’ve camped in the last 14 months, I used a big Coleman Soft Plush Top Inflated Quickbed twice.  Both were on hot weather campouts at Texas state parks where I used an extension cord and pump for inflation.  I used my Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol with a Big Agnes Q-Core insulated air pad on top for the other ten campouts.  The Z Lite Sol adds more cushion, warmth and also helps to protect the expensive Big Agnes.

From top to bottom: Therm A Rest Trail Scout, Therm A Rest Z Lite Sol, Big Agnes Q-Core and Coleman Quick Bed.

As for what goes on your bed, mattress, or pad, that depends on the weather and your tolerance for various temperatures.  I posted a fairly extensive guide to sleeping bags a few months ago, so I won’t repeat any of that here.  I would add that for hot weather car camping, I’ll sometimes leave my sleeping bags at home and used cheap cotton sheets to cover up with.

Plan ahead, do your homework and give yourself plenty of time to shop.  If you get lucky, you may avoid overbuying on car camping gear that later ends up in a garage sale.  Any guesses on which blogger might be guilty of that?

This post contains affiliate links.  They don’t add cost to your purchase, but in a round about way, help add gear for future reviews to my closet.



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