Cots vs Air Mattress, that age-old question that campers have been wondering about for years. If you’re a seasoned camper, you will have no doubt already answered this question but, if you’re new to camping and wondering which one might be best for you, then here’s a review that’ll help you make the right decision.
There is no right answer. It all comes down to personal preference as to which you’ll sleep better on, or find more useful and practical. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and it’s not all about a good night’s sleep, there are quite a few things to consider.
In this review, we’ll run through the pros and cons of both cots and air mattresses so that you can make an informed decision as to which one will be best for you your camping needs.
So, what is a cot when it’s camping?
A cot is made of a light metal frame, such as steel, and a piece of durable fabric, like canvas. The canvas is sewn around the frame so that when the frame is opened up into a bed shape, the material is stretched tight and solid forming a mattress of sorts. The frame holds the fabric a foot or two off the ground, so you are not sleeping on the floor.
Now we know exactly what a cot is, let us look at their benefits.
Cots are designed to emulate a bed and give one more support than an air mattress. They do this by being more solid and giving less cushion. This means you’ll find yourself sleeping on a well-supported surface instead of a soft less supportive one. This is certainly the case if you’re sleeping on your back and if you have a bad back, a cot is most likely the best way to go.
Cots sit a foot or two off the ground which has its advantages. When sleeping in a cot you will avoid getting wet if your tent was to flood and you’re safe from any insects or bitey creatures that could crawl on your in the night.
Being raised off the ground also means you have better air circulation beneath your bed, this will cool you when camping in the summer and make sure you stay a bit warmer than sleeping on the floor in winter. Make sure to put a few blankets between you and the cot to ensure your body heat is captured though.
And finally, when camping on uneven ground, being off the ground means you will avoid any stones or sharp object digging into your back in the night.
Cots, since they sit above the ground, create a storage area underneath them where you can put anything you might need to keep safe in the night, like food supplies or your backpack. This makes the tent much more spacious and organized which will hopefully make for happier camping.
Cots are very easy to set up and takedown. They don’t require any extra equipment like a pump, or a timely exercise like pumping. You simply assemble the pieces, much like pitching a tent (depending on the model) and you’re ready to sleep. When you’re moving camp, disassemble just as quickly, store, and go. This makes setting up and leaving camp a far more efficient process.
Cots are very durable. There is barely anything that can go wrong with them. There is no chance of a leak and the cot deflating. The only issue you may have is if you lost a piece, but that wouldn’t be the cots fault and could easily happen with an air mattress too.
Here are the downsides of cots.
If while you’re sleeping, you tend to roll on to your side, or if you know you’re a side sleeper, you may find the cot too solid and therefore uncomfortable. The mattress is so supportive, that you might feel your hips ache and dig in during the night. It’ll end up causing a restless sleep that could ruin your camping experience.
Cots come in various sizes but they are all designed to sleep just 1 person. They will accommodate very tall and very heavy people but, if you want to cuddle up with your partner while camping, you won’t be able to do it on a cot.
Cots can be heavy pieces of equipment and are very bulky. This makes them hard to pack, and are especially cumbersome if you’re planning on backpacking where weight and space are valuable commodities.
Cots are typically quite a lot more expensive than air mattresses, and you’ll have to invest in a few for the whole family. But, they are more likely to last longer.
To be comfortable in a cot, you’ll need a large enough tent to accommodate it. This is so you have enough space for the frame and enough height above the bed so you don’t end up touching the tent walls in the night. If you plan on getting a small tent, a cot probably won’t work.
So, what is an air mattress when it’s inflated?
An air mattress is exactly what it sounds like and I’m sure you know, but just in case. An air mattress is a mattress that you inflate and once inflated, becomes a comfortable bed for the night. They are usually made of PVC or similar material and come with a pump in order to fill them up. Once inflated, you place them in your tent on the floor and add your bedding.
Let’s see what’s so good about air mattresses.
Once deflated an air mattress is pretty light and can be rolled up into a very compact size. This means when hiking from camp to camp, you can easily attach your air mattress to the outside of your backpack or even put it inside. Once inflated they are also very light and easy to move. If you feel like lying under a tree and reading a book, it’s very easy to pick it up, take it from your tent and lay it where ever you like.
Air mattresses unlike cots come in lots of different size options. You find ones that are single, double, queen, and king size. This allows you to find the best size camping bed for you and your needs, whether its just a single or a double for the kids and a king for you and your partner.
While inflating your air mattress, you have control over how firm you would like it to be. This means you can choose to fill it up to a level that suits your way of sleeping. If you want it hard, pump as long as you can, if you want it a bit cushiony, don’t inflate it to the top.
All you side sleepers out there will have a much better night’s sleep on an air mattress than a cot. An air mattress will cushion your hips and mold around you to ensure you are comfortable and sleep well throughout the night,.
Air mattresses are far less expensive than cots, mainly due to the difference in the materials used to make each one. If budget is your concern, or you’re buying for the whole family, an air mattress is the way to go.
Something to consider is the size of your tent. An air mattress is far easier to squeeze into a small tent and because you’re sleeping on the ground, you’re not going to touch the tent roof while rolling around. If you plan on backpacking and taking a small, lightweight tent with you, an air mattress is certainly the better option.
Here are the disadvantages of air mattresses.
Sleeping on the ground has a few disadvantages, the first being a lack of air circulation. This means that in the summer months you are likely to overheat and get sweaty, while in the winter, the cold from the ground can easily penetrate your air mattress and make for a cold night in bed.
Being on the ground also means that any water that gets in can end up in your bed, so can any creepy crawlies that decide you’re of interest and worth a bite in the night.
Also, if you’re camping on uneven ground, you may find that you can feel odd rocks, or stones coming through the mattress which can end up in a bad night’s sleep. An air mattress is usually deep enough to avoid this but it can happen.
Air mattresses do have a reputation for deflating and getting punctures. If your valve fails or you have a slow puncture, your bed could slowly deflate in the night and you’ll end up sleeping on a cold floor.
Unlike a cot that you can store things underneath, an air mattress takes up a lot of space in your tent and if you don’t have enough space, you could end up sleeping next to a soggy backpack and some smelly shoes.
Air mattresses require inflating to set up and deflating to take down. This is a time-consuming process, and a lot more time consuming than simply setting up a cot. Also, you may also need to carry a pump with you in order to inflate your mattress, this is not the case for all air mattresses but it is an extra bit of gear to carry along with you and something else that could break.
There is always the option of combing an air mattress with a cot which, in essence, gives you a reel bed. You’ll have the full support of a cot with the cushioned comfort of an air mattress. By owning both, you’ll also be able to take one or the other depending on the camping trip you’re going on.
So which one should you choose? Well, to be honest, it’s up to you. The main things to consider are: do you sleep on your back or your side? What size tent are you looking for? Are you backpacking or driving? What climates are you camping in? And, what’s your budget like? Do you cam alone or with your partner?
If you plan on backpacking and using a small tent, an air mattress is the only option. A cot won’t fit in your backpack and will be a pain to carry, overall it won’t be a pleasurable experience.
If you have a large tent, aren’t on a budget, and plan on driving to most spots, a cot is the way to go. You won’t have to inflate it, deflate it, it’ll last longer, you’ll have more storage space, be more supported and there is far less that can go wrong.
The best option in our eyes is to buy both. That way, no matter what camping trip you’re planning, you have the right option available. Plus, when you have the opportunity, you can combine the two and sleep in absolute luxury. There is no better camping trip than one where you get the best nights of sleep.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.