Air mattress vs. sleeping bag: Which should you choose?

two young children in a sleeping bag

If you’re planning a big family campout, you may be concerned about the sleeping accommodations. After a day of playing in nature, breathing the fresh air, and soaking up the sunshine, everyone will be looking forward to a great night’s sleep. But what’s the best gear to help you relax, get comfortable, and catch some zzzs? The choice often comes down to either a sleeping bag or air mattress.

Air mattress versus sleeping bag

Comfort

The main reason that campers choose air mattresses is that they can sleep on a cushion of air, floating above the roots, rocks, and compact earth. They are sized similarly to regular beds — twin, full, queen, or king — so there’s plenty of surface to work with. It may not be an identical experience to sleeping in bed at home, but it’s pretty close.

Sleeping bags offer no inherent cushioning. To combat uneven ground and pointy objects, sleeping bag users lay the bag on top of a sleeping pad. The pad is about the same size as the bag, which doesn’t provide much room to roll or turn. It’s a serviceable but Spartan experience that limits quality sleep for some.

Warmth

If you go with an air mattress, you have the choice of using a sleeping bag or bringing sheets and blankets to make it up as you would your bed at home. This can be a helpful way to add familiarity to the experience and ease young children into the routine of camping. Using regular bed linens also allows more flexibility for the weather. If it’s hot, just use a top sheet. If it’s cold, add a blanket or three. 

Cold temperatures are problematic for air mattresses. The air inside the mattress contracts, eliminating the firmness and possibly leaving you on the ground. Also, sleeping on a cushion of  cold air chills the body much faster than sleeping on an insulated sleeping pad on the ground.

In a sleeping bag, temperature control is a matter of choosing the right kind of bag and adjusting the zipper. They are rated for summer, three seasons, or winter based on the amount and type of insulated filling. In the hottest weather, you may find yourself sweating it out on top of a summer-weight bag. For cold-weather camping, the combination of a winter bag and a well-insulated pad offers exceptional warmth and tolerable comfort.

woman carrying an air mattress to her campsite
OSDG/Shutterstock

Convenience

Air mattresses excel for backyard sleepovers and car camping. When the campsite is within a few feet of your vehicle or you can drop off your gear before parking, it’s a convenient option. But they’re bulky and, at 8 to 10 pounds, heavy, and they take up an inordinate amount of space in the packed car and in the tent. They need to be inflated, which requires an electric pump or a powerful set of lungs. And inflatable mattresses can develop leaks or be punctured by sharp rocks or sticks.

Sleeping bags were developed specifically for camping. They offer an excellent weight- and size-to-warmth ratio. They pack into a neat, small package, and they are easy to carry as far as necessary to the campsite. The sleeping bag and sleeping pad combination are far and away the more convenient option for the widest range of camping scenarios.

Durability

As previously noted, air mattresses can easily develop leaks or become damaged while camping. Cheap or expensive doesn’t seem to matter. Rather, it is the inherent design of the mattress. If precautions are taken to prevent tears and punctures, a good air mattress should last about five years.

Sleeping bags are made of rugged materials that are intended to last through many years of  consistent use. Sleeping pads, including closed-cell foam, air foam, and self-inflating designs, are much more rugged than air mattresses. Like sleeping bags, they are made to hold up in the elements for a long life. This equipment will last a decade or more on average.

Mom and three daughters sitting by the campfire
Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

The bottom line is that the best choice of sleeping gear depends on the camping scenario. If it’s warm and you’re not straying too deeply into the wild, an air mattress will guarantee that you sleep like a baby. If your adventures take you farther off the beaten path, or if the mercury is likely to dip below 50 degrees, then the sleeping bag and pad combo will be a more convenient, reliable, and toasty choice.

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