Next to a good quality sleeping bag, a comfortable sleeping mattress is arguably the most important investment you can make for your comfort in the wild. There is a huge array of styles, sizes and price tags attached to modern sleeping mats, enough to mean there is a perfect model for your own body and choice of activity. When looking at the mattresses in-store, don’t be afraid to test one out on the floor. As your sales rep will show you, there is comfort, weight and durability - pick 2. But a few seconds in-situ testing may convince you to add an extra 100grams to your pack for the bonus of a great night sleep.
Quick Guide: Buying a Sleeping Mat
A few common outdoor activities are listed with an appropriate style of sleeping mat (roughly from thinnest to thickest) and price range listed to match.
Activity: School trips, children, budget conscious
- Style: Closed Cell Foam
- Budget: $20 - $30
- Weight range: ~300grams
Features: The cheapest option, the classic “blue foam” mattress has the advantage of being lightweight and durable (as they aren’t inflated they can’t be punctured) but also the disadvatage of having the largest packed sized by far, particularly relative to their tiny 10mm thickness. These mats insulate well, but are somewhat lacking in the comfort department. They can be trimmed down with scissors for the weight conscious or for small children. Great for that once off camping trip or as a backup to an inflatable mat.
Example products: Blue foamy
Activity: Alpine Climbing, Ski Touring
- Fill: Closed Cell Foam
- Budget: $60-$100
- Weight Range: 200-300grams
Features: Very Durable and lightweight - these are the highend level for closed cell foam. Favoured by some alpine climbers and backcountry tourers because they are vertualy indestructable. In freezing environments a puctured mat can be dangerous - some are willing to forego comfort for an item that won't fail. Although light, they are bulky and live strapped to the outside of your pack. This can be handy when stopping for lunch breaks however as within 5 seconds you have am insulated seat.
Activity: Lightweight hiking, camping, adventure travel
- Fill: Open Cell Foam
- Budget: $100 - $200
- Weight range: 300 – 850grams
Features: “Self inflating” mattresses comprise a squishy open cell foam core in a laminated polyester or nylon shell. The air can be pushed out of the foam to pack the mattress down, but will expand back to it’s original shape when the valves are opened (hence “self inflating”). These mats range in length from XS-L, thickness from 2.5 to 3.8cm, and with lighter weight or more durable shell options. These mats are far more comfortable and provide better insulation than a closed cell foam mat, and they pack down to a smaller size. Seasoned hikers will take a 2.5cm XS sized mat just big enough to insulate their torso on lightweight trips, while weekend car campers or travellers will enjoy the comfort of a full length 3.8cm model.
Activity: Lightweight/four season hiking, camping, back packing, alpine climbing, backcountry touring
- Fill: Air/Synthetic Microfibre
- Budget: $80 - $200
- Weight range: 400 – 660grams
Features: Modern lightweight air mats are durable and pack down to tiny sizes. With a thickness of around 7.5cm, they are extremely comfortable, evening out rocky or uneven ground much better than self inflating products. The core of air mats can be empty air (great for hot summer nights), or filled with a synthetic microfibre insulation for added warmth in winter or the shoulder seasons. These mats are generally the best compromise between weight/size/cost/insulation for most outdoor uses, and can be bought in different lengths and widths to suit the user. The pick of staff at Mountain Equipment for 3-4 season activities like hiking, climbing and camping is the “Exped Synmat 7 UL Med”. With a packed size of 24x9.5cm, it’s smaller than a 1L water bottle, but is really comfortable and provides insulation down to around –4 degrees, perfect for hiking in the Blue Mountains, Tasmania or New Zealand for example.
Activity: 4 Season hiking/ Snow trips, mountaineering, comfortable camping/ travel
- Fill: Down
- Budget: $230 - $300
- Weight range: 580 – 1200grams
Features: Down insulated mattress are the bees knees for colder weather camping. They are heavier than synthetic filled mats, but have incredible insulation value, and are very comfortable to sleep on. They come in a range of lengths and widths, and 7cm or 9cm thicknesses, providing comfortable insulation to –24 and –38 degrees respectively. While these numbers sound extreme, the mats can still comfortably be used in all but the hottest climates: the extra insulation in the mattress can be countered with a lighter weight sleeping bag (also achieving a weight saving). A long/wide sized 9cm down mattress will even out the roughest surfaces so these are often the pick for car/ weekend campers that just want to enjoy a good night sleep away from home. Couple kits can also be purchased to strap two mattresses together for weekends away. For lightweight cold weather hiking or snow/mountaineering trips, the “Exped Downmat 7 UL Med” is a great choice.
Example Products: Exped Downmat Series, Exped Downmat UL series
*Note: Despite being synthetic fill, the Exped Winterlite should fit in this catefory as far as insulation value and application goes.
Activity: Basecamp/Expedition camps, comfortable car camping, spare mattress at home
- Fill: Open Cell Foam
- Budget: $260
- Weight range: 2575grams
Features: Expedition style open cell foam mats are the next best thing to your mattress at home. They are big, they are heavy, you wouldn’t want to carry them far, but at 10cm thick and 77cm wide, they are the most comfortable option for sleeping on the ground.
If you’re heading off on a road trip around Australia, setting up for a 3 week stint at Mt Arapiles, or you just need an extra bed for the rellies this weekend, the Mega Mat is for you. Ask to try one out in store!
Example Products: Exped Mega Mat 10 LXW
Care and Use of Sleeping Mats
As with sleeping bags, the investment in a good mattress is significant, so they deserve a little care and attention in storage and use.
All inflatable mattresses should ideally be stored unrolled with their valves opened, under a bed or on top of a cupboard is a good spot! Allowing air into the mattress lets moisture escape, and lets the insulation or foam filling to expand to it’s natural thickness. Storing a mattress rolled tight for short periods won’t damage it, but the longer it is rolled in storage, the longer it will take to expand (for self inflating mats), and the longer the filling will take to loft up and provide full insulation (for synthetic and down filled mattresses). First thing after buying a new mattress, take it home and inflate it fully, give it a shake to encourage the filling to loft up (down/synthetic mats), and leave it inflated for a day or so before the first trip.
Use in the field
Air inside a sealed mattress will expand and contract with temperature, so if you’re leaving your mattress set up for the day (in a tent or car for example), open the deflate valves so that expanding air can escape the mattress. A good quality mattress isn’t going to explode on a hot day, but the expansion of air inside a sealed mattress can tear the baffles or seams holding the mattress flat, and big bubbles or lumps will appear.
The shell material of a mattress is where weight can be saved or gained, depending on the desired durabilty. Obviously an “Ultra-Light” product will be less puncture resistant than one with a heavier weight material, so the end use of the product should be considered at time of purchase. For the lightweight hiker going on monthly trips, happy to take a minute or two to clear sharp sticks and rocks from under a tent site, an ultralight face fabric mattress will be perfectly acceptable. For more regular users, proffesionals, or school trips (where it’s going to get jumped on), a heavier more durable model might be more appropriate.
Valves can be the most susceptable part of a mattress to damage, so keep them free of dirt and avoid over-tightening the screw types. Various options exist for attaching an inflation device to the valve to blow up an air/synthetic/down filled mattress, so talk through your requirements with a sales person in store.
Moisture inside a down filled mattress is bad news, as dampness will inhibit the down’s lofting capacity and eventually encourage mould. In sub zero conditions moisture can also freeze inside the mat and cause damage internally. Never blow up one of these mattresses with your breath, but rather use the inflation sack provided or in built pump. It is best not to use these mats in extremely humid environments either for the same reason, a synthetic filled mattress is a better choice in the tropics.
My mat went down!
First check and clean the valves to make sure there is no grit preventing a good seal, inflate the mat and listen closely to the valve for air escaping. If not the valve, perhaps it’s a puncture. Most mats come with a repair kit so they can be fixed in the field, it’s usually easy to do. Inflate the mattress, fold it in half and sit on it to create high pressure, then try and listen for the air escaping. Submersing the mattress in water bit by bit and squeezing it is another way to find a leak (look for a trail of bubbles). If you have one at hand, the best way to find a leak however is to fill a spray bottle with water and a little detergent, and spray a mist over the inflated mattress in sections. The leak should show up where the detergent bubbles on the surface of the mat.
Dom has spent a few years with Mountain Equipment, floating between Chatswood and the City stores like a loose lily in an amber stream. Half Ninja, half honey-badger, half poet-laureate, he's 1.5x the outdoorsman. He enjoys climbing, hiking, canyoning, mountain biking, and carrying heavy packs uphill through the snow, barefoot, carrying a wasp's nest in his teeth. Dom's future will see him settling down to a quiet life of Sudoku and taxidermy, but until then, there is gnar to be shreddeth. Quote: "The first rule of climbing: Looking Good."