An air mattress is the most deceptive of sleeping pads. It looks so squishy and comfortable — far nicer than that sheet of thin foam you used when you were a kid — and in high summer you can stretch out on one and sleep like a milk-drunk baby.
But then you try using it in fall.
After an hour or two, as the mercury drops and the glow of your campfire and whiskey fades, the cold begins to creep up into your bones. By the time dawn arrives, you feel like you might never be warm again.
Not such a surprise, when you think about it. Most cheaper air mattresses are essentially just plastic balloons with little or no insulation either inside or around them.
The air inside the mattress gets cold, and before long so do you.
So, how to stay warm on an air mattress on your next camping trip?
- Invest in an insulated air mattress. Loads of air mattresses are designed for the great outdoors and will keep you comfortable in cold weather.
- Upgrade your sleep system for winter camping by adding insulating material and by using a good sleeping bag.
- Set yourself up for a warm night’s sleep by eating well, going to bed warm, and perhaps even improvising a hot water bottle.
How To Stay Warm On an Air Mattress: Buy an Insulated Air Mattress
When thinking about how to stay warm on an air mattress, one approach is to buy the right air mattress. Many air mattresses simply aren’t meant for camping out in colder temperatures. They’re designed to be used as a spare bed in a centrally heated house or apartment, where the ambient air temperature can be controlled with the twitch of a dial.
Fortunately, there are also air mattresses made specially for year-round camping.
Splash Out On an Insulated Air Mattress
Insulation is the norm for mid-range sleeping pads upwards — and at the higher end you’ve got air mattresses that are designed to keep you warm and comfortable at forty below.
While the mats with the best insulation certainly ain’t cheap, they’re the sort of items that can make or break a camping trip, and you have to ask yourself what a decent night’s sleep in a tent might be worth to you.
Look at the R Rating
It’s the “R rating” or “R value” that’ll tell you just how warm an air mattress is. Any decent mat should have this measure of thermal resistance in the tech specs, and a higher rating is better.
To give you an idea, a solid mid-range air mattress might have an R value of 2 or 3. A more expensive one might be around 5, and some go up to 8 or more.
Unlike sleeping bags, manufacturers tend to avoid putting temperature ranges on camping mats — arguing that they’re not very helpful because some people sleep a lot colder than others.
What’s even less helpful is having to drop $300 on a new air mattress without having any idea what the ratings mean.
A rough rule of thumb is that an R value above a 2 is good for 3-season use, 4+ should be fine for most cold weather camping, and an air bed with an R value of more than 6 is about right to load onto your dogsled as you harness up the huskies.
- The Exped Megamat is an insanely warm and comfortable camping mattress. It’s pricey but with an R-rating of 9.5 it’s the undisputed king of comfort when it comes to sleeping in a tent. (Check out prices and reviews at: Amazon or CampSaver or Als.com or OpticsPlanet).
- For a more budget insulated air mattress, check out the Klymit Static V. At just 2.5″ deep it’s surprisingly comfortable and when you lie on it you can definitely feel your body heat reflecting back at you (R-rating of 4.4). It won’t break the bank and is very well regarded in the outdoor community. (Check it out at: Klymit or Amazon).
How To Stay Warm On an Air Mattress: Upgrade Your Sleep System
“That’s alright for you, Uncle Pennybags,” we hear you cry. And it’s true, splashing out on a high-end insulated air mattress is all very well in principle, but what if you’re looking to get a warmer night’s sleep off a cheaper sleeping pad?
For restful sleep on a budget air bed, you’ll need a method to upgrade the insulation.
Insulate Under the Mattress
The cold that ends up inside your air mattress — and subsequently in every fiber of your being — comes from two sources.
The surrounding air and the cold ground of the tent floor.
Insulating your sleeping pad from the floor isn’t always necessary, but if you’re camping out in really cold weather it’s a good idea to put some sort of insulating material underneath the air mattress.
Some campers recommend using the Mylar thermal blanket from your first aid kit for this, but it’s questionable whether this actually works, since these emergency “space blankets” function best when wrapped around your body.
It’s better just to use a sheet of closed-cell foam — which can also protect your air mattress from sharp objects on the ground.
Insulate On Top of the Air Mattress
In truth, while insulating yourself from the cold ground might help a bit, it’s far more important to block the exchange of heat between your body and the cold air mattress.
The old-school Arctic trick for staying warm is to use heavy wool blankets held in place by a fitted bed sheet, but there are loads of other materials that work well too.
You can buy mattress toppers insulated with foam, fleece, or down, or even just use a budget foam camping pad. And if you’re car camping and have plenty of space, you could try a memory foam topper.
As above, some particularly Spartan campers recommend using a space blanket to stay warm, but this is rather like trying to sleep on a giant candy wrapper. If you’re set on lightweight solutions to conserve body heat, a sturdier reflective material like Thermartex might be a better option.
Use an Electric Blanket
Putting electric blankets or mattress toppers on air beds is a contentious issue. It’s also largely irrelevant to most backpackers — since the backcountry isn’t exactly bristling with electric hook-ups.
The question mark lies over whether it’s a safety risk, and, while some campers reckon it’s ok, most feel that a heated mattress topper and a cheap plastic air bed are not a match made in heaven.
Another unhappy pairing is electricity and water, and it can be difficult to keep the two separate in a tent during sustained bad weather.
If you do have an electric supply in your tent and feel confident that it’s safe to use an electric blanket, it’s still probably better to use a heated over-blanket rather than something that rests directly against the plastic of the mattress.
Use a Good Sleeping Bag
Apart from insulating between yourself and the pad, this is the single most important thing you can do to retain body heat on a cold night.
The warmth of a good sleeping bag will make up for a mediocre camping pad, but remember that the insulation in sleeping bags is less effective when crushed (e.g. by the weight of your body), so it’s still worth bulking up the insulation underneath you.
How To Stay Warm On an Air Mattress: Sleep Warm
A good night’s sleep isn’t just about fine-tuning your bed set-up. There are also plenty of other things you can do to make sure your teeth don’t start chattering in the small hours.
Go to Bed Warm
If you’re already cold when you zip up the tent at night, you’ve lost from the start. It’s particularly easy to lose warmth if you’ve been exercising hard during the day, so try and guard against it.
Grab a hot shower if you can, put on dry clothes and a down jacket, get yourself out of the wind and rain, and make yourself a hot drink.
Hell, do star jumps if you need to, but make sure you start the night warm.
Outdoor types love to bicker over how long before bed you should eat your evening meal — though the common thread running through most of these debates tends to be a lack of any formal medical expertise.
However, if there’s one thing most people can agree on, it’s that whenever you choose to take your meals, you need to be getting enough calories down you.
When you’re counting the grams and paring back your pack for a big trip, it’s tempting to go light on the food. But running a calorie deficit just isn’t sustainable for most camping trips, and you won’t stay warm without enough fuel in the boiler.
Take a Hot Water Bottle
If you’re car camping, you can enjoy the luxury of a real rubber hot water bottle like you used to get at Grandma’s, but hikers can improvise one using a sturdy drinks bottle.
Make sure it’s rated to take hot liquids, and it’s best not to use water that’s any hotter than you could pour directly onto your skin.
Boiling water is a big no-no, since a leak (including an escape of steam) can cause serious burns.
Preheat the Bed
Some campers swear by preheating their beds with a hot water bottle.
This won’t really warm the air inside the air mattress unless it’s a well-insulated model, but it does mean you’ll clamber into a toasty sleeping bag, which can sometimes be half the battle on a cold night.
Wearing clothes inside your sleeping bag is another divisive issue. There are those who find the tiniest scrap of clothing completely intolerable, while others go to bed like the Michelin man in an effort to stay warm.
Merino base layers are popular sleepwear in a tent, and — though people in forums love to trash it — plenty of folk still find cotton comfortable.
Wear what you like, we say, but if you do decide to sleep as God made you, perhaps keep a couple of layers to hand in case you wake up cold. Jack Frost likes to nip at the extremities, so a hat and socks can be a good idea even if you don’t wear anything else. This is also a strong look if you get up to visit the bathroom in the night.
Why Am I So Cold Sleeping On an Air Mattress?
Many cheaper air mattresses aren’t insulated, so the air inside them remains at the ambient temperature. You’re essentially lying on a cushion of cold air that steals away your body heat.
Can You Put a Heated Blanket On an Air Mattress?
In general, it’s not the best solution. The heat from the blanket may damage a plastic air mattress, so it’s usually better to put the blanket over yourself rather than placing it underneath your body.
How Do I Keep My Air Mattress From Getting Cold?
The best way to sleep warm on an air mattress is to use an insulated one with a high R value, but you can also try and protect yourself from the chilly air inside the mattress.
Use an insulated mattress topper to stay warm, or improvise one from a thick blanket or foam pad.
Are There Insulated Air Mattresses for Camping?
Pricier air mattresses for camping are almost always insulated, and a good one will give you comfortable sleep even in the depths of winter. Look for the “R rating”, which is a measure of how warm a mat will be.