The question in the title and similar questions are frequently asked on social media and forum sites. Several of them are answered here in the text. So keep reading.
The question sleeping pads vs camping cots is not necessarily completely correct. This is because of two reasons:
- There are situations where you cannot really choose, so you have to use a sleeping pad. This is typical for long trails where carrying even an ultralight cot is not an option because it may be too heavy.
- There are many situations where you can use any of them and you will be fine, or you can use both together. So it does not have to be one versus another. This is typical for ordinary car camping, or for any other situation where you do not carry you gear in the backpack but you transport it in some way.
Several related questions are answered below. Some of them may look similar but I have answered them from different perspectives.
Sleeping pads vs cots
This question is quite general, so it deals with advantages and disadvantages of sleeping pads and cots. The advantages of sleeping pads are as follows:
- Trail sleeping pads are lighter than cots.
- Trail sleeping pads are also less bulky than cots.
- Sleeping pads can fit in any tent while this is not so with all the cots. But there are low cots on the market that fit in any tent as well.
The most important advantages of camping cots are as follows:
- Camping cots separate you from the cold ground so you need less insulation, and you can use them anywhere.
- You do not have issues with possible puncture as in the case of inflatable and self-inflating sleeping pads.
- In most cases cots are easier to use. Have you ever tried to deflate a 10 cm thick self-inflating pad?
- Camping cots can be less bulky and even lighter than some camping foam mats or self-inflating sleeping pads.
How about the price?
- Trail sleeping pads are usually far more affordable than ultralight backpacking cots.
- Most camping cots are more affordable than thick and comfortable camping pads.
Ultralight cot vs sleeping pad
If you are interested in this comparison, then my guess is that this is about trail use. Otherwise, you would try to find a comfortable, large, and heavy camping cot.
But it is best to see about terminology first. So what is meant by an ultralight cot? If you check around, you will find out that the lightest cots currently on the market weigh around 1.2 kg (2.6 lb). The Helinox Lite Cot shown below is one of the best examples.
Does this look ultralight to you? Perhaps this is so, but compare this with ultralight sleeping pads for backpacking and you will realize that they can be below 400 grams (0.88 lb). See one example in the picture, this is the Klymit Static V Ultralite SL Sleeping Pad that weighs only 255 grams (9 ounces).
On the other hand, these lightest backpacking cots are quite small, and this means both narrow and short. Their dimensions may still be better than dimensions of an ultralight backpacking sleeping pad, but they have side poles that take a few centimeters.
As you see, the weight difference for a backpacker may be significant. So if you go for a backpacking cot, you might have some really good reasons.
Such reasons may include a wet and warm environment, it is far better to sleep off the ground in such situations. Also, there is always a risk of puncture with a sleeping pad, and this can ruin your all trip.
Of course, it is also about comfort. For some people cots offer more comfort than a pad on the ground.
Should I buy a cot, or a sleeping pad
This question is toned differently, it does not necessarily imply a trail use. But, as mentioned above, there may be situations where you cannot choose. You have seen the numbers above, the weight is in favor of a pad. So if you are on a trail, you will probably be forced to carry a pad instead of a cot.
But if this is about car camping, I could go for any of the two options. A thick foam sleeping pad can indeed be very comfortable and it may be a better option than a cot. The same holds for self-inflating sleeping pads, you can see my own shown in a text about sleeping pad’s warmth. However, a cot has advantages and mentioned previously in the text.
Cots vs sleeping pads vs air mattresses
In this question I see again the problem of terminology. For many people a sleeping pad has the same meaning as an inflatable or air mattress. The difference is that the latter is more specific as it means a pad filled with air.
So a sleeping pad may be:
- Filled with both air and foam.
- Filled with air and insulating synthetic fibers.
- It can have only foam.
- It can have only air.
Now, it terms of comfort, in my view, the most comfortable are foam sleeping pads. This would be my preference if I have to choose. But such pads are bulky and heavy.
Consequently, if the space is limited in the car, the next choice for me would be a self-inflating pad. In other words, in terms of comfort, air pads (mattresses) or insulated air pads are inferior to the options with foam.
But how all of them compare with a cot? This depends on several factors, and I have outlined some of them in the text above.
It does not have to be one versus another. In my text on ways to make a camping cot more comfortable, I mentioned using a sleeping pad with a cot for extra comfort. The best option is to use both, in all circumstances if possible, I mean a pad (any type) and a cot.
But note also that inflatable sleeping pads (or air mattresses) do not insulate you, unless they are insulated type. This means that simple air-inflated pads are not a good option if this is about a cold environment. With a cot you are off the ground and this is far better.
Which is better a cot or an air mattress
This question is partly answered in the text above. But here you see the word ‘better’ used. So it depends on what is meant by this.
- If this is an air mattress without insulation, and this is a cold environment, you will suffer. So it is better to be off the ground on a cot.
- If this is about summer camping, and you have options to choose between i) a narrow or simply hard cot, and ii) a thick air pad, you might rather go for the pad.
- If this is about trail, an air mattress may be three times lighter than the lightest backpacking cot. So this is a far better option for sure.
- Again, if this is about a trail, and there is a chance that your air pad can get punctured, well, think a bit.
Good cot and cheap pad vs good pad
Actually, this is an interesting question, but it is not applicable to any outdoor situation. If you are on a trail, you cannot possibly carry a cot and a pad. So this is about camping close to your car or at any place where you do not carry your stuff on the back.
But the question is interesting because of the following. When you are on a cot in a cooler environment, you might need some extra insulation underneath you. Your sleeping bag may not be enough because its insulation is compressed with your body and it will not insulate you from below.
In such situations you may need just a bit of insulation, so a simple and inexpensive pad may be completely enough.
However, if you sleep on the ground, you will need far more insulation because you lose lots of your warmth to the ground. So you will need a good sleeping pad.
In conclusion, the choice between sleeping pads and camping cots depends on various factors, and the decision may not be a straightforward one.
When comparing the two, consider the specific context and your camping preferences. Sleeping pads are generally lighter, less bulky, and suitable for situations where weight is a crucial factor, such as long trails. They are also versatile and can fit into any tent.
On the other hand, camping cots offer elevation from the cold ground, require less insulation, and are easier to use in many cases. The decision between an ultralight cot and a sleeping pad for trail use depends on factors like environmental conditions, risk of puncture, and personal comfort preferences.
For car camping or situations where weight is not a concern, the choice between a cot and a sleeping pad becomes more subjective, involving factors such as comfort, convenience, and space constraints.
Additionally, combining both a pad and a cot for extra comfort is a viable option. Ultimately, the “better” choice depends on your specific needs and camping circumstances.
A bit more related to sleeping pads you will find in my another where I discussed two major reasons for using them. You might want to read also my texts about Ozark Trail versus Coleman tents. Regarding cots, you might want to see my separate text about ways of making a cot more comfortable.
Bookmark this site and keep as a reference, you will always have new texts added and questions answered related to outdoor activities. Thank you for reading and have a nice day.