What Is the Best Thing to Sleep on when Camping?

When you sleep outdoors, you will need some sleeping pad, and the choice will depend on where you sleep, close to the car or on the trail. This determines what you choose, so keep reading.

So what is the best thing to sleep on when camping? Let’s see some options, and their pros and cons.

When this is about outdoor sleeping, for my mountaineering activities, my list of preference looks as follows:

  • Sleeping in the car, but off-the-floor.
  • Sleeping on a cot in a tent.
  • Sleeping on a self-inflatable pad, on the cot or on the tent’s floor.

Below I give more details and explain my preferences. This is not to convince you in anything, from my arguments you might get some idea of what best would be for you.

What Is the Best Thing to Sleep on when Camping. Featured picture showing a camping place with a tent and fire.

Sleeping in the car

This text is about things to “sleep on”, so in the case of a car, i) you can sleep on the floor and here you can use any sleeping pad, or ii) you can sleep off the floor on a cot.

This all will depend on the type of the car. In my case the floor is not flat, so I make a platform and put a mattress on it. With this I have space underneath it to store my gear. This is very important when you have such a limited space.

There are cots on the market that are designed to fit on such an uneven floor. You can see one great example in the text about REI Co-op Trailgate Vehicle Sleeping Platform, see the picture below.

REI Co-op Trailgate Vehicle Sleeping Platform for sleeping in the car and in the tent.
REI Co-op Trailgate Vehicle Sleeping Platform for sleeping in the car and in the tent.

The legs of this cot are adjustable, and you can use this cot anywhere, in the car and also in the tent. Note that it comes with a pad included.

If the floor in the car is flat, you can use any camping cot that fits inside. You can also sleep on the floor assuming that you use an insulated sleeping pad.

Advantages of sleeping in the car:

  • The bed is almost always completely ready.
  • You are better protected than in any tent.
  • You can make your own sleeping platform to have as much width as you want. I point out this because cots mat be narrow.
  • You can sleep even at places where normally you cannot put up a tent. This includes various parking spaces by the road, on high mountain passes, etc.
  • You can manage to sleep even at places when it is not allowed to camp/sleep. Do not tell anybody, but this is something I do regularly.

Disadvantages of sleeping in the car:

  • I mentioned above that the bed is ‘almost always completely ready’. Well, this is not necessarily so. The space in the car is limited, so I keep my gear on the bed as well. This needs to be moved on the front seats when it is time to go bed. So it can become a mess, but it is doable.
  • This is an option for the road only.

Sleeping on a cot

The picture above shows a special type of cot. But there are many standard cots on the market, and they are available also as double-wide for two users. You can see them many here.

So you can use a cot for off-ground sleeping, no matter if this is in the car or in the tent. This is more comfortable than sleeping on the ground. With a cot in a tent, you still have plenty of space to store your gear underneath the cot. This is a big advantage of sleeping on a cot as compared to sleeping on the tent’s floor.

When you are on a cot, in general, you need less insulation than when you sleep on the floor of a tent. This is because you lose far more warmth to the ground than to the air.

Did you know that there are ultralight backpacking cots? So indeed a cot can be used on the trail and at places with a motorized access. Here is one great example, the Therm-a-Rest UltraLite Cot have a look:

A disadvantage of sleeping on a cot is that they are usually made narrow. This holds in particular for the mentioned backpacking cots.
Do you need a sleeping pad on a cot?

The answer is yes if you want more comfort or if you sleep in a cold environment. But for a warm weather summer camping you do not need it.

Note also that some cots come with a sleeping pad included.

Sleeping on a foam pad or a self-inflating sleeping pad

There are generally three types of camping sleeping pads:

  1. Foam pads.
  2. Self-inflating sleeping pads.
  3. Inflatable sleeping pads or air pads.

The most comfortable of them are foam pads. I have been using this type for many years already, and this is only for the car sleeping as described above.

With such a pad, I have comfort almost like at home. Teton Sports brand is particularly known for this type of sleeping pads. They are pleasant and comfortable. The downside of these pads is that they are bulky when rolled up. Though in my case, it is never rolled up, it is on the bed in the car. See how these pads look:

The next best is a self-inflating pad. Here you have an air-tight shell, and inside is an open-cell type foam. So when you unpack the pad and open the valve, the decompressed foam will expand and suck the air in. This is why the pad is called self-inflating.

These pads are comfortable and supportive. They can be very compact and can be carried on the trail as well. But it is fair to say, that most people carry inflatable pads on the trail.

However, if this is about sleeping on the trail, you will want the lightest possible option, and this is then an inflatable pad.


Sleeping in a tent-cot

What, you do not know what at tent-cot is?

Well, a tent-cot or cot-tent is a cot with a tent attached to it. This means that you have

  • a sleeping platform,
  • some poles that keep the fly, and
  • a fly.

There are two types of cot-tents or tent-cots:

  • Collapsible. This type implies a simple assembly so it needs an easy work, but the good side is that it is very compact.
  • Folding. Here you have everything pre-attached so you unfold it in a few simple steps. The downside is that it may be bulky. The picture below shows one of the best known products of this type, the Kamp-Rite Oversize Tent Cot.
Kamp-Rite Oversize Tent Cot.
Kamp-Rite Oversize Tent Cot.

With such a shelter you can sleep anywhere, simply take it from the car, unfold and set it up, and you have your bed ready and protected under its own roof.

Here, the rule is the same as in the case of standard cots. You may want to use a sleeping pad for extra comfort and/or if you camp in a cold environment.

Sleeping in a hammock

Sleeping in a hammock is for places where you have trees around. So if you are a mountaineer, this would not work for you unless you are under the tree line.

But there are freestanding folding hammocks that are suitable for car camping, the picture below shows one great example, the Mac Sports H900S-100 Camping Portable Folding Hammock.

Mac Sports H900S-100 Topnotch Heavy Duty Multi-Use Outdoor Camping Portable Folding Hammock.
Mac Sports H900S-100 Topnotch Heavy Duty Multi-Use Outdoor Camping Portable Folding Hammock.

This is only for people who sleep on the back, so this cannot possibly work for me.

With a hammock you will need a sleeping bag. Also, in a cold environment you will also need a special hammock sleeping pad.

So this was my selection of options to sleep on when camping, some cannot work for me, but they might be great for you. For more texts of this type please check under the category Camping. Check in particular my text about safety of sleeping outdoors, this is very much related to the topic of this text. Read also about possible issues with setting up a tent under a tree if it rains.

Thank you for reading. You might want to bookmark this site because it is full of such informative texts, and you can keep it as a reference. Let me know if you have questions or comments, there is a comment box below.

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Me on Jalovec.Hi, I am Jovo, the founder of this OutdoorsFAQs site and several other outdoor sites. I have been mountaineering for almost 40 years already, and I have created this site to use as a reference for various questions that I receive in my sites. Being a theoretical physicist by profession, I tend to base my answers on facts and on my own personal experience.

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