Outdoor sleeping mat - Very important for outdoor activities

Outdoor sleeping mat

Outdoor sleeping mat

Guide to Sleeping Mats

Our guides to sleeping in the outdoors start from the ground up – so first in our list is the sleeping mat.

If you’re already familiar with the basic principles behind heat loss and insulation, then the reason for using a sleeping mat should be fairly obvious. If not, to find more on heat loss take a look at our quick guide, which explains the sometimes pesky mechanisms behind how our bodies lose heat to the external surroundings.

Why do you need a Outdoor sleeping mat?

Outdoor sleeping mat

A Outdoor sleeping mat is almost as important as a sleeping bag, since it is mainly this that separates you from the cold ground. When you lie in your sleeping bag the insulation is compressed, making it ineffective at retaining warm air as most is pushed out. There is nothing that can retain the warmth, which will subsequently be lost to the ground via conduction. 

The ground will not rise to your temperature, meaning it will absorb your heat – via conduction – until you are the same temperature as it is, and this can be very dangerous. 

This is where sleeping mats step in, providing a mostly uncompressible layer of air to separate the body from the ground. Read our information on heat loss to find out more.

Types of Outdoor sleeping mat:

Sleeping mats generally come in one of three different kinds of construction: self-inflating, non-self-inflating and closed cell foam mats. Each of these offers a different way of trapping air and separating the body from the ground, and each has its own pros and cons.

Closed cell foam mats:

Lightweight but taking up more space than the other options typically will, these mats offer insulation through closed air cells within the foam material. These trap air within the foam and protect you from the cold ground.

As they are made of closed air cells (meaning no air can escape each cell, these foam mats will not compress. This makes them a much firmer, and a potentially more uncomfortable option to go with. Also, because of this, they will take up more space, having to be rolled when stored away.

Self-inflating mats:

Outdoor sleeping mat

Made up internally of foam packed inside an air tight shell, self-inflating mats work by absorbing air when the valve is open, causing the foam to expand. Due to the type of foam used (open cell) they are compressible, making them more comfortable than closed cell foam mats and easier to store away.

The level of comfort and insulation offered will depend upon the amount of foam used inside the mat, which will usually result in a trade-off with weight and cost.

Self-inflating Outdoor sleeping mat are perhaps the most popular amongst campers due to their lightweight but compressible nature, whilst offering effective insulation.

Non-self-inflating mats:

Non-self-inflating Outdoor sleeping mat can cover a wide range of mats. In general they all require manual inflation using a foot pump or just your mouth and will usually include a durable cover.

Where they vary is in the type of insulation used inside, if there’s any at all. 
Air only mat: No additional insulation - lightweight, but offer very little insulation, suited more towards summer use.

Down and Synthetic insulated: offering insulation inside, these mats are much more effective at keeping you warm at night, with down being the best but most expensive option. They are typically thicker, and with added weight.

Sleeping mats – what you’ll need for your camping trip

Outdoor sleeping mat

On trips where size, space and weight are not an issue – e.g. when camping with your car – inflatable mats would be the recommended option, providing more comfort and insulation than closed cell foam mats.

Where you need to minimize the amount of weight you’re carrying, then are an obvious option, though you can find lightweight Outdoor sleeping mat. Do bear in mind that if you’re camping in the winter you may want to opt for a warmer mat, or perhaps even two.

They key thing is to do your research, and know what conditions you’re expecting to be camping in. By knowing these, and the pros and cons of each type of Outdoor sleeping mat, you should be much better prepared to go into the shops and ask the right questions!

Next on our sleeping guides is our guide to sleeping bags. Read that for more information on how to choose the right sleeping bag for your expected camping conditions.

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