Cots vs Sleeping Pads: What’s Best for Camping?

We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is the key to having a great camping trip. When you sleep well, your body can recover from the day’s activities. It also helps you stay in a good mood, have more energy, and think clearly. This is why people spend so much time considering their sleep system options.

In this post, we’ll compare cots and sleeping pads so you’ll know which one to use and when to use it.

What Are Sleeping Pads and How Are They Used

Sleeping pads are portable and lightweight bedding solutions used not only by campers but by backpackers and even soldiers. They provide a layer of cushioning and insulation between a person and the ground, making it more comfortable to sleep on uneven or rough surfaces. Sleeping pads also help to keep you warm by preventing heat loss to the cold ground, which is critical when sleeping outdoors.

There are three main types of sleeping pads:

  1. Foam pads: These are made of dense foam material and provide basic cushioning and insulation. They are lightweight, durable, and affordable. However, they can be bulky and may not offer as much comfort as other types of sleeping pads.
  2. Air pads: These pads need to be inflated, either manually or with a small pump. Air pads are lightweight and can be more comfortable than foam pads, as you can adjust the firmness by controlling the amount of air inside. However, these types of sleeping pads can be punctured and may require a patch kit for repairs.
  3. Self-inflating pads: These pads combine the benefits of foam and air pads. They have a foam core that automatically expands and draws in air when the valve is opened. Self-inflating pads provide a balance of comfort, insulation, and durability, but can be heavier and more expensive than other options.

What Are Camping Cots and How Are They Used

Camping cots, also known as camp beds or portable beds, are lightweight, collapsible sleeping surfaces designed for use in outdoor and camping environments. They typically consist of a sturdy frame made from materials like aluminum, steel, or a combination of both, and a fabric or mesh sleeping surface that is stretched tightly across the frame.

There are several types of camping cots available, each with its own unique features and benefits.

The most common types include:

  1. Standard camping cots: These cots have a simple design, featuring a foldable frame and a fabric or mesh sleeping surface. They are generally easy to set up and take down, and are suitable for car camping, family camping, or other situations where weight and portability are not major concerns.
  2. Lightweight backpacking cots: Designed specifically for backpackers and long-distance hikers, these cots prioritize weight and packability. They often use lighter materials like aluminum or carbon fiber for the frame and thinner fabrics for the sleeping surface. While not as comfortable as standard camping cots, they provide a good balance between comfort and portability.
  3. Bunk bed cots: These cots have a double-decker design, allowing two people to sleep on separate levels. They are ideal for saving space in a tent or cabin and can also be used as two separate single cots. Bunk bed cots are generally heavier and bulkier than other types but can be an excellent solution for families or groups camping together.
  4. Military-style cots: Inspired by military cot designs, these cots are known for their durability and ruggedness. They usually feature a sturdy steel or aluminum frame and a heavy-duty fabric sleeping surface. While they can be bulkier and heavier than other options, they are an excellent choice for long-term use or in harsh conditions.
  5. Extra-large or oversized cots: Designed for taller or larger individuals, these cots offer more width, length, and weight capacity than standard cots. They can also be more comfortable for those who prefer more sleeping space but may be heavier and bulkier as a result.
  6. Cot-tent hybrids: These unique camping cots combine the features of a cot and a tent, providing an all-in-one shelter and sleeping solution. They have an integrated bug net and rainfly, offering protection from the elements while keeping you elevated off the ground. They can be convenient for solo campers but are generally heavier and bulkier than other camping cot options.

The Comfort of Cots Vs Sleeping Pads

The comfort of cots versus sleeping pads can vary based on personal preferences and the specific product you choose. Here is a comparison of the comfort factors for both options:

Cot Comfort

  1. Elevated sleeping surface: Cots keep you off the ground, which can make for a more comfortable night’s sleep, especially on uneven or rocky terrain. This elevation also prevents contact with cold or damp ground, keeping you warmer and drier.
  2. Better support: The taut fabric or mesh surface of a cot offers consistent support across your body, which can be more comfortable for some people, particularly those with back or joint issues.
  3. Improved air circulation: Being raised off the ground allows for better airflow around your body, helping to regulate your temperature and reduce condensation build-up in your tent.

Sleeping Pad Comfort

  1. Cushioning: Sleeping pads provide varying degrees of cushioning, depending on the type of pad (air, self-inflating, or foam). Some people may find the cushioning more comfortable than a cot’s firm surface, especially when using thicker or plush air mattresses.
  2. Insulation: Sleeping pads, particularly closed-cell foam and self-inflating pads, offer insulation against the cold ground, which can make them more comfortable in colder temperatures.
  3. Smaller sleep surface: Sleeping pads conform to your body more closely than cots, which some people may find more comfortable. This can also be beneficial for side sleepers who need additional cushioning for their hips and shoulders.

Ultimately, comfort is subjective, and what may be comfortable for one person might not be for another. It’s essential to consider your personal preferences, the specific products available, and your camping environment when deciding between a cot and a sleeping pad. It may also be helpful to try out different options before committing to a purchase, as your comfort can significantly impact your overall camping experience.

sleeping pad

All this being said, I personally think that a large cot with a mattress on top of it provides the best overall comfort.  I feel this way because it provides the most padding and the best insulation of all of the options.  On top of this, these types of cots are easy to get in and out of and provide a comfortable place to sit.

Of course, comfort isn’t always the number one decision when choosing between cots and sleeping pads.

Setting Up A Cot Vs Setting Up A Sleeping Pad

In general, sleeping pads tend to be easier and quicker to set up compared to camping cots. However, the ease of setup can vary depending on the type of sleeping pad or cot you’re using.

Sleeping pads:

  1. Foam pads: These are the easiest to set up, as you simply unroll them and place them inside your tent or sleeping area. There is no need to inflate or adjust anything.
  2. Self-inflating pads: These pads inflate themselves when you unroll and open the valve. Some manual adjustments or additional inflation may be needed for your desired firmness, but the overall setup process is still relatively simple and quick.
  3. Air pads: These require manual inflation, either by blowing into a valve or using a pump. While this process can be time-consuming, especially for larger or thicker pads, it is still generally quicker and easier than setting up most cots.

Camping cots:

  1. Standard camping cots: These cots often have a foldable frame and require you to stretch the fabric or mesh sleeping surface across the frame. The setup process can be more involved than that of a sleeping pad, and it may require some practice to become efficient.
  2. Lightweight backpacking cots: These cots prioritize weight and packability, and as a result, they may have more complex designs that require assembly. The setup process can be more time-consuming and challenging, especially for first-time users.

Of course, there are exceptions, and some camping cots have been designed for quick and easy setup. It’s essential to consider the specific cot or sleeping pad you are using and to practice setting it up before heading out on your camping trip. This will help ensure a smoother setup process and make it easier to determine which option is most convenient for your needs.

camping cot

I’ve always felt that foam sleeping pads were the easiest sleep system to setup.  With these, you basically just have to unroll them and you’re done.  The same is generally true for standard military-style cots.  With these types of cots, you just open them up and they’re ready to go.

Any cot or sleeping pad that requires you to put air in them is going to take longer to setup.  Also, backpacking cots generally require just as much effort to setup as a tent, making them one of the longest systems to set up.

Durability of Sleeping Pads Vs Cots

The durability of a cot versus a sleeping pad depends on the specific product, materials used, and the quality of construction. However, there are some general differences in durability between the two options:

Camping Cots:

  1. Sturdier materials: Cots typically have a frame made from aluminum, steel, or a combination of both, which makes them more resistant to punctures and tears than sleeping pads. The fabric or mesh used for the sleeping surface is often more robust than the materials used for air or self-inflating sleeping pads.
  2. Off-the-ground design: By keeping you elevated off the ground, camping cots are less likely to come into contact with sharp objects or abrasive surfaces that could cause damage.

Sleeping Pads:

  1. Susceptible to punctures: Air pads and self-inflating pads are more vulnerable to punctures and leaks than cots, as they rely on air for support and cushioning. These punctures can sometimes be repaired, but they may render the pad unusable if the damage is extensive or cannot be fixed.  Not to mention, repairing a leak is annoying and not a fun way to spend a camping trip.
  2. Foam pads: Closed-cell foam pads are generally more durable than air and self-inflating pads, as they don’t rely on air and are made of dense foam material. However, they can still be susceptible to wear and tear over time, especially if exposed to rough surfaces or sharp objects.  The durability advantage of a foam sleeping pad over a cot is the fact that it can still be used even after it gets a tear in it, while a tear in a cot can often make it unusable.

Cots and sleeping pads can last a long time if they’re made from good materials and you take care of them well. It’s important to pick a product that works best for you and follow the instructions from the company on how to use, store, and clean it. This helps your cot or sleeping pad last longer. Be sure to check your gear before and after every trip, and fix any problems quickly so your equipment stays in good shape.

Versatility of Cots Vs Sleeping Pads

Camping cots and sleeping pads offer different levels of versatility for various camping scenarios.

Here’s a comparison of their versatility:

Camping Cot Versatility

  1. Elevated sleeping surface: Cots provide an off-the-ground sleeping area, keeping you away from damp or cold ground, which is beneficial in wet or uneven terrain.
  2. Multi-purpose use: Cots can be used as a makeshift seating area, a flat surface for organizing gear, or even a daytime lounger for relaxation.
  3. Limited suitability: Cots may not be suitable for smaller tents or when sharing a tent with multiple people due to their larger size and footprint.
  4. Heavier and bulkier: Camping cots are generally heavier and bulkier than sleeping pads, making them less versatile for backpacking or situations where weight and packability are priorities.

Sleeping Pad Versatility

  1. Lightweight and compact: Sleeping pads are lighter and more compact than cots, making them more versatile for backpacking, bikepacking, or any camping scenario where weight and packability are important.
  2. Flexible sleeping arrangements: Sleeping pads can be used in a wider variety of tent sizes and layouts, making them more adaptable to different camping situations.
  3. Insulation: Sleeping pads offer varying degrees of insulation, making them a versatile choice for camping in different temperatures and environments.
  4. Less suitable for uneven terrain: Sleeping pads may not be as comfortable as cots on uneven or rocky ground, as they do not provide the same elevation and support.
  5. Multipurpose use: Closed-cell foam pads, in particular, can serve additional purposes, such as sitting pads, wind blockers for stoves, or extra insulation beneath an air pad.

When thinking about whether a camping cot or sleeping pad is better for you, it’s important to consider what matters most for your camping trips. Both options have their own benefits and drawbacks, so the best choice depends on your needs and how you plan to use it.

Camping Cots and Sleeping Pads Price Comparison

The cost of camping cots and sleeping pads can vary significantly depending on factors such as brand, materials, size, and features.

Here’s a general comparison of the price ranges for each option:

Cost of Camping Cots

  1. Budget options: Basic camping cots can start around $30 to $60, providing a simple design and adequate comfort for occasional use.
  2. Mid-range options: Prices for mid-range cots typically range from $60 to $150. These cots may offer better materials, more comfortable sleeping surfaces, and features like adjustable legs for leveling on uneven ground.
  3. High-end options: Premium camping cots can cost anywhere from $150 to $300 or more, featuring lightweight materials, advanced designs for improved comfort, and greater durability.

Cost of Sleeping Pads

  1. Budget options: Closed-cell foam pads are the most affordable option, with prices usually ranging from $10 to $40. These pads are lightweight and provide basic insulation, but they may not be as comfortable as other options.
  2. Mid-range options: Self-inflating pads and basic air pads can be found in the $40 to $100 range. These pads offer better cushioning and insulation compared to foam pads, and some may include features like built-in pumps or insulation layers.
  3. High-end options: Premium air pads can cost from $100 to $200 or more, providing advanced features such as lightweight materials, superior insulation, and improved comfort with thicker cushioning or adjustable firmness.

Keep in mind that the cost of a camping cot or sleeping pad doesn’t always correlate with comfort or durability. It’s essential to consider your specific camping needs and preferences and read reviews from other users to find the best option within your budget.

Summing It All Up

Cots and sleeping pads offer different sleep experiences for campers, each with their unique advantages and limitations:

  1. Comfort: Cots provide an elevated sleeping surface with consistent support, while sleeping pads offer cushioning that conforms more closely to your body. Some people may find cots more comfortable, especially on uneven terrain, while others prefer the cushioning of sleeping pads.
  2. Setup: Sleeping pads, especially foam pads, are generally quicker and easier to set up than cots. However, some cots are designed for quick setup, and ease of setup can vary between specific products.
  3. Durability: Cots tend to be more durable due to their sturdy frames and off-the-ground design, making them less susceptible to punctures and wear. Sleeping pads, particularly air and self-inflating pads, are more prone to punctures, but closed-cell foam pads offer greater durability.
  4. Versatility: Sleeping pads are lighter, more compact, and can be used in a wider variety of tent sizes and layouts, making them more versatile for different camping scenarios. Cots provide an elevated surface, which is beneficial in wet or uneven conditions, but may not be suitable for smaller tents or when weight and packability are priorities.
  5. Cost: Both cots and sleeping pads come in a range of prices, from budget options to high-end models, depending on factors like materials, size, and features. It’s important to consider your specific camping needs and preferences to find the best option within your budget.

When choosing between a cot and a sleeping pad, carefully consider your personal preferences, camping environment, and the specific products available to make the best decision for your comfort and enjoyment.

What’s your favorite sleep system?  Comment below!

Jim Murphy

Jim's love for camping started at an early age. His parents would take him camping every summer, where he'd spend his days getting quality time in with his dad and his nights eating too many smores.

Recent Posts