Beds, Mats, Stretchers & Hammocks: How to camp comfortably and get a good night’s sleep
Having a comfortable camping bed or camping mattress plays a massive role when it comes to enjoying a camping holiday. A restful night's sleep helps you build the energy reserves you need to make it through a busy day of hiking, bushwalking, mountain biking or chasing after your kids.
Even if your daily itinerary involves doing absolutely nothing, not being able to sleep comfortably can leave you in a grumpy mood and wishing you were at home in your own bed rather than getting into the spirit of your camping adventure.
Here are some tips for landing on the best camping bed for you.
Types of camping beds
There are five main types of camping beds: stretchers, mats, self-inflating mats and air beds - all of which come in a variety of sizes from single-bed to queen-size - and hammocks.
Stretchers and fold-out beds have traditionally been the go-to sleeping arrangement for campers. Stretchers come mostly in single and double-bed sizes and most can be packed down into small carry bags, making them ideal for no-fuss transporting and compact storage when they're not in use. There are also bunk-bedding options for families looking to maximise the space in their tent or caravan annex.
Stretcher beds come into their own when the ground at your campsite is too firm for a mat. The raised stretcher enables cool air to circulate under your bed on warm nights, leading to a more comfortable night's rest. Nowadays, most stretcher mattresses are comfortable enough on their own but many campers swear by adding a second mattress or a sleeping mat for that extra level of comfort.
Note that stretchers that feature cross-legged frames tend to provide better balance and are sturdier than traditional camp stretcher frames.
Hiking sleeping mats are the bedding of choice for hikers and campers looking for a lightweight, compact and hassle-free sleeping solution. Hiking mats are obviously designed to be used on the ground but they're also great as added softness on top of a fold-out bed. Sleeping mats are an ideal accompaniment to a swag (many swags even come with a built-in sleeping mat), as well as rolling out in the back of your 4WD for a quick and convenient bed.
Self-Inflating mats, like their foam-filled cousins, are another option for the camper or hiker looking for a more compact sleeping solution. Self-inflating mats have a valve that, when opened, inflates air around the foam, making them ideal for off-the-grid camping or campers who don't want compromise on comfort when using a non-powered site.
Top tip: Whether you go for a 'traditional' sleeping mat or a self-inflating mat, check for the hiking mat R-value, which is a measure of its warmth. The higher the R-value, the warmer and more comfortable your mat will be. If you're a side-sleeper, thicker sleeping mats will be more comfortable for you, and also consider purchasing a waterproof bag so your mat doesn't get wet in the rain when you're out hiking or bushwalking.
Air beds and air mattresses are arguably the clubhouse leader in popularity for today's camper because of their durability, comfort, ease of set-up and how compact they can be when not in use. Their height is also a big plus, making them easy to get in and out of.
The downside to air beds and air mattresses is they don't have much insulation so, without a blanket underneath you, it can lead to a cold night's sleep in the cooler months, and because the air is unable to circulate underneath like it can with a stretcher or fold-out bed, they can be warmer than desired in summer.
Air beds come in self-inflating models or ones that allow you to add air yourself. If you choose a manually inflating air bed, make sure you buy a battery-powered pump - otherwise you'll spend your whole day inflating your air mattress with a foot pump! It's normal for air beds to need regular air top-ups over a number of nights.
Hammocks are synonymous with afternoon naps on a summer's day but they can also be a great sleeping solution for the truly adventurous outdoor sleeper. While hammocks have traditionally been tied between trees, many of today's hammocks come with an easy-to-set-up and easy-to-store metal frame, capable of accommodating all kinds of body weights and sizes. Just like stretchers, the air flow underneath a hammock makes them ideal for a comfy night's sleep in the warmer months and, like an air mattress, a warm blanket or sleeping mat under the sleeping bag on your hammock can help you stay warmer on the cooler nights.
Choosing the right sleeping set-up for you
Before throwing down your hard-earned dollars, there are a few things you should think about when choosing the best camping bed for your purposes:
- If your camp mattress is going to get a lot of regular use, then you really need to consider something made from quality, long-lasting materials and something that is easy to maintain to ensure that you get good value for money.
- If you only plan on using a camp bed a couple of times a year or infrequently (at summer music festivals, for example), you may not need to spend as much money but you should still look for a stretcher, sleeping mat, air mattress or hammock made from quality materials and sturdy construction.
- Knowing where you'll be using the bed will be a huge help in deciding the best camping bed to buy. If your favourite camping locations have predominantly rocky and uneven ground, then a stretcher or air mattress with some kind of tarp or matting under it might be more useful to help protect against punctures. Camp stretchers and air mattresses are also great for people with back and hip issues because you don't have to get down to floor level to get in and out of bed, and they're the smart choice for side sleepers who need the extra support they give your head and neck.
- Hiking or not, hiking mats are great for people who don't require oodles of support to get to sleep, as well as people who want a lightweight bed or just want something simple to unpack at night and roll up the next morning. When shopping for a hiking mat, look for options made of rip-stop materials - material that's designed specifically to prevent little tears from becoming big ones.
Don't forget the extras
If you're new to camping, there are some handy extras that you should think about adding to your cart when shopping for a camping bed or camping mattress:
- If you're a light sleeper, earplugs are great for reducing noise so you get the best sleep at night or ensuring you aren't woken up by early risers in the mornings;
- A sleeping mask will cut out the bright early morning sunlight if you don't have to be up at dawn and need a few extra hours of slumber;
- Inflatable pillows add an extra touch of comfort to your camp bed, and they fold up compactly and neatly if space is at a premium or if you want to travel light.
Don't underestimate the importance of a good night's sleep when you're camping. Just because you're roughing it in nature doesn't mean you have to compromise on comfort to catch those all-important zzzs. Finding the best camping beds for you and your family's sleeping preferences is easy and doesn't need to cost the earth.