04/04/2013
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Buying advice: sleeping mats

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A good night’s sleep. For you and (perhaps even more importantly?) your children. That’s what camping not just has to promise, but really should guarantee.

And that’s why we’re looking at two types of product this month – airbeds and sleeping mats. Three, if you’re going to differentiate between roll-out mats and those of the self-inflating variety. And it’s fair to say that it’s among the latter that we’re seeing the most innovation.

Technology has moved on in all sectors, to the point that some mats are almost like airbeds, and possibly vice-versa. Actually, it’s possibly not even the technology that’s changed, it’s just that manufacturers are making thicker – ie more comfortable – mats.

I certainly like the concept of these deeper self-inflating mats. I appreciate they’re that bit bulkier, but – to me, at least – they seem to be the perfect compromise between a sometimes-too-thin mat and an (even bulkier) airbed.

Airbeds and me have struggled over the years. I don’t know why, but they have a remarkable ability to last just one season, regularly deflating over the course of the night as they prove, quite literally, to be a bit of a letdown. And, when it comes to transporting, they are bulky. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve certainly tried quite a few makes, models and types over recent years...

If you think that means I’m leading towards mats, then let’s just say mats are edging ever closer to airbeds. Just put me into the pigeonhole marked Campers That Are Willing To Pay The Cost Of A Good Double Airbed For An Excellent Self-inflating Mat.

Ultimately, comfort is what it’s all about. The phrase “Any fool can be uncomfortable” has been attributed to many folk over the years, and more often than not in a camping context. Only because it’s so appropriate. And it certainly applies to what you choose to sleep on.

TOP TIPS
  • Self-inflating mats nearly do what they say on the tin. Open the valve(s) unroll, sit back and wait for them to do their stuff. Except none of these actually fully self-inflate. Instead, a bit of your own lung power comes into play. 
  • The two big problems (sorry, challenges) with self-inflating mats are the valves – especially how they’re connected to the mat – and laminating the foam to the inner fabric, which is even harder to assess. That’s why, as ever, you get what you pay for even though you might not be able to see the quality.
  • Size matters. Your choice of airbed or mat may well be determined by dimensions, but check up on shapes, too. Don’t forget you can also get children’s sizes, with the added benefit that they don’t take up so much space. As well as attractive colours, look for examples with lipped sides – they tend to prevent your kids rolling out!
  • You can accessorise. There’s an increasing amount of ways you can add to your comfort – from pillows to covers. Again, small self-inflating pillows may save weight and space, but you might feel nothing beats the comfort of the one from your bed at home. Why do you think high-flying executives often take their own pillows on their travels?
  • Don’t over-inflate. I did that once to my favourite self-inflating mat of the time. It was from Ajungilpak. My over-enthusiasm literally popped the interior walling. Result? One useless self-inflating mat (I know, I could have kept the material and cut it up for repair patches, bits of matting or a myriad other things). The same goes for airbeds, of course.
  • Performance ratings? Not everyone’s that forthcoming, but when it matters do look out for aspects ranging from material type and thickness to temperature range and/or season rating, sometimes even R-value for the level of insulation offered (the higher the figure, the better). Arguably, this is really only important for more top-end, technical products.
Read more buyers guides and handy hints here.

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