Car camping mattress or is there a better alternative?

Car camping essentials | How to sleep in your car - DIY | Sleeping in car

We’ve all been there – inflatable mattresses have a very short lifespan. Especially if you carry them around and use them outdoors. Even the indoor inflatable beds don’t last very long. Instead of investing (often) into an inflatable car mattress, how about investing once and turn your car a comfy and durable camper? Here’s what I recommend.

In this post we will cover:

  • why I don’t recommend a car camping mattress
  • a quick alternative I recommend
  • a long term alternative for serious car campers!

The (only?) benefit of an inflatable car mattress

However I think about it, I can only come up with one benefit of an inflatable car mattress vs any other non-inflatable alternatives: it’s small and easy to store / hide away. You just have to deflate it, fold it and it’s easily hidden in the boot.

But so are any standard camping inflatable sleeping pads – which are more durable and even more compact than any car mattress. Take these two (left and right) as an example – they are more durable, flat surface (which is more useful, see below) and you can also use them whilst trekking & camping, not just in a car.

Now let’s move on to the more numerous:

The disadvantages of an inflatable car mattress

  • it’s car only – the majority of these mattresses are built to be used in the car and therefore have random bits to fill in gaps that only exist in a car. They will look weird if you use them elsewhere (or they’ll just get in the way). Whereas all you need for sleeping in your car is a flat & soft surface to sleep on. There’s no specific car requirement – so don’t limit yourself by buying a car mattress, buy a camping pad instead. It is more universal and gives you more bang for your buck.
  • a short lifespan – typical car mattress punctures easily and isn’t really made for the outdoors. Just look at the top product results when doing a simple search – all shout “cheap material & short lifespan”. We’ve all been there – you buy an inflatable mattress or a bed, just to have to repair punctures several times a year. What we want is durability, not too much air and weak materials.
  • additional cost – accessories needed – a car mattress has to be inflated with a special pump, which is another additional cost and tool to carry, take up space and eventually break. The fewer accessories (= none) a car mattress has, the better for your wallet and sanity.
  • soft & uneven surface – it’s not that convenient on a longer camping trip where you don’t just sleep on the mattress, you move around, spend time playing cards or other games on it, put food or drinks on it. But because it’s inflatable, it’s a much softer and uneven surface that won’t really hold any drinks. Try resting something (that needs to stay flat) on top of your mattress whilst you move around inside the car. Being full of air means that it behaves more like a water bed than a mattress. Stuff will almost jump around you. And of course, if it’s two of you sleeping in the car – each movement of one person will be felt by the other. You can mitigate that to some extent with a thinner (but still comfy) inflatable camping pad. However, it’s still filled with air – there are better solutions than air to comply with these criteria. Which brings me to…

car mattress softness
Something you don’t want outside of naptime…

A better alternative to a car mattress/bed

What do we actually need when sleeping in our car?

  • soft surface to sleep comfortably
  • at the same time, something hard enough that won’t catapult a plate of food from one end, if someone sits on the other
  • something durable
  • something easy to store

You have two options:

The fastest / easiest option: inflatable sleeping pads for camping

  • their benefits:
    • very easy to store (you can hide them away completely without compromising any space in the car)
    • lightweight
    • can be inflated easily just by your lungs
    • can be used elsewhere too (standard camping, in a tent, festivals etc)
  • their disadvantages:
    • although thin, they are still filled with air, so there is a risk of puncture (although much lower, their walls are much more durable than a standard car mattress)
    • not as solid surface because of the air filling – although much closer to a solid surface than any thicker car bed – always opt for the thinner ones for better surface stability
    • slippery – their outer shell is likely going to be made from polyester – so any blanket or whatever you’ll put on them will slip off easily
ford galaxy 2016 rear seats folded
Flat surface boot for sleeping in a Ford Galaxy 2016

This mattress seems a bit different and more suitable too

  • it’s somewhere in the middle – between inflatable car mattresses and DIY foam sheets

Better long term option not just for sleeping – rebonded foam sheets or foam rubber

  • their benefits
    • much flatter and solid (stable) surface that you can also use as a table/space to live on
    • very durable – can’t be pierced, will last for years (bar any extreme situations like your dog spending some “quality time” with them…)
    • can also be used elsewhere, but are not as easy to transport – so I’ll refine – can also be used anywhere, where your car goes too
    • no need to inflate anything just lay them down and you’re done
    • feel more like sleeping on a standard bed, you can also use standard (your favourite) bed sheets
    • non-slippery (compared to above sleeping pads made out of polyester)
    • cheap
    • thickness selection – depends on your preferred level of comfort. I opted for the 3cm thick ones, but there’s also thicker ones if you prefer that.
  • their disadvantages
    • harder to hide away / store (but being quite durable, you don’t really need to, even when you raise your back seats, these will just stay at the bottom of your boot
    • they take up more room if you put them in storage (when not used in the car, say over winter)
rebonded foam sheets
foam rubber sheet

Of course, you can get any mattress – for example garden furniture ones – but they will be more expensive and unnecessarily thick.

Conclusion: It all depends on your goal

Quick, maybe a one-off solution for a single trip or just a few trips?

If you must, even a car mattress will do, but you’re much better off with the more universal inflatable sleeping pads for camping. Remember – it’s just for sleeping, nothing else, so you’re limiting yourself here.

Or long term solution for serious car camping enthusiasts?

If you’re planning to spend quite a bit of time in the car, sleeping, living, having fun – you will be thankful if you choose rebonded foam sheets or foam rubber and create a more “permanent” nest for yourself. The benefit is that although it will feel more permanent, it is not permanent – you can easily just fold it away and use your car like a normal 5 or 7 seater. These mattresses will feel more like a real bed, with the added benefit of being able to take it anywhere :).

Need some inspiration?

Have a better / alternative solution? Let me know in the comments:

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