CAMPING - BUYING ADVICE
It’s vital to have quality sleep when you’re camping and the key to that is selecting the right mattress. We’ve checked out several types over the years to help your purchase decision.
Obviously, there are many factors involved in ensuring quality sleep: safe camping sites that aren’t noisy; sensible deriving schedules that don’t promote exhaustion and not too much of the campfire over-indulgence!
However, the importance of a comfortable mattress should not be ignored. Our testing of various types of mattresses over many years has shown that some types work better than others, but the common factor is mattress quality.
In the early days of our Australian outback adventures there were no camper trailers or slide-ons – just a swag or tent. On some long driving days we’d opt for a mid-drive nap, putting a pillow on the steering wheel and resting on that – the modern equivalent of Queen Victoria’s London slums, where the poor could pay a farthing to sleep leaning on a rope! On solo drives, we’d squeeze a bed roll across the seats.
Overnight camps were comfortable enough, but the early swags had pretty rudimentary mattresses and quality sleep wasn’t guaranteed. Foam mattresses we threw on tent floors were a bit thicker, but also pretty basic.
Sleeping away from home is often demanding enough, but most people have found that motel beds or even guest beds at friends’ or relos’ houses don’t match what they’re used to at home. Experiences we’ve had with different camping mattresses are the same: some good; some not so good.
Camper mattress types
The most common camper mattresses are steel innerspring and foam types, but within that broad definition is a host of differences. For example, a hybrid mattress combines foam and innerspring construction.
Innerspring mattresses use steel coil springs that are connected together and to steel upper and lower frames, or are located in separate fabric ‘pockets’.
‘Foam’ is a generic description, but there are two major types: plastic foam and latex foam. The latter is rubber-based and is much more expensive.
Our testing of plain polyurethane foam and latex mattresses has shown that the latex type is much more comfortable over a long period than single-density foam that compresses in higher pressure areas – under shoulders and hips – and can become unsupportive in a very short time.
We’ve heard of latex mattresses lasting several decades without deforming very much.
A third type of foam is ‘memory foam’ that consists mainly of polyurethane with additional chemicals that increase its viscosity and density. It’s also known as viscoelastic polyurethane foam, or low-resilience polyurethane foam.
Memory foam cells are open, allowing air to be displaced and that’s why this type of foam conforms to your body shape. Memory foam is most commonly used these days as a ‘mattress topper’ – a layer that sits on top of a foam or innerspring mattress. It can be incorporated in the mattress layers, or supplied as a separate comfort layer.
The Flexima hybrid foam/spring mattress was originally designed for marine use and is different again, using polyurethane foam in conjunction with plastic, elliptic springs in pockets throughout the foam structure. Both the foam density and the spring tension are offered in varying comfort levels.
A feature of this design is that the individual springs can be ‘stacked’ in custom arrangements, to supply or reduce support in different areas of the mattress. Because the concept is so different, we bought and are trialling one of these throughout 2023/24.
We’ve bought and used five different brands of these foam-filled mattresses over the past 25 years. We didn’t think they’d be suitable for regular use – even the best brands state that they’re not designed for daily use – but we did think they’d be OK for a few years’ camping.
(We’re not talking about cheap, simple plastic blow-up mattresses that come with a foot pump. These are strictly for very limited use and are extremely cold and uncomfortable – they’re what you provide for house guests you’d like to get rid of!)
The principle of self-inflaters is simple: the polyurethane foam structure has air channels that fill naturally when the end valves are opened. When the mattress has filled with ambient pressure air, or slightly pressurised air for a firmer feel, the valves are screwed tight.
The combination of air and foam provides relatively normal mattress support.
Unfortunately, our experience with all self-inflating mattresses is that they eventually develop slow leaks that are almost impossible to detect and repair. Yes, we taped up the valves and used the soapy water, tyre-leak detection method, as well as dunking them in a swimming pool and looking for air bubbles. We also applied sealing adhesive around the seams – to no avail.
When the air pressure drops, you’re relying on only the relatively thin layer of foam to support your weight and waking up with a sore hip or shoulder is often the result.
Ours now work just fine as kids’ beds for overnight stays at home, because even when ‘flat’ the foam is adequate to support kids’ weights.
Getting the right bed
There’s no substitute for the ‘try before you buy’ process when it comes to mattress selection. If you’ve been happy with the original mattress, then replace it with one the same: otherwise check out the available options.
Some suppliers offer a custom-size service, because there are common camper mattress sizes – mainly queen and double – but no industry standard. Obviously, if you need a mattress with individual shaping, it’s probably best filled by an all-foam unit that can be custom-cut incorporating virtually any angle or curve.
The alternative to a single mattress is a zip-together pair that make up a queen size. Blokes normally choose a firmer mattress than their spouses, so having a zip-together pair – one firm; one softer – makes it easy to have camping comfort for both parties.
As important as mattress comfort is mattress hygiene. The best mattresses have removable covers that can be washed regularly.
Condensation can occur in any space with moist air and temperature variation. Humans breathe out water vapour, so a camper is a walk-up start for water droplets to form on cold surfaces. Damp areas can quickly turn mouldy and that’s a health risk.
The cover and the core of the mattress need to have adequate fresh air circulation, to prevent mould developing. The same goes for the bed base that should have ventilation holes, or a dedicated mesh-style barrier between the bed base and the mattress, to encourage air circulation.
If possible, buy the best mattress you can find and don’t buy solely on price. Our testing has shown that the best quality mattress is a more important consideration than the type of mattress.
For a double or queen size the haggling should start around at least a grand and may be up to three or four times that figure.