Camping Pad vs Cot: Best for Sleeping

Sleeping bag and other camping gear outdoors

Are you looking to get into camping or backpacking? You are probably wondering how to get the most out of your outdoor adventure. Get off to the right start by first picking what you’re going to use to sleep on your outing!

Camping pads are better than camping cots for those who favor versatility and portability, such as backpackers, and cots are better for those who want comfort above all else, such as car campers. The best option, however, is to use both in conjunction with each other.

If you want to know the nitty-gritty of using a camping pad or a cot (or both), then read on! There are a lot of little nuances to consider.

Benefits of Using a Camping Sleeping Pad

One of the biggest benefits provided by using a sleeping pad is comfort. Sleeping pads provide support to those sleeping on them. They also help to greatly increase comfort by protecting you from the cold ground at night while you sleep. Some sleeping pads are even good enough to help decrease irritation caused by small rocks or sticks on the ground that you would feel were you to sleep with only a sleeping bag.

Sleeping pads are also among the easiest to pack pieces of camping gear out there, with the simplest requiring only a quick rolling up or for you to unscrew a little cap and let them deflate. They are also very light, making them an excellent choice for backpackers and light campers.

Their typical small size also lets them fit into a wide variety of tents, making them very versatile. Sleeping pads are also good for virtually any kind of sleeper, side, back, or stomach, especially considering the wide variety of thicknesses and levels of firmness available. There is a type of sleeping pad out there for everyone! Finally, sleeping pads are also pretty versatile in that you can combine them or purchase a wider one in order to accommodate a second person.

Drawbacks of Sleeping Pads

While sleeping pads are almost always a million times better than nothing, there are some drawbacks to them. Some sleeping pads may be uncomfortable during the summer due to storing heat within them and keeping it right next to you.

Other sleeping pads are so thin that you will still feel the rocks, sticks, and bumps of the ground below you, making your night’s sleep a lot less comfortable. In addition, you are still vulnerable to getting wet if your tent floods or if there is a ton of moisture in the air where you are sleeping.

Benefits of Using a Cot

The benefits of using a cot are numerous and may be more nuanced than one would expect at first. Some of these benefits include:

  • You are elevated off of the ground. This is especially nice for several reasons. If your tent ends up getting flooded, your cot will still be dry. You also receive the benefit of being much warmer compared to being on the ground. The air will suck out a lot less heat from you than the cold ground will, and you will be all the cozier for it.
  • Greater ease of access. It is very easy to get up and out of a cot and lay down in one. If you have a bad back or simply have a lot of gear to put on when you get up in the morning, cots can make the process of getting up much easier. Sleeping pads laying on the ground require a great deal more effort in this department.
  • Storage Space. If you have a somewhat tall tent, which you likely would want to be the case if you are using a cot anyways, then you can maximize your horizontal space with a cot! The space underneath your cot is a great place to put bags, clothes, and other gear when it is not in use during your camping adventure. This keeps it from cluttering up the floor, which can make getting up during the night and leaving the tent without tripping on something difficult.
  • Greater comfort. Because cots are up off of the ground and are uniform, they make camping on the uneven ground something which is no longer painful. No bumps or small rocks will bother you.

Drawbacks of Using a Cot

Inside a large tourist tent with furnishings

One of the biggest drawbacks involved with using a cot is the amount of space it takes up, as well as the sometimes large weight of carrying one. If you are car camping, bringing one is likely no issue at all, since you will be setting up right next to where you have parked your car.

If you are backpacking or backwoods camping, every pound you bring matters, as you likely want to carry as little weight as possible in order to allow you to safely and efficiently travel. Cots, with their bulky metal frames, are generally not conducive to this.

They also don’t fit into most backpacking tents due to their inflexibility and large size. There are some ultra-lite cots, but they will always be at least somewhat heavier than the lightest of their camping pad counterparts. They also tend to run on the expensive side. This all being said, for some people the extra weight is worth it for the comfort a cot can bring.

One of the other drawbacks of using a cot is that if you are particularly large or heavy and you are sleeping on a small cot, the sides of the cot may press up against you while sleeping. Some people just don’t like the feeling in general, making just a cot a bad option for them automatically.

Other people think some cot styles are a bother to set up. Some side sleepers may also be less than comfortable on a cot. There are also relatively few cots that allow for two or more people to sleep comfortably on them. These are some of the biggest things to consider when weighing your camping sleep options.

Which One is Better?

If you are only going to buy or use one type of camping sleeping aid, then your choice will likely end up depending on the type of camping that you are planning to do! This is especially true considering that prices for either option vary so much that you really just get what you pay for with each one. There is no clear price winner.

Sleeping pads are best for those looking to pack light, for those wanting to go back-country camping, or backpacking, or for those who favor ease of setting up and taking down their campsite (such as those going on day trips who just want a place to take a nap).

Cots are better for those who plan on car camping or camping just outside of their RV. They can also be quite great for longer hunting trips or camping trips that entail staying in one place for more than a couple of days. With all this being said, though, there is another option that is even better than just using a camping pad or just using a cot.

The Best of Both Worlds

The best option regarding camping pads and cots is to use a combination of both: a camping pad on top of a cot. This will give you all the benefits of being elevated from the ground, such as being protected against the cold ground and avoiding discomfort from bumps and rocks, plus all the additional benefits of having a pad, including even more protection against the cold.

This combination can also help side sleepers avoid some of the discomfort associated with sleeping on a cot, speaking from experience. There really is no better camping sleeping option than this, with the only exception maybe being a nice air mattress, which is a whole different matter entirely.

Different Types of Camping Pads


Air camping pads are pretty comfy, and the barrier of air they create between you and the ground makes them very good for protection against the cold. They can feel like they are deflating during the night, though, and thus get less comfy over the course of the night, so make sure they are properly inflated before going to sleep. You don’t want to wake up on a flat mattress with a sore back!

Also note that air mattresses can grow mold inside of them from the moisture in your breath, so be mindful to dry them out properly after use. These are a good option if you don’t have a cot to go with them, though they can also be great with one. One thing to know about this kind too is that they can make annoying crinkly sounds while you sleep, so be aware of this when purchasing one. In general, if you are backpacking, this is the type of sleeping pad you will want to get.

Closed-cell foam

Closed-cell foam camping pads are the simplest kind and require no setup at all besides rolling them out. That being said, they also tend to have the lowest resistance to cold out of the different types and can tend to be mediocre on the comfort side (I feel like these are the least forgiving when there are irregularities on the ground).

Some are more comfortable than others though, and if you are a stomach sleeper they can be especially nice due to their relative firmness. For general comfort, I would highly recommend a memory foam pad, as these can be heavenly, especially in combination with a cot. This kind also tends to be the cheapest, with some options being around $5 or less.

Self Inflating

Self-inflating mattresses are an excellent option in terms of both convenience and comfort. They also rank among the best options in terms of protecting against the cold. They can be somewhat heavier than just plain air mattresses though, so keep that in mind if you are intending to be an ultra-lite backpacker. Some have the option to either self-inflate or to be manually inflated, and these thus need to be properly dried if you opt for the latter option.

My favorite sleeping pad was a hybrid one that you could inflate by pumping it up with just your hands, and it was incredibly good for winter camping. These kinds of camping pads do tend to be the priciest out of the three I’ve listed, and be aware that the more comfortable they are, the more you’ll probably end up shelling out for them. The lighter self-inflating pads are still a great choice for backpackers, but some can get pretty heavy, so check the weight when looking to obtain one if you are not just car camping. (Source)

Sleeping bag and camping mat on mountain peak, space for text

Other Options


Hammocks are a great choice for camping during warmer months, given how breezy they are. If it’s a little colder outside, hammocks can be improved in terms of warmth with the addition of an under-quilt. Certain types of hammocks are a sort of hammock-sleeping bag combo that is incredibly warm.

Some people prefer hammocks more than others, so make sure to pick one only if you like the sort of hanging feeling that they come with. Also, you’re probably out of luck if you’re going desert camping, cause most hammocks require trees.

Air Mattresses

Air mattresses are the kings of camping comfort. They are also the heaviest and most inconvenient to set up out of all the camping sleeping options available, as well as the most expensive. They really can’t be beaten in the coziness department though.

Whichever option you end up choosing, make sure that you set up your tent on level ground! There’s almost nothing more uncomfortable than sleeping slightly upside down. Make sure too that you are not in an area that would flood when it rains because it is a terrible thing to wake up in a puddle of water.

Yet another thing that is very important to know: at colder temperatures, a sleeping bag is an absolute must in addition to at least a camping pad or a cot. One without the other will not keep you very warm. Most of all, remember that the best choice when it comes to getting good sleeping comes down to you: it’s your preferences that make all the difference!

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