An air mattress is great for the occasional overnight trip or even a weekend, but what you save on storage space you sacrifice on comfort. It’s already hard enough sleeping in an unfamiliar, often cramped, and cold or hot space- why make it even more difficult for yourself?
There are three types of foam mattresses used for car camping. They include open cell foam, closed cell foam, and a hybrid air mattress with open cell foam on top. Each has its advantages and differences including durability, warmth (R-value), size, and convenience. The best foam mattress for car camping depends on the specific vehicle application, as explained in detail in this article.
I’ve done a bunch of car camping myself, and have done a lot of research for an upcoming van build. This article shares everything you need to know for the occasional road trip sleeping in your car or a longer term lifestyle change towards the #vanlife.
Car Camping Foam Mattresses
The easiest thing to do to build a car camping bed is to just buy a mattress topper, either memory foam or poly foam, and throw it in the back of your vehicle. You won’t be incredibly comfortable, but you’ll find your way to sleep eventually.
The best way to make a car camping mattress though, if you want it to be very comfortable, is to layer a few different materials. This is only realistic if you are building a permanent bed though, as it would get tedious to assemble every night.
Features to Consider in Car Camping Foam Mattresses
There’s no perfect thickness for everyone; some like a firm bed and others like a softer bed. Your weight will also affect how much of a mattress you need, since the heavier you are the more foam you will compress.
The density of the foam plays a role as well, so a high density foam mattress can be thinner than a medium density foam mattress and still offer the same comfort.
Car Camping mattresses are usually between 2 and 4 inches thick, and are made from either medium or high density foam, including memory foam.
Foam Mattresses come in three different ‘packages.’ They either fold up, with separate sections linked together, they roll up, like a car camping sleeping bag, or they just come in a big sheet like a mattress topper you’d buy for a bed at home.
You need to consider which type will be best for your setup in your vehicle based on whether or not you can have the bed out permanently or if you will need to put it away after each night.
Folding is nice and quick and easy, but can’t be compressed or adapted to the space easily. Rolling is annoying, but allows you to use straps to compress it and get it out of the way. A big sheet of foam is terrible to haul around, so hopefully you don’t need to move it very often.
Open Cell or Closed Cell or Hybrid
Modern mattress foams come in two different forms- open cell (think memory foam) and closed cell (think a bouldering pad or pool noodle). Each has different applications and advantages that are best utilized in different situations.
Open Cell Foam Mattress
Open Cell foam, like a couch cushion or memory foam mattress topper, is composed of spongey foam that allows air to pass directly through all of the tiny holes in it. It is really soft and molds to any force applied to it. It breathes pretty well, which is a double-edged sword when camping. It’s good for warm nights, but isn’t amazing at insulating you against the cold ground.
Depending on just how thick it is, it can roll up and compress or can be folded. They can get really dirty if exposed to anything, so it’s important to keep them covered with some sort of mattress protector or sheet. Open cell foam is easy to cut or just mash into the space that you have in your car.
Memory Foam is a specific type of open cell foam that is much more dense than your typical polyfoam like what is used in a couch. Memory foam is more expensive, and thus more durable and generally more comfortable.
Polyfoam, or upholstery foam, has a higher compression and usually needs to be thicker to be as comfortable for sleeping as memory foam.
Closed Cell Foam Mattress
On the other hand, a closed cell foam pad is made of tiny, sealed, individual pockets of air. It’s waterproof, and can be easily cleaned if exposed to dirt or other contaminants. A pool noodle or yoga mat is a good example of closed cell foam.
Closed cell foam obviously doesn’t breathe very well since it’s water-tight, but can be a better insulator than open cell that is the same thickness. A closed cell pad has traditionally been the best option for backpacking because of its weight and durability, but today most people use air mattresses to get a little more comfort out of less space.
Hybrid Foam and Air Mattress
If your storage space is limited, like it usually is for car camping, a hybrid foam and air mattress may be your best option. You can just buy an air mattress and add a memory foam topper to it, or you can buy a more expensive air mattress with an integrated foam pad.
I’ve found that the foam really takes the edge off of the hard surface of the air mattress and gives you a more consistent softness all night long. You still get the inherent risks of an air mattress with a slow leak, but at least there’s a little bit of cushion if it fails during the night.
I wouldn’t recommend a hybrid mattress if you plan to live on it in your vehicle because day after day after day you’ll eventually climb into bed with a thorn in your clothing and pop the thing. Most long-term vanlifers use a pure foam mattress instead.
Most mattress or camping pad manufacturers list the “R-Value” on the specs sheet of the product. This value highlights just how good the pad is at insulating you against the surface below you, blocking out some of the cold.
An R-Value of 2 is pretty normal for thin backpacking pads, and is usually adequate for warm nights. For a winter trip you’ll want something more like 5 or higher. Pads can be stacked, which adds their R-Values together.
Related Content: Is Car Camping Legal?
The Best Foam Mattresses for Car Camping
A mattress that is perfect for an SUV probably won’t fit in a car, and a mattress that is perfect for a van probably is too big to haul into a tent and definitely too big to take backpacking. I put together the following list of mattresses to encompass the different types of mattresses you may want based on your vehicle.
Best Roll Up Mattress for Car Camping
A roll up mattress is the classic car camping mattress. There’s usually a combination of different foams that provide a supportive, yet soft pad. The cover is removable so it can be easily cleaned when necessary, and it can double as a spare mattress at home for guests to come over.
The Willpo Memory Foam Mattress (view price on Amazon) is the best option for this style of pad with a waterproof bottom and combination of memory foam and high density foam base. Its 2.5″ thickness is great for stomach and back sleepers, but is probably not enough for heavier side-sleepers.
The R-Value is 9.8, which is pretty impressive and definitely will do enough to keep you warm on cold winter nights. It’s a great option for 4 seasons.
You can get a little bit of compression when you roll it up, but this is still a pretty big pad that will take up significant space in your trunk. It’ll be worth it at 2 in the morning though!
Best Hybrid Mattress for Car Camping
As mentioned above, a hybrid mattress is generally the best option for someone who isn’t living in their car for long periods of time. For short trips, an inflatable mattress is great because it stows down so small when not in use. Unless you’ve got the space for your camping pad to remain out all the time, this is your best bet to maximize the cramped space in your car.
The Lightspeed Outdoors XL pad (view price on Amazon) is an excellent ‘hybrid’ mattress that has a good foam base to go along with the inflatable 4 inches of comfort. While it does inflate, you don’t need a pump to do so. The camping pad self inflates 90% of the way and then you just have to add a few breaths to top it off to your desired firmness.
The R-value is 6.3, so it’s still a great option for 4 season camping and does a good job insulating. It’s too heavy for backpacking, but would fit great in the back of a car and compresses really small for a mattress with foam in it.
Best Fold Up Car Camping Mattress
Fold Up car camping mattresses are also good for double-duty and can be used at home as extra mattresses for a guest bedroom. They’re still bigger than a roll up mattress and don’t compress at all though, so make sure you’ve got the space.
With fold up mattresses the foam tends to be a little more rigid so they don’t quite squish into as tight of spaces in your trunk like a roll up mattress.
The Cushy Form Floor Mattress (view price on Amazon) is well-loved by vanlifers and car campers alike, largely due to its price point that is a lot lower than anything else this thick. It comes with a removable cover that protects the open cell foam from dirt too.
This particular mattress also comes with a storage bag that will protect it when not in use and make it a little easier to carry. It’s 4″ thick, which is enough for side-sleepers around 150lbs or less.
For heavier campers, or campers that like an even softer bed, this 6″ thick folding mattress from Milliard (view price on Amazon) is a more premium option. It’s pricier than the 4″ thick one, but you’ll definitely sleep better if you’re heavier.
Best Foam Mattress for Car Camping that Can be Used for Backpacking
None of the previous options would work well at all for backpacking (see: Camping versus Backpacking), which is just fine if you intend to always stick close to your car. They’re just too heavy and too bulky to reasonably be carried along with all of your other gear.
Growing up I used a closed cell 1/2″ pad that was army surplus. It was more than 20 years old, and honestly wasn’t 1/2″ thick anymore. On the other hand, I had no fear it would get dirty or damaged. We’d often double them up with a thin air pad too, using the army pad on the ground to keep the air pad safe.
This Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Camping Pad (view on Amazon) can be used in your car, for car camping, or on any length of backpacking trip. It’s bigger than an air mattress, but there’s no concern for it getting a hole and leaving you flat on the ground on a cold night.
The peaks of the closed cell foam are about 3/4″ tall so you’re pretty much limited to sleeping on your stomach or back. These pads can be doubled up just fine, or supplemented with an air pad or another foam pad if desired.
The R-Value is really low- 2.0, so you need a really good sleeping bag if you want to use them in any season but the summer. You probably aren’t going to want to sleep on one of these through an entire summer out of the back of your vehicle (though thru-hikers do use these because of their low weight), but these thin foam mattresses work great for a weekend car camping in the summer.
The Best Foam Mattress for #Vanlife
If you’re going to be sleeping in your vehicle long-term, you need to get the sleeping situation right. An air mattress is risky, and a full-on spring mattress only comes in certain sizes and can be a lot heavier than you want.
Most vanlifers use a combination of two different pads in order to get the best level of comfort. The base layer, up against the platform, is usually some type of closed cell foam pad. The simplest option is to get the foam anti-fatigue ‘puzzle squares’ that are about half an inch thick. They can easily be trimmed to your space, and ensure you won’t feel the wood underneath.
On top of the closed cell foam you put your memory foam mattress. These are usually 4-6″ thick depending on personal preference. Make sure to measure the height from the ceiling coming down, as you probably want to be able to sit up in bed at least.
The Linenspa Gel Memory Foam Mattress (view price on Amazon) is a popular one among van campers. It can be trimmed to size to fit your space, and comes with a cover. Gel Memory Foam doesn’t heat up like regular memory foam, so it can help you stay cooler on hot summer nights. At 5 inches thick, you can always add a simple mattress topper if it isn’t soft enough for your needs.
Why a Foam Mattress is Best for Car Camping
If you can afford the space in your vehicle, a foam mattress is going to be much more comfortable than an air mattress. They are much more durable than an air mattress and can be adapted to the specific space of your vehicle.
Unless you are building out a van with a specific bed space though, you’re probably going to need to conserve space. This is why air mattresses are so nice to have. The best mattress for you in this case is probably a hybrid foam and air mattress.
Foam Mattress vs Air Mattress for Car Camping
One summer my wife and I moved to Illinois for an internship and rented an unfurnished apartment. Rather than pay to move all of our secondhand furniture out there and back we just decided to try a big air mattress and cardboard box furniture. Desperate times!
We slept on a big queen-size air mattress for 3 months and, while it wasn’t terrible, it sure was nice to get home to a real bed at the end of the summer. Air mattresses have their place- like when you’re on a tight budget or need to fit everything into your Honda Civic for cross-country road trip.
One of the worst things about an air mattress, in my experience, is when you inflate it with warm air from your lungs to the perfect hardness, but then during the middle of the night the air cools down enough that it gets too soft. You can try to overinflate it at the beginning of the night, but it’s hard to get it just right depending on the temperature inside your car.
I have a nice pad for backpacking that has a combination of air and foam, which makes it a lot more comfortable. The foam is nice to break the hardness of the vinyl material. One option if you do go with an air mattress is to buy a cheap 1.5″ foam mattress topper to put on top of it. Obviously that erases a lot of the benefit of the air mattress in terms of space.
The biggest benefit to air mattresses is the space they save. Many small backpacking pads now compress to the size of a water bottle or rolled up towel. The tall queen-size air mattress we slept on for a summer is the size of a suitcase, and that’s with the integrated pump.
If you’re car camping then you obviously have a lot more space than if you’re backpacking (see Camping vs. Backpacking), but you still are limited by what you can bring with you by what fits in your pack and how much it weighs.
This on is a toss up between foam mattresses and airbeds, which may be a surprise. The density of the foam pad, as well as the thickness, really affects how much it weighs. They range anywhere from a few pounds to twenty pounds or more.
Air mattresses are the same way. A mattress designed with the right materials can weigh as little as 2 pounds, but the bigger heavy vinyl ones with integrated pumps can get up to 15 pounds or more. If you’re car camping though the weight is pretty negligible since your vehicle will be doing the heavy lifting for you!
Good Camping pads all reference the R-Value, or the pad’s ability to prevent heat loss. Air mattresses have a lower R-value than foam mattresses, which have a lower R-value than regular mattresses. It kind of comes down to how much ‘stuff’ is in between you and the cold, cold ground.
Some air mattresses have multiple chambers, which is a nice feature if one goes flat or when you’re setting up in the back of your car and the space isn’t adequate. If the air mattress is just one big twin or queen though and doesn’t fit perfectly in your car though, it can be really annoying.
A foam mattress can be doubled over, can be cut to size or shape, or you can just run the mattress up the side of the car if there’s extra space. It doesn’t get harder or softer depending on the air temperature or space it’s shoved into either.
You know the feeling- you go to bed riding high on your bouncy castle airbed, but then around 1 AM you wake up flat on the floor with a knot in your back. You know you aren’t going to find and patch the hole tonight, so is it even worth reinflating it? You spend the rest of the night lying there cursing your luck and the stupid airbed.
Foam mattresses definitely wear out over time, especially if they’re folded and rolled up tight or slept on every night. But at least you get a warning- with an air mattress you often inflate it, everything looks good, and then you find out just how wrong you were during the darkest, coldest part of the night.
All it takes is a weak seam or a tiny poke and your night is ruined. They can often be patched, but only if you can find the hole and if it’s in an area where a patch will seal and hold. If you’re sleeping in your car it can be hard to find space to lay it out and find the hole.
Is Memory Foam Good for Car Camping? Most car camping setups that use foam mattresses instead of air mattresses do include memory foam. Memory foam is nice and soft, and more durable than many other open cell foams, especially with a cover on it. Memory foam is often paired with a base of closed cell foam like a traditional camping pad in order to increase the R-Value (warmth).
Are Foam Mattresses Good for Camping? Foam mattresses are the best choice for camping when space isn’t an issue because they cannot deflate during the night and can more easily be adapted to your specific camping space. They are often cheaper than air mattresses as well, and there’s no risk of them deflating overnight. The only downside is that they take up a lot of space.
How Thick Should a Camping Mattress be? Depending on the material, a camping mattress should be between 2 and 5 inches thick, but can be less in warmer weather for back-sleepers. With backpacking, the limit is the weight. For car camping however, a thick pad generally just takes up more space so if you have the space, go with a mattress that is at least 3 inches thick.