Cushioning, warmth, and waterproofing are probably the three main elements to consider when selecting the type of padding beneath you and your bag.
The most rudimentary means of providing a comfortable sleeping surface is to select a soft patch of ground that enables you to create contours for your shoulders and hips. One of my most comfy nights was during a hike over Gunsight Pass in Glacier National Park. We camped at a small lake near the top of the pass. I found a small sandy area, scooped out a shallow depression in just the right spots and created one of the most restful night’s sleep outdoors that I’ve ever experienced.
The only addition to finding that soft ground is to include some type of ground cloth to keep ground moisture away from the bottom of your bag.
Air Mattresses Popular
As a kid, we were lucky if we got an air mattress for sleeping. Of course they never kept air all night long. Today’s quality mattresses are great, especially when properly adjusted, and if the ground is not too cold as the air beneath the mattress is directly affected by the temperature of the ground.
The biggest disadvantage of an air mattress is, of course, a puncture. If you choose this form of sleeping pad, make sure you have a repair kit with some good emergency tape (duct tape or similar).
An offshoot of the classic air mattress is the self-inflating mattress popular with backpackers. They are lightweight and can be rolled into a very compact cylinder, easily attached to backpacks. These pads offer incredible comfort for as thin as they are. Some are cut full length while other are only long enough from head to hips. Still, a puncture renders them useless.
Some Like Foam Pads
The basic alternative to the air mattress is the foam pad. I know many campers, where space and transporting are not issues, who use a rolled up “slab” of foam on which to sleep. These can be purchased either pre-cut or custom-sized, and are available in several “firmness” options.
Their limitation is that they don’t always last a long time and can be prone to absorbing water. Also, imagine how hot they could be in the humidity of summer camping!
Some backpackers prefer the even thinner, but functional closed-cell foam pads. These offer minimal cushioning, but can be surprisingly comfortable, especially if the alternative is the bare, hard ground.
Cots Are Comfortable
Used mostly for summer camping, the raised sleeping platform provided by a camping cot is a popular alternative, especially among older campers. It can be a long way up from the ground after even a good night’s sleep when you awake with stiff bones and muscles. People who tend to camp for long periods of time in one place also prefer the added comfort of a good cot. Usually cots are more easily incorporated into your gear if you have a larger-sized, higher ceiling tent.
The classic Army cot is still a popular choice, as are the aluminum-framed, nylon-covered camp cots. Make sure you buy a cot that will support your weight and length. Too tall campers will agonize over sleeping on a cot where they have to either assume a fetal position, or have the weight of their legs on their anklebones against the end strut on a too-short cot.
Whatever type of padding you prefer, it is still important to pick a cleared, level tent site in the first place. A good site, good sleeping bag, and a comfortable padded “bed” can offer even the Princess and the Pea type of sleeper a great night’s rest.
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