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Don’t Compromise on Your Camp Mattress

Your body will thank you

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After nearly eight years of covering gear for Outside, I have learned to be flexible when making recommendations. When someone comes at me with a hard line on the correct flex point of a ski boot, or on the superiority of backpacking with an ultralight kit, I respond with a diplomatic de gustibus non est disputandum—basically, there’s no accounting for taste. While it’s fair to take preferences, needs, and budget into account with most gear suggestions, there is one genre in which I will hold firm: you should really invest in a comfortable camp pad.

I have come to this strict rule after sleeping hundreds of nights out of doors since 2000, when I showed up to my first summer as a raft guide without a mattress to sleep on. The decision was one part necessity and one part bravado: I traveled on a Greyhound Bus to the gig and wanted to pack light, and I thought that sleeping in a cheap sleeping bag in the dirt would prove my mettle to the older guides (i.e. my heroes).

Both on the river and at our base camp, my spartan accommodations went unnoticed for weeks. No one cared how much I suffered amidst what turned out to be, surprisingly, a culture of cozy sleeping arrangements. Two sets of entrenched guides went in on thrift store futons for base camp at the beginning of the season, which turned into a race to create the most comfortable beds possible on $50-$75 a day wages.

Weeks into getting eaten by spiders and waking up with chalky hair every morning, Crazy Davy, a class-V guide three years my senior, noticed that I was sleeping in the dirt. “Dude, sleep on my bed, it’s a queen,” he said. I was thrilled. Davy’s bed was an old air mattress his dad had discarded. It was rarely more than 75 percent inflated, and any movement was easily sensed on the other side of the mattress. Davy’s constant movement served him well as a boater and guide, but it did not stop at night. I moved back to the dirt after a week.

I moved from the dirt to a cheap, self-inflating Therm-a-Rest knock off on the river and flea-ridden Goodwill futon at base camp the next summer. The combo lasted me over a decade until I scored a Paco Pad—a cartoonishly large, heavily cushioned piece of foam encased in raft material so it’s waterproof and lasts forever, that’s a staple of the veteran river guide’s kit—for an 18-day Grand Canyon rafting trip. Fortunately, my now wife, Sarah, didn’t meet me until the early Paco Pad years. Unfortunately, we only had the one fancy mattress between the two of us, and chivalry compelled me to claim her old backpacking Therm-a-Rest, a solid inch and a half below her perch on the luxurious Paco Pad. I was basically back in the dirt.

Since then, we’ve really stepped up our game. Nine years later, Sarah and I now sleep on an REI Kingdom Insulated Sleep System, and sometimes our daughter Jojo crawls in with us as well. It is incredibly easy to set up thanks to an efficient pump, can be inflated to a rigid state that is kind to my 38-year-old back, and holds air well enough that I don’t need to top it off even on a four-night camping trip. The integrated sheet and comforter mean we don’t even need to stress about bringing sleeping bags or bedding—the whole thing comes in one tidy, albeit large, package to throw in the back of the truck. When coupled with our Easy Breather Pillows, the setup is just a hair less comfortable than our bed at home.

At $300, the Kingdom System is quite pricey, but our usage has made it a worthwhile investment. Since we got it in May of 2019, I conservatively estimate we’ve spent 30 nights sleeping on it. That works out to about $5 a night per person, and that per-use price will drop even more this summer.

Every night of sleep on this mattress has been comfortable, and every good night of rest on it has made the next day’s activities better. I find it fascinating when friends scoff at a $300 price tag for a mattress that they will spend hundreds of hours sleeping on, but won’t flinch at thousands of dollars for a ski kit that will see dozens of hours of use in a good season. Don’t get me wrong: good skis are a solid investment. I just suggest also placing a high value on getting a good night’s rest. Unless you like to be miserable—in which case I will not dispute your taste.

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