How to choose a self-inflating mattress

By: David Cook, Photography by: David Cook

With a self-inflating mattress, pulling up stumps requires nothing but a quick unfurl. Here’s the low down on laying low.

How to choose a self-inflating mattress
When purchasing look for mattresses with sturdy well-made seams and rounded corners, which are less likely to develop leaks compared to those with sharper angled corners

A good night’s sleep is vital, even at camp, as that usually involves driving long distances, hiking tracks, breasting the surf or simply sitting around the campfire sipping a good red. Therefore, your choice of mattress is important.

For those of us who stay close to base camp, choosing a mattress that sits above the ground in our camper is a relatively simple affair. However, if you’re partial to unleashing the fourbie, amiable enough to attract overnight guests, willing and able to hike overnight, or have older kids who’ve flown the tent, finding a comfortable portable mattress close to the ground is important.

Self-inflating mattresses vs airbeds

Hikers have long crowed the benefits of good self-inflating mattresses, as we less educated campers relentlessly huff and puff on our airbeds only to be sorely let down in the middle of the night.

It seems counter-intuitive that a little strip of foam, in some cases barely an inch thick, could out-comfort four or five inches of well-inflated air mattress. But airbeds can leak and you have to inflate them — a tough ask if all you have is your own lungs.

Self-inflating mattresses roll up to small packages, inflate themselves — as the name indicates — and, believe it or not, are surprisingly comfortable.

There are two basic types of self-inflating mattress: the bonded and the 4WD or non-bonded.

Bonded self-inflating mattresses

Essentially, a bonded self-inflating mattress has a foam rubber layer glued to and encased in an air-proof and waterproof polyester container, sealed with valve caps. Rolling the mattress up tight, with the valve cap or caps removed (let’s say caps for the sake of ease) expels the air and leaves you with a small, light package. Replace the valve caps and the package stays small for transport.

To operate, simply remove the valve caps, roll out the mattress and leave it while you get on with other things. Over a period of time (30 minutes to an hour, maximum) the foam rubber will return to shape, drawing in air to effectively inflate itself. You replace the valve caps and voila, you have a self-inflated mattress.

4WD or non-bonded self-inflating mattresses

The 4WD type or non-bonded mattress is actually a series of loose rubber pieces within the outer container. It’s much bulkier and but is also much cheaper. It inflates to a much thicker package, too, around 80-100mm.

There are a few other details that require attention, but that’s about it. Self-inflating mattresses are simple and effective. And they are surprisingly comfortable, as well, despite being as thin as 20mm.

A good self-inflating mattress should shield you from small ground imperfections, as well as providing support for major body protrusions such as the hips, shoulders, knees, arms and so on. As they aren’t stretched tight like the outer skin of an airbed they are more puncture resistant, and are less likely to bounce your partner off when you roll over. Most punctures are easily repairable.

The importance of insulation

One of the most important factors with any bedding used on the ground is its thermal insulation. At night, ground temperatures drop and, without insulation, heat is drawn from the body, leading to uncomfortable and disrupted sleep.

Unfortunately, airbeds quickly adopt the ground temperature and bedding, including sleeping bags, rarely help. A self-inflating mattress is quite a good insulator. The nature of the foam core prevents the loss of temperature from the air cells inside.


Although the mattresses are self-inflating, comfort is a personal thing and not everyone likes them the same. The mattresses are adjustable to a point, depending on who you ask.

Some manufacturers warn that adding air to a mattress can cause the inner container to separate from the foam resulting in failure. Others say that three to five breaths of extra air won’t present a problem at all. Therefore, if you prefer a firm mattress, it’s best to first check with the manufacturer.

If you prefer a bit of give, start with maximum inflation. Lie on the mattress and open one valve slightly, slowly releasing the air until it feels comfortable, close the cap and you’re done.

What to look for

When purchasing look for mattresses with sturdy well-made seams and rounded corners, which are less likely to develop leaks compared to those with sharper angled corners.

Also look for a mattress that is more difficult to roll up. While this means extra work, it also means the foam inside is of a higher grade, tougher and less likely to lose its structure and fail to support your weight.

Size also matters. Many self-inflating mattresses are made for hikers, so they’re often small, to say the least. For comfort and insulation, it’s better to choose a mattress that’s long and wide enough to separate you entirely from the ground with room to move in your sleep. Self-inflating mattresses are available in single, king-single, queen and king sizes, as well as longer and shorter size and varying thicknesses so choose which suits your needs.

As for price, this is something only you can assess, but with self-inflating mattresses it is pretty much a case of you get what you pay for. Spending a bit more will ensure you get good quality foam and appropriate anti-fungal treatment with a few extra niceties to boot for a good night’s sleep.


There are a few dos and don’ts with self-inflating mattresses. Carry bags specially made for self-inflating mattresses prevent abrasion during transport. Avoid using high pressure pumps to speed up inflation as this can damage the interior. You may be able to add five to 10 breaths to hasten inflation but its best to first ask the manufacturer. Be sure to close the valves and roll up the mattress to move the air to the far end and reopen the valves.

Rest the mattress on a ground sheet or tent base so it’s out of contact with sharp objects on the ground and keep the surface free from DEET-based insecticides, sunscreen or chlorine as these chemicals cause delamination.

Covering your mattress with a sheet or sleeping bag as you sleep will keep the surface free from sweat and oil. If you do get sweat or oils on the mattress, wash with a sponge and warm water or, at the harshest, with a mild detergent.

It is best to store the mattress flat and unrolled with all the valve caps off to allow moisture to escape and the foam cells return to shape (this speeds up the inflation process when setting up camp). A good spot is under a bed or on top of a cupboard.

Do not store damp or wet otherwise mildew or mould can become a problem.

Finally, keep the valves free of dirt or rubbish and don’t over tighten plastic caps. If a valve seems to be leaking undo it completely and then retighten, to ensure you haven’t cross-threaded the cap.

Keep the mattress out of full sunlight for extended periods otherwise UV can shorten its life.


A former camping gear salesman revealed his trade secret for assessing self-inflating mattresses: throw a bunch of keys on the floor, place the mattress on top and invite potential customers to lie on it to see if they were comfortable. We thought this was an excellent test.

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Check out the full feature in issue #87 April 2015 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.