2 VAUDE tents pitched on a meadow surrounded by trees. In the foreground, a pump bag is used to fill a camping mat with air.
2 VAUDE tents pitched on a meadow surrounded by trees. In the foreground, a pump bag is used to fill a camping mat with air.

Camping Mats for Bikepacking: "You made your bed, now lie in it"

A light and compact camping mat is indispensable for bikepacking. An overview of common technologies and tips on what you need for tours.

As the saying goes, "You made your bed, now lie in it". This is especially true for your bikepacking adventure. On the one hand, your sleeping mat should be as light and small as possible so that you don't end up with excess baggage. On the other hand, good sleep is crucial for regeneration and fun while biking, especially on longer tours. Our buying guide shows you what you should look out for when choosing a camping mat.

Christian from bc throws a pump bag to his colleague. There are two camping mats, one of which is already filled with air.
Christian from the bc Service Team packs up his camping mat. In the foreground is his tent, in the background is his bicycle.

Quick to inflate and a small pack size: sleeping mats are your flexible bed for on the go.

Christian from the bc Service Team packs up his camping mat. In the foreground is his tent, in the background is his bicycle.
Christian from the bc Service Team packs up his camping mat. In the foreground is his tent, in the background is his bicycle.

Find out here what is important when choosing a camping mat for your bikepacking trip.

Why Have a Camping Mat?

A camping mat – also called a sleeping pad or air mattress – fulfils two essential functions: the first being comfort, the second insulation. You should pay attention to both factors when buying, because nothing can put a damper on a tour or your performance in a race like poor sleep. The camping mat is just as important a part of your equipment as the sleeping bag or the tent.

Comfort

Whether it's foam or air, a good mat ensures that you don't feel the effects of uneven surfaces across your body. This is particularly crucial in the forest or on rocky ground.

Insulation

A common misconception is that insulating materials are warming. They can’t, because they would have to convert energy to do that. Instead, they prevent your body heat from escaping into the environment or the ambient/cold ground temperature "creeping" into your body by providing a stable air cushion. In short, they trap heat. This is particularly important for sleeping mats, because your sleeping bag can no longer insulate properly if its insulating fibres are compressed by your body weight, i.e. if you "flatten" them (read more about this in our buying guide on sleeping bags). The best sleeping bag in the world is of little use without the right mat.

Tip: Understanding that it is not the wool, down or synthetic fibre that keeps you warm, but an air cushion in the fibres that insulates you, which also helps with clothing. When layering clothing, always make sure that there is enough air between each layer, and don't choose a too-tight outer layer for cold tours!

Foam, Self-Inflating or Air Chamber Mats: Design Principles

Simple camping mats are made entirely of foam (usually EVA, ethylene-vinyl acetate copolymer or PE, polyethylene). This makes them very durable and inexpensive, but they cannot compete with the more expensive self-inflating or air chamber mats that we recommend for bikepacking in terms of pack size, weight and insulation. However, EVA mats are a great addition as a secondary mat in extremely cold temperatures, as protection from thorns or as a seat cushion for your campsite.

Self-Inflating Mats

Probably the best-known design in the world of camping mats, its name is actually misleading. In fact, the mats do not actively inflate themselves, but use the law of physics to make your life easier: pressure equalisation. Self-inflating mats have a foam core with air channels that are filled or deflated via a valve. If you roll up your self-inflating camping mat with the valve open (see "Handling and Care Tips"), you compress the foam and squeeze out the air. If you then close the valve, you end up with a relatively small package. When you open it again, the foam core expands and air flows in until the pressure is equalised without you having to do anything. For optimal firmness, we still recommend that you add a little air through the open valve. Self-inflating mats are robust all-rounders with a very good ratio of price to performance, but they cannot quite compete with specialised air chamber mats in terms of pack size and weight or in the ratio of thermal performance to weight and volume. This is especially true if you are looking for a very thick (strong) mat for cold temperatures or uneven ground. However, they are usually very quiet, which is important if you aren’t the only occupant in your tent. In the event of damage, self-inflating mats also offer some residual comfort due to their foam core, even if they can no longer hold air.

Air Chamber Mats

Air chamber mats (also called thermal mats), are similar to the classic air mattress for home use; they are just equipped with much more high-tech. The core feature is interconnected air chambers that you actively fill with a so-called pump sack. As with high-quality down sleeping bags, the chambers are constructed in such a way that leaves no cold gaps at the seams of the individual chambers. For designs that are especially suited for cold temperatures, additional insulation materials are added to the chambers, such as Primaloft, the synthetic fibre used in high-quality sleeping bags. Heat-reflecting layers are also integrated. If you take out the foam, you can get light, warm and even thick mats that take up hardly any more space than a standard drink bottle. This makes them ideal for bikepacking with sporty gravel or mountain bikes, where pack size is often more decisive than weight. Caution is only advised with sharp objects. If you go without a tent and its protective floor and sleep in a bivy sack, we recommend an underlay for your air chamber mat.

Tip: Air chamber mats were long considered very noisy. Mats with Primaloft or similar stuffing make this no longer the case. The strong stuffing material not only provides heat insulation, but also noise insulation.

Svenja from bc Product Management compares a self-inflating camping mat with an air chamber mat.
Svenja from bc Product Management compares a self-inflating camping mat with an air chamber mat.

Tents with a small pack size are easy to stow. You can use the extra space for other things, or you can spare an additional bag on your bike. © bc GmbH

R-Value and Thermal Insulation

The insulation performance of a mat is indicated using the so-called R-value. The higher the R-value, the higher the insulation and the lower the heat transfer. Physically precise, the R-value of a camping mat is not – as the letter suggests and is used e.g. in the construction industry – the heat transfer coefficient, but its reciprocal value, the heat transfer resistance, and should therefore actually be called RT-value. How this affects you is important: The higher the R-value, the higher the insulation performance. The R-value is measured according to the ASTM standard (American Society for Testing and Materials) by inserting the camping mat under pressure between a cold and a warm plate.

Since temperature perception is almost entirely subjective and depends not only on the person but also on external factors such as fatigue, nutrition, humidity, wind chill and much more, we do not give you exact temperature data for individual R-values. However, you can often follow the manufacturer's recommendations.

R-value < 2: Predominantly summer use
R-value 2-4: Three-season mat
R-value > 4: Suitable for winter

If you freeze easily, go for the mat with the higher R-value. For use in sub-zero temperatures, however, it should definitely be above four.

Tip: You can often get more warmth from the mat than from a thicker sleeping bag, without having to buy an expensive winter sleeping bag that is rarely used. An air chamber mat with an R-value of 4.5 is no bigger or heavier than a self-inflating mat with R = 3 and is an extremely versatile all-rounder.

Side, Back or Stomach Sleeper?

Before you read on, answer one question: How do you sleep? Do you sleep on your back? Then congratulations, you can save a lot on pack size and weight. Your camping mat should be widest at the shoulders, but may be tapered towards the foot end. You can also get by with a thinner mat, as your sleeping position ensures an even distribution of pressure. Side sleepers don't have it quite so good when it comes to sleeping outdoors. If you sleep on your side, make sure your mat is wide enough, also around the knee area. In addition, your "side sleeping mat" should be thick enough so that it does not press through where your weight rests very selectively: this is usually the case at the shoulders, hips and knees.

Our bc product manager Svenja lies on a self-inflating sample mat.
Our bc product manager Svenja lies on a self-inflating sample mat.

You distribute your weight differently on the mat depending on your sleeping position. If you sleep on your back, you distribute your weight very evenly and can choose a relatively thin camping mat. © bc GmbH

Length, Width, Thickness and Fit: Crucial Factors

A well-chosen camping mat not only suits your sleep position, but also your body shape. Don't save money at the wrong end out of concern for weight or volume.

Length

Basically, your mat should be at least as long as you are, and perhaps a few centimetres longer if you move around while sleeping. If your head or feet hang over, you can quickly lose out on warmth and comfort. This is especially true for back sleepers, while side sleepers may get by with a few centimetres less in length compared to their body size.

Width

The width of a sleeping pad is typically based on your shoulder width and is usually between 55 and 70 centimetres. Side sleepers get by with less total width. People who move a lot during sleep or sleep with their arms or legs curled up (foetal position) need correspondingly more.

Thickness

The optimal thickness of your mat depends not so much on your body measurements, but more on your comfort needs. Thick mats are usually more comfortable and – with the same technology – warmer. Self-inflating mats are usually between three and five centimetres thick, chamber constructions reach up to ten. 

 

Fit

Some mats are cut narrower towards the feet (for back sleepers), others are slightly egg-shaped (for pronounced side sleepers). However, most mats are just straight. You can’t really go wrong. If you choose a special mat shape, make sure it suits your sleep position.

Weight

The weight of a mat results from its construction and dimensions. For bikepacking, the pack size is usually even more decisive than the weight, although less is of course usually desirable. An "ultralight” mat usually weighs around 500 grams, and “light” mats are usually between 600 and 1,000 grams. Anything significantly above this is also called a "comfort mat". However, we recommend that you do not rely on weight as the sole criterion.
Christian from the bike-components Service Team packs his camping mat into its cover.
Christian from the bike-components Service Team packs his camping mat into its cover.

Indispensable for bikepacking: a camping mat with a small pack size. © bc GmbH

Tip: In outdoor shops, people used to say: "Take the shorter mat, then you save weight". This may be justified for use with an emergency bivy sack, but it will cost you good sleep in the long run. Our advice: don't do it and buy the right mat. 

Tips on Handling, Repair, Storage and Care

With proper care, a camping mat is an extremely durable piece of equipment that you can use for a long time. However, there are a few things you should be aware of.

On the Road

Always air out the mat well after use and – if possible – let it dry briefly in the sun or wind along with your sleeping bag. Ideally, you would also open the valve so that moisture can escape from the mat.
For air chamber mats, be sure to use a pump bag that matches the mat. Otherwise, every time you inflate, you will introduce litres of humid air into the mat. In the long run, this leads to mould stains or mildew. This is hazardous to health, irreparable and, in case of doubt, not covered by warranty. The pump sack also serves as a practical waterproof pack sack, e.g. for your sleeping bag. With a self-inflating mat you put less breathing air into the mat, the pump bag is less crucial here.
Speaking of pump sacks: Have you ever walked around camp with pump sack like an entomologist, trying to trap air? There is a much better method: make use of the Venturi effect. To do this, shake up the pump sack, open it and give it a strong breath. The draught carries the surrounding air with it.
Always roll up the sleeping mat towards the valve. This way you can pack them smaller and the bonding of the valve is less stressed.
Make sure to bring along a repair kit suited for your mat on every tour. Even if your mat is punctured, you don't have to sleep on the floor. 
Svenja catches the air needed to inflate the camping mat with her pump bag.
Svenja catches the air needed to inflate the camping mat with her pump bag.

A suitable pump bag makes inflating your camping mat much easier. You can also use it as a waterproof cover for your sleeping bag when you're out and about. © bc GmbH

At Home

Do not store the mat compressed for a longer period of time, but preferably lying dry and with an open valve. This allows moisture to escape and puts the least amount of stress on the material.
If you want to clean the mat, always close the valve first. Then you can carefully clean the surface with a sponge or a soft brush, lukewarm water and some dishwashing liquid. Rinse the mat once afterwards and let it dry thoroughly. You should avoid aggressive cleaners for the sake of the mat and the environment. You'll also be doing your nose a favour the next night you sleep on the mat.

Bonus Tip:
A pillow can increase comfort immensely – even if it's just a rolled-up insulated jacket or microfibre towel.