A Breath of Fresh Air – Complete Guide on What to Look for in a Good Air Mattress

james menta illustration

When The Mattress & Cushion Company (creatively named, right?) came to the market with the first air mattress, little did they know how far-reaching the impact of the new product would turn out to be.

old air mattress ad

One of the first air mattress ads

The design of the inflatable was very similar to the kind of air mattresses we use to lounge around pools today. The new revolutionary “bed” had a great market appeal because of how small they packed compared to their competition from the time – mattresses filled with hair.

The beginning of 20th century, when “rivers” of people started pouring into the city and its small one-room apartments where every inched mattered, created a perfect climate for an air mattress to move away from an alternative sleeping arrangement and into the mainstream.

Winds of change – evolution of an air mattress

While the small rubber thingies we use around the pool remain pretty much the same, the concept of a mattress filled with air has evolved substantially. It has gone a long way from a space or price-imposed choice to a primary choice brought on by unparalleled comfort or health benefits.

The change in design

When I say “design change” I don’t mean the kind of design changes football jerseys go through. To get to where it is today (a viable option for a primary mattress of the house) an air mattress changed (literally) in its core.

Apart from the fact that the higher-end air mattress look like your average spring mattress would, they are structured similarly, too. A modern air bed also uses coils, only instead of wire its air.

The intricate inner workings of a high-end air mattress allow it to do things that no other mattress is “capable” of. You can set your luxury air bed be of different firmness on the two halves of the mattress. You can have it cool you off or warm you up (also optional by halves).

Take that, coil mattress!

The health benefits

An air mattress is often the best choice for people with back problems since you can adjust the firmness in pretty much any mid-level model available today. This eliminates pressure points and relieves the stress on your spine and surrounding muscles.

 

air mattress - health benefits for back pain

Air mattress – proper spine alignment

In patients with spinal cord injuries (especially those who can’t move), this feature alters and shifts the pressure on body parts and can prevent breakdown of the skin.
Looking for the best air mattress for your needs

 

So, let’s get to the specifics. Meet Bubbly, he’ll be stressing some of the more important parts of the articles to help you along.
bubbly_hi

 

Although most air mattress companies stress that their products (mid-level) are not intended for every-day use, I know of a lot of people who have solved their sleeping issues by doing just that, sleeping on an air mattress every night.

You just have to know 2 things:

  • what to look for when choosing an air mattress
  • what to expect from an air mattress

Factors to consider when choosing an inflatable bed

1. Home mattresses

Low vs. high rise

The first decision you’ll have to make is choosing between a low-rise or a high-rise mattress.

high vs low rise

Low Vs. High-rise

If your plan is to use the mattress as a primary bed, the high-rise is the obvious choice, but if you need an air mattress for guests (especially if you don’t like them very much), you can opt-in for a low-rise.

Have in mind that, your older guest, will find it much harder to get up from a low-rise in the middle of the night. It’s a real issue, I know it first hand.

Setting it up and keeping it in place

The perception that an air mattress is a pain to set up is still lingering in spite of the fact that new technologies changed things long ago. These babies self-inflate and deflate in just a few minutes and pack very small.

For a home mattress, you’ll want to make sure that both the top and the bottom are flocked. The bottom velveteen surface will ensure that the bed doesn’t slide around the room or flip. You’ll also minimize the crackling noises when you turn at night which comes from the friction between the bottom of the mattress and the floor.

The flocking of the upper side of the bed keeps the sheets in place, that’s all there is to it.

 

bubbly EZ sign
If you’re a light sleeper and you still want an air mattress, an EZ mattress might fit the bill since it eliminates almost all the sounds a regular air mattress naturally makes.
It’s basically an air mattress mounted onto a frame.

An EZ will cost you more, but boy is it fun to look at as it deploys or deflates and packs itself back down. It’s like a giant spider going in and out of its cocoon.

EZ air mattressYou’d be surprised how many people still imagine a leg or hand pump and a gruesome, sweaty half an hour of inflating an air bed. We’re not even going to discuss that here, it’s ancient history and it’s obsolete, especially if you’re going to use the mattress in your home.

bubbly pump

Any air mattress worth mentioning these days features an electric pump. The questions you need to ask yourself about the pump are these:

  • Would you need a pump that can run on batteries?
  • What’s a NEVER-flat pump?

Batteries

This is not that much of an issue nowadays, but not all electric pumps that come with air mattresses can use batteries. It’s something to have in mind in certain scenarios (a no-electricity cabin, no close-by plug-in unit…).

It might seem banal, but I decided to include this part in the guide because, to date, many people e-mail me with the question or bring it up in the comments

Bottom line – decide if you need a pump that can be battery operated and then read the specs of the air mattress you are looking into. It’s as simple as that.

NEVER-flat pump

This might be a new term for anybody thinking about getting their first air mattress, so let’s make it all really simple. If you see “Never-flat” in the name of the mattress, it means that the mattress has two pumps.

The main pump that will initially set the air mattress up and deflate it when you’re done with it.

The little-helper pump that you can turn on and off. When on, it will be adding a bit of air all night long if the sensors inside register a drop in pressure. Hence the name “never-flat”.

bubbly never flat sign

Sounds great, right?

And for most people it is. Some owners of these mattresses, however, report that they hear a low-pitch humming sound when the auxiliary pump is adding air and are not so happy about it…others report that, not only that the sound doesn’t bother them but it can be soothing….just something to keep in mind.

The inner construction of the mattress

Few massive chambers of air that will wobble under you is a thing of the past. As we mentioned, most of the modern mattresses feature separate inner beams or coils that play a few main roles:

They distribute the weight better

  • They offer better support
  • They make the edges sturdier

In practice, if you are sleeping on a well-made modern air mattress with an inner-coil design (Dura-Beam, Comfort-Coil or whatever patented name a company has given to its system of inner chambers), the difference in support it provides compared to a regular mattress will be minimal.

On the other hand, of course, you’ll have the option to choose the firmness that best suits you, which is a significant forte.

The materials

The “war” on PVC changed the landscape of the air mattress industry. Since Sweden proposed significant restrictions in the use of PVC in 1995, many of the industries that rely on the use of PVC had to adapt.

The air mattress industry did it by using PVC that’s free of phthalates (the harmful chemical in the PVC). This was a significant milestone in the perception of an air mattress as a health hazard. The companies that implemented the policies go out the way to stress it, the specs of such air mattresses will “scream” phthalates-free or Eco-friendly PVC used.

eco friendly phthalate free pvc air mattress
Because of the PVC, manufacturing of air mattresses was more closely scrutinized over the last decade than that of a regular mattress. The scrutiny made the health concerns a non-issue.

Rushes of cold air

If the room you are sleeping in is cold, so will be the air in the chambers of your mattress and, as it circulates, you can feel rushes of cold air from below. Adding a mattress topper or simply a blanket before you slip on the sheets will solve the problem and add to the overall feeling of comfort.

If it’s a guest bed, it will be a hot topic around the breakfast table, take it from me.

Size

This one is simple. The sizing of an air mattress is the same as that of regular mattresses.

air mattress size chart

Air mattress size chart (in inches)

Read reviews of air mattresses – buyer beware

You can tick off all the boxes and the mattress you’ve set your eye on might look perfect in theory but might perform poorly in the real world. It’s a simple matter of quality.

To make sure the mattress has passed the ultimate test, take your time to read what other people who are already sleeping on it are saying about it and how it’s rated by customers. Do a search on the review pages of specific models fro the things that are most important to you (like “air leaks”, “support”, “firmness”, “back pain”).

Read the negative reviews before you make conclusions about the ratings. It’s often the case that the negative reviews are either about something temporary (like the plastic smell when you unpack an air mattress), subjective (the humming sound of a never-flat pump), unrealistic expectations (like the rushes of cold air…it’s an air mattress and you can expect it), statistical flaws (mattress being damaged or leaking air on arrival).

Some of the negative reviews will indicate a true flaw of a product and some might influence the ratings without really being an issue.

Take your time and do the research. Five minutes now can spare you of a lot of hassle later.

2. Camping air mattresses (sleeping pads)

bubbly with a sleeping pad sign

While, in theory, there is no problem with taking your high rise and setting it up in your tent, it’s not that simple in real-life.

The materials used for the high-rise mattresses are much more prone to punctures than the sleeping pads made with the great outdoors in mind. Two main factors to think about when choosing the best sleeping pad for your needs are insulation and cushioning. To understand the two better, let’s analyze a few crucial (quality) aspects.

What is R-value?

R-value is a unit used to describe how good of an insulator a sleeping pad is, how good it performs when it comes to RESISTING the heat-flow (hence the R). The higher the R-value (9.5 is the max) the better it will protect you from the cold and vice versa (min. R-value is 1).

Although it’s an indicator, a thicker pad won’t always provide a higher R-value.

How long does it need to be?

There’s no precise answer, but the widely accepted rule of thumb in the camping community is that it should (at least) allow for your shoulders and hips to fit onto it.

Generally, you would be advised to go with a regular (72”) or a long (75-78”) if you expect cold on your trails (these will allow for your legs and feet to be insulated, too). For milder climates and lighter hikes, a ¾ (47”) will do the trick.

The later one does pack smaller and lighter, but when in doubt, go with a regular. It is a cliché, but better safe than sorry.

How wide?

Most of the pads out there are 20” wide, but you can choose a wider one if you are a restless sleeper. Keep the width of the tent in mind at all times, though.

Shape

The shape of the sleeping pad you’ll choose (in my experience and in spite of some the claims I’ve seen from the companies making the pads) doesn’t make that much of difference. It’s worth mentioning that rectangular pads tend to pack a bit bigger.

Final thoughts

I did my best to strip the choice of an air mattress/pad of the confusion surrounding it in pretty much every article I’ve read. It’s either over-simplified and pure theory, or it’s made into a science.

It’s neither. It’s not simple and it’s not science. You just need to understand a few basic principles to get the biggest bang for your buck.

For those of you who are new to a lot of what I’ve said here, let’s make a synoptic checklist that you can use when choosing the best air mattress or a sleeping pad for yourself:

bubbly checklist

 

When choosing an air mattress for your home:

tickdecide if you want a high or a low-rise
tickmake sure both the top and the bottom are flocked
tickdecide if are likely to find yourself in a situation to need a battery operated pump (most of the batteries need to be plugged in)
tickdecide if you are OK with the occasional humming noise of a “never-flat” pump…if you can, go for a mattress that comes with one
tickmake sure that your bed features air coils or beams, instead of a few large chambers (it will always be listed in the specs)
tickif you can, go for a mattress that’s made of eco-friendly materials (phthalates-free)
ticktake extra time to read reviews of the air bed, nothing beats the experience of another owner

When choosing an air mattress/pad for camping:

tickthink about the climate you’ll be camping in and chose it’s R-value accordingly
tickthink about length (go with regular or long if you expect chilly nights)
tickthink about width (a sleeping pad that’s 20” inches wide is the standard, if you need extra room go with a wider one, but keep the width of your tent in mind)
tickdecide if shape is important to you, but consider it a secondary factor

I have high hopes that Bubbly and I have made it the choice of your ideal air mattress simpler. We did our best.

If you have any comments or specific questions, use the section below, Bubbly and I stand prepared to help.

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James Menta

Camping Gear Reviewer at BestAirMattressGuide.com
Three things you need to know about James - he holds a degree in Materials Technology from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he is a zealot for the great outdoors and he can never find his glasses.       In brief intermissions between looking for his glasses, he is the Editor-in-chief of BestAirMattressGuide.com.

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