how to choose between a sleeping pad and a cot

Taking Another Look at the Cot vs Sleeping Pad Debate

When backpackers are choosing their sleeping setup, they usually choose a sleeping pad without giving other options much thought.

When I first chose my backpacking gear I didn't even consider looking at a cot.  I just assumed that a cot would be too heavy, bulky, and difficult to carry in my backpack so I dove into sleeping pad research and never looked back.

But for some people, a cot may actually be a better decision than a sleeping pad.  There are pros and cons to both options and we'll take an in depth look in this article to help you decide which option is best for your situation.

Cots - Pros and Cons

For someone who doesn't have experience with a backpacking cot, hearing the word 'cot' probably brings up images of something you might have slept on in a hotel or back when you were in preschool taking a nap.  But those huge, bulky cots are nothing like the lightweight cots used in the backpacking world.

A backpacking cot (pictured to the right) is built with light weight and packability in mind.  These cots are designed to deconstruct into many small pieces and fold up almost as small as a sleeping pad.

Pros of Cots

One of the main advantages of a cot is that it is as close to a bed as you will find when backpacking.  The tightly stretched fabric on the cot makes it very supportive and comfortable to sleep on.  

Many backpackers who suffer back pain when using sleeping pads have found that a cot alleviates all of these problems and gets them a solid night's sleep.

Just like a sleeping pad keeps you protected from the cold ground at night, a cot elevates your body away from the ground and effectively uses the air between the cot and the ground to insulate your body and keep you warm during the night.  

This isn't really an advantage of a cot, but it's important to recognize because a sleeping pad with a hole in it is useless, while a cot with a tear in it will still be completely functional and will keep you warm all night.  

That extra durability is great for backpackers who are looking for some sturdy gear that they don't need to babysit as much as a sleeping pad.

Cons of Cots

While cots do offer more durability and a better nights sleep, there are some serious drawbacks, the most obvious being the increased weight.

Cots do disassemble pretty easily and fold up into small areas, but they're still going to be heavier and more bulky than a sleeping pad.

backpacking cot when packed down small

While a typical sleeping pad might weigh 1 pound, a typical cot will be at least 3-4 pounds.  If you're an ultralight backpacker or someone who just doesn't like carrying extra weight, a cot may be a bad choice.

There are cots on the market that weigh less, but they will cost at least double the price of a sleeping pad that is still going to weigh less than a cot.  There's just no getting around the fact that a sleeping pad is a thin plastic filled with air and a cot is a big piece of fabric that is going to be supported with strong, sturdy legs.  No matter what way you slice it, a cot is just going to weigh more than a sleeping pad.

One scenario where cots are typically preferred over sleeping pads is if you are setting up a base camp where you plan to stay for a while.  Since you'll be returning to camp each night in the same place, the increased weight isn't as big of a deal.

For most backpacking trips, you'll usually be moving around and sleeping in a different spot each night which tips the scales more in favor of a sleeping pad instead of a cot.

Pros of Sleeping Pads

There are a couple different types of sleeping pads.  Some of them are made of solid foam while others are inflatable and filled with air.  For this comparison we're mostly going to refer to inflatable sleeping pads since they offer the best contrast to a cot due to their low weight and small form factor.

The most significant advantage of a sleeping pad over a cot is the weight and size.  Even an entry level inflatable sleeping pad that costs $100 is going to weigh about 1/4 as much as a cot and it's going to pack up into about half of the size.

Another benefit of inflatable sleeping pads is that they can be adjusted to fit your individual sleeping preferences.  In contrast to a cot which cannot be adjusted, an inflatable sleeping pad can be adjusted by adding more air or taking air out to adjust the softness, kind of like a Sleep Number bed only way less comfortable and a fraction of the size.

Cons of Sleeping Pads

There are a couple of areas where sleeping pads can be worse than cots but like most backpacking gear, you can mitigate many of these by spending more money.

The first area is durability.  Sleeping pads are more prone to damage and even a tiny hole in an inflatable sleeping pad can spell disaster.  Many sleeping pads come with a repair kit which will allow you to patch small leaks but these pads will usually cost a little bit more than some of the cheaper sleeping pads.

The next disadvantage for sleeping pads is that they can be less comfortable than a cot.  Again, this is going to come down to how much you spend and which sleeping pad you choose.  Some sleeping pads, like the Klymit V or the ThermaRest Neo Air can be really comfortable and by controlling how much air you fill it with, you have a lot of control over the firmness of the sleeping pad which you won't be able to do with a cot.

Wrap Up

Choosing between a cot and a sleeping pad is going to come down to one main factor which is weight.  If you're a backpacker who will be moving camp each night and carrying everything on your back every day, you should choose an inflatable sleeping pad that is light weight.

If you expect to set up a base camp and stay there each night, for a prolonged period of time, a cot may be a viable alternative. 

The best option is to rent either one from your local camping store and test it out in the real world.  Even between different sleeping pads there is a huge variability in how well you will sleep.  Some sleeping pads may work better for side sleepers while others may work better for stomach or back sleepers.  It's all going to depend on your individual preferences and your individual needs so try some cheaper options out before you drop hundreds of dollars on a top of the line cot or sleeping pad. 

Either way, make sure you invest the time to research and the money to get a quality product.  Your body will thank you when you're out in the wilderness and you are able to get a good night's sleep.