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An introduction to air mattresses

An inflatable air mattress is a convenient, temporary substitute for a regular bed. You can set one up when you're expecting overnight guests, then deflate it and stow it in a closet after they leave. Air mattresses can also make camping trips a lot more comfortable, providing a layer of cushioning between you and the ground. (A lighter-weight alternative to the air mattress for camping is a sleeping pad, which we cover in a separate report. Sleeping pads are generally no more than 2 inches thick and are light enough to stuff into a backpack, while a deflated air mattress makes for a bulky package weighing 20 pounds or more.)

Air mattresses should not be confused with permanent-use airbeds such as the Sleep Number bed, which use air-filled pockets in place of springs. Inflatable air mattresses like those covered in this report cost anywhere from $20 to $150 and are intended for short-term use only. While some owners do report using an inflatable air mattress as their regular bed, the detailed analysis of user reviews at SleepLikeTheDead.com shows that inflatable mattresses generally get subpar ratings for durability and overall satisfaction. Permanent air mattresses, by contrast, cost $1,000 or more -- at least as much as a traditional innerspring mattress -- and get excellent ratings for longevity and comfort. For more information about permanent air mattresses, see our separate report on mattresses.

Most air mattresses come in standard mattress sizes, from twin to queen. However, some air mattresses are sized a bit smaller, so it's worth checking the actual dimensions before committing to one. Air mattresses vary in thickness, but in general, they can be either single-height or double-height. A single-height mattress sits anywhere from 7 to 13 inches off the floor, making it harder to get into and out of than a regular bed. A double-height mattress, by contrast, inflates to between 18 and 22 inches high, making it much closer to normal bed height. Air mattresses also differ in shape and material. For instance, some mattresses have raised edges to create a built-in frame or headrest. While most air mattresses are made of vinyl, some have an outer surface with a velvety or suede-like texture. Users say this type of mattress holds the sheets in place better and is also less likely to make noise.

A final difference among air mattresses is the way they inflate. The pump that blows up the mattress may be built-in or separate, and it may run on standard household current, battery power or muscle power (like a bicycle pump). Some mattresses do not actually come with a pump, which can be both a plus and a minus: you have to purchase the pump separately, but you can choose the type that's most convenient for you, and if it breaks you don't have to replace the whole mattress.

We did not find any professional comparison tests of air mattresses, so we evaluated them based mainly on user reviews from retail sites like Amazon.com, Walmart.com and Cabelas.com, a major retailer of camping and outdoor equipment. We looked at what users had to say about how comfortable each mattress is to sleep on, as well as how easy it is to set up and to break down for storage. We also paid a lot of attention to durability: how well the mattress holds air during the night and how likely it is to develop problems, such as a leak or a pump failure. Our top-rated air mattresses offer the best combination of comfort, durability and ease of use.

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