What is a blow up mattress and are they healthy to sleep on for long periods?

A man and a woman lie and talk on a blow up mattress in their new house
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As a sleep writer, I know that a blow up mattress can be a convenient sleep solution when there are no proper beds available. While the best mattresses for sleeping are the obvious solution for resting properly at night, these aren't compact or light enough to take with you when traveling or accommodating overnight visitors. 

This is where the blow-up mattress comes in handy. Blow-up mattresses (also known as air mattresses, airbeds, inflatables mattresses, or Lilos) are popular among campers and backpackers, and are often used as extra beds during overnight stays and moving days. 

But are blow-up mattresses right for you? Here, I’ll discuss what these portable inflatable beds are, who they’re for, and why you should (and shouldn’t) get your hands on one ahead of the Presidents' Day mattress sales.  

Image shows a deep green blow up mattress on a wooden floor in a white room

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What is a blow up mattress?

A blow up mattress is a type of floor mattress made of fabric, rubber, or plastic that is inflated to become a short-term sleeping pad. They are lightweight and can be deflated and stored away when not in use, making them ideal for camping, backpacking and accommodating unexpected guests. Some are very buoyant, and can also be used as a floatation device for lounging in swimming pools. 

While airbeds are sometimes used interchangeably with blow up mattresses and air mattresses, airbeds tend to be long-term alternatives to traditional mattresses and are often placed on bed frames. Blow up mattresses on the other hand are portable, temporary beds that are smaller, lighter, and often placed on the floor  . 

What is the best blow up mattress?

There are lots of things to consider before choosing the best blow up mattress for you. The first thing to consider is material. Blow up mattresses come in different materials, and each have their drawbacks and benefits depending on your sleep need: 

  • PVC: The most common type of blow up mattress, PVC beds are cheap, waterproof, long-lasting, and easy to clean. However, they don't have the comfiest sleep surface. These are best for outdoor adventures such as camping and backpacking,
  • TPU: A cross between rubber and plastic, TPU is waterproof and long-lasting, and beds made out of this material are a lot more comfortable than PVC mattresses. However, they are more expensive. These versatile beds are perfect for any time you need an extra makeshift bed, from camping to accommodating houseguests. 
  • Vinyl: Vinyl blow up mattresses tend to be more expensive than PVC beds, but they're heavy duty and near puncture-resistant. 
  • Fabric (e.g. nylon, polyester, and cotton): Fabric is sometimes used to create the sleep surface of a blow up mattress to make it more comfortable for the sleeper. Some materials, such as cotton, are naturally breathable and are perfect for those who sleep hot. However, some textiles are difficult to clean and are not waterproof, so make sure the blow up bed is suitable for outdoor use.
  • Memory foam: Some blow-up mattresses are topped with a layer of memory foam for a soft, cushioning feel. However, memory foam traps heat, so you may want to avoid if you sleep hot or you're staying in a warm climate.
  • Latex: Sometimes used in the top layer of a blow up mattress, latex is naturally cooling and hypoallergenic, but is very expensive and only found in the more sophisticated of blow up mattresses.

Image shows a man putting a yellow blow up mattress into a blue tent

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Other things to consider are size and height. Like traditional mattresses, blow up mattresses can come in different sizes, including those designed for children. Most travellers and guests will get along fine with a twin-size, but couples can opt for a full, queen or even king-size. 

While you can sometimes get mattresses that are tall enough to be compared to a traditional full-fledged bed, the typical blow up mattress is about 9" high. These shorter mattresses are most popular as they are easier to carry around. 

You can also get blow up mattresses that are made for a specific purpose. While a lot of blow-up mattresses are built with camping and backpacking in mind, some are designed for the back seats of cars or for indoor use only. 

Are blow-up mattresses healthy to sleep on for long periods?

The important thing to remember about blow up mattresses is that they are designed for temporary use only, such as sleepovers, road and camping trips, and overnight visits. Here are some of the many drawbacks to sleeping on a blow up mattress over an extended period time: 

Air mattresses provide less support and comfort than traditional mattresses. Some of the most popular, cheaper blow up mattresses (such as those made from PVC) don't always have the support you need. They tend to lack the sturdy support need to keep your spine aligned and can't distribute your weight evenly, which may lead to discomfort, soreness, and back and joint pain.

Not enough pressure relief for side sleepers. Plastic and rubber blow up mattresses don't have the cushioning need to relieve and sooth pressure points (such as hips and shoulders) when side sleeping. This lack of pressure relief may cause aches and stiffness, and lead side sleepers to sleep on their back to get comfy. Sleeping in a position that isn't natural may also make it harder to fall asleep, and affect your sleep cycle.  

❌ Sleeping on the floor can be unhygienic. Most blow up mattresses are designed to be placed on the floor, but sleeping close to the floor can be unhygienic, as it can expose you to allergens such as dust and mold if your sleep space isn't cleaned regularly. 

Not suitable for those with mobility issues: Most blow up mattresses are only between 7 and 9 inches high, meaning you have to be able to get up and down onto the floor. This lack of elevation can mean those with limited mobility or physical disabilities may find blow up mattresses inaccessible. 

However, for most sleepers, blow up mattresses should be fine to use as a makeshift bed for camping, travelling, or overnight visits. If you're worried about comfort, most blow up mattress can be adjusted to a firmness level that's right for you. The firmness levels can often be customised by changing the amount of air in the mattress - the more air, the firmer the mattress becomes.

Man sits on blow up mattress

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How do you blow up an air mattress?

While some blow up mattresses require you to inflate the mattress manually using an external pump, an increasing amount of blow up mattress come with a built-in, internal pump that electrically pushes the air into or out of bed.

External pumps are fine if you only plan to use your blow-up bed on infrequent camping trips or to accommodate guests during special occasions, but opt for a mattress with a built-in pump if you travel or entertain guests frequently. 

Where can I buy a blow up mattress?

There are many places to buy a blow up mattress online, with inflatable beds from top-rated brands available on Amazon and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. Here's three of the top-rated blow up mattresses, including ones for camping and guest rooms. Although we haven't had the opportunity to try these out in person, they all have overwhelmingly positive reviews. Let's take a look. 

Beautyrest Sky Rise Raised Air Mattress: $78.74 at Bed, Bath and Beyond

Beautyrest Sky Rise Raised Air Mattress: from $78.74 at Bed, Bath and Beyond
This 14" inflatable bed from rising sleep brand Beautyrest is perfect for those who want an blow up mattress that's closer to a traditional bed. It's made from extra thick puncture-resistant vinyl and comes with an external pump. However, this bed is for indoor use only and isn't portable or lightweight enough to be taken on backpacking or camping trips. 

EnerPlex Camping Series Blow Up Bed:$79.99 $30.99 at Amazon

EnerPlex Camping Series Blow Up Bed: from $79.99 $30.99 at Amazon
This portable waterproof PVC bed is designed for outdoor activities such as camping and backpacking, but it's also suitable for indoor use, too. While its 9 inch height may not be suitable for those with limited mobility, it's still a great option for those living an active outdoor lifestyle. The current discount knocks over 60% off the bed, with the available twin size and queen size both being reduced to $30.99.

FBSPORT Inflatable Car Mattress: $39.99$32.99 at Amazon 

FBSPORT Inflatable Car Mattress: from $39.99 $32.99 at Amazon 
This vehicle-mounted blow up mattresses is designed to be used in any mainstream car model or SUV, making it particularly handy for long road trips or travelling long distances. Reviews are mostly positive, with over half  rating the product 5 stars and praising the easy set-up, but some feel that it's too small. Currently, you can save 18% on the black model, reducing it to $32.99. 

Frances Daniels
Sleep Staff Writer

Frances Daniels is a Sleep Staff Writer at Tom's Guide and her role includes covering all mattress and sleep news, in addition to mattress reviews and buyer's guides, plus sleep accessories such as pillows and mattress toppers. Frances is a PPA-accredited journalist and is hugely interested in the relationship between good sleep and overall health. When not writing about mattresses and sleep for Tom's Guide, Frances enjoys writing about women's issues, health and wellbeing, the environment, and her native Wales.