Are Backpacking Cots Worth It?

For the past few decades, cots were a big no-no to bring backpacking because they were so heavy and bulky. But as outdoor gear is designed to be lighter and more compact, more and more backpackers start to wonder if you can take a cot backpacking.

I’ve come to the conclusion that backpacking cots can be worth it. For some more than others, as it mostly depends on your backpacking style, need for comfort, fitness and budget.

Let’s see why that is, shall we? Below are 9 questions that uncover the pros and cons of a backpacking cot.

1. How Much Do Backpacking Cots Weigh?

Weight—it’s truly the most discussed factor in the backpacking world, and for good reason too. Every ounce in your backpack is going to be ten times as heavy at the end of the day, and you can only carry so much weight until it becomes unbearable.

This means two things:

  • Weight is an important factor if you’re a serious backpacker who hikes 20 miles a day. In this case, you want to be comfortable while hiking. However, weight is less important if you’re a ‘lazy packer’ who spends most of his time chilling at the campsite. Then, being comfortable while camping is your priority.
  • How much you can carry depends on your body weight and fitness. Let’s take me for example. I weigh only 145 pounds, so it makes sense that I need to keep a closer eye on weight than someone who’s built like a tank and weighs 200 pounds.

Unfortunately, backpacking cots weigh significantly more than sleeping pads. In the below table I compare popular sleeping pads to backpacking cots. I calculated their average weight difference, which comes down to 1 pound and 8 ounces. Or in other words, backpacking cots are roughly twice as heavy as sleeping pads.

Name

Cot or sleeping pad

Weight
Therm-a-Rest UltraLite Cot Cot 2 lbs 10 oz
Helinox Lite Cot Cot 2 lbs 12 oz
Desert Walker Camping Cot Cot 2 lbs and 13 oz
Outad Cot Cot 2 lbs 10 oz
YaeKoo Portable Cot Cot 2 lbs 13 oz
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping pad 1 lb 2.2 oz
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Sleeping pad 1 lb 2.8 oz
Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Insulated Sleeping pad 1 lb 6.2 oz
NEMO Switchback Sleeping pad 14.5 oz
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra Sleeping pad  1 lb 6 oz

2. Are Backpacking Cots Bulky?

I may have some bad news for you. If you can barely fit all your gear in your backpack, you might want to think twice about bringing a cot backpacking. This time I compared my samples based on packed size and found out two things:

  • Backpacking cots are roughly 2.5 times larger in packed size than inflatable sleeping pads.
  • Backpacking cots are roughly the same in packed size as closed-cell foam sleeping pads. 
Name

Cot or sleeping pad

Packed size

Therm-a-Rest UltraLite Cot Cot 16 x 4 in
Helinox Lite Cot Cot 20.5 x 5 in
Desert Walker Camping Cot Cot 20 x 5 in
Outad Cot Cot 19.5 x 4.3 in
YaeKoo Portable Cot Cot 15.7 x 4.7 in
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping pad 9 x 4 in
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Sleeping pad 4.7 x 9.4 in
Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Insulated Sleeping pad 4.5 x 7.5 in
NEMO Switchback Sleeping pad 20 x 5 in
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra Sleeping pad  4 x 8 in

As for how you bring a cot backpacking, you have two options. Attach it externally or load it into your backpack, however, I do recommend stuffing it inside your pack since a backpacking cot is quite heavy.

Why does that matter?

Well, heavy stuff should always be placed as close to your back as possible. The further away you place it, the more ‘leverage’ that item is going to have. Imagine if you were climbing a tree; where would you grab the branches? Close to the tree trunk or at the ends? As close to the tree as possible of course, because that’s where your weight is going to feel lightest and most balanced for the tree.

It’s the same with backpacks, but in our scenario, your body is the tree trunk and your gear is who’s climbing the tree.

If there’s no other option, however, then you’ll have to attach your cot externally. There are a few options, but your backpack may not have them all.

  • Floating lid (extra space underneath the top lid of your pack)
  • Side compression straps
  • Bottom compression straps

Backpacker in the wilderness

It’s worth noting that you want to keep your pack’s weight balanced. By placing your backpacking cot on the left side of your pack, you must also place an equal amount of weight on the right side. 

Also, make sure you pull the compression straps tightly to ensure your cot doesn’t move while hiking.

Another thing to remember is that gear attached externally is vulnerable to the terrain and weather elements. Consider the vegetation density on your trail and check on the weather forecast.

3. How Expensive Are Backpacking Cots?

There’s no denying that backpacking cots are more expensive than sleeping pads, but have you ever wondered why?

Well, backpacking cots have to be lightweight, sturdy and comfortable at the same time. That’s not an easy task, and you’re paying extra for that. Just look at a camping cot that is not meant for backpacking trips and you’ll see that they’re twice as heavy, but also at least twice as cheap.

In addition, backpack cots can also be expensive because there’s little competition among sellers. There are not many companies selling them, which means they can be overpriced because you don’t have many alternatives anyway.

As for how expensive backpacking cots really are compared to sleeping pads, have a look at the following table where I compare my samples once more.

Name

Cot or sleeping pad

Price
Therm-a-Rest UltraLite Cot Cot $200
Helinox Lite Cot Cot $250
Desert Walker Camping Cot Cot $90
Outad Cot Cot $80
YaeKoo Portable Cot Cot $50
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xtherm Sleeping pad $220
Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated Sleeping pad $180
Big Agnes Q-Core SLX Insulated Sleeping pad $150
NEMO Switchback Sleeping pad $50
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra Sleeping pad  $100

As you can see, even though backpacking cots are heavier and bulkier, they’re generally more expensive than sleeping pads.

Another thing that I noticed when making this table is that the cheaper cots have many negative reviews. They’re either uncomfortable or made of lower quality and wear down quite easily. Inexpensive sleeping pads like the NEMO Switchback, however, are much lighter and generally have good reviews.

4. Are Backpacking Cots Good For Winter Camping?

Many people get cold at night even though they have the warmest sleeping bag. Guess what? A sleeping bag alone isn’t going to keep you warm. 

Why?

Because your body weight compresses the bottom of your sleeping bag from the moment you get inside. That’s a big no-no because it’s actually the air inside your bag that warms up and protects you. Obviously, if you compress it, there’s not much air left to heat you. 

That’s where your sleeping pad comes in handy. It has an ‘R-value’ which describes its insulating capabilities. The higher it is, the more cold your sleeping pad can resist. 

Infographic explaining the R-value of sleeping pads
If you’re a cold sleeper, it’s safest to count an extra R-value.

Now, the sleeping pads I mentioned in the above table all have a decent R-value, ranging from two to as high as six. 

And backpacking cots? They don’t have any. Their insulation properties are almost non-existent. 

You may argue that it’s unnecessary because you’re raised off the floor, so the cold ground cannot steal your warmth. It’s not that simple, unfortunately. While you may be protected from the cold ground, you’re still not safe from the cold wind flowing underneath your cot.

So although sleeping on a cot is usually warmer than sleeping on the ground, it can still be very cold. So yes, you still need a sleeping pad with a cot on probably every night except for the really hot ones. 

But of course, also bringing a sleeping pad costs extra space and money, not to mention it adds more weight. Is this a practical solution if you’re backpacking? That’s something I let you decide.

5. Are Backpacking Cots Cooler Than Sleeping Pads During Summer?

I’ve slept on cots without a sleeping pad when the temperatures allowed me to. I never really noticed a difference with sleeping pads in terms of which slept cooler.

On the one hand, a backpacking cot lifts you off the ground and thus increases the airflow underneath, assuming your tent is well ventilated. However, most backpacking cots have very little height to save weight and space, so air may have a hard time flowing underneath.

In addition, the air is already pretty warm in the summer, so I’m not sure how effective that cooling effect is. It may be better to sleep closer to the ground, but it depends on so many factors. For example, if the ground was exposed to direct sun during the day and the material of the ground.

I think we shouldn’t make this too complicated and call it a draw, although cots may have the upper hand outside your tent, where there’s more airflow.

So up until now, we’ve come to the conclusion that backpacking cots are less insulative, heavier, bulkier and more expensive. So why in the world are people bringing it backpacking? Surely there has to be an advantage that outweighs all the cons for some people, right?

I think I may have the answer. Let’s see how cots perform in terms of comfort.

6. Is a Backpacking Cot Comfortable?

Backpacking cots are most popular among middle-aged and older people. They love backpacking, but unfortunately they’re not as young as they used to be and their bodies sometimes refuse to cooperate.

Comfort becomes more and more important as we age, and that’s where a backpacking cot comes in handy for a few reasons:

  • You’re raised off the ground and don’t feel its bumps, roots and sticks.
  • Even though it has only a few inches of height, it makes it easier to get in and out of bed.

But that’s not all, backpacking cots are also more comfortable for side sleepers. Side-sleeping on a sleeping pad can be quite a hassle because your body surface is smaller. This puts more pressure on your pad, which usually means feeling the ground at your hips and shoulders.

Well, a backpacking cot solves this issue because its fabric is flexible. As a result, it bends with your body instead of creating a barrier.

Additionally, a cot may also help with back pain. Since it raises you off the ground and is quite flexible, it offers more support to your back. But be aware, everyone’s body is different and what works for others may not work for you. If you’re hoping that a cot will fix your back pain, I suggest you rent a cot first and test it in your backyard.

Related article: How to sleep in a tent while suffering from back pain

7. Are Backpacking Cots Easy To Set Up?

You won’t have trouble setting up a backpacking cot if you can pitch a tent. It’s quite easy as you can see in this video by Therm-a-Rest. It may be a bit confusing at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

As for how long it takes to set up a backpacking cot, I think 2 to 3 minutes is a fair answer. However, that doesn’t say much if you don’t compare it to the setup time of sleeping pads. 

That’s where it gets a bit complicated because the setup time of sleeping pads varies greatly depending on their type.

Let’s have a look at the below table. 

Type of sleeping pad

Setup time

Disassembling time

Closed-cell foam pad 5 seconds 5 seconds
Self-inflating pads 10 seconds 1-2 minutes. Some pads deflate very quickly due to special valves and make the process much easier and faster. 
Air pad 1-2 minutes depending on how you inflate it. You can use your lungs, a tiny air pump, or a trash bag. 1-2 minutes. Some pads deflate very quickly due to special valves and make the process much easier and faster. 

In conclusion, we can say that most sleeping pads are easier and faster to work with if you know the right technique, but the truth is that in most cases the difference is insignificant.

The bad news is that you’ll have to set up both systems unless it’s really hot where you live. As mentioned before, a cot doesn’t insulate and thus requires you to bring a sleeping pad as well. 

The good news, however, is that a backpacking cot is quite comfortable on its own, so you don’t have to bring a comfortable sleeping pad. A closed-cell foam mat is good enough, and coincidentally, setting up such a sleeping pad doesn’t take long.

8. What Else Can You Use a Backpacking Cot For?

While a backpacking cot its main goal is to provide you with a good night’s sleep, it can also come in handy in other situations.

  • You can use it as a chair outside your tent while preparing dinner and its underside won’t get filthy. It can even serve as a bench to accommodate multiple people, and you don’t have to worry as much about critters because you’re raised off the ground.
  • It can serve as a stretcher in emergency situations. Suppose that someone breaks his leg while hiking; you’ll be there with the genius idea of using your cot to bring the wounded to safety.

Sleeping pads don’t have these benefits. While you can sit on them, they don’t give you those few inches of height and they’re more prone to dirt and other filth. You can’t use them as a stretcher either.

However, I do know one benefit of sleeping pads that backpacking cots don’t have. Many ultralight backpackers use frameless backpacks to save weight. Unfortunately, that lack of support can be uncomfortable. That’s why they came up with the genius idea of using your sleeping pad as a framesheet to add support. You can see how it works in this video by Outdoorgearlab

9. Can You Use a Cot In a Tent?

Many people worry that cots are bad for tents, and with good reason too. Your body weight is distributed across the feet of your cot, which means each foot applies a lot of pressure on your tent floor.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the feet were completely dull, but they tend to be somewhat sharp. As a result, even slight movements can eventually tear a hole. This is especially true for lightweight backpacking tents because their floors are thinner and more vulnerable than family camping tents.

So the solution is simple: you want to place something under the feet that cannot damage your tent. There are many options but only a few are lightweight and compact:

  • Lay rubber pads or foam pads under the feet of the cot.
  • Attach tennis balls to the feet of the cot.
  • Lay a thick blanket or tarp under the cot.

Also, if you plan on using a cot in your tent, I strongly recommend you use a groundsheet to protect the floor of your tent.

Think about it.

The above solutions may protect your tent floor from the ‘sharp’ feet of your cot, but they won’t protect your floor from what’s lying underneath. This means that the pressure exerted by your cot’s feet can still cause damage to your tent floor if they’re placed on a small stick or stone. That is, if you don’t use a groundsheet. 

Are cots or sleeping pads better?

The benefits of backpacking cots:

  • You’re raised off the ground so you don’t have to worry about accidentally puncturing your inflatable sleeping pad. 
  • They may feel cooler than sleeping pads if there’s enough airflow.
  • You don’t feel the ground, so you can say goodbye to annoying bumps, roots, sticks and stones. 
  • Those couple inches off the ground make it easier to get in and out of bed.
  • Cots are comfortable for side sleepers.
  • They may help with back pain because they provide more support than the ground.
  • You can use them as a chair or bench outside your tent and the underside won’t get filthy. 
  • You don’t have to worry as much about ants, spiders, snakes and other creepy animals because you’re raised off the ground. This is especially handy if you’re tarp camping and don’t have a mesh screen to keep critters away. 
  • You can use them as a stretcher in emergency situations.
  • Unlike many sleeping pads, they don’t deflate at night.
  • You can store small gear items underneath a backpacking cot.
  • You’re raised off the ground so it’s less of a problem if your tent leaks. 

The benefits of sleeping pads:

  • In general, they’re cheaper, lighter and smaller in packed size. 
  • Sleeping pads are insulated and can be used independently year-round as long as their R-value is high enough. A cot isn’t insulated and requires you to bring a sleeping pad as well on probably all trips except for the really hot ones. 
  • They don’t make a lot of noise when shifting sleeping positions, which can be the case with cots. However, you can make a cot quieter by spraying some WD-40 (preferably White Lithium) between the joints of the cot frame. Don’t forget to wipe down excess lubricant with paper towels!
  • In general, sleeping pads take less time to set up and pack away, especially the closed-cell foam ones.
  • Can be used as a framesheet in frameless backpacks.

Conclusion: Are Backpacking Cots Worth It?

For some people they are, for others they’re not. The way I see it, people who don’t sleep well on a pad might consider a backpacking cot essential because they cannot sleep otherwise. For them, that extra comfort is crucial to have an enjoyable backpacking experience.

Of course, you also have to consider the added weight of a backpacking cot. Because remember, unless it’s very hot at night, you’ll also have to bring an insulated sleeping pad to fight off the cold.

If you’re a lazy packer who spends most of his time chilling at the campsite, then those extra ounces and dollars may be worth it. On the other hand, if you want to be most comfortable while hiking, then you might want to stick to a sleeping pad.

As always, the choice is yours.

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