Years ago, while working for the National Park Service for the summer, in the remote high Sierra, I watched our wizened, grey-bearded crew leader set up his tent. Pack mules had borne our loads up from Road’s End in Kings Canyon and as they dropped off our gear, I saw a folded up cot strapped to the mule carrying our leader’s kit. Within minutes he’d set up his tent—a big 4-person model—with a cot erected to one side and most of his gear neatly stuffed under it. The rest of us puffed up our air mattresses and looked on in envy.
For one reason or another, when planning car camping adventures in the many years since that summer, a camping cot never really crossed my mind. I’ve slept on closed cell foam pads, air mattresses, hammocks, and even a simple footprint over bare ground, but, until this year, never a cot.
Then, dealing with a troublesome pad last summer, I remember that old crew leader’s cot and decided this summer, I’d try a few out.
After a few months as a cot user, I’m hooked. For car camping, I don’t see how you can beat one for comfort.
Or, at least the model I’ve been using, the downright luxurious REI Kingdom Cot 3.
There are some (hefty) downsides, which I’ll get to in a moment, but first, let me lavish some praise.
This thing is beyond comfortable. It’s plushy padded with about three inches of a polyester fabric-covered cushion that’s water resistant and dries quickly if exposed to rain sneaking into your tent (which I have learned first hand).
The padded top is attached to the frame with bungee cords, so it moves with just the right amount of give, while offering plenty of support. At no point did I feel any sagging or anything. It’s very strong and can support up to 300 pounds.
It’s LONG. 82 inches, to be precise. Plenty of room for a tall camper to fully stretch out. It’s also forgiving and wide at 31.5 inches across. You can roll side to side without feeling like you’re teetering over the edge.
The best part though, besides the comfortable padding, is that it can be adjusted into a lounge chair position easily with two dials that twist and lock the upper body section into place. You can retire to your tent, set the cot into lounge chair mode and sit up reading until your eyes droop, then twist a couple nobs, and lay flat, drifting into dreamland.
During a recent outing, big thunderstorms swooped into my high elevation car camping site two evenings in a row. Kein problem. I just lounged sitting on the cot in the tent, re-reading Peter Heller’s The Painter, and sipped bourbon, hooting and laughing at the ear splitting thunder. Sure, I could have done that propped onto an elbow on an inflatable air mattress too, but I was as comfy on the cot as I’d have been on my couch back home.
Finally, it’s also great to have storage space below your sleeping area in a tent. The Kingdom Cot 3 sits up a foot above the ground. I’d stash my shoes, a water bottle, a light, my clothes bag, and my reading material under the cot. Nice, orderly, neat.
Okay, so those hefty downsides? They’re all about the cot’s heft. It folds into thirds, but it’s gonna eat up some room in your vehicle. No getting around it. When folded, it’s still about 9 inches deep, 33 inches tall, and that same 31.5 inches wide. It also weighs 20 pounds. In my vehicle, a 2016 Subaru Outback, the folded cot fits mostly behind the driver’s seat with the rear seats folded flat. Or, I could lay it flat and stack things on top of it. If there are two of you, and both have one of these cots, it’s definitely going to be a concern if you’re trying to pack everything into a small sedan or crossover. And at 20 pounds and awkward to carry, you don’t really want to lug this to a hike-in campsite 150 yards from your car.
But for dispersed car camping where you can sleep right next to your rig? I honestly don’t see how you could beat this cot for comfort. A four-inch thick foam and air mattress, like the Sea to Summit Comfort Deluxe, or an Exped mat, can rival the cot for pure cushion, but they take up even more room than the cot when rolled up, must be inflated, and you can’t use them as a chair.
At some point this summer, I’ll sleep on the cot outside, maybe underneath the awning I have on my roof (the excellent, though hard to come by, Thule Outland), and I’ll be high off the ground and as comfy as it gets.
Why a cot? Why not?
More camp cot options
Helinox makes a range of camp cots, and the Helinox Lite, at only about two pounds, is suitable for backpacking or car camping, though it’s not going to be anywhere near as comfy as the REI cot. $250
The ALPS Mountaineering Escalade Cot weighs 16 pounds, but folds up quite thin, for added portability. $105
For a budget, padded cot option, check out the Coleman ComfortSmart Cot. Padded, collapsible, only $110.