Pads and tents
Since a self-inflating mat is low profile and narrow, it is very handy for tent camping, where floor space is at a premium—sloping walls put head space at an even greater premium.
A 25"x74" pad covers about 13 square feet, which is about 2/3 the area covered by a twin, inflatable, air mattress (20 square feet).
A 30"x78" x-large pad covers about 16 square feet, which is about 3/4 the area of a twin air mattress.
This shows that, compared to an inflatable air mattress, a self-inflating pad can offer a sleeping space (berth) for up to 50% more people in the same tent.
The low profile of these pads allows them to be placed closer to the wall of the tent, leaving more space in the center. Since these pads are easily stacked, the center of the tent can be cleared out for other use during the day.
One rule to occupying a tent for leisure camping: the closer to the ground you can sleep, the more people can occupy the tent.
If you don't have a lot of campers in your camping party, then self-inflating air mattresses can allow the use of a smaller tent.
General use tips
The 3/4-length, self-inflating pads that are popular with the backpacking crowd can work well for small children for leisure camping.
Self-inflating pads are more stable than air mattresses. They don't wobble around like jello when you sit up on them.
The pads can be used as a sitting cushion during the day.
If space is tight, you can stand on them in your bare feet or socks to dress.
If several people need to sit or stand on the pad at the same time, open the valve so the pad can't burst.
A self-inflating pad gives the tent more useable floorspace for activities other than just lying down.
These pads are very easy to get onto and off of. If you find the pad too soft in the night, it's easy to roll off of the pad, open the valve cap, blow a few puffs of air into the chamber, close the valve, and go back to sleep. You don't need to wake anyone, nor do you need a flashlight.
If the pad is too firm, you can slowly twist the valve cap partially open and bleed off any excess air and go back to sleep. Keep a valve on the same side as your head to facilitate this.
If the self inflating mat isn't holding air at night at the campground, make sure the valve cap(s) are twisted completely shut.
Any shallow dips in the ground below the pad can be filled with unused clothing. Put the clothes in a garbage bag to protect them from moisture.
Thinner or 3/4-length, self-inflating mats may not be comfortable enough for an adult to use alone, but can be used with other pads to provide more cushion. There is always a good camping use for any self-inflating pad.
When lying on the pad, be sure there are no pointy objects on your person. Check the tent floor below the pad to make sure that there are no pointy stones that could puncture the pad.
The foam core and the inflated shell work together to cushion the camper. If you need to immediately use a pad which has been compressed for a long time, you may find yourself sleeping on hard ground until the foam has time to expand. Be sure to store the pad correctly.
Older or heavier campers
If you are a bit older or heavier and prefer not to perform lots of calisthenics to get in and out of bed, you should still be able to easily get down on all fours and then sit or roll onto the mat.
Getting off is the reverse, rolling onto all fours and standing from there. This relieves the strain of standing from a sitting position in a confined space and requires less balance.
Be sure to get a standing-height (6'+) tent so that you don't have to dress sitting down or on your knees.
If you can get up and down, a sleeping bag and self-inflating mat require the least amount of work to set up, and take up the least amount of space of any leisure camping mattress.
A thick self-inflating pad on a cot is the Rolls Royce of camping beds for leisure campers who want to sleep off of the ground.
For those who prefer not to get up and down in order to get in and out of bed, self-inflating mattresses are an excellent addition to cots to get both elevation and a comfortable sleeping surface. Because of their low profile and narrow width, self-inflating pads can easily be placed on cots and provide a stable sleeping platform.
The open area under the cot is also a perfect place for storage.
If you have a bad back or arthritis problems, you will need to determine if an air bed or self-inflating pad on a cot allows a better sleep.
If you have leg issues which make it difficult to get up and down, probably the steadier cot and air mattress will suit you best. If you like a very soft mattress, you may prefer the air bed.
Camping in cold weather
In the spring and fall in the northern latitudes and in the summer at elevation, night temperatures can fall into the 30's and 40's for leisure campers.
Self-inflating mats are designed for cooler nights. The foam core traps tiny pockets of air and makes an excellent insulator.
When lying on a sleeping bag or on a foam pad without an inflatable shell, you compress the bottom of the bag or the pad, forcing out any trapped air, and the foam can no longer insulate from below. If lying on cold ground, you will quickly lose body heat through the compressed bag and pad to the ground.
The airtight shell of a self-inflating mattress, however, keeps the foam core from compressing and allows it to insulate from the ground below.
The sleeping bag will insulate you from the atmosphere above.
If you would like to sleep even warmer, place the self-inflating mat on an inflatable air mattress. This will get you far enough from the ground that the pad will insulate very well.
Cold nights cause moisture to condense, and you may notice some condensation on the pad in the morning, especially on tufted points. This is from perspiration vapor that passed through the sleeping bag and condensed on cold points of the pad that weren't in direct contact with the body.
During the day, expose the top surface of the pad to the air to allow any condensation to evaporate away.
This page should give new tent campers a clearer idea of owning a self-inflating mattress, and what it might offer to the camping experience.