Uncommon Challenge: Take a Cot Instead of a Pad

Backpackers are hell-bent on finding the smallest, most packable mattresses, but what happens when one ultralight purist forgoes his burrito-size sleeping pad for a cot?

Uncommon Challenge is a bimonthly column where we challenge each other to make unusual gear additions, subtractions and swaps. All challenges (and subsequent bouts of suffering) are voluntary and not recommended unless explicitly stated. Have an idea for a new Uncommon Challenge? Leave us a note in the comments.

When I tell my friends that I’m bringing a cot on our backpacking trip, they laugh with delight. None of them have ever heard of a backcountry cot before, and as I struggle to find a place for the unusually large bundle in my overnight pack, teasing ensues.

The story of how I got to this Colorado trailhead with something resembling a two-by-four jabbing my kidneys through my pack’s back panel begins almost a decade ago, when I first went camping out West. A woman I was seeing wanted to take me up a Colorado Fourteener, and the night before our ascent, we camped a short drive from the Quandary Peak trailhead. I can’t remember if I was trying to impress her, or if I was simply inexperienced. But that night I refused the sleeping pad she offered me and slept straight on the ground—“the way real campers do,” I told her. I curled up on the rocky soil thinking of times spent camping at summer festivals and, before that, on manicured lawns.

I didn’t know the purpose of a sleeping pad is less about creature comforts and more about getting your warm body off the cold ground. That night, I shivered and suffered. In the morning, my girlfriend laughed at me. (Everyone laughs at me, all the time, it seems.)

That courtship did not work out. But it taught me a few things—namely that I needed to buy a sleeping pad. So in this way, as one relationship ended, another began.

I started “small” with an affordable closed-cell foam pad. It insulated my body against the cold ground slightly and predictably, but it wasn’t the gold standard of comfort. When supine on it, I could feel all detritus larger than a small stone beneath my back. Also, it was cumbersome. Even when folded, it only fit lashed to the outside of my pack.

I moved onto a number of inflatable pads, which, though they got me up off the cold, lumpy ground, proved finicky. They were either too hard or too soft, never in the sweet spot between. Cramming them into their stuff sacks were more often than not multiple-attempt efforts.

Ten years into my eternal struggle with the sleeping pad, I’ve reached the end of the line. Which brings me back to the cot.

Traditionally, cots have been bulky, heavy and reserved for car camping, nothing any serious backpacker would consider. Their setup can be frustrating (and anything that relies on moving parts is generally inadvisable in the backcountry). Performance can also leave a lot to be desired, with the canvas too tight and granite-hard beneath your head and neck and too loose and saggy beneath your hips.

But the potential is there, and the category has evolved immensely in recent years. Today, there are a handful of manufacturers that claim to have fixed all those previous pitfalls, and there are several cots on the market that flirt with “ultralight.” OK, not really, but models like the Helinox Lite Cot actually come in at sub-3 pounds. These cots are still heavier than sleeping pads, and yes, bulkier (the Lite Cot folds down to 5 by 21 inches, or about the size of an ultralight, three-person tent), but they’re worth a try for someone who just can’t seem to get a good night’s rest outside. Someone like me.

Back on the Colorado trail, I stuff the cot vertically into the main compartment of my backpack, then pack my other belongings around it like it was a bear canister. At first the cot digs into my back, but I rearrange my sleeping bag, layers and reservoir around the thing and boom, it becomes my backpack’s spine. With a 45-liter pack, I don’t have much room for extras with the cot, so I’m forced to travel light. I don’t mind.

We make easy miles to camp and after pitching our tents, I unleash my cot. I pull it from its sack, unfurl it and snap each leg in place. It takes one minute before my daybed is ready.

My friends don’t have it so easy. They stand outside their tents in the dark, their sleeping pads drooping from their mouths like half-made balloon animals. They have a long way to go. I’m very happy. I make myself a fancy drink—whiskey with river water. After 10 minutes, my companions join me at the fire, out of breath. They don’t say a word about the cot.

That night, I step into my sleeping bag and sit down on the cot under the cosmos. It creaks like an old floorboard in an even older house. I think it might break, that it might bust at the seams. It’s certainly no place to get busy, I note. But it holds just fine, and before long I’m comfortable, the canvas supporting my back uniformly.

When I decide to move into my tent, I discover another perk of the cot: Only the legs touch the ground, so used outside, the entire underside doesn’t get covered in dirt. It fits in my two-person tent with a couple inches to spare lengthwise (though it’d be tough to fit a companion and their pad next to me), and I immediately notice I am warmer than usual. I’m a full 5 inches off the ground compared to the 2 or 3 inches I’d get with a standard inflatable sleeping pad. (I decide I’ll add the old closed-cell foam pad to the cot in subfreezing temps.) The cot never really stops creaking when I shift, but I sleep soundly on my side, just like at home.

In the morning, my body feels great—no pressure points. It only takes two minutes to fold up the legs and slide the frame into the bag. I watch my friends lie on top of their sleeping pads, pushing down in all the corners, struggling to force the air out.

I feel myself falling in love. Once again, a relationship has run its course; once again, another is taking its place.