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Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sleep Tight, Sleep Light: Sleeping Pad Analysis

Few pieces of gear can determine the success of a backcountry trip like a sleeping pad. Sure if its just an overnighter you can endure anything, but being cold, uncomfortable and sleepless will make a big impact on your morale quickly. I've been in search of the right pad for a long time now and I'm sure I'm not alone. The goals? Find a pad that maximizes comfort and insulation while minimizing weight and bulk. Cost is a concern, but if the right pad comes along, the value of good sleep in the woods clearly justifies a one-time investment.


Like a lot of people I started my outdoor sleeping on a closed cell foam pad - specifically a RidgeRest by Cascade Designs.

Practically unbeatable in the categories of insulation (R-value is 2.6), price (only $19.95 for a short), and weight (9 oz for a short). The drawback to this system is primarily in the area of bulk. The smallest you're going to get one of these things compressed is 20"x6.5". This means that the pad must either be lashed to the outside of your pack or used as a pack liner if your pack is deep enough and you have the room to spare.

Comfort is another concern as 5/8 inch of foam is not going to offer a cushy sleeping platform, but the difference between the comfort of a closed cell pad and a lightweight self-inflator is negligible. while there are other options in the closed cell category including blue-foam pads (a little cheaper), Z-Lite (a little more expensive) and others, they all share these pros and cons.

Despite the bulk, I have returned again and again to the closed cell pad. Mostly because of the weight savings, but also because of the added insulation and the negligible difference in comfort from self-inflators. If something could match the closed cell foam in weight and insulation but fit nicely in my pack and offer additional cushion I'd be sold - hold that thought.

The Self-Inflator Era:

Next in my gear evolution came the Thermarest. I had an old 3/4 length "lightweight" self-inflator which I used happily for about 3 years until it completely delaminated on the AT and became a giant, purple, oblong balloon. Most recently I've been using the short length Thermarest ProLite3.

This one is a clear winner in the bulk category as it packs down to the size of a standard water bottle (3.4"x11"). It is slightly more comfortable than a closed cell foam pad at a thickness of 1", and gives up a little in warmth (R-value of 2.2).

Weight is the area where the self-inflator slips against the closed cell foam pad. For comparable length pads, the ultralight self-inflator is nearly 50% heavier than its foam counterpart (13oz for the short length (*newest model cuts this by 2 oz to 11oz)). While a few ounces is not all that much on it's own, it adds up. A few ounces here and a few ounces there there and pretty soon you're carrying a 50lb pack for a 2 day trip. There have been other attempts in the self-inflator category, but none have done anything remarkable in terms of saving weight.

Another consideration is that while a self-inflator can puncture, a foam pad cannot. A patch kit weighs about nothing, but when a fellow trail shelter occupant flings a glob of flaming, molten plasticware on your pad and melts a hole the size of a soda can in your pad on a night when the temps drop to single digits, you'll wish you had foam (yes, it happened).

Finally, a self-inflator costs considerably more than a foam pad - like 3-5 times more.

The Air Mattress Revolution:

Big Agnes broke the two-way sleeping pad race open when they introduced the Air-Core and Insulated Air-Core pads. These pads promised comfort on a whole new level with a full 2.5" of thickness!

The Air-Core offers similar compressibility to the ProLite3, and a bunch of comfort for just $44 for the short. The trade-offs come in the insulation (R-value is 1, summer use only) and in weight (16oz for the short).

The Insulated Air-Core adds a layer of Primaloft synthetic insulation to the Air-Core to bump the R-value up to an impressive 4.1 - good enough to fully insulate from temps as low as 15 degrees (F). Compressibility and comfort are still superb, but the wight jumps to 18oz and the price creeps up to the $79 of the Prolite3.

Other companies also have introduced variations on the air mattress including Pacific Outdoor, but weight remains an issue.

Enter the Thermarest NeoAir. At 2.5" thick it's got the comfort of an air mattress. With an R-value of 2.5 it insulates as well as a closed cell foam pad. Compressibility reaches an all-time high with a packed size of only 9"x 3.3" (small). And weight is equal to that of a comparably-sized foam pad at a mere 9oz. With a $119 price tag (small) the investment is significant, but for me the combination of benefits far outweigh the one-time investment. The only other concern is vulnerability to puncture. Patch kits are available and weigh next to nothing, but initial reports on durability seem to indicate that these things aren't as brittle as they might appear. When I'm hiking, I'm totally unaware that my NeoAir is in my pack, but when I lay down for the night it becomes the most fantastic and important piece of gear I own.

Pad Sizing:

You may have noticed that nearly every pad I've mentioned in here is a short pad. I'm 6' 2" tall, so it's not a matter of matching my height. Rather, I have always found that it makes much more sense to me to put my pack under my legs at night to insulate and pad them from the ground rather than add another 30%-50% in weight only to have to shove my pack somewhere else in the tent anyway. This may make more sense for men than women since the concentration of weight for men is at the top (shoulders) whereas most women are heavier in the middle (hips). However, it's simply a matter of preference and an easy way I've found to trim another few ounces off my load.

Happy hiking and sweet dreams.

Photos 3&4 (c)2008 Steve Howe


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