Laura brought us a suitcase full of parts and gear along with a surprise — Sarah’s older sister Jessica!
Apparently friends and family had known for more than a month that Jessica was joining Laura on the trip south to meet us in Ecuador and everyone managed to keep it a secret.
While we are on a short hiatus to visit with family, it is a perfect time to start highlighting some of our gear, specifically our sleeping equipment.
ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) version of this entry…
Scott's sleeping gear:
sleeping pad - NEMO Astro Insulated
sleeping bag - Marmot Arete
liner - Sea to Summit silk mummy liner
pillow - NEMO Fillo
Sarah's sleeping gear:
sleeping pad - Therm-a-Rest Lite
sleeping bag - REI Downtime 15
liner - Sea to Summit silk mummy liner
pillow - NEMO Fillo
Gear Report: Sleeping Pads (a.k.a. sleeping mats)
Part of our resupply included a NEMO Astro sleeping pad that was a warranty replacement. My current Astro had a baffle that failed which created an extra large pillow at one end of my sleeping pad. NEMO, along with great warranties, has superb customer service and the replacement was shipped to Laura’s house within a few days of my initial contact with the company.
A sleeping mat is the foundation of a good night’s sleep. They provide comfort and insulation. If you are a tough guy or an ultra-light backpacker or cyclist, you can sleep on the ground to save weight. Likewise, you don’t need to carry soap for washing to save a few grams, neither of which I’d recommend.
When deciding on a sleeping matt, the basic considerations are cost, weight, length, thickness, durability, ease of use, packability (bulk), and ability to insulate (denoted by a R-Value, which is a measure of resistance to heat flow. The higher the number, the better insulation). Pads typically come in full length or 3/4 (to save weight and bulk). I don’t like my legs on the ground so I’ve always used full length pads.
A Gear Junkie Confesses
Over the years, I’ve used several different types of sleeping mats in the quest for a good night’s sleep including:
- closed cell foam (Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest),
- inflatable open cell foam core (standard Therm-a-Rest, Therm-a-Rest GuideLite, and Therm-a-Rest Ultralite)
- inflatable and insulated inflatable (Nemo Cosmo, Nemo Astro Insulated)
Owning this number of sleeping mats may seem excessive. One reason is that I am a gear junkie and like to try new equipment. Additionally, as I’ve gotten older, my bones seem sharper and I sought increased comfort, especially since I sleep on my side most often. Sleeping on your side concentrates your weight on a smaller surface area of a sleeping pad and depending on the thickness of the mat, this means you can easily be sleeping on the ground.
Closed cell foam pads
About 25 years ago, my original sleeping pad was the first generation Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest, a closed cell foam pad. It was relatively inexpensive compared to backpacking inflatable mats but not as cheap as a generic blue foam closed cell pad. As a college student, cost was a prime consideration at the time. The RidgeRest is relatively lightweight, but bulky (it does roll up smaller compared to the same length and thickness of a generic closed cell foam mat). I used this for years backpacking and on my first bicycle trip down the east coast of the USA. I found the mattress, about 0.75 inches (~2 cm) thick, tolerable but not comfortable.
The benefits of closed cell foam pads are that they’re waterproof (only the surface gets wet), durable, inexpensive, insulate well and lightweight. If they do get wet, shaking them out removes the excess water. They are resistant to rocks, thorns, golf shoes, goatheads etc. in that they do not deflate like an air mattress. The RidgeRest is softer and more comfortable than traditional smooth, closed-cell foam pads. The ridges help trap air, helping to insulate.
The drawbacks of the closed cell foam pads are that they are relatively thin (not ideal for a side sleeper) and bulky which can be an issue for efficient packing. However, being lightweight and waterproof they can easily be strapped to the outside of a pannier, rack or backpack.
Sarah’s original mat was a Therm-a-Rest Z-Rest. She had it in college, used it in Africa and on the 2002 TransAmerica trip where we met. Similar to the RidgeRest but it folded like an accordian and instead of ridges, it had an egg crate pattern.
Inflatable Pads – Foam Core pads
After moving to Texas about 17 years ago, I purchased Therm-a-Rest inflatable pad (2nd or 3rd generation) back when you had the choice of a Standard Long, “light weight” 3/4 length, and the car camping version which was extra cushy, extra wide, and extra heavy. Therm-a-Rest pioneered the inflatable pad and for a while was the only viable option, today there are many manufacturers of inflatable pads such as Big Agnes, NEMO Equipment, REI, etc.
Unlike a closed cell foam pad, that you simply unroll and they’re ready, inflatable pads need a few puffs to be ready to use. Typically, when setting up camp, I open the valve and unroll the pad, letting it partially inflate as the inner foam expands. Finally, about 5 to 7 breaths are needed to fully inflate the pad.
The original Therm-a-Rest was a rectangular pad (not tapered like the newer ones), and had a full sheet foam core (not waffle-cut like the newer ones). It was a cushy 1.5 inches thick. While a lot heavier than my RidgeRest, it packed a little bit smaller and was a lot more comfortable.
This was my backpacking pad for years.
Sometime during my planing stages leading up to my England to Singapore bicycle trip, I started becoming a weight weeny and attempted to slim down my anticipated load. Therm-a-Rest had come out with a lightweight design where the foam core was perforated, reducing weight and was a bit thinner but almost a full pound less in weight. I sold my old Therm-a-Rest and purchased what would become my mainstay for several years of backpacking and the 2001-2002 England to Singapore trip.
As a side sleeper, I found my shoulder and arms occasionally going numb as my weight was concentrated on a smaller surface area as opposed to laying on my back or stomach.
After returning home from my 2001-2002 England to Singapore bicycle trip, I was determined to cut weight further and ordered a new version, called the Ultralite. I used this on the TransAmerica bicycle route during the summer of 2002. It was lighter and packed smaller (yeah!) but thinner (boo!) causing my arms and shoulders to go numb almost nightly. I continued to use the Ultralite for car camping and backpacking until I replaced it with a NEMO Cosmo pad.
Sarah claimed my thicker GuideLite version for herself until she received a new REI Lite-Core pad for a wedding present. She liked her REI pad but the valve eventually failed and we returned it for store credit and replaced it with a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core.
After purchasing the NEMO, the Ultralite was relegated to the bottom of the gear closet until we began selling things on eBay in anticipation of this trip.
As is evident by the patches on the orange Therm-a-Rest GuideLite (above), a big downside of inflatable pads are that if they are punctured, you’re sleeping on the ground. They are not necessarily hard to patch, however, finding the leak can be an exercise in frustration unless you have someplace to submerge it and follow the bubbles to the hole. If you can’t find the leak in the field, it can lead to several nights of uncomfortable slumber until you return home to a bathtub.
Inflatable and Inflatable Insulated Sleeping Pads
Inflatable sleeping pads hit the market and promised greater comfort, lighter weight all in a tiny package. All inflatable pads require manual inflation, usually by blowing them up with between 20 to 50 breaths.
After researching offerings from Therm-a-Rest, Exped, Big Agnes and NEMO among others, I decided on the NEMO Cosmo.
The NEMO Cosmo was longer, wider and thicker than other mats on the market and weighed as much as my Therm-a-Rest GuideLite. Additionally, it included an integrated foot pump, alleviating the light headedness associated with blowing up a mat. In practice I ended up performing a kind of CPR on my pad to inflate it.
I also considered the direction of the baffles. Baffles that run parallel to your body tend to wrap around the sleeper, similar to cheap inflatable pool rafts. The Cosmo’s baffles were designed to be perpendicular to the body, negating “pool effect.”
We quickly learned that the larger size made it a tent hog and whenever I moved the pad rubbing on the bottom of the tent made a loud squeaking noise, like two balloons rubbing together. I slept wonderfully on the thick mattress, but the noise was obnoxious.
My arms, shoulders and hips no longer turned numb when I slept on my side. I liked my pad so much that when Sarah’s REI Core-Lite died, I convinced her to replace it with a Big Agnes Air Core. After trying both my Cosmo and the Air Core she ultimately decided she liked my 10+ year old Therm-a-Rest GuideLite pad the best, which is her current sleeping mat. As a back sleeper, she felt that the inflatable pads felt too much like sleeping on a pool raft and preferred the firmness of the Therm-a-Rest GuideLite and the REI Core-Lite pad.
The NEMO Cosmo was a great pad but, being uninsulated it was cold. I never noticed it camping in Texas but during a backpacking trip in the Mojave Desert during November, I could feel the heat being sucked out of me through my sleeping bag and into the pad. I decided insulation was necessary. Both the NEMO Cosmo and the Big Agnes were sold through eBay and I replaced the Cosmo with a NEMO Astro Insulated.
I’m on my second NEMO Astro. It is a warranty replacement for my original that had a baffle fail. I like the mat, it is the most comfortable pad I’ve owned. I sleep well on my stomach and side and never have my arms, shoulders or hips turn numb. The drawback is that it takes about 30 to 40 breaths to fill the pad, which isn’t all bad. I get a nice light-headed feeling each evening from hyper-ventilating as I fill my mat.
Sleeping Pad Roll Up
So what have I learned from my adventures with sleeping mats and what advice would I give?
Try as many pads as you can before you buy one. Borrow them from friends or rent them from an outfitter or an REI for a trip. Outdoor gear stores such as REI and Eastern Mountain Sports will let you try them out in the store (go out for a big lunch and then stop by for an afternoon nap. If you are a drooler, please bring a towel). If you do this at your local gear shop, please buy from them.
If you are a back sleeper, and don’t have a problem falling asleep on a carpeted floor, consider a closed cell foam pad like the RidgeRest. They are inexpensive, lightweight and worry-free. They can easily be lashed to any pack or bicycle rack or pannier. Folded over, they make great camp seats. In an emergency they can be used to help splint an arm or a leg.
If you want a little more comfort and are willing to trade it for a little more weight and and the additional cost, a foam core inflatable pad will work out well. They come in a range of thicknesses with the thicker versions tending to weigh more. At some point you will get a puncture so be sure you know how to repair it and are carrying the supplies to do so. If you are a side sleeper, it may be comfortable enough for you.
The most comfortable pads are the lightweight inflatable pads, however they are expensive. They are supremely comfortable, especially if you are a side sleeper. They pack up small and are light weight. If you get a puncture, they are essentially worthless until you are able to repair it. Your tent-mate may hate you though, they do make a horrible racket when you toss and turn.
Remember cats, thorns, cactus spines, darts and porcupines are natural enemies of inflatable sleeping pads of all types so plan your adventures and dart games accordingly.
Up Next: Slumber Party, Part II, Sleeping bags, liners and pillows