Reassessing air mats

The humble sleeping mat has undergone a revolution over the past five or so years. Not so long ago, the choice was between a closed cell mat or a Thermarest self-inflating mat. Now we have a plethora of air mats to choose from.

Sunny morning at the shelter

Thermarest Light 3/4

At the luxury end, Exped introduced their Downmat. An air bed filled with down, it was simultaneously more comfortable and warmer than anything else on the market, but it was quite heavy.

Thermarest responded with the NeoAir, which was much lighter and used an innovative air chamber and reflective material to achieve a decent level of insulation. While not as comfortable or warm as the Downmat, it was considerably more compact and lighter.

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Thermarest NeoAir 3/4 (with MYOG fleece cover)

POE (now Hyalite) pitched in with a number of different mats like the Ether Elite and Peak Elite AC. Meanwhile, Exped was introducing lighter air beds with synthetic insulation and latterly a lighter weight down mat.

Thermarest responded with updated versions of the NeoAir. Nemo, Alpkit and Trango have also produced their own versions. Now we have a significant choice in manufacturers, weight and insulation in the airbed market.

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POE Ether Elite

However, another trend has been emerging: tales of failures. When we were restricted to self–inflating mattresses, reports of punctures were quite rare. Now it seems there’s a regular flow of reports of failures (punctures and seam welds) from bloggers and twitterers.

The question that many backpackers are asking is whether air mats are worth the risk of catastrophic failure. Until Dartmoor last year I’d happily used various air mats and hadn’t really considered it much.

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POE Peak Elite AC

For some time I’ve been using a thin roll of foam under mats anyway to boost insulation and as a pad for my backpack. So at least I had a backup when my Exped Synmat UL sprung a leak. It wasn’t very comfortable but at least I had some insulation.

It’s made me think that I wouldn’t risk an air mat on longer trips in future. Air mats are significantly more comfortable than self–inflating ones, especially on lumpy ground. However, a self–inflating mat is much more comfortable than an air mat with a puncture.

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Exped Synmat UL

Maybe for weekends, I’d take the risk. Indeed, my next trip will be over a weekend, so I’m inclined to take my Downmat UL. I expect that I’ll be returning to self–inflating mats for much of the rest of the year.

DSC00385

Nemo Zor (l) and Multimat Superlite (r)

Of course. It will be interesting to see whether a lightweight mat like the Nemo Zor really is more durable than an air bed. Perhaps self–inflating mats are the happy medium between comfort and robustness. Anyone got any thoughts?

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45 thoughts on “Reassessing air mats”

  1. Hi, quick question what’s the thin roll of under foam that you use? And where did you get it? I’m trying to find some kind of evazote type 1/8″ foam for this purpose, but no joy so far.

  2. “self–inflating mats are the happy medium between comfort and robustness”. You’ve summed it up! That I think is the current position. I’ve had three air mats fail now. I wouldn’t take one on a long trip again. Self-inflating mats are much tougher and still fairly comfortable. They were regarded as luxurious when they first appeared!

    1. I’ve even considered going back to my original Thermarest. I’ll see how the Zor performs. It’s very light and compact.

  3. I don’t think there is a big difference in how air mats, self-inflating or not, are made. The materials are more or less the same, the glue (if glue is used) used is the same and the way seams are bonded is the same. Only the interior of the mat is truly different, but that shouldn’t matter for puncture resistence or seam strength.

    The only reason I can think of why a self-inflating mat might be tougher than a non-self-inflating mat is that the competition to get the lightest mat might be tougher for non-self-inflating mats, causing producers to use thinner materials.

    1. Perhaps because self inflating mats are thinner air pressure is lower and there’s less stress? Certainly there are very few reports of SI mats failing, but lots of air mats failing.

      1. Air mats have many internal walls. I’ve had these burst on two mats, leading to huge bulges and an unusable mat. Self-inflating mats don’t have these internal walls. I think that is a significant difference.

      2. The air pressure should be the same or maybe even higher in a thin mat because you need to inflate it harder to keep your weight off the ground.

        I understand that in self-inflating mats the outward pressure is more evenly spread than in mats with internal walls and taht those walls may fail faster, but that doesn’t explain that self-inflatables are allegedly more puncture resistant.

      3. Air mats have many seams. Self-inflating mats don’t. The seams are under great pressure. I had an air bed puncture along a seam. Also, of the mats I’ve tested (quite a few!) the self-inflating mats have mostly had tougher shells, especially on the base, than air beds. I suspect that the extra pressure on an air bed makes it easier to puncture the fabric too – a fully inflated balloon is more likely to be punctured than a half-inflated one.

  4. I have a closed cell (Thermarest Ridgerest) and although it hasn’t the bounce of an air version it still works very well. I’ve often wondered if taking some bubble wrap would enhance the comfort and insulation. The bubble wrap could even out any extra space in the pack!

      1. Those are the disadvantages of closed cell foam. The advantages are that it can’t fail. On snow camping trips I carry a closed cell foam mat and an air bed or self-inflating mat. On the Arizona Trail I just took a RidgeRest as I wanted a mat imprevious to cactus spines and sharp stones – I mostly slept out without a shelter – and I slept fine.

      2. I can see why closed cell mats are used more in the backcountry in the US where punctures are more likely. On my first ever backpacking trip I used no mattress at all!

  5. I used self-inflating Therm-A-Rests on all my other North American long walks except for the Pacific Northwest Trail and never had a problem. On the PNT I used an air bed and it failed after 60 nights. I eventually went back to a Therm-A-Rest.

    On my first few backpacking trips – one and two nighters – I didn’t use a mat. Hamish Brown didn’t use one on his round of the Munros and Tops, saying they were only needed on snow.

    1. My first tent was an orange Force Ten which had a thick groundsheet. After the first trip, I bought a closed cell mat :)

      On balance, SI mats seem the best compromise on longer trips. The penalty for failure is too high. You can put up with discomfort and cold for a couple of night but wouldn’t fancy longer.

  6. Hi Robin,

    I’ve had one long Thermarest self inflating mat, now, for about 10 years and it has yet to let me down. However, it rarily gets used – and only for car camping.

    I got a short Neo-air when they first came , but, sold it on – as I just could not trust it – staying up/getting a puncture – on an extended trip. For me there is comfort in knowing for sure that there is nothing to go wrong with a sleeping mat.

    Years ago, I went back to my old Ridgerest and cut it down to around 100 cms. I found this was comfortable (as a side sleeper) in all temperatures. For my lower body I use a short piece of silvery insulation (the stuff that goes behind radiators).

    I know inflatable mats may be even more comfortable – but this combination works for me.

    1. I can see the attraction, but for me comfort and bulk are a bit of a deal breaker. If I was going backpacking in a desert area, I’d definitely take closed cell foam.

  7. Hi Robin, great overview! I had my NeoAir Thermarest for long time and slept on every kind of surface (even without groundcloth at all) and never had a problem ’till now…
    I visited you blog today hoping to find a new review (or some thoughts) of the F10 Nitro Lite you got!!!
    Looking forward to read about it!

  8. Hi Robin, I’ve got two Neoairs – an original one and an All Seasons. I’ve now given up on them both. I’ve not had them fail, but I just find them too cold, even the All Seasons. They’re ok once I’m half way through the night, but it seems to take a couple of hours for me to initially warm up on them. I’ve gone back to my trusty 3/4 length Thermarest Prolite 4, and if it’s arctic, I stick a 4 season karrimat under it as well. Works much better for me!

      1. Hi Robin
        Eeek! You’ve made me a bit nervous about my Synmat UL7 now… I’ve found it very comfy and warm and I’ve used a very thin foiled foam mat underneath for extra insulation and protection with no problems. I was planning to carry it again in May on the Challenge, but maybe I should revert to my Thermarest Prolite. Hmmm.

    1. I liked the Ether Elite. In fact I found it better than the supposedly warmer Peak Elite AC, although a bit heavier. The Ether Elite seems to have a tougher material than the Peak or the Exped Synmat UL, so it might last longer.

  9. I think I told you my tell of woe on the Nemo post (2 POEs, I NEO AIR and 1 Exped dead). Gone for a ‘thermarest prolite’ now (as you may remember I considered the Nemo) as long trip in prospect. Sleeping (as well as eating) ‘right’ is far to important to get wrong. Having a sagging air mat (worst was my second POE on night two of a 7 day tour of the Fannichs and Fisherfield) eats at morale as well and causes worry during the day.. Having a good sleeping bag and mat to retreat too can get you through most weather! Mark

  10. I’ve given up on the comfy 7cm plus mats after having a couple fail on me while on trips. Closed cell give better durability but miss a little on the comfort.

    The solution I’m trying out from next week is a modular system using a Z-lite plus a prolite. More comfort and a guarantee that at least 50% with always work.. And in the end not alot more heavy than a 7cm Exped synmat. The only downside is the bulk…..

  11. I’ve had a SI Thermarest Light 3/4 for about 12 years. Last year it acquired a bulge about half way down, where I’m assuming the outer has come unglued from the foam. This was possibly caused by having it inflated too much when using it with the Thermarest chair kit, or maybe its just due to age. It doesn’t have a puncture so I can still use it, but its not that comfortable any more. Given the discussion here, I think I’ll replace it with another self-inflating mattress as opposed to an air mat.

  12. Same with me – don’t like inflatable air mattresses – prefer the comfort and reliability of SI. Martin Rye will tell you what I thought of the POE Peak Oyl Mtn in -6C temperatures and I was thinking of getting a women’s Therarest Prolite (I like the length and weight of the women’s version). Now I may look at the Nemo Zor. How warm is it though? Cannot find anything anywhere. ULOG has it at 2cm thickness, Nemo’s site says 2.5cm. Any thoughts, Robin?

    1. Not used it yet but it seems similar to Multimat and Thermarest. Roger Caffyn on BPL was very complimentary. Material feels warmer. Also packs down smaller than other SI mats because it has horizontal as well as vertical cores. There has been some comment that it is less durable. Only way to know is to use it. Probably wait until spring.

      1. The BPL review of SI mats has 2 interesting graphs when comparing the Zor to the Prolite, and what they show is that the R value for the ZOR is higher than the Prolite no matter at what level of compression (read as you lay on them) you are looking at. Certainly the Zor seems to be a mat that is worth a look.

      2. Roger Caffyn’s review was the reason I considered the Zor. I’m always impressed by his knowledge and attention to detail. It is lightest and packs smaller than other SI mats. The face fabric is pleasant to the touch as well.

  13. I have a 3/4 SI ThermaRest going on 20 years. Also 4 flavours of Regular length NeoAirs. NeoAir seen 18 months use. No problems – so far. I use a full length 3mm foam underlay mat and also I just *roll* the mattresses up, never folding them in 1/2 as they come packaged. The 2 slim tubes of mattress and mat also provides good structure to your pack. Just putting it out there that this may help prevent some forms of puncture/structure devolution. I try to load my pack with as many cylinder shaped items as I can make – access is then easier from the top. Gives really good pack structure.

  14. Sorry – I’m a bit late coming to the party here. :-)
    Over the years I’ve had two Thermarest self inflated mats blister (the ones with the cut outs) and had to chuck each away. I’ve had an Exped Downmat7 (short) fail on my LEJOG but as yet, my original NeoAir is still going strong. I agree with Chrissie that it does take a little while to warm up but then it’s fine.
    For winter, I’m still happy to lug about my original version of the Exped full length Downmat 7 even at almost a kilo – it’s very robust compared to the newer models.
    For the TGO Challenge I’m thinking of reverting to it over the NeoAir as it’s so much warmer and, seemingly, reliable. I don’t care too much about the weight – a good night’s sleep is more important to me.

  15. Very good posting. Two thoughts from me:

    -Are manufacturers acknowledging problems with these kinds of mats and replacing them? POE replaced mine after it lasted a few nights (this was despite my having a minor battle with Cotswold where the staff member insisted ‘these mats will always lose a little air in the night’ (mine was fully deflated after c. 3 hours use).

    -Many people (including me) bought these mats on the strength of various positive reviews in the press and online. 12 months later and everyone (including me) is now pretty negative about them. I think this illustrates the shortcomings of many ‘initial’ reviews which don’t take any long term use into account and which are, in some cases, little more than totally free advertising for a particular product. Us consumers should be more wary and those who write the ‘reviews’ need to understand that simply by putting a photo up saying ‘I have bought this’ others will buy them too…regardless of the throoughness of the review/the amount of use the product has had or the experience of the reviewer…

    1. My Exped Synmat UL was repaired free of charge rather than replaced.

      It is difficult for magazines to give proper reviews. Manufacturers want new gear to be reviewed immediately so they can sell the product. A review can give a view on functionality and design but not on robustness and longevity.

      I think blogs like mine can be helpful in giving long term user reviews as well as flagging up new products. Only through usage do defects like air mats vulnerability to failure show up.

      I wrote this post partly to look at my experience in the light of a number of other backpackers who has experienced air mat failures over the last year.

      Unless heavier materials are used, air mats are always going to be prone to failure, so you pays your money and takes your choice. Many are coming to a similar conclusion that SI mats are more reliable and more suitable for longer trips.

      Unless I was base camping, I would never use an air mat without some thin foam underlay as a backup.

      1. As a magazine reviewer I can back up Robin’s comments. With maybe a dozen or more items to review each month, which often only arrive a few weeks before the submission date, it is impossible to test durability and longevity. I do include items that have had much usage in tests where possible and then comment on the durability.

        Test reports on gear used on long walks does of course include durability. In 2010 I reviewed the gear I used on the Pacific Northwest Trail and commented that my POE air bed failed after 60 nights. However other airbeds have failed after much less usage – five nights on the TGO Challenge last year. Reliability seems hit and miss at present.

  16. Certainly compromise (as with all outdoor gear) is the order of the day when it comes to sleeping mat solutions. Personally I find that the weight saving benefit of a closed cell foam mat is most appealing, and I’ll put up with the extra bulk and reduced comfort. I have a full length Multimat Adventure closed cell mat weighing an unbeatable 145 grams that I use year round. I can fully appreciate why this isn’t suitable for everyone though.

    I am however really keen on buying a Klymit Inertia X-Frame, which I think look really intriguing for the comfort level they would appear to provide, as well as a greatly reduced weight (258g), Obviously, this could lead to the deflation and puncture problems which you observe in your post Robin, but I’m still torn on whether I should get one or not, many reviews claim the durability of these things is fantastic. What is your view Robin? If you haven’t seen it before, here’s a link: http://www.klymit.com/index.php/products-1/sleeping-pads/inertia-x-frame.html .

    Regards,

    Light Outdoor Gear Blogger

    1. For me, foam doesn’t cut it from a comfort or a bulk perspective. The Klymit mats look interesting but the reviews I’ve read suggest that you have to be the right height to match the body mapping. Comments suggest that they are not very good for side sleepers or restless ones, which rules me out. I’m sure they suit some people, but the drawbacks are too much for me. Roger Caffyn did a good review on BPL.com

  17. This was part of a discussion (back in 2010) on the now defunct Spanish Highs Forum. My conclusion now, is that the mat needs to match up to the likely ground conditions. For short UK trips air mats are fine. In dry scrubby landscapes I would always go with a foam mat.

    “I must be old fashioned because you can still see me wandering the hills with a yellow “Karrimat” foam mat strapped to the outside of my pack. I place the foam mat underneath the tent, thus protecting the groundsheet and providing insulation from the ground – this negates the need for a tent “footprint”.

    In recent years some lovely lightweight air filled mats have come on the market. But, these have to be placed inside the tent. How do ultra lightweight tent groundsheets withstand the thorns or scree of the Sierra Nevada once the snow has gone?? Or, if using a tarp, what type of material is placed under the mat.

    After any trip to the Spanish hills or anywhere where rough scree or dry thorny vegetation is encountered our karrimats are badly beat up. I work on the basis that it is far cheaper to buy a new mat than a tent footprint or new tent!”
    Dave Porter (from the Spanish Highs Forum 2010)

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