l to r: Thermarest NeoAir Short, POE Ether Elite, POE Peak Elite AC
Sleeping mats are an area of gear that has undergone a revolution in the last few years. For a long time the choice was a closed cell foam mat or a Thermarest self-inflating mat. Then Thermarest, POE and Exped introduced air mats in various forms. Innovations and variations on a theme have continued at a bewildering pace with the result that I have a stack of mats, so here’s a potted history and some thoughts.
When I started backpacking as a lad, the closed cell foam mat was a revolution introducing a significant amount of insulation and a modest level of comfort. By the time Thermarest introduced their ubiquitous self inflating mats, I was base camping so weight and bulk were not an issue.
When I started backpacking again I had an old style short lightweight mat and a full length newer style one. I found the old style one warmer and used it with a length of thin closed cell foam underneath. I used this combo a couple of times successfully. I also tried the minimalist Bozeman Tors Pad but it was just too small and cold.
Then Exped introduced their down mats. I bought a short Dowmat 7 short which blew me away with comfort and warmth, but was a bit heavy for backpacking. Hot on its heels came the NeoAir. Again I bought the short version. I found it very comfortable and surprisingly warm in conjunction with my thin closed cell foam mat.
The NeoAir does have a disconcerting tendency to partially deflate during the night, but that actually adds to the comfort. I don’t like the excessively grippy surface. To counter this I covered it first in a silk sleeping bag liner and then made a short fleece cover. The fleece cover is a real success. The disadvantage with short mats is that for a side sleeper like me, my knees ache in the morning as they are not supported at the same level.
The next mats I tried were the POE Ether Elite and the Peak Elite AC. These are very similar mats with longitudinal air tubes with deep valleys in between. The torso area has some felt like insulation glued inside the tube. I’ve found this to be more effective on the Ether than the Peak for some reason. Both mats are very comfortable but I found the Peak to be quite cold and very slippery. Neither suffer from any noticeable deflation in the night.
For base camping a couple of years ago I bought a full length Exped Downmat 7 with the integral pump. This is the warmest and most comfortable mat I own. However, it’s too heavy and bulky for backpacking, so I’ve just invested in an Exped Synmat UL 7 M. I’m hoping that it will replicate the comfort of the Downmat and that it will be warmer than the POE mats.
Unlike the POE mats the insulation expands to fill the whole chamber and extends for the full length of the mat. The mat weighs 450g, it’s about 60g heavier than the Ether and 125g heavier than the Peak. If it is warmer the extra weight will be worth it as I don’t like cold mats. The Peak probably remains a good summer option, though.
I think air mats have transformed the level of comfort compared with either closed cell or self-inflating mats. TBH I’ve found all the air mats to be comfortable. The best so far is Exped. I’m hoping that the Synmat replicates the comfort of the Dowmat with only a modest weight penalty over the POE mats.