The state of my gear: sleeping mats

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.


14 thoughts on “The state of my gear: sleeping mats”

  1. I don’t know if you read Tracksterman’s blog but he had a few choice words for a pile of mats about a week or two ago! Worth a quick look, as is his entire blog.

  2. Exped SynMat 7 UL what more can I say. I have a NeoAir, am interested in the NeoAir XL but the SynMat 7 UL works. I prefer a regular length for comfort as a good nights rest/sleep is worth more than anything else on a long trip.

  3. I too have a selection of mats! For base camping a luxury Base Camp Thermarest, and for backpacking I used a Thermarest Prolite 4 for many years. A couple of years ago I got a short Neoair for Christmas, and I absolutely love it, both for its lightness and its comfort, but only in the summer. I have found it too cold for the rest of the year. So, I have now got a regular length Neoair All Seasons (weight 540g). I haven’t had chance to try this out properly yet, but have high hopes! According to the R values, it’s supposed to be even warmer than the Prolite 4 (4.9 as opposed to 3.8), which I never had any problems with. We shall see…

  4. Mats is one of those areas where I feel, for me, a compromise has to be made. I’d rather have a thicker warmer mat and get a good night’s sleep, and save the weight elsewhere. I got myself a POE Ether Thermo 6 this time last year and love it, having looked at the NeoAir and decided it was a bit too extreme for my needs. Each to his own.

    1. I’ll report back on the Synmat UL when I’ve used it but most speak highly of it. Certainly the Downmat 7 is the most comfortable mat I own and the Synmat is the same basic design.

  5. Hi Robin, we have very similar inflatable tastes! (oo-er missues)

    I have the Exped 7DLX downmat for winter comfort and the POE Peak Elite AC for lightweight backpacking.

    Having said that I also use evazote mats quite a bit too. Yes they are bulking in comparison but they are very lightweight and incredibly warm. You can also pop these into the larger frameless backpacks (like the GG Mariposa) to give them more support and comfort.

    Lastly, I do very occasionally still use the older style foam “roll mat” mattresses beloved off my early camping years. The ones you just “have” to put on the outside of the backpack. Not as good as evazote in my opinion but lightweight and cheap

    Another great article Robin and a series on gear that has stimulated my thoughts.

  6. Wow! A more extensive and more expensive collection of mats than mine. I have had better luck with durability than Tracksterman, but he probably uses his mats much more. None of my four Thermarest inflatables has leaked, but an Exped 7 Downmat did fail. Naturally, that was the most expensive and most comfortable mat in the collection.

    These days I use a regular length Neoair for comfort, with additional insulation placed under the groundsheet. The extra insulation is a light closed-cell foam mat in cold weather or thin building-type insulation in warm weather. That way, some insulation remains even if the Neoair should fail overnight.

    Mat preference *is* an individual thing: it’s a pity we can’t try before we buy.

    1. Most of the time I use a thin closed cell foam mat underneath my sleeping mat. I’ve found tent underlay is the best. It’s reasonably robust.

  7. When it comes to lilos I couldn’t believe that they’d be any good until I tried one from POE. The Ether Thermo 6 reg. They are warm, lightweight (ok mine is not the lightest), and usually well thought out. Well done gear-houses!

  8. I have a Neoair, but I have been considering getting a Peak Elite. How would you say these two compare to one another in terms of comfort and warmth?

    1. I think the Peak is more comfortable because of the longitudinal tubes. I don’t think it’s quite as warm. There’s not a lot in it.

  9. I’ve been through a few mats in past year Robin and the Exped ones are without a doubt generally warmer and comfier for the weight and pack size. In fact, my absolute favourite has been the Exped Synmat UL you mention. It’s brilliant and really helps for a warm and good nights sleep.

    I used to like the NeoAirs and so on – even POE – but they just don’t compare in my humble opinion with the Exped mats.

    Saying all that, I’ve been using Vaude’s Norrsken mat this winter – very comfy, packs small and good weight for a 4.9 R Value mat – just hasn’t cut the mustard for warmth 😦 Even with the aid of a short foam mat atop/or under to boost thermal resistance.

    I must add, I did develop faults with the Exped UL mat – within 3 months of use (which was a lot of trips). However, Exped replaced the mat within 3 days of me reporting it (I actually bought this mattress 😉 ) Impressive customer service and they take their warranty seriously.

    Not had any bother with the replacement since. Big thumbs up from me. 🙂

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