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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Smoothing It

Between a Rock and a Hard Place?
That's Just the Place for a Pad

By Tamia Nelson

May 9, 2006

Lapping waves, the muted crash of distant breakers, the ceaseless chatter of a rushing river — all these are lullabies to weary paddlers' ears. And sleeping well is one of the rewards of the active outdoor life. But it's not always that simple, is it? A single exposed root or unyielding cobble can relegate a good night's sleep to a distant dream. Remember the story of the princess and the pea? Well, real life's no fairy tale. The princess didn't have to paddle twenty miles after breakfast, did she? But maybe you do. So you need your shut-eye.

It took me a while to figure this out. There was even a time when I thought sleepless nights were a necessary part of backcountry life. I guess I figured that it wasn't real unless it hurt. I took pride in being "tough," in other words — in laughing off whatever punishment nature threw my way. But no longer. Why this change in my attitude? Put it down to two things: growing older and growing up. Let's face facts. I don't bounce back from a hard day (or a bad night) as quickly as I did when I was twenty. This is only part of the story, however. I've also learned that there's a lot more to life than toughing it out. "Roughing it" has lost its appeal. Of course, whatever you do to make yourself comfortable, there aren't any guarantees that you'll sleep like a baby every single night. But you can improve the odds. Start with the right sleeping bag. That's half the battle won already. Still, a good bag isn't enough by itself. What you put under you is just as important as what goes over you. After all, the beds that nature provides are usually both hard and cold, and there are really only two things you can do about this. You can stay home — not an option that will appeal to many paddlers — or you can improve on what nature offers.

Old-time guides like my grandfather took this idea of improving on nature literally, and they elaborated it until it was a minor art form. While their "sports" fished or lazed about in camp, the guides made repeated trips to the closet of the woods, returning with armload after armload of freshly cut spruce boughs. They then shingled these boughs to form a springy mattress, finishing the job by putting a fragrant balsam tip at the head of the bed to insure that all the sport's dreams were sweet. That was a long time ago, however. Trees are now too important for us to sacrifice any for a single night's comfort. Given the number of backcountry travelers today — not to mention the depleted state of the closet of the woods — bough beds are frowned on even in the few places where they're not already illegal. They also take a long time to make, time that most of us would rather spend doing other things. And we're in luck. The bough bed may be history, but technology has stepped in to fill the gap.

Engineered materials and innovative designs have revolutionized the camp bed, and the problem of smoothing the bumps has been reduced to choosing the right portable mattress. Flip through any outfitter's catalog. You'll likely find pages of them. Look more carefully, though, and you'll notice that there are only a few major types. You can sleep on air, on open-cell foam, on closed-cell foam, or — and this is probably the most popular alternative today — on a sort of air-foam hybrid. Let's look at the oldest of these first:

Sleeping on Air

There were air mattresses long before Garrison Keillor dialed in his Sleep Number®. In fact, air beds were part of many Victorian canoeists' kit. And they're still a pretty good choice for paddlers. When deflated, an air mattress rolls into as small a package as you could wish. Puff in just enough air to get your butt off the ground, however, and the mattress provides surprising comfort — though anyone trying to sleep on an overinflated air mattress will end up bouncing around like a dinghy sailor caught napping by a sudden storm. Old-style air mattresses, like old-style waders, were made of rubberized canvas. These can still be found, but they're heavy and prone to rot. Coated nylon is a better choice. An air mattress has to hold air to be a mattress, obviously, so don't forget a patch kit. And if you think you may run out of puff at a critical moment, consider a small pump. Few paddlers will want to bother, I suppose, though if you paddle an inflatable, you might just as well take advantage of the pump you'll have to bring along for your boat. (You'll probably need an adaptor for the nozzle, however.)

Downsides? Not many. A bad seam can let go with an explosive bang, and a blown seam puts any air mattress out of action forever, but bad seams are rare in well-made and well-cared-for air mattresses. Test yours before each trip by inflating it hard and then flopping down on it. If it passes the test, seam failure is unlikely. Of course, an air mattress with a slow leak will also let you down, usually in the middle of the night. There won't be any bang this time, and that's certainly a good thing. But it's still no fun to search for an almost invisible puncture by the uncertain beam of a flashlight at two in the morning, is it? Prevention is always better than cure. So play it safe. Police your tent site before you stretch out, removing any thorns, sharp stones, and splintery sticks — not to mention fragments of beer bottle. Valves occasionally develop leaks, too, and these leaks are often difficult or impossible to repair. The remedy? Replace any air mattress whose valve shows signs of wear.

Is that all? Not quite. Air mattresses can be cold. This won't matter in high summer at low latitudes, but it can cause you a lot of misery if you're headed up North, or if you often paddle during the shoulder seasons. Fortunately, there's a simple fix. Just put a…

Foam Pad

…on top of your air mattress, and the problem's solved. Or simplify your life even more and eliminate the air mattress altogether. There are dozens of proprietary foams, but all of them fall into one of two camps: open-cell or closed-cell. Open-cell foam is the soft, squishy stuff used in much upholstered furniture and many household mattresses. No matter how useful it is around the house, however, it has real drawbacks in camp. Because it's so squishy, you'll need a thick pad to soften the sting of hard ground, and this thick pad won't pack small. Open-cell foam also soaks up any water it comes in contact with — a significant shortcoming in a paddler's mattress, especially as it's slow to dry out into the bargain. Not a happy combination, I'm afraid. Maybe that's why the egg-crate-like open-cell foam pads that used to be so common are rarely seen outside RV parks nowadays.

On the other hand, flexible closed-cell foams like the venerable Ensolite® absorb very little water. In fact, they're used in making PFDs. But closed-cell foam isn't altogether free from fault. It's not very soft, for one thing, and it doesn't compress readily. This makes closed-cell foam pads very good insulators but rather hard mattresses. And it also makes them awkward to fold and stow. (In an effort to improve their carrying qualities, some modern closed-cell pads are scored or segmented. This helps. A bit.) Still, closed-cell foam makes a serviceable mattress for hardy paddlers who place a higher value on efficiency than they do on comfort — and it's a lot better than sleeping on the hard, cold ground. But it's not the holy grail.

What is, you ask? Imagine a pad that combines the comfort and compactness of the air mattress with the insulating power of foam. Sound good? You bet. And you don't have to imagine it. This one already exists. You'll never find a better example of…

Hybrid Vigor

The idea is as simple as it is revolutionary. Take an open-cell foam pad and wrap it in coated nylon or other synthetic. Now stick on a valve. What do have? A warm, self-inflating air mattress, that's what. The coated fabric keeps the foam dry. The foam cradles your backside and keeps you toasty — and its natural resilience makes it inflate automatically just as soon as you crack open the valve on a rolled pad, adding the comfort of air to the warmth of foam. All you have to do then is close the valve and stretch out. Not surprisingly, you'll find examples in every catalog. Therm-a-Rest® popularized the concept and made it work. Today they have more than two dozen different models, from ultralight 20" x 47" x 1" pads for "adventure racers" to 30" x 77" x 3" mattresses for car-camping sybarites. And their many imitators add still more choices to the mix. Obviously, the large mattresses won't fit belowdecks in a touring kayak, but the smallest pads will. It's hard to think of a paddler who couldn't find just what she was looking for.

But are these cleverly engineered mattresses perfect? No — although the downsides are modest. Early versions were covered in fabric so slippery that many folks wakened in the morning to find they'd slid right off their pads. Grippier shells have pretty much made this a thing of the past, however. Of course, any mattress that uses trapped air is vulnerable to punctures, and Therm-a-Rest® mattresses are no exception. (The synthetic shells don't warm to embers from the fire, either.) Unlike an old-style air mattress, however, the enclosed foam provides some residual insulation and cushioning even after all the air's gone out. Repairs are usually straightforward, too.

Anything else? Yes. Notwithstanding the "self-inflating" tag, you may find that you have to add a puff or two of your own wind to get the firmness you like, particularly in cold weather. It's not a great hardship. And cost? What about cost? Ah, yes. Cost. Therm-a-Rest® mattresses aren't cheap. Some models are more expensive than many sleeping bags, in fact. That said, what price do you place on a good night's sleep? You get reasonable value for money, in any case. These mattresses last a long time. A very long time. Mine are still going strong after nearly two decades. Still, if you suffer from sticker shock on seeing the price tag, you can always opt for a less expensive imitator.


OK. Once you've decided on the type and taken the measure of your purse, you're ready to…

Go Shopping

There's not much to say here. All other things being equal, thicker pads are warmer and cushier than thinner ones. They're also harder to stow. Let your backside and the climate be your guide as to how thick is thick enough. Longer and wider pads give you more maneuvering room, to be sure, but each square inch of real estate adds to the bulk of your pack. It's your decision. Roll or fold the pad and see if it fits where it has to go. If it does, you're in business. Short folks and paddlers who are willing to rest their heels on their duffles get a break here. (There are also women's models, but I'm afraid I've no experience with any of them. Can't say I've ever found anything wrong with the old unisex models, though.)

Made your choice? Good. Now try to…

Make It Last Forever

A waterproof stuff sack is essential for open-cell pads, and a good idea for the others. After all, even good paddlers capsize now and then, and rain falls on all of us. Stuff sacks protect pads from snags on the portage trail, too. The rest is common sense. Keep your pad out of the reach of sparks and embers, wipe it clean from time to time, and carry a patch kit if your comfort depends on trapped air. 'Nuff said?

Ever found yourself between a rock and hard place just as you were drifting off to sleep? There's no need to suffer in silence. In fact, there's no need to suffer at all. Between a rock and a hard place is the perfect place for a sleeping pad. But don't put off shopping for the right pad for too long. You get it rough enough during the work week. You want to smooth it on the trail. Now that's the spirit! Sleep tight.

Copyright 2006 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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