One Foot in the Grave? No Way!
Strike a Blow for Comfort—
Send in the Air Core!
By Tamia Nelson
January 11, 2011
What with one thing and another, I'm no stranger to hard knocks. I haven't exactly led a sheltered life, and even the things I've done for fun would strike a lot of sensible people as pretty crazy: like running rapids, say, or climbing frozen waterfalls, or hauling an inflatable boat down a jeep trail with a bike. And what about standing in the icy water of a snowmelt‑swollen stream while trying to entice torpid trout to strike? Lunacy, plain and simple. Yet I've always thought that—with the important exception of training exercises intended to harden participants to discomfort—roughing it just for the sake of roughing it made no sense at all. In other words, whatever I've done, I've always tried to make myself as comfortable as circumstances allowed. Nessmuk said it best, I think: "We do not go to the green woods and crystal waters to rough it, we go to smooth it. We get it rough enough at home … with the necessity … of keeping up, catching up, or getting left." Of course, a cynic might wonder if the "limber‑go‑shiftless" woodsman's wife and kids didn't have a rougher time of it than he did, but that doesn't make Nessmuk's observation less apt, does it?
In any event, the passage of the years has done nothing to alter my preference for smoothing it over roughing it, a predilection reinforced almost daily, as my back, shoulders, hips, and knees remind me that the fabric of the human body is subject to wear and tear. All the more reason, then, to opt for comfort if comfort is possible. Which isn't to say that I'm about to stop doing what I enjoy. I just smooth it whenever I can, wherever I can—and smoothing it, for me at any rate, begins with a good night's sleep. A warm sleeping bag and a springy mattress go a long way toward making any backcountry trip more enjoyable. Which is why I recently emptied out the dark recesses of my gear closet and took a long, careful look at…
My Bedding's Bottom Line
Not surprisingly, some of my portable mattresses have stiffened up over the years. (In this respect they resemble their owner.) Older closed‑cell foam pads are the worst in this regard. The most venerable of these, a featherweight, canary‑yellow poly mat whose maker and brand name I've long since forgotten, was so creased and cracked that I'd already whittled off chunks to pad the interior of my ammo can‑cum‑camera case. My three‑quarter length Ensolite pad, on the other hand, remains relatively supple, but it's for insulation, not comfort. It does precious little to smooth the way to slumber for anyone who likes to sleep on her side, as I do. A pillow helps somewhat by supporting my head and neck, but sleeping on hard ground with only an Ensolite mattress is still survival sleeping. Comfort ain't in it. For that I have to look elsewhere. Air mattresses long set the standard for backcountry bedding, and while they don't do much to insulate sleepers from cold earth, there's no denying that they can smooth out the stoniest site. Colin Fletcher wrote eloquently about them in the first edition of The Complete Walker, and Farwell followed his lead, treasuring an obscenely heavy rubberized canvas specimen and nursing it along for years until its seams finally gave way, letting him down for good. I, on the other hand, preferred lightweight foam pads, which, if they didn't offer me the same degree of comfort as sleeping on air, at least didn't spring leaks in the small hours of the night.
Comfort or reliability? For a long time, paddlers had to choose between the two. An air mattress gave you the first; closed‑cell foam, the second—plus insulation. Nothing gave you both. (Early open‑cell foam pads were an unhappy attempt at compromise. Not only did they soak up moisture like a sponge, but it was impossible to roll them into a bundle much smaller than a sailor's duffle bag.) Then a couple of Boeing engineers had a better idea. By the simple expedient of encapsulating an exiguous open‑cell foam pad in an airtight nylon envelope they revolutionized the backcountry traveler's bottom line. Their brainstorm, marketed under the Therm‑a‑Rest brand, achieved the near‑impossible, melding air‑mattress comfort with the warmth and dependability of closed‑cell foam. Yes, it was still possible to puncture a Therm‑a‑Rest, but it didn't happen often. The nylon shells were very tough. And on the rare occasions when a thorn or sharp stone breached a Therm‑a‑Rest's defenses, repair was usually straightforward. Better yet, the wispy foam pad inside the Therm‑a‑Rest blunted the sting of the hard, cold ground until a patch was in place. It didn't provide very much cushioning, truth be told, but at least it didn't let you down as hard as an airless air mattress. Modern‑day Therm‑a‑Rests are no less dependable.
And the Therm‑a‑Rest had one further advantage: it was (and still is) self‑inflating. Anyone who'd huffed and puffed for what seemed like hours to blow up a conventional air mattress welcomed the change. In the end, even Farwell came on board. Me? I was an early adopter. In fact, I acquired two Therm‑a‑Rests: a big, thick, full‑length version for canoe camping, along with a more compact stablemate for backpacking, kayaking, and cycle‑touring. I still have them, in fact, and they've served me well. But nothing's perfect, is it? And the smaller Therm‑a‑Rest, while far more comfortable than a closed‑cell foam pad, isn't exactly cushy. It's more than adequate on the soft duff of the forest floor, but it doesn't do very much to cushion the blow when I have to bed down on rock—or spend a night on the well‑trodden ground of a heavily used campsite, for that matter.
Unfortunately, that's often the case these days. Wilderness parks frequently require paddlers to use only designated campsites, and these sites see a lot of traffic. Moreover, I often combine paddling and cycling, camping along the road on my way to a mountain river, bog, or lake. And few roadside camps have much soft duff to offer. In fact, many campgrounds now harden all their sites to accommodate RVs and wheelchair‑users. The result? On several occasions last year, I found myself thinking fondly of the old‑fashioned air mattress. So when I stumbled across something called the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core in a catalog recently, it got my attention. Could this, I wondered, be…
The Holy Grail?
The pitch was decidedly enticing. The Insulated Air Core supposedly combined the comfort of a traditional air mattress with the insulation of a foam pad—and all this in a lightweight, compact package, to boot. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, right? So I ordered one, and I was soon the owner of a seeming contradiction in terms, a "petite" Big Agnes. My first impressions were favorable. When stuffed for packing, my Big Agnes was petite in truth as well as in name. Not much larger than a 1‑liter water bottle, in fact.
So far, so good. And in the process of removing the Big Agnes from its stuff sack I made another happy discovery. A pocket in the stuff sack's flap contained a small repair kit. It's a nice touch.
The valve (see the right‑hand photo, above) is interesting, too. The Big Agnes is an air mattress. It's not self‑inflating. It has to be blown up. But the process is made easier by the cleverly designed valve. One of the enduring frustrations in blowing up any air mattress stems from the fact that you have to remove the valve from your mouth to close it. Trust me: After you've puffed yourself red in the face filling the thing, the hiss of escaping air is not music to your ears. But the Air Core's valve has two parts. Once you've inflated the mattress, you just keep the outer half of the valve between your lips while you screw the lower half closed. It sounds awkward, but it's not—and no air hisses away in the process.
In any case, inflating the Big Agnes was less trouble than I remembered from my past bouts with other air mattresses. (Maybe climbing Adirondack hills on a loaded bike has improved my wind. It's possible, I suppose.) And the result was worth it: the Air Core is long enough (66 inches) for me to stretch out, wide enough (20 inches) for me to sleep on my side, and thick enough (2½ inches) to gentle the gnarliest ground.
Or so I thought. But I wanted to put it to the test. Unhappily, I couldn't drop everything and head for the hills the day the package came in the post, so I did the next best thing. When night fell, I stretched out on a hard floor in an unheated room, with only the Air Core under my sleeping bag. The result? Total comfort—and as anyone who's ever slept on the floor will know, there are few less forgiving surfaces. Even a gravel RV pad can be contoured to accommodate your shoulders and hips, after all. But not a hardwood floor. So I'm confident that the Big Agnes will prove plenty comfortable in roadside and riverbank camps, however hard‑packed or stony the ground. The microfiber insulation trapped in the tubes will be mighty welcome on cold nights, too. Paddlers with long memories may recall when winter campers slit open their air mattresses in order to insert a few ounces of down. This wasn't a very satisfactory expedient, however. Unless you used a pump to blow up the mattress afterward, the down soon became a sodden mash, and the air mattress reverted to refrigerator mode. But the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core brings the idea up to date, substituting synthetic PrimaLoft for down. It's rated to 15 degrees Fahrenheit, and it should shrug off the moisture that enters with each inflating puff. I'm looking forward to testing it.
In the meantime, I had another problem: getting the air out of my Big Agnes so I could get it back into the stuff sack. As luck would have it, this proved somewhat harder than getting air in, but I managed to speed things along by opening the valve and lying on the mattress until it went flat. That had the additional advantage of curing me of any tendency to linger overlong in bed!
So much for first impressions. But…
How Will Big Agnes Perform in the Wild?
Only time will tell, and I'm reluctant to pass judgment on any new item of gear until I've lived with it for a year or more. Still, the early indications are promising. The Air Core is light and compact, weighing only a few ounces more than my small Therm‑a‑Rest and rolling up into a significantly tidier package. Even more important, the Big Agnes is supremely comfortable, hips … er … head and shoulders above the skinny Therm‑a‑Rest, let alone an even thinner Ensolite pad. That in itself would clinch the deal for me, though it helps that the price is reasonable. The Air Core should prove durable, too, provided that I keep it away from campfire embers and thorns, that is—though if I ever let my guard down, there's always the handy repair kit right in the bag. Of course, I'll also dry it thoroughly after every trip and fold it loosely for storage between outings. But that's just common sense.
The bottom line? The Air Core and I are going places. And on the strength of my experience to date, I'm confident this is one decision I won't lose any sleep over.
None of us is getting any younger. The cold, hard ground isn't getting any softer, either. Which makes the choice of sleeping pad one of the most important decisions facing every comfort‑loving paddler. Years ago, I rejected the venerable air mattress in favor of the first in a long line of foam pads, and I haven't looked back. Until now, that is. Big Agnes has just redefined my notion of backcountry comfort. Now I'm sleeping on air. On a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core mattress, to be exact. And that's not a bad place to be. After all, smoothing it beats roughing it any day.
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