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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Now I Lay Me Down…Sleeping on Air

Sleeping on Air

By Tamia Nelson

March 8, 2011

We all start from a common ground of agreement: A good night's sleep helps you cope with whatever the new day holds in store; a bad night ushers in a day of misery. So far, so good. (Or so bad.) And getting your Z's is doubly important on a canoeing or kayaking trip, with the manifold demands on mind and body that any backcountry jaunt entails. But what conclusions follow from these straightforward observations? Most importantly, what's the secret of a good night's sleep in places where bedrooms boasting innerspring mattresses and central heating are few and far between? That's the question, isn't it?

Of course, the years take their toll, too. I used to be able to snatch a few restorative winks almost anywhere I chose. All I asked was a cleared space. I could even catnap in a climbing harness. Now, however, my body demands more comfortable accommodation than a couple of yards of pebble beach or a webbing seat. Roughing it is all well and good when you're 18, but it's less attractive when you embark on your second half‑century. Luckily, technology can smooth out some of the rough spots. A warm sleeping bag is a pearl without price, for instance, whatever your age. But it's not enough in itself. The loftiest bag can't do its job if it isn't paired with a good mattress. Put simply, having the right sleeping pad can make the difference between bliss and wretchedness.

Back in January I described how my never‑ending quest for lightweight comfort led me to buy a Big Agnes Insulated Air Core mattress. And while I haven't yet tested my Big Agnes in all weathers, I've found no reason to regret my purchase. The Insulated Air Core combines the comfort of a traditional air mattress with the warmth of a foam pad, while taking up no more room in my pack than a largish water bottle. Here it is:

The Air Core

Comfortable. Warm. Light. Small. It would seem that the Air Core is a compendium of almost all the virtues. (Is it also Durable? Time will tell.) Yet the Air Core isn't the only contender for the crown in the Comfort Stakes, and quite a few readers wrote to point this out — while others added their own voices to my earlier panegyric on the Air Core. Happily, many of these same writers also gave me permission to reprint excerpts from their e‑mails, and a representative selection of their comments follows, beginning with …

Thoughts on Getting the Air In (and Out)

It's a problem that bedevils anyone who relies on a more‑or‑less conventional air mattress, including the Air Core. Sleeping on air is all well and good, but getting the air into the mattress can be a trial, especially if a long, hard day has left you with little breath to spare. Is there a better way? Reader Robert Olive thinks he's found one:

I hope you like the Big Agnes pad. I've been using one for several years. When possible, I carry a small battery‑operated Coleman air pump to inflate the pad. My friends used to laugh about the pump. Now I use it to inflate everyone's pad in camp. I usually have to roll the pad up three times to get the air out, but it's a small price to pay for sleeping comfort.

A portable pump? I'm not laughing. It's a good idea, though I'm leery of adding another battery‑powered gadget to my swelling array of electronic helpmeets. But I may have an alternative. Since an inflatable canoe is my boat of choice for many "amphibious" jaunts, a high‑volume, low‑pressure foot pump occupies a prominent position on my gear list. It shouldn't be hard for me to adapt this pump to a secondary role as mattress inflator. And I will. Robert's letter draws attention to another problem, too. Not only is it a perishing nuisance to get the air into an air mattress without a pump of some sort, but getting it all out next morning can be a bit of a drag, as well. As Robert also notes, however, this is a small price to pay for a good night's sleep.

Of course, there are other solutions, and one of them is familiar to most paddlers:

The Venerable Therm‑a‑Rest

And for many years these ingenious self‑inflating pads were my mattresses of choice. In fact, I still own two: a cushy Camp Rest that offers innerspring comfort at the cost of considerable weight and bulk, and an old Therm‑a‑Rest shorty that takes up no more space than my new Air Core. Unfortunately, the shorty is too short (and too thin) for real comfort, while the Camp Rest is simply too big and too heavy for any trip where bulk or weight looms large — and that's most trips, I find. Still, there's no denying the convenience of a self‑inflating mattress, and here the Therm‑a‑Rest delivers the goods. Comfort versus convenience? It really isn't an easy decision, as reader Dennis Gibson observes:

Thanks for the review on the Big Agnes Air Core. I have been a big fan of the Therm‑a‑Rest mats for several years, but this Big Agnes may take its place. See, when I was in the Air Force back in the 1980s, we had to spend a couple of months in Southeast Asia in tents. We were issued a mummy‑style seven‑chamber air mattress. This thing was a beauty! Upon arrival back in the US, I got to keep it. I backpacked with it all over New Mexico and Colorado, and slept in relative comfort. Even though it was a rubberized material, it held up well and could be fixed with an inner‑tube patch. It was not nearly as light as what we have now, but neither was anything else in or on my external‑frame backpack.

After bringing it home with me, disaster struck when it was left hanging partially inflated and plugged in an extremely hot garage room. Three or four of the chambers turned into one big chamber, which was impossible to sleep on. I tried to find a replacement to no avail. Mini‑cell foam pads were the thing to have then, and I didn't like them. I went through several camping air mats, but they took forever to blow up and weren't insulated.

Then came Therm‑a‑Rest. I stretched that thing out on the sporting goods showroom floor and laid on it for awhile, ignoring snickers from other shoppers. If I was to spend that much money on an air mattress, I wanted to make sure it worked as advertised on me, with my advanced size. So over the last 15 or so years I've bought three of them. It's not the absolute solution, but it was the best I could find — at least until now.

It looks like I'm going full circle and returning from whence I came. Your encouraging review and an affordable price leads me to believe I should again stretch one out on the showroom floor and let passersby gawk at me while I give the Air Core a test run. It also looks like it will fit through my kayak hatch better than the Therm‑a‑Rest. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Having begun sleeping on air — in this case a military‑issue air mattress — Dennis is about to return to the fold, so to speak. But the Air Core isn't the only choice for paddlers who are looking for air‑mattress comfort. In fact, as reader Steve Day reminded me, Therm‑a‑Rest hasn't been resting on its laurels. It, too, has entered the fray. But let Steve tell the tale in his own words:

Love your series of articles and appreciate your newfound love of the Big Agnes Air Core pads. However, all in all, I much prefer the Therm‑a‑Rest NeoAir pads. They roll up even smaller than the Big Agnes, are lighter, and most importantly, they have the baffles running laterally instead of longitudinally. This provides far greater stability, even when keeping the pad under‑inflated, which allows a more foam‑like comfort. As for insulation, I've camped in temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. So far so good, but it's easy to add a super‑thin foam roll (¼") from Gossamer Gear for temps below that.

It certainly sounds like the NeoAir is a contender. Therm‑a‑Rest's approach to thermal insulation is, if not unique, at least distinctive. Whereas the Insulated Air Core relies on PermaLoft fill to reduce convective loss, the NeoAir uses a "reflective barrier" to limit radiative cooling. And Therm‑a‑Rest's approach has several advantages, since a reflective barrier ought to be both lighter and more compressible than microfiber fill, not to mention being moistureproof. That said, I doubt if it can equal the efficiency of fiberfill insulation, all other things being equal. Still, any difference is probably more theoretical than real.

The same can't be said about price, however, and here the Air Core enjoys a clear advantage. The NeoAir is just about twice as expensive as its heavier competitor. Is this important? That's for you to decide.


Thus far, I've contrasted new‑fashioned air mattresses like the Air Core and NeoAir — which for all their newishness still require blowing up — with self‑inflating pads (e.g., the original Therm‑a‑Rest). But reader Melanie Jack points out that there's …

A Third Way

And it just might give paddlers the best of both worlds. But let's hear what Melanie has to say:

There is always a raging debate among backpackers about sleeping pads. The top two mattresses at backpacking forums are the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core and the Exped SynMat 7 Pump, with synthetic insulation, or its cousin, the DownMat 9, which has down insulation. Now, if you consider comfort only, the Exped comes out on top among experienced backpackers. I've owned both the Exped and the Big Agnes, I would rate the Exped as about 50 percent more comfortable. The Exped is thicker, the tubes are wider, the fabric feels excellent on bare skin in the summer (it's soft), and it doesn't slide around on the tent floor like the Big Agnes.

The only reason why many backpackers prefer the Big Agnes is that the Exped is a bit heavier. Since differences of a few ounces are not a concern to kayak campers, I'm willing to stick my neck out and say that the Exped SynMat 7 in the wide version is the Holy Grail of any mattress that you can reasonably fit in a kayak. The wider width keeps your arms from falling off the sides. I thought the Big Agnes was pretty good — until I tried the Exped.

A notorious complaint with Big Agnes mattresses is that they are overrated for warmth. There are no similar complaints with the Expeds. This might be of interest to folks who kayak camp in the spring and fall. Also, the Exped is considered more durable. The Exped has a built‑in pump. It's not the greatest design, but I find it easier to inflate than the Big Agnes.

Just one warning about the Expeds. It's very hard to fold them compactly and get them back into the itty‑bitty stuff sack, especially in the field. Smart backpackers just fold them and lay them in the bottom of their packs. For kayak camping I roll it up and secure it with a large rubber band. A better solution, and one which would protect the mattress, is to use a larger stuff sack than the supplied sack.

The Exped SynMat 7 would indeed seem to offer the best of both worlds: the comfort of an air mattress with something close to the classic Therm‑a‑Rest's ease of inflation. (A built‑in pump still needs to be pumped, to be sure. But this has to beat huffing and puffing.) And though I have some difficulty imagining anything more comfortable than my Air Core, I've no doubt that Melanie knows whereof she speaks. After all, she's used both mattresses. I haven't. Yet there's one cardinal virtue the Exped doesn't possess: economy. It costs half again as much as the Air Core. You could buy an inexpensive sleeping bag for the difference. I did, in fact. Is the SynMat worth the extra cost? Well, Melanie clearly thinks so. And you might, too.


There you have it. Four thoughtful letters. Four distinctive views of an important subject. So, what's …

The Bottom Line?

Good question. After several decades when air mattresses were relegated to car camping and horse packing, they've now been rediscovered by self‑propelled backcountry travelers. Why? That's easy. Today's Air Cores, NeoAirs, and Expeds are a far cry from their awkward predecessors: They're warmer, lighter, and more compact. This being the case, it's hard to see how you could go wrong with any of the three mattresses we've been discussing. Whichever one you choose, you're sure to enjoy sleeping on air!

Having the right mattress can make the difference between bliss and misery in camp. But "right" is a slippery word. What's right for me might not be right for someone else. The important thing? Find out what works — for you. I've found my bliss with the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core mattress, and so have some of In the Same Boat's readers. Others, however, have discovered that ultimate comfort lies elsewhere. What about it? Have you, too, returned to sleeping on air? And do you have a favorite camp mattress? If so, just drop me a line. I'll pass the word along. After all, assuring restful nights in the backcountry is too important to be left to chance.

Copyright © 2011 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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