Monday, 17 May 2010

Kit review: Thermarest Neoair mattress

I am partial to camping. As I have mentioned before, I am not a great fan of the lightweight hiking ethic, preferring to carry a little more weight and to be more comfortable. Sometimes, however, a product comes along that meets both the lightweight and comfort requirements.

For the last eight years I have been using an Artiach skin-mat, an inflatable sleeping mat that I picked up cheap from a chop in Cambridge. It had served me fairly well, and was far superior to the foam pad that I had been using before - it was more compact and comfortable.

Recently, however, the skin-mat has started deflating during the night, and it became time to change it. I was aware that technology had moved on, and I started reading reviews of the new Thermarest Neoair inflatable mattress. All of the reviews were glowing, so with some reluctance I got out my credit card and ordered one from Backpackinglight. It comes in four sizes and I picked the regular size, the second-longest available (of small, medium, regular and large). The cost was just under a hundred pounds, and I could only hope that it was worth the money.

The mattress arrived two days later, along with a few other small bits and bobs and a tube of complimentary sweets. I munched on the latter as I opened the mattress packaging. My first impressions of the mattress were positive - it was much smaller and lighter than I had expected when rolled up, about half the weight and size of the skin-mat (see right). The underside has a reflective barrier, whilst the top surface is a rather sickly yellow-green colour. One problem with ultralight gear is robustness, but the mat did not feel particularly fragile; the material seemed strong and fairly rip-proof. Having said that, it will be less robust than (say) a thick foam mat, and I wold not want to use it without a ground sheet.

I inflated the mattress in our living room, much to the amusement of a Turkish house-guest who was staying with us due to the disruption caused by the ash cloud. Again, my impressions were positive - the mattress is far thicker than the skin-mat, slightly longer (I had ordered the long version) and warmer against the skin. The only downside was that it took much more puff to inflate it; hardly a major problem.

It took me a few minutes to deflate it and roll it up, a process that proved surprisingly difficult to get right first time. I spent a night sleeping on it in my small Jack Wolfskin Gossamer tent, and it proved to be a brilliant mattress - comfortable and well insulated from the ground. The only problems were that it was thicker, reducing the head height in the cramped tent, and that it took me an age to deflate and pack up.

Last week I set off on my first backpacking trip with the new mat. My first night was spent wild camping on a grassy lowland hillside. The pitch was uneven, but after checking for any sharp objects I inflated the mat. It was a cold and frosty night, but at no time did my back feel a chill from the ground. It proved easier to deflate after a little practice, the secret being to get rid of all the air before even trying to pack it up (rolling the skin-mat up ready for packing tended to squeeze all of the air out; the air escapes into other parts of the Neoair if I try this, a bit like squeezing a half-inflated balloon). I let the air out of it as I was lying on it, and a sign of its insulating properties is that my back got cold as it deflated.

The next night was spent on a slightly-sloping campsite, and again the Neoair performed sterling service. One of the problems with camping matresses is slipping down it during the night, causing you to have to shuffle up every few hours. This did not occur with the Neoair despite the slope, perhaps due to the lateral ridges on the surface.

Although I have only had limited experience of this mattress, I have been very impressed. If you are going to be doing a great deal of camping then it is well worth the cost. My only nagging doubt is about how robust it is: unlike a foam or self-inflating mat, when it deflates it is essentially useless, with no insulating value at all. Time will tell, but for the moment I am more than happy with this mattress.

1 comment:

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