We’ve all experienced nights out under the stars where we’ve been reminded that there is a reason we normally sleep in soft, warm beds rather than on the cold, lumpy ground. Many paddlers have opted for greater comfort when camping by using self-inflating mats, including Therm-a-Rests, or reverted to their primate heritage by hanging around in trees.
Hammocks........most sane people appreciate that the only thing that really looks good in a fishnet wrapping is a shapely leg, not a snoring sweaty bloke!
When Therm-a-Rest launched their mats over twenty years ago they genuinely revolutionised the level of comfort we all came to expect when sleeping outdoors. Whilst a huge step up from the Karrimat we had previously known and loved, they were still not great on lumpy ground or for those of maturing years whose bones were starting to creak.
Traditional airbeds were therefore the logical alternative. Their problem was that they were either lightweight but, flimsy and easily damaged or robust but, ridiculously heavy rubberised-cotton affairs. Either way they were always a fuss to inflate and guaranteed to give the sleeper a chilly night as the cold air circulated inside the reeds, drawing heat away from the body.
The new Thermarest NeoAir sleeping system attempts to address this dilemma by providing the comfort of a proper airbed with the insulating properties of a closed cell mat, along with the robustness and ease of inflation that have become the watchwords of Therm-a-Rest products. The question is, have they succeeded?
What You Get
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Inflatable Mattress is an airbed, that requires inflating, costing approximately £100. In its ‘large’ variant it is 196 cm long, 63 cm wide, 6.3 cm thick and weighs 550 g. Although it works fine on its own it comes with some rather useful optional extras.
The Fitted Sheet is a detachable polyester non-slip cover costing approximately £20 and weighing 312 g.
It is attached by elasticated and rubberised straps that are designed to grip the surface it is resting on.
The Alpine 35 Down Blanket is a 20D nylon and 700-fill goose down duvet, costing approximately £170 and weighing 672 g. It is graded to + 2 degrees C and is designed to provide a light and compact warm layer as an alternative to using a sleeping bag. It has an elasticized foot box and ‘snaps’ that allow it to attach to the Fitted Sheet.
The AirTap Pump Kit is a clever little ‘nozzle’ that can be punched through a plastic bag and fits onto the valve on any Therm-a-Rest mattress to allow the plastic bag to become an improvised pump. It costs approximately £10 and takes all the hard work out of blowing up the airbed.
Ease Of Use
The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Inflatable Mattress is quick to inflate, particularly when the AirTap Pump Kit is used to blow it up. Attaching the Fitted Sheet is a little fiddly the first time you do it but, after that is pretty straightforward. Attaching the Alpine 35 Down Blanket takes a few minutes but, again is straightforward. Assembling the complete system takes approximately 10 minutes but, this would reduce with practice.
The whole system is designed to take up as little space as possible. The mattress rolls up tight and is much smaller than a comparable conventional Therm-a-Rest self-inflating mattress. The Fitted Sheet and the Alpine 35 Down Blanket also pack up small and are more compact than any alternative sleep systems we’ve used.
There are no two ways about it – this is real luxury. The comfort of the system is unparalleled and waking up in the morning you feel like you’ve slept on a real bed, not on some poor substitute. The 6.3 cm thick mattress takes all but the largest lumps out of the ground and the closed-cell thermal insulation built into it means that the mattress stays warm all the time you are on it.
The Fitted Sheet makes a big difference. It ensures you are still lying on top of the mattress when you wake up in the morning, not lying at the bottom/side of your tent having slipped off. It also adds a little insulation in its own right.
The Alpine 35 Down Blanket is a good idea in principle, and on a warm night it would be enough to keep you comfortable but, it lacks the warmth and flexibility of a zipped down sleeping bag.
Should You Buy It?
This is the question we’ve struggled to answer. The comfort of the NeoAir Inflatable Mattress is unparalleled but, it is expensive. If you struggle to get a good night’s sleep on thinner self-inflating mattresses then it is worth considering. Make sure you get the Fitted Sheet too though; otherwise you’ll find yourself slipping off during the night.
As for the Alpine 35 Down Blanket, at around £170 it can only be compared with a good quality down sleeping bag. A zipped sleeping bag would offer greater flexibility and probably greater comfort too, so you'd have to be a kit junkie who's pretty flush justify the cost.