A good night’s sleep in the backcountry is one of those things that everyone talks about – it is not only a great moral booster but is also vital for your physical recovery. When hiking day after day, sleeping outdoors, it is easy to not sleep well: the unfamiliar environment, the excitement and general tiredness keep you up at night, so maximizing sleeping conditions is a smart move. The one thing I found that helps me the most when sleeping outside is having a comfortable sleeping mat; for me it has been the Therm-A-Rest Neoair for the last 3 years.
Therm-A-Rest is a mat-only company and it is part of the Cascade Designs group – a Seattle, Washington based company. Therm-A-Rest started as a company that made a very specific product: self inflating air mattresses, and that is still the core of Therm-A-Rest’s product line with the Prolite line (comes in a variety of sizes, weights and R-values (defined a bit further down**)).
Therm-A-Rest offer a range of sleeping products with the mattresses being the main selling product and are offered in 3 main categories: Fast & Light, Trek & Travel and Camp & Comfort. The Neoair is actually an older version of the latest lightweight air-mattress: the Neoair Xlite.
The Neoair was released in 2009 as one of the leading insulated air mattresses, being the lightest mattress and offering an R-value of 2.5. The mat features vertical tubes with a reflective internal material that offer that great R-value along with a very low weight and extreme compactness, much lighter and smaller than any other mat on the market at the time.
The Neoair comes in 4 sizes:
- Small – 260 g, 119×51 cm (9 oz, 47×20 in)
- Medium – 370 g, 168×51 cm (13 oz, 66×20 in)
- Regular – 410 g, 183×51 cm (14 oz, 72×20 in) – I measured 398 g for my mat.
- Large – 550 g, 196×63 cm, (1 lbs 3 oz, 77×25 in)
All 4 sizes have a R-value of 2.5 and 6.3 inches in thickness.
** R-Value – R-value is the thermal resistance that an insulating material has; the higher the number, the more resistance it offers and the better it is. Different materials offer various R-values with 2.5 considered the minimum level for 3 season use. R-value is cumulative, in combining mats (or anything with an R-value) you will just increase an R-value.**
The mattress is made from nylon with a PU-coated nylon core that has the reflective technology. The combination of nylon and PU results in a slightly stiff and crinkly fabric, very robust and light, but tends to be noisy (just crinkles as you move on it). For some the noisiness is too much but when I sleep outdoors I’m too tired to hear or care so it has never been an issue.
The mat is supplied with a stuff sack (that I lost long ago) and a repair kit. Personally I used the repair kit to fix other gear as it is a clear patch with adhesive – great to fix waterproofs or windproof fabrics. To keep the mat together when rolled I just use two heavy duty rubber bands – a light and simple solution.
Lately the Neoair has been updated to a new version by Therm-A-Rest – the Neoair Xlite. The Xlite version is indeed lighter than the original (60 g/1 oz) Neoair and offers higher R-Value at 3.2, making it a much better mat that is lighter and warmer. The Xlite is mummy shaped, compared to the original rectangular Neoair, which might be an issue for restless sleepers.
Since the original Neoair has been discontinued it can be found heavily discounted, so it is the time to get a great deal.
How I use it
Since buying the Neoair I’ve used it (or one of the two we have) on every outdoors night out I have had, and I mean everywhere: all my over night trips in the UK, a trip in the USA, in the Alps, Germany and maybe more that I can’t recall.
The mat has been used on most surfaces including bog, sand, frozen tundras, slate and more, in a tent or part of a bivy (straight on the ground) and from all that I can honestly say that of the two mats we bought, only one suffered a puncture at some point. All my abuse, using the mats without much carefulness led to one of the Neoairs having the habit of losing air during the night, not going fully flat but just losing the insulation enough to be uncomfortable and feel the cold from the ground.
Since that puncture in one of the mats, I’ve been using just the other one, planning to repair the leaking one. During the year in which the mat was leaking, I made several attempts to find the leak and fix it with no success and much water on the bathroom floor. I tried to find the hole by putting the whole mat in the bath or trying to find the bubbling when the mat is just wet but with no success, it just leaked none the less. After those attempts I decided to get in touch with Cascade Designs (Consumer@CascadeDesigns.ie) via the UK Distributor (WT Distribution Services Ltd) and ask about a repair. I was told to send the mat to the Ireland repair center:
CASCADE DESIGNS LTD.
Dwyer Road, Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland
I sent the mattress being fully aware that I might be charged for the repair and waited to hear from Therm-A-Rest about the verdict of my mat. Four weeks after sending the mat to Ireland I received the Neoair back, fixed and clean, looking pretty much new, with instructions on where to send the £15 repair charge . It was so refreshing to see a company that still believes in the honesty system that I had no problem paying for the repair, giving Cascade Designs an extra few points in my book.
This coming winter I intend to continue using my Neoair, but pairing it with my Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Sol to get a higher R-value (5.1) while keeping the comfort of an air mat. The foam mat acts as an extra insurance in case of a problem. Though this comes with a weight penalty of 800 g, it is worth the warmth and the comfort.
In addition to the Neoair, I have the Neoair Pump Sac by Therm-A-Rest and I use it as a dry bag for my sleeping bag and night clothes. This pump is a little spoil but I really have no energy to blow the mat full at the end of the day, it just makes me dizzy. Instead I just run the pump 3-4 times and I’m done (maybe a little top up with my lungs). This is a highly recommended addition and as I said, can be used as a dry bag.
I also added some dots of seam seal on the bottom of the mat as I find it to be slippery on the floors of tents, especially in less than perfect camping spots.
- Good surface space
- Packs very well
- Very hard to fix if leaking
- Noisy fabric that might disturb some
- New alternatives exist
- Fabrics a little slippery on the tent’s floor
- Can be insufficient for cold sleepers as a 3 season mat
After the many nights I have spent with the Neoair, I can’t imagine sleeping outdoors without it. In combination with my PHD sleeping bag they are my bed away from home, offering a comfortable and comforting place. I think that despite the new Neoair Xlite, the original Neoair has a much better shape that makes it much more comfortable.
I know that for serious ultralight backpackers an air mat is an item of luxury, but I tend to toss and turn and I find an air mat a lifesaver; the Neoair manages to represent for me the perfect balance of warmth, comfort and weight. If you manage to find a great deal on the original Neoair, get one, no doubt about it, and ensure you have a great night sleep outdoors.