For many years, I just used simple closed cell foam pads for everything; camping, climbing, whatever. I have a full length yellow Karrimat (closed cell evazote foam) that I bought in Hong Kong in the mid 1980’s that I used contentedly for decades. In really cold conditions, I just put a thinner evazote pad under my torso, and I was good.
However, as I’ve grown older, I have found that my old bones need a little more padding and insulation in order to get a decent night’s sleep and not wake up with aches in my shoulders, back, and hips. Because the ground has become harder and I’ve become softer, I’ve mostly migrated to inflatable sleeping pads. However, the exception to this is if I’m climbing and I’m going to be doing an open bivi without a tent. In this situation, I will still take a closed cell pad. Closed cell pads are pretty much indestructible, and can stand up to being scraped and poked on rough rocks. I use a length of shock cord to keep the pad rolled up, and when I lay the pad out to sleep on it, I thread the shock cord through a hole in one corner and use this to tie the pad down so it won’t blow away in the night.
The best closed cell foam pads are pressure blown evazote foam. The best place to buy them in North America is at Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada. Cascade Designs makes a couple of closed cell foam pads, the RidgeRest and the Z-Rest. These pads are supposed to be more comfortable than traditional closed cell foam because of ridges or bubble shaped indentations built into the pads. I haven’t found much difference in actual use, however. The Z-Rest does have the advantage of folding easily and taking up marginally less space than a rolled pad. In use, however, I tend to prefer the smooth surface of the traditional evazote pads, as the smooth surface doesn’t collect snow or water like the surfaces of the RidgeRest or Z-Rest.
Self Inflating Open Cell Foam Core Pads
My first move away from closed cell foam was to a self inflating pad with an open cell foam core. These were first popularized by Cascade Designs as the Thermarest pad. I have used numerous variations of the Thermarest self-inflating pad open cell foam pads, typically favoring the lighter models in a half length size.
They’re a bit heavier than closed cell foam pads, but they are a lot more comfortable, and they fold up a lot more compactly than a closed cell pad.
Over the years, self inflating pads have become lighter and more compact.
The big concern with these pads is that they are susceptible to getting punctured. Mark Twight, in his book, Extreme Alpinism, discourages the use of inflatable pads for this reason. However, in all the years I’ve used them, I’ve only ever had one puncture of a Thermarest, and that was on a car camping trip. I repaired the hole with a repair kit.
Steve House used one on his ascent of Nanga Parbat. I guess if they’re good enough for House, they’re probably good enough for me.
Besides warmth and comfort, one of the the real benefits of an inflatable pad is that they are much less bulky when deflated and I can easily carry it inside of my pack rather than strapping it to the outside.
Here are my thoughts on some of the self inflating open cell foam core pads I’ve used.
Note that all of these pads are short length pads that go from shoulders to hips. I don’t use full length pads of this type as they are too heavy and bulky for my tastes.
Thermarest Prolite 3 small pad 14.2 ounces R 2.2 Comfort B- This is the current lightweight model of the classic thermarest. It packs small, and has enough insulation for 3 season use. It’s not particularly thick, and you need to blow it up a bit as it needs to be inflated firmly for comfort, particularly for side sleeping.
Thermarest Prolite Plus small pad 16.6 ounces R 3.8 Comfort B This is the winter version of the classic thermarest. It’s thicker, which provides more comfort and also more insulation in cold weather. It’s a bit heavier and bulkier than it’s three season sibling.
Ortik Backlite small pad 13.9 ounces R 4.5 Comfort B-This is a minimalistic sleeping pad that is targeted at alpine climbers. It is slightly thicker than the Thermarest Prolite 3, but it has a more tapered shape. It has the best non-slip surface of any of the pads, and when deflated, scrunches down to a very compact package. Ortik lists the R value as 4.5, but I don’t think I trust this R rating. Unless there’s some hidden magic going on with this pad, my guess is that the R value is likely closer to an R3, as this pad is part way between the Prolite and Prolite Plus in thickness. (I haven’t slept on it in cold enough weather to actually ascertain a lower limit for this pad.)
Inflatable Air Mattress Pads
Recently, a new type of inflatable sleeping pad has come onto the market. These are inflatable pads that don’t have an open cell foam core. Obviously, inflatable pads have been around a long time. Your standard Wal-Mart slumber party air mattress is an inflatable pad. However, these pads typically have been heavy and have had poor insulative value in cold weather.
These drawbacks of air mattresses have been addressed with the use of ultra-light materials and the clever addition of reflective and/or insulating materials inside of the air mattresses. Exped air mattresses use down or synthetic materials in their air mattresses to provide insulation, while Cascade Designs (the Thermarest company) uses reflective films and baffles to provide insulation in their NeoAir air mattresses. The result of eliminating the open cell foam core means that these air mattresses are lighter and less bulky than traditional Thermarest type mattresses.
The down side of these air mattresses is that if they are punctured, they provide almost no insulation at all, (while with a standard thermarest, you still have some insulative value from the open cell foam.)
Although there were initial reports of numerous defective Neoair mattresses when they were first released, Cascade Designs seems to have worked out these quality control issues, and the current crop of air mattresses seem to be less prone to popping and leaking. I’ve got about 40 nights on various models of these air mattresses, and have yet to have a problem with leaking, even though most of these nights I was sleeping with the mattress directly on the ground (no tent floor.)
These air mattresses have pretty much replaced the open cell foam core inflatable mattresses as my standard pad for just about any activity now.
One note on these mattresses. The tend to be significantly thicker than other types of sleeping pads. Because of this, I find that I am not comfortable sleeping on a half-length pad. My first Neoair pad was half length, and I found that my legs hung off the end in an uncomfortable manner. Because of this, all of my inflatable air mattress pads are now full length.
NeoAir full length pad 13.6 ounces R 2.5 Comfort A This was the original Cascade Designs air mattress. It relies on reflective insulation baffles to provide insulation. I really like this pad a lot. It’s more comfortable than a traditional open cell foam Thermarest, and is relatively light and compact. It’s a little bit crinkly and noisy, but that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve used this pad directly on the ground, and haven’t had any punctures, in spite of the occasional contact with rocks, sticks, and pine needles. Cascade Designs now has an even lighter model out, and they will no doubt continue to improve them as time goes on.
NeoAir All Season full length pad 17.9 ounces R 4.9 Comfort A This is the 4 season version of the Neoair. It’s a bit heavier, but it provides almost double the insulative value of the regular Neoair. I have used this pad in temperatures hovering around zero degrees Fahrenheit, and never felt any cold seeping in from below. It’s very comfortable, and the surface seems a bit softer and less slippery than the regular Neoair.
NeoAir XTherm full length pad 15.5 ounces R 5.7 Comfort A- This is a lighter weight version of the All Season. It has a tapered shape, which reduces weight, but also reduces the sleeping area, particularly at the foot section. This pad is reportedly even more insulative than the All Season, although I can’t confirm that with actual use, as I received mine in the month of April, after the cold winter months had passed. I have slept on it, however, and it is quite comfortable, comparable to the original Neoair. I gave it a slightly lower comfort rating than the two other NeoAir mattresses because of its tapered shape, which leaves less room for the feet. One nice feature on this pad compared with the other NeoAir pads is that the fill knob doesn’t face upwards, so it doesn’t poke you in the face if you lay your head on it.
Exped Synmat UL 7 full length pad 16.1 ounces R 3.1 Comfort A+ This is my most comfortable sleeping pad. There are a few things about this pad that lead me to give it the highest comfort rating of any sleeping pad I’ve used. First of all, the baffles on this pad are oriented length-wise, with the outside two baffles slightly taller than the others. This means that I am much less prone to sliding off of this pad than any other I’ve used. The material the pad is made from is soft and comfortable and quiet, particularly when compared with the Neoair material. I also like the dual valve feature on this pad. There are two separate one way valves on this pad; one for inflation, and one for deflation. This makes blowing the pad up easier, as air doesn’t escape from the one way valve as you are blowing the pad up. The Exped also rolls down into a very compact package, which is great for long trips, where space is at a premium. Although it is not the lightest of the pads, the Exped is perhaps my favorite of the 3 season pads due to its outstanding comfort and ease of use. It’s a good combination of small packed size, reasonable weight, good insulation, and top of the line comfort.
Klymit Inertia X-Series Pads
There is another, very different type of inflatable on the market as well. These are the strange looking Klymit pads; the full length X-Frame and the short length X-Lite. These inflatable pads have removed the sections where less padding is needed, and kept the padding at the head, shoulders, and hips. They come with a small bulb shaped hand pump to help inflate the pads to a very firm state. This pump only weighs 1.4 ounces and is pretty much essential in order to get the most out of the performance of these pads. These are far and away the smallest and lightest pads available. However, these pads have a few drawbacks First of all, they are not as comfortable as other inflatable pads. They are a step above closed cell foam, but lag behind the other inflatable pads in comfort. The other shortcoming is their cold weather performance. The pads don’t have any significant insulative value. In frigid conditions, cold seeps up from below. Some folks use these pads in cold weather in conjunction with a closed cell foam pad, but that kind of defeats the compact and lightweight benefits of this design. For warm weather, these pads are adequate, and are certainly a step up in comfort if you’re used to sleeping on a closed cell foam pad. They are a bit Spartan for my needs, but for someone who currently uses a lightweight closed cell foam pad, these Klymit pads are a very attractive ultralight alternative, particularly the tiny X-Lite.
So, which pad is best? That really depends on use.
For climbing bivis without a tent, I choose the traditional closed cell foam pad. When you’re planning on sleeping on sharp pointy rocks etc., the durability and fool-proof nature of closed cell foam offsets it’s relative bulk.
For three season use, my pick is the Exped Synmat UL 7. It’s a little heavier than the NeoAir competitor, but I love the comfort enough to carry the few extra ounces.
For winter use, the Xtherm seems to be the winner. It has higher R values and lighter weight than the other cold weather competitors, and has reasonably small bulk when packed as well. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to use this pad in really cold weather, so my conclusions regarding cold weather performance with regards to the XTherm are based solely on my experience with the NeoAir AllSeason and the manufacturer’s specs for this pad.
Below is a chart that compares the various pads. Weights are as weighed by me. R-Values are as provided by the manufacturers. These R Values are not necessarily consistent between different manufacturers, however. My personal experience indicates a higher actual R-value than that listed for closed cell foam evazote pads. My comfort grade is simply my personal opinion of the relative comfort of the pads. The grades shouldn’t be looked at as a statement on absolute comfort, but rather a comparison among the various pads. I’m a side sleeper with achy joints and a history of joint and back injuries, so I tend to grade rather hard on comfort. Someone with less aches and pains or someone who sleeps on their back may have graded many of the pads a bit higher on comfort than I did.
Down or synthetic fill? This question has probably occupied the minds of climbers at least as much as any other gear question. Like the debate regarding Ginger and Maryanne, there is no definitive answer. I have both synthetic and down filled sleeping bags. Here’s how I choose: If I’m only out for a single night, I choose down. It’s lighter and more compressible. For multi-day climbing trips in spring through fall in snowy conditions and/or wet climates, I often choose synthetic, for its ability to dry out my clothing inside my bag. If I need a bag rated colder than 20 degrees, I choose down, because synthetic bags start to become too big and bulky at temperatureranges under about 20 degrees. Also, at colder temperatures, getting your bag wet becomes less likely, as is getting your clothing soaked, so down’s vulnerability to water is less of an issue and you’re less likely to need to dry out soaked clothing in your bag overnight.
I size my bags big. I can’t stand slim-cut sleeping bags. First of all, I like to be able to wear all of my clothing inside the bag at night while I sleep. This allows me to push the temperature rating of the bag significantly lower than it’s nominal rating. I’ve found, as a rule of thumb, that I can lower the nominal rating by about 15 degrees by wearing insulated clothing inside. Secondly, I find that if a bag is too tight, I don’t get a good night’s sleepbecause I find it too constricting to be comfortable. Thirdly, I’m a big, thick guy, and I need a bit more space. For all these reasons, I favor wider cut bags with a bit more girth. If you’re a skinny person, you may find my choices in sleeping bags to be a bit too roomy for your needs.
Here are the bags I use for climbing trips.
Montbell Alpine Burrow synthetic bag (30 Degrees) 32oz. (2 lbs.) This is a good, lightweight synthetic bag. It’s temperature rating is a little bit optimistic, and I need to be wearing something a little heavier than mid weight long johns to be comfortable at 30 degrees. When wearing a puffy jacket and other insulation, I’ve used this bag in temperatures in the low teens, but wasn’t exactly toasty at those temperatures. Montbell’s proprietary stretch construction allows the bag to be comfortable, and yet eliminates big air gaps inside the bag. It’s a system that works well.
Integral Designs Renaissance synthetic bag (20 Degrees) 47.5 oz (2 lbs, 15.5 oz) This is a good bag for colder spring and fall conditions. Integral Designs makes their bags in both standard and “broad” models. (Kind of like the “husky” jeans they sell for fat kids.) I got a broad model to accommodate my “husky” frame and to allow for wearing extra layers. The slimmer-cut standard model shaves a few ounces. This is the warmest synthetic bag that I use any more when I need to carry my bag on my back for any significant length of time. If I need a bag that’s warmer than this one, I go with a down bag.
Marmot Valhalla -20 degree synthetic bag with dryloft cover 73.3 oz (4 lbs, 9.3 oz) This bag is extremely warm, but it is so heavy and bulky, that I seldom use it any more. I suppose it would make a good base camp sleeping bag in Alaska or anywhere you don’t have to carry the bag very far. I’ve used it for car camping and a few times on climbing/skiing trips for really cold nights in the Colorado Rockies, and found it to be very warm and comfortable. However, these days, for really cold conditions, I almost always just take my down filled Lithium or Shocking Blue bags, which are fine for sub-zero temperatures if I layer on clothing inside the bag.
Marmot Hydrogen30 degree down bag 21.6 oz (1 lb., 5.6 oz)
Marmot Helium15 degreee down bag 32.5 (2 lbs, 0.5 oz)
Marmot Lithium 0 degree down bag 41.9 (2 lbs, 9.9oz)
I bought all three of these Marmot down bags the first year they were made. At the time, they were special order, limited production bags, with 900 fill power down,and 1/3 length zippers to save weight. These are terrific down bags. They are light, warm,and the cut is roomy enough that I can comfortably layer on insulated clothing inside. The shell material is somewhat water resistant. The warmth ratings on these bags are very conservative. At their rated temperatures, I can sleep in them with just some lightweight long johns. With additional clothing worn, I can push the comfort range down significantly lower.
Marmot’s current models of these bags have 850 fill power down and full length zippers. Some of them also now have shell fabrics with much better water resistance. (Marmot’s “MemBrain” fabric) They also weigh a bit more than my original versions.
Valandre Shocking Blue 0 degree down bag 48.2 (3 lbs, 0.2 oz)
Valandre rates this bag at a -15 degree rating. I would say that this is a little bit optimistic. Wearing only lightweight long johns, I am comfortable in this bag down to around zero degrees.
However, the Valandre Shocking Blue has some features that make it very adaptable to extremely cold temperatures. First off, the Shocking Blue is cut very large through the torso. Not only does this provide sleeping comfort, but it allows you to wear a really big puffy jacket inside the bag. By “big puffy jacket” I mean something seriously warm, like the Patagonia DAS parka, the Arcteryx Dually parka, or other similar super warm jackets. Wearing your big puffy inside the Shocking Blue makes the system good for temperatures down to double digit sub-zero cold.
Likewise, the footbox of the Shocking Blue is oversized. It will easily accommodate your double boot liners, water bottle, and other stuff you need to keep warm during the night, and it’s comfortable and warm for your feet as well.
The draft collar, (dubbed the “Marie Antoinette Collar” due to its guillotine-like security,) works well to seal out drafts, but is somewhat complicated and fiddly. It can take a while to get it properly fastened and adjusted. Once adjusted, it is comfortable and effective.
When you look at the fill pattern of the Shocking Blue, it is apparent that the bag was designed to be used while wearing a puffy jacket. The loft is greater from the hips down to the feet, with the footbox particularly over-stuffed. The loft in the broad torso section is slightly less lofty. For a climber who is wearing a big puffy jacket, this loft distribution is perfect because your legs and feet are going to need more insulation than your torso.
This bag is somewhat specialized. It’s cut and features are really targeted at cold weather climbers who are going to use this bag in conjunction with their insulated clothing, as part of an integrated system for very cold conditions. If you don’t plan to wear a big puffy jacket inside of this bag, then a different bag is probably a better option. The extra girth and features of this bag make it heavier and bulkier than other bags with similar amounts of down fill.
However, for truly cold conditions, I have found that the Shocking Blue, in conjunction with my cold weather clothing, is a great 3-pound solution for sleeping comfortably in temperatures down to 15 below zero or lower.
Valandre Lafayette 15 degree down bag 35.2 (2 lbs, 3.2 oz)
The Valandre Lafayette has a bunch of unique design features. It’s billed as a high-tech, light weight expedition bag. It may work well for some folks, but I have to say that I’m not particularly happy with this bag for my uses.
First of all, the Lafayette has a single, 1/3 length zipper that is on top and in the middle of the bag. I am a fan of short zippers on sleeping bags, especially bags designed for colder temperatures. Short zippers save weight and bulk compared with a full length zipper.
I also am ok with the concept of a zipper on the top of the bag rather than the side of the bag as is the norm.
However, the implementation of the zipper in the Lafayette seems rather ineffective and non-functional to me. First of all, instead of a draft tube protecting the zipper, the Lafayette uses a velcro closure inside the bag that runs the length of the zipper. Pulling the velcro tight and fastening it pulls the inside of the bag together, sealing out drafts. This is kind of a pain in the butt to do, and no matter how carefully I try to fasten the opposing velcro strips, I always end up with scratchy velcro sections not covered by other sections. Also, the velcro has the tendency to come undone during the night as I toss and turn, leading to drafts.
I’ve seen other sleeping bags with the top-center zip configuration solve the draft tube issue with dual zippers rather than the Lafayette’s zipper plus velcro solution. I much prefer the two zipper path rather than having to futz around with velcro.
The cut on the Lafayette is kind of odd. The bag is designed for sleeping on your side, and there is a fair amount of extra space on the front side of the bag to accommodate your arms in front of you when lying on your side. I am a side sleeper, so you’d think that would be a good thing. However, the width of the bag is kind of narrow, and I find the bag to be a bit cramped for my large, thick frame, in spite of the design that provides for additional arm space up front. Skinny people would probably be more comfortable in this bag than I am. I think that skinny people would probably also have less issues with the velcro draft tube closure pulling apart as I mentioned above. I just don’t think that this bag was cut with me in mind. It’s a slim Greyhound bag, and I’m more of a Saint Bernard.
The collar on the Lafayette is pretty complicated. In order to close the collar and properly adjust the collar and hood, you’ve got to mess with four different drawstring closures, and a bunch of velcro. The 4 drawstring ends join together with plastic connectors to form two continuous drawstrings, one of which adjusts the collar, while the other one adjusts the hood. However, it’s hard to distinguish between them, with the result that I often join the wrong ends to each other with the result being that I end up tightening the right side of the hood combined with the left side of the collar, and visa versa. When I’m cold and tired and it’s dark, it seems like a lot of work and brainpower has to be directed at the simple task of snugging myself into this bag.
When you’re all done getting snugged into the bag, you’ve got 4 drawstring ends and a zipper pull, all flopping about right in your face. Combine this with the various scratchy velcro pieces that you’ve not quite managed to close just right, and there’s a fair amount of small annoyance and petty discomfort with the Lafayette that I don’t experience with my other bags.
The Lafayette has an interior locking drawcord positioned at your hips. This allows you to unzip the bag, but keep it snugged around you hips to keep your lower body warm and draft free while performing various tasks inside the tent. Does it work? Yes, I guess so, but I’m not sure I really see this as a must-have feature. I don’t really have any trouble keeping my other, more conventional bags snugged around my hips when needed.
On the plus side, the Lafayette is very well constructed, and is nice and lofty and warm.
It’s definitely a high-quality sleeping bag. It’s just not a very good bag for me. To be fair, my son, who is thin and lean, doesn’t have the fit issues I have with the Lafayette, and really has fewer complaints with the bag overall. I’ve given the Lafayette to him, and he’s used it successfully in winter conditions. For me, however, I much prefer my simpler, more traditional Marmot Helium sleeping bag. All of the Lafayette’s “innovative” features are pretty much negatives in my eyes.
With all of these sleeping bags, I tend to use a lightweight drybag to keep the sleeping bag dry. My favorite are the Granite Gear Uberlight drysacks They are constructed of cuben fiber fabric and weigh less than one ounce.