Remember that first camping experience, the cold lumpy ground, the
midnight shivers, the sore hip in the morning? Sleeping mats exist
for two reasons: one, and the most important one, is to prevent your
body heat from seeping away into the cold ground through the
compressed insulation of your sleeping bag.
The second, and it's not entirely unconnected, is just comfort. Us
weak-willed, spoiled 21st century folk are used to cushy mattresses,
so sleeping directly on hard ground doesn't always come easy.
The classic sleeping mat comes in a closed cell foam
material. The 'closed cell' bit is important because it prevents
the foam from soaking up water like an open cell version commonly
known as a sponge. Pluses are that they're relatively cheap, fairly
hard to damage, can be carried outside your pack with impunity and
are light and compact once rolled up.
best known is the legendary Karrimat but there are loads of
options out there. One effective evolution is the Ridgerest,
which uses a rudged construction to trap extra air under the mat and
increase comfort and insulation values. The most efficent ones fold
into a neat, easily stowable package.
Generally the more insulation you want, the thicker the foam you
need. If you're camping on a glacier, you may need two foam mats to
keep the cold at bay.
Finally, some users cite the potential to use a closed cell foam
matt as a splint if you break a leg or arm - your call....
The best known of these are made by Therm-a-Rest but again
there are plenty of other options out there. They consist of a foam
core sandwiched inside an outer made of a tough, air and waterproof
fabric. They roll up tightly for carrying, but by opening a valve air
is free to flow into the inside of the matt and inflate the foam.
self-inflating bit is sometimes wishful thinking, you often have to
blow into the mat to inflate it properly but even the weakest wuss
can usually manage it. As with the classic foam mat, warmth is
generally down to the thickness of the matt. Simple, the thicker the
mat, the more air it traps and the thicker and more effective the
So why are some mats more expensive than others? The top brands
use more sophisticated foam inside their mats with holes cut into them
to save weight and bulk. They also tend to use lighter, thinner
fabrics to cut weight and pack size. That's a two-edge sword as the
really light self-inflaters tend to puncture more easily.
Ultra-lightweight self-inflaters pack smaller than normal foam,
though they generally weigh more and are best carried inside the
pack to reduce the possibility of puncturing.
Speaking of which, make sure your self-inflating pad comes with a
puncture repair kit, a self-deflating mat is no fun.
As a generalisation, self-inflaters are more comfortable and
significantly warmer than closed-cell foam mats because they trap more
air and pressure adjustments allow for comfort tuning.
If you're car camping rather than backpacking, a really fat
self-inflater offers amazing comfort, though at a weight you won't
want to carry.
Last point, look for a non-slip finish to stop you from sliding
down the mat during the night. Not fun.
by Exped, down-filled pads are similar to airbeds but contain
high loft goose down to prevent air currents from moving heat away
from your body, which is why conventional air beds are useless. The
end result is, say the makers, a mattress that's three times warmer
than any other mat of the same weight.
Users swear by them, though they're not astonishingly light. So
what's the catch? Well, a price starting at around £100 means
you have to be serious about your sleeping. A dedicated high altitude
glacier camper perhaps. OTT for most, but if you must have the most
warmth, possibly the way to go.
If you're a serious lightweight freak you can start by using a
three-quarter length pad - not something we'd bother with, and it gets
packs include a bivvy pad, but they're generally thin, minimalist
instruments of torment best left to serious lightweight Alpinists and
for emergency use.
Then there's the dark side of adventure racing and mountain
marathon where people use bubble wrap as a lightweight alternative to
a real mat. Fine if you're too knackered to care, we reckon.
Last but definitely not least, at a weight of under 100 grammes,
Bed is a winner for lightweight obsessives. A lightweight
mattress with channels to take long balloon which you simply pop at
the end of a happy night's sleep. The balloon bed comes complete with
a pump and gives a depth of around 4cm when inflated making it
We've seen one in action on a bivvy and while it looks ridiculous,
the thing works. Who needs bubble wrap?
Which should you choose?
Unless you're a serious weight freak, and maybe even then,
self-inflating mats are the obvious solution. The one downside is
that they can puncture and in the field repairs can be difficult
unless the leak is easy to spot or you carry a bathtub full of water
They're great on glaciers and significantly more comfortable than
normal foam mats, particularly the thicker, luxury versions. Foam is
bombproof and cheap if you're not worried about comfort, but most
users are won over by inflated comfort first time out.
The down-filled pads from Exped have one major drawback, the cost,
though we have excellent feedback on their performance. Finally,
adventure racers should be looking at the Balloon Bed, it's hard to