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Sleeping Mats: Tech to Trail

From the days of sleeping on the ground to bed like comfort in the backcountry, Baz discusses our new line of Air Sprung Cell™ Sleeping Mats and puts one through its paces in the Colorado Rockies.

It may seem hard to believe nowadays, but when I started camping and backpacking, there was no such thing as a sleeping mat. Back in those days, you lay down on a groundsheet directly on the hard ground in your sleeping bag. Offering an opinion that this was uncomfortable would have been proof that you were ‘soft’, like complaining about getting woodsmoke in your eyes. Of course, it wasn’t just the hardness of the ground that made this such a miserable experience – it was cold, too. One frosty night in Scotland stands out in particular in my mind for this reason.

Ultralight_Black_blogFast-forward thirty or forty years, and no no-one would consider sleeping out without a sleeping mat. In that time, bulky foam mats arrived, followed by self-inflating foam mats, and most recently, air-filled mats. Air-filled mats offer advantages in terms of smaller packed volume, but there are some constructional challenges with this type of mat. If they are constructed from a series of tubes, they are wobbly and unstable when a sleeper moves or rolls over. And if the construction involves more complex baffles, it’s very difficult to get the air in and even more difficult to get the air out from all the convoluted passageways.

Clearly, something better was needed. And, something better has just arrived.

Sea to Summit’s product developers hit on the idea of using dot welds to create a series of regularly spaced small ‘cells’. Here’s why this is important: in a conventional mat made out of tubes when you put weight on one part of the tube you displace a large amount of air down to the other end of the tube. This is why it feels ‘wobbly’. In a Sea to Summit mattress with Air Sprung Cells™, pressure on one cell does not affect the surrounding cells. The result: the cells support your weight and adopt the contours of your body far more effectively than ‘tubes’ or ‘baffles’ – especially when you roll over. The comparison to a pocket-sprung home mattress is entirely valid.

Unlike conventional mats, it’s also far easier to get air into the Sea to Summit mat (essentially you’re just filling one or two large chambers divided up into cells), and ridiculously easier to get the air back out. A dozen breaths or so, and the mat is nice and firm, ready for you to fine-tune the pressure with the same multi-function valve which you know and love from the Aeros Pillow series. When it comes time to deflate the mat, pull open the same valve, and all the air is expelled in ten seconds or so.

If you use your breath to inflate the mat, you don’t need to worry about the warm, moist air causing mold to grow inside the mat (as it does with other sleeping mats…); the laminated fabric has an anti-microbial finish built in. Or you could use one of the pumps Sea to Summit has created to fill the mat quickly and easily.

Real world use

All of this sounds fine in theory, but what about in practice? A backpacking trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness here in Colorado this past October provided the perfect opportunity to put the Ultralight Mat to the test.

First impressions: the mat is so smalword from sponsorsl when packed into the stuff sack that it required a revision to the normal scheme for packing my backpack. The mat snugged down into a tiny space at the bottom of my pack, while all my clothes were packed inside the Airstream Pump (which doubles as a 20 Liter pack liner). Once camp was established, a couple of charges from the Airstream and the mat was super-firm (I subsequently let some air out using the multi-function valve). The backcountry site I had chosen was uneven with a couple of above-ground roots thrown in for good measure, but I did not feel them at all. This point is particularly important – several industry colleagues have looked at the Sea to Summit mats and assumed that they are ‘not thick enough’ to be comfortable. All I can say is this: don’t confuse ‘cushy’ with ‘comfort’ – the thicker mats are actually less comfortable than the supportive, stable, Air Sprung Cell™ mattresses.

Avery the Dog spotted this without prompting and crawled into the tent and took her place on the mat immediately.


Had I (or Avery) wanted more comfort, we could have chosen the Comfort Light Mat, which has double the number of Air Sprung Cells™ in the torso area (offset-welded to an internal layer), or even the Comfort Plus Mat, which is two completely separate pressurized layers.

(The Comfort Plus would be ideal for the friends I have who own ‘car camping’ mats; which are thick and plush and with a packed size as large as a duffle bag. Instead of their current two-mat setups, they could own one mat which would be light and compact enough for backpacking, yet more comfortable than their current behemoth mats)

The ground wasn’t that cold in early October, but had I needed extra warmth it’s good to know that each of the Sea to Summit mats is available in an insulated version. It’s also good to know that the non-woven reflective layer in these mats (called Exkin® Platinum) is silent – unlike the super-crinkly films in some other mats. Thermolite® insulation is also used inside the mats to stop warm and cold air from being exchanged in a process known as convection. Because the Air Spring Cells™ don’t displace much air when you lay on them, there’s much less air movement and thus less heat loss within the mats. But don’t take our word for the insulation value of the mats: the R-Values were computed at the prestigious EMPA Laboratory in Switzerland.

Over time, I will no doubt come to appreciate the superior build quality of the Sea to Summit mats. They are manufactured in a factory which makes products for the aviation industry – an evacuation slide obviously has to be more reliable than a pool toy. That trick with the antimicrobial finish is the result of one of the aeronautical manufacturing techniques called liquid-extruded thermoplastic urethane.

I promise you, you’ll be too busy sleeping deeply to think about all of these things.

Now – if only Sea to Summit could do something about getting woodsmoke in my eyes…





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