Which Mat to Choose
Ask Baz

Which Mat to Choose

Sea to Summit sleeping mats have redefined comfort in the backcountry. The Air Mats were launched in 2015 and since then have received multiple awards and great reviews from the media and end-users alike. The Air Mats were joined in 2017 by a range of Self Inflating mats. Both ranges have set new benchmarks for their innovative design, comfort and ease of use.

The Air Mats are a tour-de-force of unique technologies. Among these are: Air Sprung Cells™ (which contribute to the amazing comfort and thermal efficiency – see picture below), the Multi Function Valve (which permits rapid inflation, easy adjustment, and incredibly quick deflation), and the Liquid-Extruded Thermoplastic Urethane laminate which has resulted in the extremely high-reliability rate.

Air Sprung Cell graphic image_green.jpgIf you have read the blog posts Sleeping Mats: From Tech to Trail and The Physics of Insulation and Comfort in Air-Filled Sleeping Mats you will have a good understanding of what makes some mats more comfortable and better insulators than others.

The Self Inflating (SI) Mats also set new standards. Delta Coring technology reduces the weight of certain models by 40% and allows for smaller-than-expected packed volumes. The multi-function valve has a unique function: the valve can be twisted over to become a one-way deflate valve. Packing away a Sea to Summit SI mat is much easier than a conventional self-inflating pad because the mat does not re-inflate itself while being rolled up. High-quality fabrics and liquid lamination contribute to the above-average comfort and reliability.

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Delta Coring

 

The unique multi-function SI Mat Valve

But – which mat is right for you? Here are a series of (a) questions and (b) points to consider which will help you decide:

(a) How much comfort do I want? – (b) How much weight am I prepared to carry?

In general, as comfort increases in sleeping mats, weight increases too. If you are car camping or static camping, this will be largely irrelevant – if you are backpacking or cycle touring, you will need to be very careful with the weight and packed volume of the mat you choose. One word of caution – some ultra-lightweight sleeping mats use very thin face fabrics: 30 Denier or even 20 Denier. Sea to Summit’s mats use a 40 Denier face fabric and have a lifetime warranty against manufacturing and material defects.

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(a) How much insulation do I need? – (b) How important is packed volume and quietness?

The insulation value of a mat can be measured and expressed as an R-Value (as the blog post on the Physics of Insulation explained). Another word of caution: not all R-Values are actually the result of lab testing. And yet another: ‘temperature ratings’ on sleeping mats are manufacturer’s estimates, not empirical test results. Do they relate to air temperature? Ground temperature? It is anyone’s guess…

If a manufacturer does provide a reliable R-Value, here’s what it will mean for use in the outdoors:

Season R-Value needed
Summer 0 – 1
Late Spring or Early Fall (possibility of a mild frost) 1 – 2
Early Spring or Late Fall (possibility of a hard frost) 3 – 4
Winter (frozen ground) 5 or above

More insulation generally equals a larger packed volume. And some insulation materials are very noisy, so it is essential to test a mat by laying on it (make sure you roll over) before you purchase it.

(a) How important is fast inflation/deflation – (b) How much time and lung capacity do I have?

Some air mat designs require significantly more air to inflate them than others, due to their greater volume or baffled construction, or low-airflow valve or all three. An average adult can inflate a Sea to Summit Regular Comfort Light in twelve breaths or so; a ‘similar’ mat from another brand may require forty or fifty breaths. At the end of the day or at altitude, this may be an issue for you (to say nothing of the amount of moisture you are blowing into the mat with your breath).

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Air Mat Multi-Functional Valve

Self-inflating mats from all brands take a lot of work out of setting up your sleep system. The high-airflow valve on the SI Mats means they inflate faster than other mats – and you can connect and Airstream or Jetstream Pump to the valve to ‘top off’ the air to your chosen firmness level.

Deflation times for air mats also vary, from less than 10 seconds for the Comfort Light Mat mentioned above to five minutes of squeezing, rolling and wrestling to get all the air out of mats from some other brands. (Really. Make sure you try deflating and packing a mat in a store, too). As mentioned above, the twist-over multi-function valve of the SI Mats prevents air from being drawn back into the mat as it is being rolled up, which makes packing up the mats much quicker and easier. Hopefully, you have the right mat if you’re trying to break camp in inclement weather…

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(a) How light do I want to go? – (b) How important is durability?

In some outdoor activities, the weight of gear can be a major factor: a Thru-Hike of the AT or PCT is a classic example. Thru-Hikers try and save every possible gram because they will be carrying the load all day every day for months and will therefore usually choose an air mat over a self-inflating mat. Air mats are usually lighter and have a smaller packed volume than self-inflating mats.

The issue with making air-filled sleeping mats really lightweight is that the air pressure inside the mat is trying to pull it apart along the welds, which is where the stress is concentrated. This stress, plus other factors such as internal moisture and even mold (see below) can weaken the laminate and cause it to delaminate or fail. And of course, the lighter/thinner the face fabric, the more likely it is to puncture.

Bear this in mind when choosing a very light mat – it is easy for a manufacturer to save weight by using a lighter fabric; it is much harder to do this while maintaining long-term reliability. Some mats are offered with short warranty periods as a result.

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Sea to Summit’s air mats have a 40 denier face fabric (not a 30 D or a 20 D), and the unique laminate technology (the liquid-extruded thermoplastic urethane mentioned in the opening paragraph) means that delamination failures are unknown.

(a) What is my tolerance for mold? – (b) Wait – are you telling me there is mold in my sleeping mat?

Sorry to break it to you, but the majority of air-filled sleeping mats have mold growing in them. This is the result of moisture from the user’s breath condensing inside the mat and staying there. Long-term users (such as the Thru-Hikers mentioned above) will often have mats which are full of mold.

This is not just a question of the ‘yuck factor’ of breathing in mold every time you inflate your mat: mold will also weaken the laminate and contribute to weld failures and delamination.

Even self-inflating mats may well grow mold. True, a lot less moisture is introduced into the mat because it will largely inflate itself. But less does not mean zero.

What can you do about this? First suggestion – use a pump. This does not have to be a battery-powered device which represents redundant weight in your pack: the Airstream Pump (pictured below) works as a lightweight dry sack during the day, ideal for storing clothing or a sleeping bag in your pack. At night it will inflate your Sea to Summit air mat in seconds with just a couple of breaths (or ‘scoops’ of air).

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Second suggestion – store your mat unrolled with the valve open when it is not in use – this will allow dry air to get inside the mat. The high-airflow valve used on Sea to Summit mats is particularly helpful in this respect. Third suggestion – a Sea to Summit sleeping air mat has an anti-microbial treatment built into the laminate which will prevent mold growth. Breathe easy.

OK – enough philosophy. What about some recommendations?

Activity Factors Seasons Recommended sleeping mat
Backpacking Need to go as light as possible Summer to early Fall Ultralight Air

Ultralight SI

Backpacking Need to go as light as possible Summer plus shoulder seasons Ultralight Insulated Air
Backpacking Prefer greater level of comfort Summer plus shoulder seasons Comfort Light Insulated Air

Comfort Light SI

Backpacking Hip or back injury Summer plus shoulder seasons Comfort Plus Insulated Air
Bikepacking Need to go as compact as possible Summer to early Fall Ultralight Air
Cycle touring Need to go as compact as possible Summer to early Fall Ultralight Insulated Air
Cycle touring Prefer greater level of comfort Summer to early Fall Comfort Light Air

Comfort Light SI

Ski / Snowshoe touring Need maximum insulation Winter Comfort Plus Insulated Air (possibly with additional foam pad)
Sea Kayak touring Need to go as compact as possible Summer to early Fall Ultralight Insulated Air
Recreational camping/Boy and Girl Scouts Price is important, as are comfort and durability Summer plus shoulder seasons Camp Mat SI
Car Camping / ‘Base Camp’ use Prefer maximum level of comfort Summer plus shoulder seasons Comfort Plus Insulated Rectangular Air

Comfort Plus SI

Comfort Deluxe SI

The table above shows a number of outdoor pursuits and the Sea to Summit sleeping mat we would recommend for them. It doesn’t include mats from other brands – but hopefully, by reading through the questions and points to consider above, you will be able to make comparisons for your particular use.

And if you still have questions – just Ask Baz.

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