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 line of Self Inflating mats. Both series have set new benchmarks for innovative design, comfort and ease of use. In Spring 2019, Sea to Summit raised the bar even higher by adding Women's specific Air Sprung Cell and Self Inflating mats.

The Air Sprung Cell 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.

Women’s sleeping mats are shorter, have narrower shoulders, and are wider between the hips and knees than unisex versions. Why carry extra weight you don’t need? The wider cut allows women to sleep in whatever position is comfortable while remaining centered on the mat.

The Air Sprung Cell sleeping mats have extra Thermolite® insulation compared to the unisex versions.

The Self-Inflating sleeping mats have different Delta Coring patterns compared to unisex versions. This creates Comfort Warmth Zones in the hip and foot areas – which is where women need increased insulation and support.

delta coring
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 and thin urethane airproof barriers. Sea to Summit’s mats use a 30/40 D face fabric with the most reliable urethane laminate technology available, 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).

comfort_light_valve_positions.jpg

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 30/40 D face fabric, 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 many 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 (most models available as Women's Specific)
Backpacking Need to go as light as possible Summer to early Fall Ultralight Air

Ultralight SI
Ether Light XT

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

Comfort Light SI
Ether Light XT Insulated

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
Ether Light
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
Ether Light

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
Ether Light XT Insulated
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.

10 thoughts on “Which Mat to Choose

  1. avatar Shaka says:

    Forgive me if I’ve overlooked them, but I have yet to see the weights of these sleeping pads. Could you please list the weights of the pads designed for both genders? Thank you in advance for your help.

  2. avatar Baz says:

    G’Day Tim

    You’ll find a list of pros and cons for each construction (air mats vs self-inflating pads) below; but please know that air pads vary considerably in terms of their:

    Comfort – some are unstable/not particularly supportive. It’s essential to test an air pad by rolling over from one side to the other as you would in your sleep. If the mat wobbles, or if you bottom out, or if you collapse the chambers and roll off of the pad – move on to another type.
    Ease of use – even assuming that most (though not all) air pads have pump options these days, some constructions take more effort and time to fully deflate and pack up. Don’t buy a pad until you have tried this out.
    Reliability – this is a huge point of differentiation. Many pads are prone to weld failures or laminate issues. Ask your retailer for an honest assessment of how many returns they receive.

    Mold is becoming less of a factor as more and more brands include an anti-microbial content.

    Please also know that Sea to Summit air mats have engineered all of the above issues to the point where they are effectively non-existent.

    Pros and Cons

    Air Pads
    - Frequently lighter and more packable than self-inflating pads
    - Offer the potential to be more comfortable than self-inflating pads
    - Have a more complex construction which means they are generally more expensive
    - Some designs are prone to large amounts of internal air movement/warmth dissipation which makes them poor insulators

    Self-Inflating Pads
    - Simpler construction means generally a lower cost
    - Foam core means minimal internal air movement/warmth dissipation
    - Are frequently heavier and bulkier than air pads
    - Some designs are difficult to roll up
    - Thinner self-inflating pads offer only a moderate amount of comfort

    Please shoot us an email at info@seatosummit.com if you would like additional information

    Cheers,

    Baz

  3. avatar Tim says:

    Thanks for the article. It’s still not really clear to me whether I want a regular air mat or self-inflating. Are air mats generally more comfortable but harder to set up? Are there other benefits to self-inflating besides ease of setup (and less mold)?

  4. avatar Baz says:

    Thanks for your question!

    Here’s why you might choose a Rectangular mat over a Tapered (mummy-shaped) mat:
    - If you move around a lot in your sleep, and would like a little extra room for your legs and feet
    - If you are using a Couple Kit to attach your sleeping mat to another rectangular-shaped sleeping mat
    - If you use a sleeping bag which has a sleeve for a sleeping mat (this concept only works with rectangular mats)

    Here’s why you might choose a Tapered mat over a Rectangular mat:
    - If you would like to save some weight (3.4oz or 100 grams)
    - If you don’t move a lot while sleeping

    Regardless of shape, the Comfort Light is a very comfortable mat with a good level of insulation and a reasonable weight/packed size. It’s a staff favorite here at Sea to Summit.

    Cheers,
    Baz

  5. avatar Nick says:

    I’m really debating between the comfort light large mummy or large rectangular for an upcoming backpacking trip. I realize there is a small weight savings but is there any other factors I should consider, I’m probably just super over thinking this. But can you give me any input/insight to help me make my decision here. Thanks!

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