Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Sleeping Pad Post

It is about time I added another review of what I am using for lightweight backpacking. Usually it is more interesting to write a review on gear that I really enjoy using, if I am happy using something I am obviously going to be more enthusiastic about reviewing it. However, I am going to go against that tendency for this post.

Shoot, I have already given the punchline before the story but let me back up. I have been on  a quest for the past few years to find the perfect sleeping pad. Maybe it is because I am getting older, I never used to think about it that much, I just used whatever I happened to have on hand. But I find myself really thinking hard about this now because getting a good night sleep seems to be more difficult.

I think we can all agree that a good nights sleep is pretty important. It becomes even more important when putting in long days on the trail. I know that my motivation to keep moving will drop if I am not getting good sleep and good means not only sufficient duration of sleep but also quality.

As a brief recap I have tried a few sleeping pad options over the last couple of years. They fall into 2 categories: inflatable and non-inflatable (closed cell foam). Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The inflatable pads are usually more comfortable and pack up smaller but at the expense of being more delicate and well, expensive. The foam pads are durable and cheap but usually more bulky and not as comfy. But all have failed in one critical area: allowing me to sleep well.

I first started with a Thermarest prolite sized small. It weighs in at 11 ounces, is 1 inch thick and covers an area from my shoulders to my knees. In total I used this pad for around 2 years on and off. I can sleep ok but I find myself tossing and turning a lot. I will wake up 15 or more times in a night to turn over or readjust and it is annoying. If I have a long enough time to sleep then I can usually get enough rest to feel good the next day. But if I have a limited window of sleep time, I need to wake up early or I get to bed late, my sleep is not quite enough. The main problem is that 1 inch is too thin and so my hips and shoulders get sore, which is why I keep waking up to readjust position. I also find the pad material to be somewhat slippery on sil nylon and if there is any slope where I am sleeping I will slowly slide down hill, ending up in a tangled mess.

Prolite sized small on the outside of my pack (at Henry Coe State Park)

In a really enthusiastic and optimistic moment I bought a nightlight torso pad and 1/8" thinlight pad from Gossamer Gear. These are closed cell foam, which I prefer because there is no chance of a puncture. They are also very light weight and pack small. The torso pad weighs in at 4.5 ounces and the thinlight is about 2.5 ounces. So, used together they weigh 7 ounces and the torso pad can fit into the back of my Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack acting as a kind of frame. During rest breaks or in the evening I can use it as a sit pad as well, which I really do think is a great feature. The torso pad just fits my shoulders to hips while the thinlight goes from my shoulders to my ankles. I really wanted to like this combination, I took it out on trip after trip but I just could not get a good nights sleep. If I set up on softer ground, such as pine needles, then it was adequate but on anything hard or rocky, forget it, it sucked. Now I know there are those people that say "You should be more careful where you set up camp, look for those soft areas under trees, ect and then you won't need as soft a pad". Well, in theory that makes sense but in reality it doesn't work out that way. There are times when the only usable site is rocky or hard and there are many times, most of the time actually, where I like to sleep out under the stars. On a grassy meadow this can work fine but there are not that many grassy meadows out there and I don't want to sleep under trees all the time. So, while I tried to make it work and I did like the torso pad, it was just not comfortable enough for me.

Thinlight on left and Torsolight on right (These are 3 years old and have held up very well but are about finished)

My sized small prolite got a leak in it that I have not been able to find and so I was in the market for another pad. I have been eyeing the Thermarest Neoair for some time and have heard the heart warming testimonies of people who have never slept better after getting one. The problem is, they are expensive! Like, really expensive and although they are very light they are also more fragile and so a bit of care must be taken when using them.

Because I am cheap and probably because I have a really poor memory, I decided to go with a Thermarest Prolite again and this time, I convinced myself to go with the extra small. This is basically the same pad as the first one, just smaller and 3 ounces lighter. It weighs in at 8 ounces and covers an area from my shoulders to just below my hips, it is still 1 inch thick. I have been using this in combination with the 1/8" thinlight pad for the past year. It is the best combination so far but I still find myself waking up very often during the night. The one benefit of this is that I remember all my weird dreams but honestly I will trade that for better sleep.

Photo credit: Eric Lundquist

As a side note, I also bought a Thermarest Ridgerest Sol full length closed cell pad for winter camping. I have not actually used that by itself. When I go winter camping I will put my prolite pad over that one on top of the snow. This is actually when I get the best sleep, as long as I am warm I sleep really well with this set up. Unfortunately, it does not pass my lightweight filter as the Ridgerest weighs in at 14 ounces by itself.

Ridgerest Sol on winter camping trip in Yosemite

So, here I am in the same situation 3 years later, out a bunch of money for all these pads and still looking for that perfect pad. It probably doesn't exist but if I were to put it into words it would be: A full length, closed cell foam pad weighing less than 8 ounces that packs up small and allows me to sleep like I do at home. If anyone knows of something like this, please tell me!

I am still eyeing that Thermarest Neoair and I think I am going to pull the trigger. Hopefully, I can borrow one soon to try out, just to make sure that the investment is going to be worth it. I will have to be a little more careful with cleaning my sleeping area before I put it down and using the Gossamer Gear 1/8" thinlight below the neoair should provide some extra protection and help prevent punctures. But, if I really can get a good night sleep, then it will be worth it... right?