My Bedding's Bottom Line
Not surprisingly, some of my portable mattresses have stiffened up over the years. (In this respect they resemble their owner.) Older closed‑cell foam pads are the worst in this regard. The most venerable of these, a featherweight, canary‑yellow poly mat whose maker and brand name I've long since forgotten, was so creased and cracked that I'd already whittled off chunks to pad the interior of my ammo can‑cum‑camera case. My three‑quarter length Ensolite pad, on the other hand, remains relatively supple, but it's for insulation, not comfort. It does precious little to smooth the way to slumber for anyone who likes to sleep on her side, as I do. A pillow helps somewhat by supporting my head and neck, but sleeping on hard ground with only an Ensolite mattress is still survival sleeping. Comfort ain't in it. For that I have to look elsewhere. Air mattresses long set the standard for backcountry bedding, and while they don't do much to insulate sleepers from cold earth, there's no denying that they can smooth out the stoniest site. Colin Fletcher wrote eloquently about them in the first edition of The Complete Walker, and Farwell followed his lead, treasuring an obscenely heavy rubberized canvas specimen and nursing it along for years until its seams finally gave way, letting him down for good. I, on the other hand, preferred lightweight foam pads, which, if they didn't offer me the same degree of comfort as sleeping on air, at least didn't spring leaks in the small hours of the night.
Comfort or reliability? For a long time, paddlers had to choose between the two. An air mattress gave you the first; closed‑cell foam, the second—plus insulation. Nothing gave you both. (Early open‑cell foam pads were an unhappy attempt at compromise. Not only did they soak up moisture like a sponge, but it was impossible to roll them into a bundle much smaller than a sailor's duffle bag.) Then a couple of Boeing engineers had a better idea. By the simple expedient of encapsulating an exiguous open‑cell foam pad in an airtight nylon envelope they revolutionized the backcountry traveler's bottom line. Their brainstorm, marketed under the Therm‑a‑Rest brand, achieved the near‑impossible, melding air‑mattress comfort with the warmth and dependability of closed‑cell foam. Yes, it was still possible to puncture a Therm‑a‑Rest, but it didn't happen often. The nylon shells were very tough. And on the rare occasions when a thorn or sharp stone breached a Therm‑a‑Rest's defenses, repair was usually straightforward. Better yet, the wispy foam pad inside the Therm‑a‑Rest blunted the sting of the hard, cold ground until a patch was in place. It didn't provide very much cushioning, truth be told, but at least it didn't let you down as hard as an airless air mattress. Modern‑day Therm‑a‑Rests are no less dependable.
And the Therm‑a‑Rest had one further advantage: it was (and still is) self‑inflating. Anyone who'd huffed and puffed for what seemed like hours to blow up a conventional air mattress welcomed the change. In the end, even Farwell came on board. Me? I was an early adopter. In fact, I acquired two Therm‑a‑Rests: a big, thick, full‑length version for canoe camping, along with a more compact stablemate for backpacking, kayaking, and cycle‑touring. I still have them, in fact, and they've served me well. But nothing's perfect, is it? And the smaller Therm‑a‑Rest, while far more comfortable than a closed‑cell foam pad, isn't exactly cushy. It's more than adequate on the soft duff of the forest floor, but it doesn't do very much to cushion the blow when I have to bed down on rock—or spend a night on the well‑trodden ground of a heavily used campsite, for that matter.
Unfortunately, that's often the case these days. Wilderness parks frequently require paddlers to use only designated campsites, and these sites see a lot of traffic. Moreover, I often combine paddling and cycling, camping along the road on my way to a mountain river, bog, or lake. And few roadside camps have much soft duff to offer. In fact, many campgrounds now harden all their sites to accommodate RVs and wheelchair‑users. The result? On several occasions last year, I found myself thinking fondly of the old‑fashioned air mattress. So when I stumbled across something called the Big Agnes Insulated Air Core in a catalog recently, it got my attention. Could this, I wondered, be…
The Holy Grail?
The pitch was decidedly enticing. The Insulated Air Core supposedly combined the comfort of a traditional air mattress with the insulation of a foam pad—and all this in a lightweight, compact package, to boot. Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, right? So I ordered one, and I was soon the owner of a seeming contradiction in terms, a "petite" Big Agnes. My first impressions were favorable. When stuffed for packing, my Big Agnes was petite in truth as well as in name. Not much larger than a 1‑liter water bottle, in fact.