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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Now I Lay Me Down …

To Knit Up the Ravell'd Sleeve of Care

By Tamia Nelson

April 12, 2011

Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labour's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast…

    — William Shakespeare, Macbeth Sleeping on Air

When I wrote about my new air mattress, I wrote from the heart. Having spent too many days suffering the aftereffects of hours of fitful slumber, I knew the importance of a good night's sleep. And I also knew I wasn't alone. So I wasn't surprised by the number of letters I got around the column. But when a second column inspired by the initial wave of correspondence resulted in a similar outpouring of mail, I was surprised. I shouldn't have been, of course. I'll bet there isn't a single paddler who can't remember at least one trip that was soured when sleep in the backcountry didn't come easily. The upshot? There are almost as many solutions to the problem as there are sleepless paddlers. Which is why I'm returning to the subject one more time.

And I've had a lot of help, which is a very good thing. Though I've been knocking around in the backcountry going on half a century now, and Farwell has been at it even longer, we've tested just a few of the entries in the camping sleepstakes. But In the Same Boat's readers helped me fill in the gaps in our knowledge, and the folks whose words appear below have generously allowed me to use excerpts from their letters. So without further ado, here's the last word on backcountry bedding — for now at any rate!

A Thumbs‑Up for Big Agnes

Frequent correspondent, paddler, and wildlands firefighter James Stone was encouraged by my experience to check out the Big Agnes for himself. Here's what he has to say:

I spent some time in REI looking at air pads. After considering the Exped SynMat 7 Pump for awhile, I settled on the Big Agnes 20x72 (I'm 5 feet 8 inches tall). I have an old Coleman self‑inflating pad (a Therm‑a‑Rest knockoff), and it takes up so much room I leave it in the truck with the emergency supplies. Price was a main factor for me. But beyond price I was concerned about hearing that the Exped doesn't pack well. I plan on using my mattress mostly in fire camps, which can be on rodeo grounds, but mostly are either in the woods, in a rancher's hayfield, or on a school ground. Since the assignments are two weeks, I likely will just blow up the mattress once — except for "topping it off." As I was checking out, the clerk in effect said that I have selected an outstanding sleeping pad. I said your review agreed with her opinion.

It's always nice to know that others share your good opinion of a product, of course, and I'm pleased that the store clerk and I are of a mind. That said, however, I've never known a seller to disparage a purchaser's choice. And James brings up what may be the air mattress's Achilles heel:

You Have to Blow It Up

An air mattress doesn't amount to much without the air. Until you inflate it, it's just a costly groundsheet. And getting enough air into the thing can be hard work, especially after a long day. Solutions to this problem are elusive, too, as kayaker Keith Rodgers discovered …

As I grew more "experienced," I too noticed that the foam‑based mattresses just couldn't stand up to the harder pebbles they are using on beaches these days, so I switched to an air mattress. My first trial was nothing more than a USD20 pool toy, made from vinyl. With a cheerful design of pink dolphins, it was easy to inflate by mouth and easy to patch — easy, that is, once you had found the repair kit at 3:00 a.m. and apologized to your tent‑mate. Other more serious affairs followed. For the last few years I have been going steady with Big Agnes. She is superbly comfortable but does indeed tend to slip around on the tent floor. My version is the big Big Agnes, and inflating her does take some puffing — it's not so bad if you sit down against a comfortable tree and take frequent pauses to let your head stop spinning. I tried a bicycle pump, but it proved harder and longer work than puffing. I also used a foot‑powered air pump. It worked fine but even the smallest I could find still took up too much room in my small kayak. I worry about a possible moisture problem with breath condensation on the lining, and imagine this would be a big concern with mattresses insulated with down or similar natural fibers.

Even if you have room for a pump you might still encounter the problem of an adapter for mating the Agnes valve to your air supply. An e‑mail to the distributor got me nowhere, but duct tape did the job. Deflating is easier. My technique is to wake up, unscrew the valve, and just lie there until the increasing discomfort persuades me to get up. Once up, I roll up the mattress from the bottom, tighten the valve, fold the mattress twice, then roll it, let out any air bunched up at the valve, then use a little harness of compression straps to truss it up like a butcher's roast.

The Exped sounds interesting and worth a look, when and if Big Agnes lets me down.

I, too, wondered about the effect of moisture on synthetic insulation. (Internal condensation was the bane of down‑filled air mattresses back in the '50s and '60s.) And I briefly considered adapting a bicycle mini‑pump to inflate my Big Agnes, but abandoned the idea almost immediately. Bicycle pumps are designed to deliver low volumes of air at (comparatively) high pressures, while air mattresses require high volumes at low pressure. On the other hand, the pumps used to make inflatable boats ready for action are ideal, but, as Keith also notes, they're both bulky and heavy, and it takes some ingenuity to fit pump to air‑mattress valve. I haven't tried duct tape (yet), but I've had promising results with a sleeve fabricated from vinyl aquarium tubing, and John Mueller of Rainbow Cycles — they're into kayaking, too! — in Southern Pines, North Carolina, has yet another suggestion:

We recently got the Big Agnes Air Core and found the Big Agnes Pumphouse to be an inflation option. It's a bit slow, but it saves the lungs and is very compact.

I don't own a Pumphouse — it's essentially a good‑sized dry bag with a nozzle on one end — but there's no denying that it's an ingenious example of multitasking. Here's how the Big Agnes website describes its operation:

Open drawstring cord on nozzle end and place on opened sleeping pad valve then cinch drawstring tight. Open stuff sack end and allow air to enter then roll stuff sack end partially closed and inflate pad with the air trapped inside the Pumphouse. Repeat until pad has reached desired inflation.

Big Agnes isn't the only company to market such a product. Exped does, too. Read what Dennis Barrett has to say about it:

I got an Exped 9 DLX that I use when kayak camping. Normally a hammock camper, I had to bring along a tent for my 400‑mile trip from border to border along the Texas coast and Intracoastal Waterway and was quite happy with the Exped. I didn't at all have trouble that some report with packing it into the supplied stuff sack. I would like to point out Exped's continued mission to improve their gear in a very quick fashion. If you've seen their online videos, then you see that they are there to constantly improve their products. New to their line‑up is the Schnozzle which helps inflate their pads using a dry bag for inflation with only a puff or two. There's also a new mattress pad that converts the pad into a camp chair. Both are on my wish list! And no, I'm not in any way associated with Exped. I'm just a happy customer.

So here's one good idea that's really taken hold. And come to think of it, my shower bag could probably be made to work in much the same fashion. It already does double duty as a dry bag, but there's no reason why I shouldn't press it into service to inflate my Air Core, at least on those occasions when I don't have a foot pump along. I'm going to give it a try.

Of course, what goes up must ultimately come down, and that's true of air mattresses, too. The air that goes into the pad in the evening has to be got out again when it's time to break camp. I've been using a technique very like that described by Keith Rodgers, but I've often wondered if there might be a faster way to get the air out. And now another Big Agnes owner has found it. All you have to do is …

Suck It Up

And, no, this isn't a bad pun. Here's how Greg Morgus describes the process:

I bought a Big Agnes on the report you gave and will be testing it on a desert walkabout in southern Utah come April, and then on trips down the Dearborn and Smith Rivers in Montana this spring.

I am a bit puzzled when I hear about getting the air out of a mattress. I generally squeeze out as much as I can, then lay down on the pad and SUCK the remaining air out. Takes about 15 breaths and helps ever so much in making the pad compact. I haven't seen this tip in print, and have enjoyed seeing the expression of "Duh!" on my campmates' faces. I use the provided stuff sack for packing, and use a bit of para cord (that I have anyway) to manty up the stuff sack, making it even smaller in the pack. After all, lightweight backpacking is as much about bulk as weight.

Now why didn't I think of that? Simple, good, and cheap. And no batteries are required. Still, there are a couple of reasons you might want to reserve this technique for days when time really presses. The dark, damp, warm interior of an air mattress is tailor‑made for growing microorganisms, so the air you suck out may be chock full of things you don't necessarily want to draw deep into your lungs. The same goes for tiny particles of fiberfill insulation, too. That said, it's important to note that these are only potential dangers. I don't imagine the risks — if any — are very great. Be that as it may, though, I'll probably suck it up only when I'm really in a hurry.


Inflation. Deflation. Not to mention slow, hard‑to‑find leaks that let you down in the middle of the night. These are some of the reasons that air mattresses lost ground to …

Insulated Self‑Inflating Pads

Therm‑a‑Rest showed the way. And back in the day, their mattresses were really big news, eagerly embraced by backcountry wanderers tired of wrestling with fickle "rubber ladies." They soon had plenty of competition, however. In fact, new entries in the self‑inflating stakes keep coming on the scene, as Jim Neal points out:

I think REI has done Therm‑a‑Rest and Big Agnes a couple better. I've written a review about the REI 2.5 Self‑Inflating Mattress on my blog, Log of Ibi. The title of the review is "A Restful Night's Sleep."

There's no doubt that Jim is very happy with the REI 2.5 Self‑Inflating Pad, is there? And I can see why. It bears a close resemblance to my Therm‑a‑Rest Camp Rest, and I can vouch for the Camp Rest's comfort. I just wish it were lighter and more compact. Ibi (pronounced EYE‑bee), Jim's little solo canoe, sounds like a winner, too.


OK. I think we've pretty much exhausted the subject of trapped wind, don't you? After all, air mattresses and self‑inflating pads both rely on trapping and holding air, and recent improvements — important as they are — don't really change the nature of the beast. There are, however, other ways to get a good night's sleep, including …

A Portable Camp Bed

When I was a kid, I was often invited to sleep over at friends' houses, and more often than not, the "guest bed" I was offered was a cot. I never saw this as a hardship. In fact, it added to the fun. I'd never seriously considered the cot as a portable bed, however. Sure, I knew that cots made sense for car campers. Or as fixtures in the semi‑permanent camps used by high‑country hunters. But would anyone take a cot canoeing or kayaking? I didn't think so.

Well, it turns out I was wrong. And Glen Jacobsen put me straight:

Just read your update article ["Sleeping On Air" – Editor] on mattresses and wanted to chime in with the item you seem to have forgotten. I have been a camper for over 40 years, first on the heavy, rubberized air mattresses described by Dennis Gibson [scroll down the linked article to the "The Venerable Therm-a-Rest" – Editor]. It was good for car camping, but not much more.

During my early Scouting days I either used nothing or a lightweight blow‑up air mattress, and finally a Therm‑a‑Rest. I agree, that's unsatisfactory especially if, like me, you tend to sleep on your side. They just don't provide enough padding between ground and hip bone.

As an adult Scouter, I got a Big Agnes system. Using the Air‑Core mattress with a Big Agnes bag eliminates the sliding that Melanie Jack talks about [look for her letter under the heading "A Third Way" – Editor]. The mattress slides into a sleeve on the bottom of the bag, keeping both parts together, the bag on top of the mattress, and you are nice and comfy. The other advantage to this system is that it allows Big Agnes to cut the amount of fill in the bottom of the bag (which would just be crushed anyway) and replace it with the insulation of the mattress. This cuts the weight and size of the bag. Works great.

But my real find is the High Tech Cot at Aerostich/RiderWearHouse, and it is suitable for backpacking, in addition to canoe, kayak or motorcycle camping. It's also available at Cabela's [where it's called the Luxury Lite UL Cot – Editor] and most likely others by now.

This cot is everything they claim it to be. It is lightweight, stable, and keeps you just up off the ground. Not even a hip bone touches, and I am over 200 pounds and 6 feet 2 inches tall. It packs very small, and can even be rolled up inside your mattress, or your bag‑mattress combination. It is expensive, but it is well worth the price, and the customer service is second to none. Any problems or issues, just contact them and they will make it right.

I loaned my cot to my brother and sister‑in‑law for a week‑long rafting trip down the Colorado. They loved it so much that they now have two of their own.

So, I love the Big Agnes bag and Air Core system, but this little cot makes it possible for me to camp night after night and sleep in comfort.

A cot you can carry in a pack — that's high‑tech, indeed. Still, at 3 pounds it's not what I'd call lightweight. On the other hand, you won't need to carry a pump or a patch kit, puff yourself dizzy to blow it up, or spend frantic minutes trying to squeeze the last of the air out in order to get it into the stuff sack. In other words, it's certainly worth a look. And there are other approaches to nighttime comfort worth considering, too, including …

Doubling Up

If one mattress lets you down, why not take two? That's what Neil Fleischmann does:

For many years when kayaking I have used a Therm‑a‑Rest Camp Rest on top of an air mattress. I sleep on my side, see no merit in masochism, and like to be comfortable. I used to take two Therm‑a‑Rests and strap one above the other to get the protection I needed. But I now go for the ultimate cushioning of an air mattress and a Camp Rest, which also provides a comfortable chair while providing insulation. The air mattress is 69 inches by 39 inches by 6 inches and the Therm‑a‑rest isn't prone to slip off. I also carry a foot pump to inflate the air mattress. Touring in a Rolls‑Royce‑like Nimbus Telkwa HV permits bringing these luxuries.

That's Rolls‑Royce luxury, to be sure, even if it does take us back into the realm of mattresses relying on "trapped wind." I doubt that my bed at home offers as much comfort. Of course, the resulting bedroll won't be light, and it won't pack small, but if your boat is big and the portages short, why not? And why stop here? There's more to sleeping comfort than the mattress, after all. What about …

A Pillow?

I can't sleep without one, which is why a little down travel pillow accompanies me on every trip. And I'm not the only pillow fancier, as this letter from Blair Bigelow makes clear:

Good heavens, we're all so different! I'm a 73‑year‑old retired desk worker and frequent but not constant camper (canoe trips mostly). For me the short Therm‑a‑Rest is ideal, supporting my torso. (I'm 5 feet 11 inches tall, and weigh in at 175 pounds.) In my youth, air mattresses invariably developed leaks, sometimes hard to locate and difficult if not impossible to repair satisfactorily. Never again! Foam is comfortable but bulky. The RidgeRest roll‑ups take up room, too, but they're better than nothing. I have found that I REALLY need a decent pillow or pillow‑substitute for my head, plus padding under my hips. If I had a gun to my head and had to choose between a nice soft‑but‑firm pillow or some kind of pad for my torso (legs don't need support, though they perhaps need insulation in winter), I'd choose the pillow and scrape out a depression for my hips.

I might do the same, I suppose — though I hope I never have to make the choice, especially as digging hip holes is now frowned upon, with the possible exception of sites on sandy beaches. All such campsite "improvements" run counter to Leave No Trace guidelines, of course. Which helps to explain the proliferation of sleeping pads in the last five decades. Yet there's a school of thought that rejects every sort of ground‑bound mattress in favor of another time‑honored approach:

Just Hang Out!

A devoted minority of campers have forsaken sleeping on air, choosing to bed down in the air, instead. Here's how Lisa Johnson explains the appeal of hanging out in a hammock:

I too have run the gamut on these pads. I've gone through two Big Aggies. While the pad itself is great, the valve can be a point of failure. Both of mine pooped out after a season's use. The problem with this is that, unlike a Therm‑a‑Rest, if the pad deflates you are left with practically no insulation between you and the cold, hard ground. I put my empty dry bags and my folded‑out camp chair underneath the pad just in case.

My answer — at least part of the time — is the Hennessy Hammock. It even allows me to sleep on my bad back and look at the stars through the netting when the weather is dry enough that I don't need a tarp. Spend the extra bucks and get the double‑layer four‑season set‑up. It puts an insulating pad between the two layers so a mattress doesn't keep winding up on top of you.

Other writers have echoed Lisa's ringing endorsement of the Hennessy Hammock, and I must admit I find the idea interesting, even though I've had mixed feelings about hammocks in the past. Will I start hanging out again? It's possible. Stay tuned. And sleep well!

Who'd have thought that backcountry bedding would turn out to be a real sleeper of a subject, and that it would provoke so much mail? But I suppose this really shouldn't have come as a surprise. If you've ever tossed and turned all night and then had to get up at dawn to paddle — and most of us have, I'm sure — you'll know why sleeping comfort is important. And that being the case, I'm betting you'll find the collective wisdom of In the Same Boat's readers well worth considering. I know I did.



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