Quick, what is the most important activity on a thru-hike?
If you answered, “Hike,” give that reader a Kewpie doll. But, indulge me just for a sec, and let’s rephrase the question just a little. To hike, you need to be strong and focused, and to get there, you need to be well fed and well rested. Each morning you have got to wake up replenished and refreshed, ready for the next day’s rigors or each step is potentially a misery. So I’d say, the most important activity on a thru-hike is a good night’s sleep.
That’s why choosing the best sleep “system” is critical. I conducted a test last year with the two ultralite Therm-a-Rest mattresses I own and decided the time had come and gone for me to manage a good night’s sleep on a closed cell foam pad. They’re just too uncomfortable on my bony hips. So, my choice these days is the blow-up style of mattress and I did not regret choosing Therm-a-Rest’s NeoAir Xlite for 101+ nights on the Te Araroa.
Although blow-up pads are not for everyone because you have to manually inflate the pad every night and roll it tight every morning, at 12 ounces (340 grams) this blow-up mattress is the lightest and warmest on the market. I mention warmth because it’s important. A foam pad is lighter and requires less faffing about, but it will not insulate much when it’s just your matterss separating you from the cold ground.
The NeoAir Xlite is surprisingly durable. I have never had a puncture in a year’s worth of backpacking. In spite of its ruggedness, I dutifully carry a repair kit with me and am very careful where I set up, either inside the alicoop or on some sort of protective sheet, never directly on the ground.
My NeoAir Xlite is of the older generation and it’s my understanding Therm-a-Rest – part of Cascade Designs – has started using less crinkly material. I should take the time here to point out that I am a squirrelly sleeper. Any movement I make can be heard in the next tent and beyond. It sounds like I’m opening a bag of potato chips every time I readjust. That being said, I used a Hammock Gear quilt on this thru-hike, and the pad was soft against my bare skin.
My least favorite part of the mattress is its width. I am fairly narrow, but I sprawl when sleeping and that usually means I fall off the edges. Shaped like a coffin and thick, every slip over the edge is a significant drop. I often stuffed gear around me to provide a landing pad. Sadly, it’s narrow size does not appear to improve its packability. While the mattress rolls to the size of a Nalgene, it’s a bit bulky. I wonder if adding a few centimeters on each side would still keep it relatively small in an ultralite backpacker’s kit. I’ll be curious to see what Therm-a-Rest comes up with for the next round.
Speaking of packing, the morning ritual of getting every last bit of air out of the NeoAir Xlite is a bit tedious. First it’s press it out by rolling, then there’s a second step of unrolling and rolling with another big air push again. This requires opening and closing the valve to find just the right amount of release without air entering back in. Stuffing the mattress into its sack is an art unto itself and the bag provided by Therm-a-Rest shredded beyond repair. Fortunately, their very responsive warranty department is sending me a replacement. Stay tuned for updates.
In spite of a few issue, I am a Therm-a-Rest gal through and through and will likely take my big yellow pad on upcoming thru-hikes. I give NeoAir Xlite four Anitas.
- soft against bare skin
- “crinkly” and noisy
- hard to pack