Gear I Can’t Live Without – Camping pt. 4 – Therm-a-Rest

Gear I Can’t Live Without – Camping pt. 4 – Therm-a-Rest


Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Sleeping Pad:

Most of us grew up camping with lightweight, but bulky foam mats used for insulating this or that. When they are rolled up they are very bulky. They are usually no more than a half inch thick, and while you could still feel every lump on the ground, the padding took the hard edge off of your shoulders and hips. They aren’t all bad though. They had many uses around camp including a fireside pillow or a mat to sit on to keep your butt off of the wet or cold ground. Another alternative was a small air mattress but these are heavy and not very durable at all. I don’t know of anyone who has been able to make one last for more than two camping trips. As with the sleeping bag ordeal, manufacturers used technology to get around the shortcomings of both of these systems, and Therm-a-Rest came up with a ground breaking solution about 20 years ago. The guys at Cascade Designs combined these older systems and used new materials to create a very durable product that will perform consistently for years – they also added an original feature that makes life much easier after a long day on the road.

The Therm-a-Rest pad is basically an open-cell foam pad that is wrapped in an air mattress made of durable nylon fabric. This may not sound much different than the old mats, but this construction allows for many designs that give many different levels of comfort and function. Open-cell foam is a lot like a sponge. There are a lot of ‘holes’ throughout making it fairly soft and giving it the ability to be crushed down to a very small size. Because of this, different models can be made with different thickness foam, making some pads thicker and more comfortable, but still roll up into similar sizes and weights as the others. Since the main design of the mat is basically an air mattress, you can fine tune the firmness, to a degree, by blowing it up to the level you find is most comfortable. In cold weather, this layer of air will also insulate you from the cold ground. The real treat that this design offers is that it is essentially self-inflating. The foam never really wants to be compressed and is always pushing out on the nylon shell. When the air valve is closed, the pad will not inflate because it needs air to create space for the foam to expand. When the air valve is opened, the foam expands and draws air in. Think of a squeeze bottle that has a valve at the top. If you open the valve and squeeze all the air out, then close the valve, the bottle will not expand to it’s natural state until you open the valve again. Imagine this with foam inside the bottle helping push the sides out. When I get to camp, one of the first things I do is unroll my pad, open the valve and through it aside so it is mostly filled when it is time for bed.

The pad that I am using is built with lightweight foam and nylon shell. It is available in two thicknesses and several lengths, so after testing at the Seattle REI I decided the 1-1/2” version would work best. I rarely used my old mat to pad my whole body, I usually folded it up to pad my shoulders and hips, so I continued with this theme and opted for the Short model. This is also lighter weight and rolls up into a smaller package. My choice could not have been any better. I have slept on some very bumpy ground and I have not felt a single imperfection. I have even slept on concrete with no compromise to my comfort.

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow:

As I mentioned before, I have always made a pillow by stuffing extra clothes inside my sleeping bag stuff sack. This past Fall my sister and I were exploring the North Cascades and were hit by an unexpected snow storm. Completely unexpected! To deal with this, we were pretty much wearing every article of clothing we had. When it came time for bed everything was either being worn or was wet from a long day on the trail, so I had nothing to put in the sleeping bag sack to make a pillow. It is one thing to not have a pillow, but another when the people you are with can’t sleep because this causes you to snore so loud you wake bears from hibernation. Wanting to avoid this I decided to look at compressible pillows while I was shopping for a sleeping pad. I was not very serious about it at first but when I tried one out I was immediately sold on the idea. My birthday was coming up so I was on my cell phone even before I left the store to spread the word that this was something I had to have. Thanks to my brother Gary, my dreams were fulfilled.

At first the Therm-a-Rest pillow (size Medium) seemed too big to easily fit in with the rest of my bike gear. I decided that I would exchange it for a smaller sized Therm-a-Rest or go with the REI version that I had seen in the firstplace. When I went to Marmot Mountain Works and tried the smaller version, but it was obvious that it would not be comfortable enough to use for three months – it hardly worked for 3 minutes in the store – so I continued on to REI to try what I had originally fallen in love with. I found that, not only was it too small, the material was less than ideal. It was nylon based, like a wind breaker, and did not seem very durable let alone comfortable on my face. Now that I had experience with the other options I realized how nice my size Medium Therm-a-Rest really was.

The Therm-a-Rest pillow rolls up into a kidney bean shape that is approximately 9” x 6”, but is still soft and will compress further if you really need to pack it into the corner of a bag. It is made of soft microfiber, kind of like very thin faux suede, on the front and cotton-like nylon on the back. The pillow is overstuffed with light weight, foam blocks that compress and expand the same way a Therm-a-Rest pad does. It works best to roll it up two times when packing up your gear, the first to compress the blocks and the second to shake the blocks to one end of the pillow in order to roll it into the smallest size possible. Since the pillow is overstuffed it becomes large and firm when you let it expand, but since the blocks compress and lose some of their firmness the pillow falls into a soft, yet very supportive shape that lasts all night long. The pillow is so comfortable and my sleep is so consistent that it is worth every square inch it takes up in my panniers.

I am living a pretty simple life, but I have not compromised much in critical areas. Sleep is key for your body to recover from strenuous activity. It can be difficult enough to sleep when you are traveling in any way shape or form, but especially if you are camping. After using this gear for about 45 days, I can honestly say that it is worth every cent I paid for it. Everything is wearing very well and, even if something happens, it was bought at REI or is an REI product and it will be backed up with no questions asked. I can rest assured that I will be able to enjoy this equipment for years to come.

I’m heading to bed.

‘Gear I Can’t Live Without’ posts are unsolicited and are purely my opinions based on my experience riding across the United States on a bicycle and living out of a tent for 3 months. If you want to go through my Bike & Gear list and have any questions concerning the performance of an item, feel free to contact me. If you are a representative of a company that makes gear similar to what I use and want my opinion about it’s functionality (food is a bonus), let’s talk.

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