I clearly remember my first sleeping pad. It was a quarter-inch-thick blue roll of closed-cell foam that I proudly rolled out inside my Eureka A-frame, before climbing into an old green mummy bag that smelled like my father and who was easily two feet too tall, because he was a helping hand from him.
I didn’t really understand what the cushion was for at the time, as it didn’t provide any cushion. But unrolling it was part of the outdoor tradition I was learning; a step in the tale of rules and processes that my scout handbook promised would be the path to outdoor adventure.
I can’t remember exactly when my parents replaced that thin, closed-cell foam roller with the self-inflating Therm-a-Rest. I was at least ten years old, because it was after graduating from Cub Scouting, and I was probably on a must-equipment list for summer camp.
The self-inflating pads enclose a slice of open-cell foam inside a polyester sheath. Where closed cell foam holds its shape, the open cells compress when you squeeze air out of them, reducing the size of automatic inflators. It also means you can carry a thicker piece of foam, which in turn traps more air, which provides more insulation. It’s the “therm” in Therm-a-Rest, who invented these things in the early 70s, before I was born. The self-inflating part is a bit of a misfit, as you always have to blow into it at the end to achieve maximum firmness, but you can untwist the valve and wait for the foam to expand most of the time, all on its own.
The fact that the pad came from some sort of prescription for proper adventure gear from Boy Scouts or another camp pretty much sums up my relationship with it. Was its inch of cushion enough to provide real comfort? Was it small and light enough to reduce the weight of my bag? None of that really mattered, because I was just following orders back then, and sleeping on this thing was how I was told to enjoy camping.
I continued to camp on this pad and use the rest of the gear I was told when I was about ten, through my teens and twenties. Around this time, I moved to London, New York, and then Los Angeles. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I discovered something else.
While on a dirt bike camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas one weekend, a friend of mine had to run an errand and asked me to pack up his tent and sleeping gear while he was away. Pulling the rainfly off his tent, I saw a puffy, rippling teal shape under his sleeping bag. Unzipping the tent door, I reached inside and pushed it open. The soft surface looked like my auto-inflator, but it was much thicker and there was only air inside. Don’t tell my friend, but I crawled inside and laid down on his cushion. It was like lying on a cloud. Too embarrassed to ask about it, and suddenly ashamed of my old notebook, I waited until I got home, then Googled what a Them-a-Rest NeoAir was. Instead of foam, it used reflective foil lining to reflect body heat and keep the air inside the pad warm. It was also expensive, and at the time I was broke. So I waited a few months and made this notebook my first purchase when I received my next independent check from Playboy magazinewho was still paying $5 a word at the time.
Around the same time, in my early thirties in California, I started car camping with friends and sometimes on dates. I got a cheap queen inflatable bed, but it didn’t quite produce the romantic results I was hoping for, mainly because it turned out very chilly, even when paired with a giant square sleeping bag from WalMart that claimed to be zero degrees. insulation. When I was trying to figure this out, I discovered what R-value is: a revelation that ultimately led me to buy an Exped Megamat Duo.
My wife, Virginia, and I spent our third yurt date in Malibu on this rug on New Years Eve nearly six years ago. We still use it, on top of a folding metal frame, as the occasional spare bed in a guest bedroom in the house we bought together in Montana. Her father once complimented me on the comfort of her visit before we bought furniture.
For a long time I was convinced that the Megamat was the pinnacle of outdoor nighttime comfort. I even got a one-person version that was a little more portable for solo travel in my truck. But the frame that Virginia and I bought for the Duo in our house spoiled me even more. It is too big to be transported easily, even in a large vehicle. So I started looking for a more portable way to get me off the ground, while still retaining plenty of cushion (and that important R-value).
At $600 total, the Helinox Cot One Convertible Insulated, along with the leg extensions that elevate it eight inches above the ground, would have been out of reach for all previous iterations of my self-using mattress pad. sleeping. But now, in my 40s, I’m less worried about money and more worried about waking up with no back pain. It’s too big to be a backpack, but compact enough to easily carry with the rest of my gear on an ATV rack for hunting trips. And it’s the perfect match for my new canvas wall tent, where it allows the warm air produced by the wood stove to circulate around my sleeping bag all night long.
When I’m done with this article, I’ll start packing for this weekend: a perfect fall weekend canoeing along a meandering river here in southwestern Montana, even more thanks to my Helinox. I just received an Old Town Penobscot. It’s the exact same model – albeit a different shade of green – that I grew up paddling in and represents some of my most powerful outdoor memories. So it will be a nostalgic weekend. And the memory of the discomfort of that closed-cell foam roller will make sleeping on that soft, warm, elevated bed even more enjoyable.