Aye, I remember well the days of the old blue condensed cell foam sleeping mats. Yes, those ones we all had. After a 4-hour walk up to Spout Cave, we’d dump our heaving backpacks on the stony ground and go climbing for the day. Returning to the cave just before sunset, we would make something to eat and, exhausted, we would pass out on our little blue hard bed rolls, with nary a thought for comfort or coziness. ‘Blue bed roll,’ I hear you saying. ‘Luxury! We used to sleep on a heap of gnarly pebbles . . .’
But seriously, that was way back in the ’70s and ’80s, when we were young and the ground was nowhere near as hard as it is today.
Then in 1990 I embarked on a road trip through the USA. We landed in Seattle, and one of our first port-o’-calls was the REI shop – a huge multi-level outdoor/climbing shop, which to us little South Africans was like the proverbial candy store to a child. There was everything you could want on those shelves, including some of the very first models of compact inflatable sleeping mats. The shop assistant inflated one and invited me to lie on it. Five minutes later I was walking out the store with my very first inflatable sleeping mat, and I’ve never looked back, my trusty blue foam pad a distant memory. Well, in the decades that followed, inflatable sleeping mats have evolved and come a long way, with a number of brands now on the market.
First let’s determine what we are looking for in an inflatable sleeping mat
Comfort: That is numero uno, of course. That is why we have moved away from the blue curse! Something soft and cosy that we can sink into a little, and not have our hip bone digging into the hard ground.
Insulation: Almost as important as comfort, and in a way contributes to the comfort. Not very handy having an inflatable mat that lets all the cold through from the ground, permeating your sleeping bag and subsequently your tender exhausted bones. Call the blue curse what you want, but one thing that it did do was give decent insulation. I remember using a blow-up lilo in Scotland in the ’80s. Huge mistake. The next day I went and bought 10 newspapers at the local newsagent, and spread copious amounts of printed matter beneath my lilo to increase the insulation. Sleeping mats need good insulation!
Size: Mats come in different sizes and shapes, but at the end of the day, it is nice to have a sleeping mat that fits your whole body. That way you can also keep your feet insulated from the cold ground.
Weight and roll-up size: Weight and size is always of concern when backpacking, so a light and compact sleeping mat (not compromising insulation) is the way to go.
Valve: A good, effective and reliable valve is essential.
Durability: By default, sleeping mats can’t be made with heavy duty, super durable materials, as this would severely impact on the weight and compactness of the unit. You should take extra care with your sleeping mat – clear the ground before you lay it down, check for anything sharp, like stones, sticks, etc. and always lay your mat on a lightweight protective groundsheet. This will go a long way to avoiding punctures.
I recently put two JR Gear inflatable sleeping mats through their paces – the Venture, and the Presidon Insulated – and this is how they measured up to the points above.
Both mats inflate to a decent thickness, making them super comfortable, but be prepared for a little bit of hyperventilation, as you will need about 20 good deep breaths to fill them up. A JR Gear air pump is available (sold separately), but if you’re backpacking and weight conscious, then pumps will not form part of your arsenal. However, you could use the light weight JR Gear Dry Pump (see addendum below). The Venture has broader tubing on each side to keep your body in position on the mat, and the Presidon is constructed with a more grippy nylon, which serves the same purpose.
For general camping and backpacking in warmer climates, the Venture sleeping pad will do very nicely with an R-Value of 3, which is more than adequate.
However, if you are intending to sleep at higher altitudes, and/or where you expect temperatures to drop to zero or below, then I would definitely go for the Presidon Insulated mat. This mat has a filling of PrimaLoft with a reinforced Traverse Core, and coupled with IR Reflective Technology (which reflects back the ‘long’ infrared emitted from your body), recovering part of your heat loss, gives a whopping R-Value of 5.2, bearing in mind that no sleeping mat (including the heavier ones) has tested higher than 5.5.
Both mats come in different models – rectangular, mummy shape and standard or X-large, so plenty to choose from. Personally, I prefer rectangular over mummy. The difference is only 50 grams, but I like more space for my feet to roam around.
Again, both mats are super compact when rolled up and stored in their pouches, which come with an additional cinching strap, to make them even more compact. And both mats come in at around the 500- to 600-gram mark, so pretty lightweight.
JR Gear have introduced a great valve system for their sleeping mats. It has a double valve – opening the top one allows you to blow air in, but does not allow any air out, and releasing the bottom valve allows all the air out really quickly, which makes for quick and easy rolling and packing. But I love the little green adjustment button which lies beneath the top opening. This allows you to gradually adjust your air pressure to perfect comfort levels, after you have inflated the mat to its fullest.
As far as durability goes, these sleeping mats are treated with TPU, but are made for comfort and lightness. It is really your responsibility to look after your mat and keep it away from rough or sharp ground. Always use with a protective groundsheet. All JR Gear sleeping mats come with a puncture repair kit and also a spare adjustment valve button.
In short, JR Gear’s range of sleeping mats are well priced and will keep you warm and comfy, just be sure to choose the one to suit your adventure.
Venture Rectangular standard
Estimated R-Value: ~ 3.0
40D nylon diamond ripstop fabric top and bottom shave weight
Hydrolysis Resistant TPU (against moisture)
Repair kit included
Weight: 490 g
Size: 198 x 63 x 8.9 cm
Presidon Insulated Rectangular standard
Estimated R-Value: ~ 5.2
30D Stretchable Fabric
Hydrolysis Resistant TPU (against moisture)
100 g/m2 and 133 g/m2 PrimaLoft eco synthetic patching
Infrared Reflective Technology
Repair kit included
Weight: 650 g
Size: 183 x 51 x 8.9 cm
JR Gear Dry Pump 25L
– Pump for blowing up air mats
– Compression & Dry bag for storing down sleeping bag during hike
– Pillow at night
– No heavier than a normal dry bag that you might choose to use for your sleeping bag
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