When I tell people I wild camp for fun, one of the first things they ask me – after, ‘Aren’t you afraid of being eaten by a bear?’* – is, ‘But isn’t it really uncomfortable?’
*Spoiler alert: in the UK, you will not be eaten by a bear. You might get licked by a sheep, but that’s about it.
The honest answer is that it can be uncomfortable. What do you expect? You’re sleeping outside, on a hill where there is weather and stuff, in a sort of waterproof bin bag. At its most basic, it is not the most naturally comfortable place to be.
However, those of us who take it upon ourselves to do these things regularly have one or two tricks that we use to turn the experience from ‘cold and general discomfort’ to ‘snug as a bug in a four-season goose down sleeping bag’. When it comes to comfortable summit camping, the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm is one of my secret weapons.
The market for sleeping mats is huge. It can be intimidating if you’re shopping for one for the first time. There are even loads of different kinds of Thermarest NeoAir mattresses; as well as the XTherm there’s the standard NeoAir, the XLite, the Venture, the Trekker, the Camper, the All Season, and Max versions too… I’ll be honest, I didn’t assess them all when I bought mine. The XTherm appealed to me because (I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this) I really hate being cold. It’s a four-season air mattress which boasts “more warmth per gram than any other air mattress in the word” (Thermarest.com). You can see why it sounds like my kind of thing.
The baffles are filled with some funky patent-pending ‘ThermaCapture’ technology which is essentially a network of foils that reflect your body heat back on to you while you sleep.
You inflate it yourself, but some clever people have made the bag also function as a pump. It’s quicker to use good old fashioned lung power, but using the pump stops your breath from condensing, and potentially freezing, inside the mat on cold nights.
The mat also comes with a repair kit. I’ve found that it stands up to a good deal of usage and abusage but you have peace of mind that, if you push it too far, you’ve got some proper adhesive and patches to stick it back together.
Size & Weight
The XTherm is impressively thick when inflated, at 6cm. I have the Regular size (there’s also a Large), which is 51cm wide by 183cm long. Metric system aficionados will have clocked that that’s not a super generous size. If nothing but a full length mat will do for you, it might be worth checking out the Max version.
Being minuscule has two big bonuses for the Regular size, though: it weighs less than half a kilo at 430g; and it packs down really small. When I bought it, the strap line said it packed to the size of a Coke can. At the time I thought the people at Thermarest must be drinking from some sort of jumbo sharing cans, but they have since revised it to the more accurate comparison, “The size of a one litre water bottle”.
Here’s the sticky bit: it’s not cheap. A quick Google search sees the Regular size retailing at £169.99, but I’m sure I managed to get mine in a sale on some obscure outdoors website for less. It’s worth keeping an eye out because there are lots of deals around.
I’ve managed to find it on Amazon for £132.94 here (correct on 17th April 2018).
How I Use It
Because the NeoAir XTherm isn’t full of foam (or whatever witchcraft of a material it is that makes self-inflating mats self-inflate), it is compact and squashable enough to be able to pack in multiple ways.
If I’m using a tent, I’ll simply roll the mat away into its bag and stash it in the same rucksack compartment as my sleeping bag.
If I’m bivvying, I keep the mat inside the bivvy bag so I can get the maximum benefit from my body heat reflecting on the foils. Before I head out, I’ll lay out my mat and sleeping bag inside my bivvy bag, just as I’ll be wanting them later. I will then roll, fold and squash the whole bed setup into my sleeping bag’s stuff sack. I tighten the compression straps and, just like magic, I have the ready meal version of a bed. This is particularly great if it’s raining when you’re getting into your bivvy: your sleeping bag stays dry, and you only have to expose the valve of the NeoAir XTherm to put some air in.
I have the Regular size which, as I said, is very small. It’s roughly a 3/4 length mat on me. One of the rookie mistakes I’ve made with short mats previously is sleeping with my feet on the floor and then wondering why I was so cold all night. Now, I place my rucksack under my ankles while I sleep. This has the double benefit of keeping your gear close by, and allowing the bottom part of the sleeping bag to loft under your feet. Extra cosy.
Is It Worth It?
When I bought the Thermarest NeoAir XTherm, I was torn between that and the normal NeoAir. I’m glad I went for the XTherm, because I like to have the option of heading out at any time of year and knowing I’ll still have a warm and comfortable night – and the foils really do do the trick.
Despite my initial reservations that it felt flimsy and crackly, the NeoAir XTherm has stood up to regular use and to being squished into my bivvy set-up time and time again. I prefer it to self-inflating mats because it takes up much less room in my pack, and the bag which doubles as a pump is a clever trick for keeping condensation out of the mat itself.
The Thermarest NeoAir XTherm is not cheap, but if I were to choose a mat again I’d save up for it and invest over buying a cheaper one any day. I hope to have a long and happy relationship with this mat and, if you’re ok with something that’s a little narrower than others on the market, I’d absolutely recommend this to you too.