Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Longterm Test

After a not too favourable longterm review of the original Therm-a-Rest NeoAir I was reluctant to waste anymore money on something that could potentially have such a short life. Thing is, comfort is important to me on a long hike and foam, or even self-inflating, mats just don’t provide enough so when the NeoAir XLite was released in 2012 I gave it a go. Well… wow! This one actually works!

Therm-a-Rest XLite Small

I bought my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite in Tasmania last year and it survived that cycling trip, followed by my PCT hike, along with many more training hikes. I make that around 200 nights use so far. Given that the original NeoAir consistently failed after around 60 nights then this is a huge improvement. Further more I can see no reason why this mattress won’t last for a good while yet and it’s going on my 4 month Te Araroa hike in a few days. Sure the bright yellow colour has faded and it's looking a little tatty but structurally it's in good shape. Being semi-transparent you can see the honeycomb reflective structure inside that works as the insulation and that too is undamaged. It’s also remained puncture free since day one and still stays fully inflated all night (something the original never did even when new).

After 200 nights it's looking used but otherwise in fine condition
The XLite uses new shell materials along with a more streamlined shape giving a useful 15% weight saving over the original. With an insulation R value of 3.2 this is also a slight improvement too and the XLite makes a good 3 season mat. I wouldn't recommend using it on snow but it was more than adequate on the High Sierra’s section of the PCT where temperatures routinely dropped below freezing. If you need to use it in colder conditions then it can be easily upgraded by slipping under a closed cell foam mat. Of course there is also the NeoAir XTherm which is a similar product but designed for much colder conditions.

What I really like about these pads is the tiny pack size. It rolls down to the size of a 1L soda bottle but I always just store it flat against my pack back. Every other type of mat is bulky after using these and at 228g (advertised weight 230g) for a small it’s very light too. I’m 188cm and find a small mat to be ideal for me but they do a further 3 larger sizes if you want more coverage. For 3 season hiking I don’t.

Impressive packed size (1L water bottle)
Like many I worried about the thin fabrics and the risk of picking up punctures, but having used these style of mats since 2010 it has not been an issue and I have not managed to puncture one yet. I did have problems with deflation of the Original NeoAirs but that was down to internal structural problems and not external forces. The XLite has not suffered any of these design problems. Of course you should still always carry the included repair kit because if you can’t keep your pad inflated then you will have zero cushioning and little insulation. A repair is simple enough and involves placing a self adhesive patch over the offending area once it has been cleaned with the alcohol wipes. Of course you have to actually find the puncture first which might not be easy on the trail. Holding a very buoyant mattress under a freezing lake while searching for a leak doesn’t sound like fun to me! Best to try and avoid punctures in the first place and spend sometime clearing the area under your shelter.

Others have complained about the crinkly noise you get from moving around on these mats but I’ve never found that an issue. Sure there is some noise but it’s not loud or unpleasant in my opinion. More of a problem is the slippery nature of the mat on silnylon groundsheets but that can be overcome with a few strips of silicon if needed. The shell material is actually coated with a slightly sticky feeling material but nothing grips well on silnylon. What you do notice immediately if coming from other mat types is the comfort! With a thickness of over 6cm you are elevated on a cushion of air over everything and simply don’t notice most of what is under you. For maximum comfort it should feel under-inflated and soft. I find it’s about right when sat on and I feel the ground under me, when the weight is more spread after laying down it will be perfect! After a few nights use it becomes easy to get this inflation point right. The thickness can be an issue with some bivi’s and I have an old one from Mountain Laurel that is too small to take a NeoAir without compressing the insulation of my bag. Most newer bivi’s are likely to be sized to take this.

NeoAir XLite
After a long hard day in the hills it can be a bit of an effort to inflate these mats by mouth, particularly if you have one of the larger sizes. You can soon feel lightheaded. There are 2 options, take a break after every few breaths or use an inflation bag. I built a simple inflation bag from a length of tube, sized to fit over the valve, with a cuben bag attached. This makes rapid work of inflating the XLite while also keeping moist exhaled air out of the mattress which can cause internal condensation problems. My inflation bag weights 30g and I’m happy to carry it. Therm-a-Rest sell a pump bag (not included) which doubles as a storage sack but that weighs 77g. If you are really lazy then you can even get a battery powered pump for 65g (batteries not included)! Your choice but making one is as easy as it gets and the lightest option.

Homemade 30g inflation bag
It’s always nice to be surprised when a piece of gear performs better than expected and this has been the case with the XLite. Therm-a-Rest are to be congratulated for huge improvements in reliability, over the original NeoAir, while making the new mat even lighter. At around £90 for the small these are expensive but the level of comfort, along with the tiny pack size and exceptional reliability makes this good value to me. If I lost mine tomorrow then I would buy another, without thought, and I can’t recommend a product more than that!

I chose and paid full price for this product. It was not supplied for review and I have no connection with Therm-a-Rest.