Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Infamous NeoAir

If you haven’t heard of the NeoAir (, you very well may be living on the moon. How about this – it took 5 years to design. The Thermarest NeoAir by Cascade Designs is claimed to be the lightest most advanced air mattress on the market. If you belong to any backpacking forums, it has probably been mentioned at nauseam following their debut just a few months ago which ultimately caused stock to disappear worldwide. I read about it, studied it, and contemplated it much in the same manner as other gearheads. When I finally decided to get one, I and everyone else was saddened to learn that Thermarest wasn’t going to release more until September 2009. I put in my preorder and hoped for the best. In late June, I learned REI was scheduled to receive an early shipment and decided to cancel my September order and buy one from REI instead.

When buying a NeoAir, the first choice is to decide on the size. The NeoAir comes in 4 sizes: Small (9oz/47”x20”), Medium (13oz/66”x20”), Regular (14oz/72”x20”), and Large (19oz/77”x25”). As a lightweight backpacker, my first thought was to go for the smallest – torso sized. Having the small in the store, I tried it, and found there was a tremendous pain in my lower back from where my legs had no support. Even though I typically use my backpack to put under my legs in my current method, my pack simply wouldn’t provide enough elevation to make the pain go away. I also found that the width of 20” was a little comical. At 6’6” and 280 pounds, I wear a 52XXL jacket. 20” simply wasn’t going to cut it even if the shortened length was desirable. After trial and error, I came to the realization that I needed the large. It was 77” long which was enough and 5” wider than all the others. I wasn’t thrilled about carrying 19 ounces being that my current closed cell pad is 9 ounces, but I figured a good night of sleep would make it all worthwhile.

The next step in buying a NeoAir is to swallow your pride like a jelly doughnut and pony up a ridiculous amount of money for it. The large was $170 plus $13 in tax and another $14 for shipping. That brings this fun little purchase to nearly $192. Let me say that again, $192. For this money, you get a large NeoAir mattress, instructions, a little box about the size of a water bottle – and guess what – no stuff sack.

I tried the NeoAir using several methods and even asked my non-backpacking wife to give it a shot. I ultimately compared it to a couple closed cell pads and a longer air mattress from Big Agnes.

The NeoAir is made of Nylon, although it feels like a very thin grade. Much of the chatter about this product is in regards to its ability to provide a decent R-value which it claims to be 2.5. “R-value” is a measure of thermal resistance and becomes an important consideration when sleeping outdoors in colder weather. In a nutshell, the higher the R-value, the better off you’ll be when it comes to your body heat being transferred to the cold ground. As you can imagine, increases to higher R-values pads often increases costs, weight, and bulk. How does a 2.5 R-value rating compare to other sleeping pads on the market? Well, check out an earlier blog of mine for a simple chart I put together ( In a nutshell, 2.5 is a very good rating overall especially if you can get by with a smaller size and thereby less weight. As you increase in weight, I think something like the Stevenson Warmlite DAM (“down air mattress”) would be a better purchase. But here’s the thing and the principal point that should not be overlooked – the NeoAIR is NOT an insulated mattress. Nearly everything else with a comparable R-value has down fill in it. The NeoAir provides warmth without fill and boasts to be three times warmer than any other non-insulated air mattress available.

So where does the NeoAir gain its R-value? Well, it has two patent-pending internal technologies which essentially allows the material to retain body heat much in the same way as an emergency blanket due to a reflective and aluminized urethane film. Because of this technology, it can cut out other stuff used by other manufacturers which would be nothing but dead weight. To the touch, the NeoAir feels paper thin – almost fragile. It is baffled and claims to have an interior triangular core matrix which creates an internal truss system providing for greater stability and the welded nylon grid to create chambers of air 10 times more than other traditional air mattresses. This minimizes the movement of air within the pad and thereby provides convective cooling. It can be easily blown up in just a couple of breaths which also means you don’t need a pump. Keep in mind however, the water vapor created by blowing it up could be a problem in winter environments which is why genuine winter air mattresses use an external sack.

So what were my impressions? Well, mixed. I felt it was quite fragile, but the reality of lightweight backpacking is coming to grips with very lightweight things that can do the job plenty effectively. Just because it was lightweight didn’t mean that it was a bad product. After spending quite a bit of time trying different positions and different inflation levels, I decided I didn’t like being elevated which is a common problem (to me) of air mattresses. I also didn’t feel it was wide enough when lying on my back despite it being wider than most. I did not have the same problem when laying on my side. I didn’t like the fact that I felt like there was a high spot in the center of my back which formed because the weight of my shoulders and lower limbs forced air up to a lighter part of my body. I also didn’t like the fact that I was touching the ground at times when attempting to find an inflation level that worked for me. I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t just roll it up and instead needed to push the air out and spend time rerolling it. I felt indifferent about its tacky surface as it was nice not to slide around on a common silnylon tent floor, but it wasn’t always great to have my body stick to it. As a general principal, I don’t like the fact that it could pop. If it did, I already know I wouldn’t have a repair kit and then I’d need to improvise or cut my trip short – neither of which would put me in a good mood. Overall, inflation is critical as too much or too little greatly impacts comfort and if adjusted too much to the point to where it hits the ground – then the warmth is lost. I was able to find fairly decent comfort with about 50% inflation. With my weight on the pad, it was enough to keep me off the ground but looks pretty pathetic when not on it. Shifts in weight also create changes to inflation in certain areas and it takes a short while for the temperature to adjust to the change. One thing that still surprises me, although probably shouldn't after understanding the design, is the fact that it literally feels "warm" when laying on it. I can't explain it, but it feels like it is radiating heat. Unlike something else which more or less takes on your body temperature when you lay on it, this actually felt warmer. When I used it outside in the summer months in Virginia, I can't say it was comfortable to have something radiating heat back to me, but I could clearly imagine liking it in the cooler months. I also found the more I used it, the more I liked it depite my complaints.

Basically, most of my “negatives” were as a direct result of my bias towards air mattresses as I am a big fan of closed cell pads. After all, closed cell pads are cheap, lightweight, durable, low to the ground, and have a very respectable R-value. To me, they are comfortable too. Their only negative – they don’t pack small and options when carrying them is to use them inside a pack to give it shape or to strap it outside. Thus far in my backpacking career, this has been my preference and plenty tolerable to me.

My wife is a side sleeper and she felt the NeoAir was reasonably comfortable. She reported the fabric was a little noisy and said that she didn’t much care for the baffling, although admitted it probably gave a more stable surface. Despite my wife being an average build and 5’5”, she felt it wasn’t wide enough. When asked which she preferred (between the NeoAir, a closed cell, and Big Agnes), she rated the NeoAir the best for the simple reason that it was the widest even though she didn't think it was wide enough. She rated the Big Agnes last because she felt it was too narrow and comfort was worsened by the elevation of the inflation.

So where does this leave you? Well, the NeoAir is a niche product in the sense that it is very lightweight and effective at what it is supposed to do. Whether you find it comfortable is a personal decision based on your physical size, sleeping habits, and general preference. If you don’t mind air mattresses as a whole, than you probably won’t have a problem with it. I don’t think it would do well around sharp objects, so if you sleep with your dog (for example), consider leaving the dog outside as I really wouldn’t feel comfortable exposing the NeoAir to dog nails. I have also heard of people who left their NeoAir inflated while they went on a hike in the middle of summer. When they returned, they found that several chambers had popped or otherwise enlarged due to expanding heat as caused by the sun.

For me, the question is am I keeping it? My answer is yes and quite honestly I made the decision only after driving all the way to REI with it repackaged and intent on returning it. I literally inflated it in the REI parking lot and tried it out again in a field next to the store before deciding to keep it. I think it is fair to say that I was comfortable enough to feel I could use it down the line, but just not thrilled with the comfort or the weight. My preference remains with closed cell pads and my rationale to keep it was for use in the winter, to supplement my existing system, and/or for my wife. If it isn’t already abundantly clear, I should admit that I am a simpleton when it comes to this kind of stuff as I’ve never really found an air mattress to be anything more than an inflatable raft. Throughout my life, because of my size I became all too familiar with sleeping on the floor as beds weren’t long enough. In fact, I spent most of my first two years in college sleeping on a piece of carpet and did the same each time I stayed at my in-laws for the first 2 years of my marriage. Sleeping on floors isn’t comfortable, but to me it was better than not being able to stretch out or being bent in funny positions on beds that were too small. So, I’m biased and find comfort in simple accessories such as low to the ground and squishy closed cell pads. If you find air mattress comfortable and you are an averaged sized person, especially if you are a side sleeper, this may be a good product for you if you don’t mind spending the money.
(UPDATE 9/24/09 - After a lot of comparisions and more nights with the NeoAir, I decided to return it. Keeping it simply makes no sense as I can double and even triple layer CCF pads for 2-3 times the warmth and still less weight. Course, this is more bulk, but there are options considerably warmer for about the same weight which means the NeoAir in this size is irrelevant. In a smaller size, I still find it a bit useless as the drop off from the edges makes it uncomfortable to me. For the same weight, roughly 19 ounces, and far more warmth, I can have a custom down-filled air mattress from Stephenson's Warmlite which seems to make a lot more sense.)


Chris Wallace said...

My gf and I have been using the smalls on our last few trips and they only work well for side sleeping because of the drop off you mentioned. An empty pack just can't support the legs enough. We're using regulars on the next trip and I plan to put my pack under my feet still for some extra rise there. We're both averageish height and very lean so the width isn't a problem for either of us. I would never pay retail for one though, there are too many places online where you can get them 10-20% off msrp plus free shipping.

Jolly Green Giant said...

Thanks for your comment Chris.

I'm glad I wasn't going crazy with the issue of leg support. I move around a lot when I sleep and usually end up on my back or side. As a result, I couldn't have a pad that only works when on my side.

You're lucky that you can get by with the small as that would have made a HUGE difference to me when deciding whether to bring it (9oz vs. 19oz).

I agree with avoiding retail, but this was like any new product on the market that if I wanted to be first in line, especially for the much more rare "long", I got the pleasure of paying through the teeth. Usually my wife allows me to play with new gear only if I can find it about 30-50% off, which strangly enough I'm often pretty successful at that. This was an expensive exception...especially for something that falls in the category of "maybe".

Jared said...

I have the small and have used it on 5 trips and the lows being around 35 to 36 on one trip. The R-value is definitely there. I'm always having to vent the quilt from the heat radiating back at me, granted I'm an oven when I sleep. The drop doesn't really bother seem to bother me with the small or at least it hasn't been an issue unless the pad is over inflated (i'm 5'6" and the pad breaks at about or just below the knees). I fill my pad to the max capacity, than after I lay down I crack the valve a little to adjust to my perfect sleep number and go to sleep. The thing I like most about it over my CCF pad is I don't wake up feeling like I slept on the ground, and all the aches and pains that I get associated from sleeping on CCF pads anymore. Granted the CCF pads are lighter, but I sleep better on a supportive mattress. I rarely sleep on my back, but this pad with the drop at the legs actually lets me sleep on my back. (some reason my knees need to be bent for me to sleep on my back) Generally I'm a stomach and side sleeper. Granted I only paid like $38 for mine... (rei rebate and 20% off coupon)

Jolly Green Giant said...

Jared, your experience is encouraging and insightful. I'm glad to hear that the smaller sizes are working out for some people. With the right sale (wink wink), I might consider getting one that only goes to my knees. When I tried them out in the store, ultimately I figured if it was already to my knees, so going the rest of the way to my feet was just more of a concession that had a higher likelihood of success. Truth be told, I’d like to try a smaller size for longer than just in the store.

Like you, I too found it was easier to blow it up quite a bit and then release some air once on it. I'd say I found mine to be most comfortable when it was about 50% inflated. It is amazing how warm it is when inflated and how blisteringly fast it disappears when it touches the ground. The realistic R-value represents truly amazing technology for this kind of product.

When I was working out today I started thinking about what would happen if an emergency blanket was put in a very lightweight sleeping bag. If one could figure out how to ventilate it, perhaps that might be a way to lighten up sleep systems while retaining the warmth. If trapping air is the key, I wonder if anyone has thought of making an inflatable top quilt with the same technology as the NeoAir. If it isn’t inflated very much, it remains fairly flexible and could be used as a quilt. Course, this is merely my mind wandering with no real basis, but I’d like someone from the manufacturing side to think about it and look into the scientific and engineering basis.

robin said...

I purchased a Regular size NeoAir from REI about a month ago and have now used it on 2 trips. Like you if find i actually get a warm feeling on it. I find it very comforatable (side sleeper) but it is really not wide enough (they should make a reg size one that is 25inch wide not 20in).

Even though it is 'sticky' mine still slides around - on a very slipper floor of my SixMoons Lunar Solo.

BackpackBaseCamp Blog

Robin said...

Have you heard much about the Klymit Inertia Pad? I think it goes on sale in October. It is inflatable with either air or Argon gas.

I don't know the specs of it but think it will be very light weight and with Argon should have a VERY high R value.

BackpackBaseCamp Blog

Jolly Green Giant said...

Hey Robin,

Several people have mentioned that it would be nice if the NeoAir offered wider versions in all sizes. I've actually heard that this idea is being considered, so hopefully this will be something we can hope for in the future. Personally, I'd like to maintain the larger width, but in a shorter version which tapers both in width and height towards the legs. To me that would be ideal.

If the sliding in your Lunar Duo bothers you, some have luck with the little sticky rubbery dots you can buy at home improvement stores. Getting them to stick without falling off may require glue, however.

Keep up the good work with your blog.

Jolly Green Giant said...

Thanks for bringing up the Klymit. They had been touting their products at outdoor retailer shows recently and it is actually a line of products to include pads and clothing.

Argon is a safe gas which insulates extremely well and has been used in wetsuits for years. It will be interesting to see how well it does with stuff like pads which are fairly abused. They will also be making a vest, but it could spin into other things. Since it is already made into clothing, hopefully they can expand on the innovation.

I love stuff like this as it really offers amazing insight into lightweight backpacking. For example, could you imagine going to the Arctic with just a lightweight pack and clothing? With the right science and technology like this, anything is possible and it sure is encouraging.

Robin said...

Thanks, I going to try that idea of the little sticky rubbery dots to stop the sliding on my Lunar tent.

I'm interested in the Klymit product so I did a bit of research and put an article and video out on my blog. Check it out at:

Klymit Article


Jolly Green Giant said...

Robin -

Thanks for the info. I decided to bump 4 other canned blogs to release an article myself about this topic for next week. I typically only write my blogs about stuff that folks can actually get their hands on as I find folks would rather have real world opinion instead of merely a summary of someone else's article. But alas, you've inspired me to release a brief article on it which will mention your page too if that's alright with you.

Jared said...

A couple strips of diluted Silnet (roughly a 1:3 ratio of 1 part Silnet to 3 parts Odorless Mineral spirits) across the silnylon floor will stop the pad from moving or sliding around and is virtually weightless. I had the problem after making my bivy for my solo sheler. I forgot to add a couple strips to the floor like all my other shelters and the pad wanted to slide/roll my bivy down a slight incline all night... Went home added a couple strips of dilute Silnet and the pad no longer moves.

Philip Werner said...

I was wondering if anyone has had the opportunity to test the Neoair on an extended trip. I was out for 6 days last week with a big agnes clearview and noticed that it was collecting quite a lot of water inside from breath exhalations because it has to be blown up. Does the neoair have the same issue?

Jolly Green Giant said...

Good point Philip. I have heard this to be the case with the NeoAir too, but I have no personal knowledge of it as mine won't be making an appearance until this fall.