Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Exped SynMat UL 7 LW

I can’t say I am overwhelmed with the progress of lighter, durable and warmer inflatable sleeping pads.  I’d actually argue that the industry had been fairly stagnant for an irresponsible amount of time in consideration of product innovation.  The Thermarest NeoAir was introduced in the last couple years and made a significant attempt to push technology.  Many speak highly of it, but personally I felt it was terribly uncomfortable. I hated the horizontal baffling, the material was crinkly and noisy, and several field reports have shown for some that it isn’t very durable.  But, it does have a following, now several other expensive models, and it is lightweight and packs small.

Inflatables as a whole are hard for me to rationalize because they are so fragile, expensive, and not very durable.  Blowing warm air (and spit) into a closed dark environment is also a breeding ground for bacteria.  Many deal with this issue by bringing along a separate pump, or at best, a lightweight plastic bag with appropriate nozzle.  I'm not a big fan of bringing extra things personally.  But alas, many swear by inflatables.

Last year I briefly mentioned Exped was coming out with the SynMat UL 7 LW inflatable which I claimed was going to be a rival to the NeoAir.  A Memorial Day flier from REI and a significant discount motivated me to pick one up which is a bit outside my nature considering I don’t regularly carry inflatables.

At 6’5” and unwilling to torture my back by having my legs fall off the end at some point, I picked up the largest version which was 20.9 oz.  It maintained 3.1 R value and was a healthy 77.5” long x 26” wide.  I sincerely appreciated the length and width which so many manufacturers overlook.  It came with a stuff sack and repair kit (unlike the NeoAir).  Packed, it rolls up about the size of a 1 litre Nalgene (is there any comparison where a Nalgene bottle isn’t the reference?).  It is yellow on top and gray on the bottom.  I actually like a bright colored pad because it is perhaps one large item which could be used for emergency signaling if necessary.  The surface has a honeycomb pattern which I’d argue has a slight grip to help prevent the user from sliding around.

If you’ve never purchased anything from the Swiss company Exped, I’m happy to report that what you get is a thoughtful product which appears smartly designed, durable and highly functional.  I’m always happy to see solid overseas achievements hit U.S. shores as it pushes everyone to do better.

My impression of the SynMat UL 7 LW are all favorable.  From end-to-end, I like everything about it.  It is plenty big enough, plenty warm enough, plenty lightweight enough, and I really like the two separate valves for inflating and deflating (unlike the NeoAir).  It took me 16 breaths to inflate it completely (keep in mind, this is the largest version).  Of most importance is the fact that is comfortable and quiet.  In fact, I can argue that it is the MOST comfortable lightweight sleeping pad I’ve ever used.  The more I laid on it, the more I thought how many of you users of inflatable pads would just love it.

So am I a convert?  To a degree I suppose as I can articulate that it would be nice on some trips where weight wasn't as much of a concern to bring something that is far more comfortable than what I normally use.  But, at nearly 21oz, I could literally bring several roles of dense, pop-proof, warmer, less expensive, and more durable closed-cell foam (CCF) pads.  If I weren’t an ounce counter, I wouldn’t have a problem bringing it otherwise.  CCF pads aren’t as comfortable, but if I brought 21 oz of them, I’d argue that they might very well be.  Course, I need significantly less (probably closer to 10-12oz) of CCF pad to be comfortable in even the coldest conditions.  The main downside of the CCF, aside from the fact that it will never be as comfortable as an inflatable, is bulk. CCF pads are a lump of space-filling annoyance.

I do like this pad and feel comfortable recommending it (and highly recommended it even more for bigger people who are normally at a loss for big-boy inflatable options).  I look forward to seeing (and hearing) far less NeoAir’s on the trail.

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