Self Inflating Mats

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Introduction: Self-inflating mats revolutionised backpacking when they were introduced by Thermarest over 30 years ago. They are made by sandwiching a sheet of foam between two nylon sheets and adding a valve. When you open the valve the foam expands and sucks air into the mat and after a few minutes the mat is inflated. I usually find you need to add a few breaths by mouth to get it to a comfortable level. These mats are pretty light and comfortable, though less comfortable than insulated airbeds.

Comfort: Self-inflating mats are pretty comfortable but as a general rule comfort of a camping mat is proportional to its thickness - so the thinnest mats will be less comfortable than their thicker counterparts.

Cut-outs: In order to make self inflating mats lighter some manufacturers have punched holes in the foam - removing material from the mat without compromising comfort - obviously there is a limit to how far you can go without destroying the integrity of the mat - but designers seem to have got it right - they have lightened the mats without affecting performance.

Insulation: Thicker mats will tend to have higher insulation value - this can be measured and is called the 'R-Value'. All self-inflating mats will cope very well with three season conditions but some will provide a bit more insulation than others. Its only if you were choosing a mat for winter use that you should look for the highest R-Values. A full explanation of 'R-Value' can be found HERE.

Self Inflating versus Insulated Airbeds: Insulated airbeds would seem to have its all! They are more comfortable, slightly lower weight and slightly lower packsize than self inflating mats, however there are a few reasons why some people prefer self-inflating mats:

  • If a self-inflating mat gets punctured you still have a foam mat to lie on
  • Airbeds are quite thick and bouncy - some people tend to roll off them
  • You have to faff about inflating an airbed - either using a pump or blowing it up.

What to look out for:

  • Thickness: Thicker will be more comfortable but heavier
  • R-Value: All mats are suitable for three season use but for winter look for a higher R-Value
  • The best mats will have non slip surfaces so they don't slide round the tent, even better some mats have patterns and silicon patches to help them stay in one place.