I remember my first sleeping pad clearly. It was a blue roll of quarter-inch thick closed-cell foam that I proudly unrolled inside my Eureka A-frame, before climbing into an old green mummy bag that smelled like my father, and was easily two feet too long, since it was a hand-me-down from him.
I didn’t really understand what the pad was for at the time, since it provided no cushion. But unrolling it was a part of the outdoor tradition I was learning; one step in the recital of rules and processes that my Boy Scout Handbook promised were the path to outdoor adventure.
I don’t remember exactly when my parents replaced that thin roll of closed-cell foam with the self-inflating Therm-a-Rest. I was at least ten, because it was after I’d graduated Cub Scouts, and was probably on a required gear list for summer camp.
Self-inflating pads encase a slice of open-cell foam inside a polyester sheath. Where closed-cell foam holds its shape, open-cell compresses when you squeeze the air out of it, which makes self inflators pack smaller. That also means you can carry a thicker piece of foam, which in turn traps more air, which provides more insulation. That’s the “therm” in Therm-a-Rest, which invented these things way back in the early seventies, before I was born. The self-inflating part is a bit of a misnomer, since you still need to blow into them at the end to reach peak firmness, but you can untwist the valve, and wait for the foam to expand most of the way, all on its own.
That the pad came from some sort of prescription for appropriate adventure gear from the Scouts or some other camp pretty much sums up my relationship with it. Was its inch of cushion enough to provide real comfort? Did it pack small and light enough to cut weight in my pack? None of that stuff really mattered, because I was simply following orders at the time, and sleeping on this thing was the way I was told to enjoy camping.
I carried on camping on that pad, and using the rest of the gear I’d been told to when I was ten or so, through my teens and twenties. In that time I moved to London, New York, and then Los Angeles. It wasn’t until I was 30 years old that I discovered something else.
On a dirt bike camping trip in the Sierra Nevada one weekend, one of my friends had to run an errand, and asked me to pack up his tent and sleeping gear while he was gone. Pulling the rainfly off his tent, I saw a puffy, corrugated teal shape underneath his sleeping bag. Unzipping the tent door, I reached inside and poked it. The soft surface felt like my self inflator, but it was much thicker, and there was nothing but air inside. Don’t tell my friend this, but I crawled inside, and laid down on his pad. It was like laying on a cloud. Too embarrassed to ask about it, and suddenly ashamed of my old pad, I waited till I got home, then Googled what a Them-a-Rest NeoAir was. Instead of foam, it used a reflective foil lining to reflect body heat and keep the air inside the pad warm. It was also expensive, and at the time I was broke. So I waited a few months, and made that pad my first purchase when I got my next freelance check from Playboy Magazine, which was still paying $5-a-word at the time.
Around that same time, in my early thirties in California, I started car camping with friends, and occasionally dates. I got a cheap queen-size air bed, but it didn’t quite produce the romantic results I was hoping for—mostly because it proved very cold, even when paired with a giant square sleeping bag from WalMart that claimed to feature zero-degree insulation. When I was trying to figure that out I discovered what R-value is: a revelation that eventually led me to purchasing an Exped Megamat Duo.
My wife, Virginia, and I spent our third date in a yurt in Malibu on that pad over New Year’s Eve almost six years ago. We still use it, on top of a folding metal frame, as an occasional guest bed in a spare room in the house we bought together in Montana. Her dad once complimented me on how comfortable it was when he visited before we’d bought any furniture.
For a long time, I was convinced the Megamat was the pinnacle of nighttime comfort outdoors. I even got a one-person version that was slightly more transportable for solo trips in my truck. But the frame Virginia and I bought for the Duo in our house spoiled me even further. It’s too big to carry easily—even in a large vehicle. So I started looking for a more portable way to get me off the ground, while retaining plenty of cushion (and that all important R-value).
At $600 total, the Helinox Cot One Convertible Insulated, plus the leg extensions that elevate it eight inches above the ground, would have been out of reach to all previous iterations of my sleeping pad-using self. But now, in my forties, I’m less worried about money and more worried about waking up without a sore back. It’s too big to backpack with, but packs down enough that it’s easy to carry alongside the rest of my gear on an ATV’s cargo rack for hunting trips. And it’s the perfect match for my new canvas wall tent, where it allows warm air produced by the wood stove to circulate around my sleeping bag all night.
When I finish this article, I’m going to start packing for this weekend: a perfect fall weekend canoeing along a meandering river here in southwest Montana, made even more so by my Helinox. I just got an Old Town Penobscot. It’s the same exact model—albeit a different shade of green—that I grew up paddling and accounts for some of my most powerful outdoor memories. So it’s going to be a nostalgic weekend. And the memory of just how uncomfortable that roll of closed-cell foam was is going to make sleeping on this soft, warm, elevated cot that much sweeter.