M Plush Pads (Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2008)
by Mike Martin
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As a lightweight, technically minded backpacker, if you were looking to rate the overall performance of a sleeping pad, you might define a "performance envelope" consisting of parameters like warmth, weight, comfort, and packed size. A traditional backpacker might also include durability and ease-of-use, but I'd argue these are less important to lightweight hikers. Tradeoffs among these parameters are unavoidable in any pad technology. For example, closed-cell foam pads are generally lighter, but less comfortable and bulkier than self-inflators.
The new Therm-a-Rest NeoAir pad expands the envelope by offering a 2.5 inch thickness for comfort, an extremely compact stored size, and a claimed R-value of R-2.5 for warmth. The NeoAir achieves the comfort and compact size by virtue of its non-self-inflating construction. This itself is not new in pad designs, as companies such as Big Agnes, Exped, and Pacific Outdoor Equipment have had this type of pad for some time. By eliminating or reducing the thickness of the internal insulation, a non-self-inflator can be blown up to a plush, comfortable thickness, and still be deflated to a compact size for packing. The drawback of this kind of construction is that it is difficult to achieve much thermal insulation. If the pad is constructed with large, empty air chambers like the Big Agnes Clearview Pad, convective air currents in the pad will decrease its insulation dramatically. One way around this is to add some down or synthetic high-loft insulation to the inside of the pad chambers, as is done in the Exped Downmats, Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Thermo pads, and Big Agnes Insulated Air Core series. By impeding convective currents, this construction adds substantial warmth. But, it adds weight and increases packed bulk. Plus, if down is used, a pump must be used for inflation to avoid trapping moisture from your breath inside the pad.
The NeoAir promises to deliver the light weight, simplicity, and compactibility of an insulation-less non-self-inflator like the Clearview Air, with the warmth of an insulated pad. It achieves this with a five-layer honeycomb construction that disrupts convective currents and reflects radiant heat.
Producing this honeycomb structure, dubbed "Core Matrix," required new manufacturing technology. A proprietary machine made in Tacoma, Washington welds the five fabric layers simultaneously. The process is time consuming, requiring up to ten minutes for the machine to complete the discrete welds. Current prototype pads are being made with a prototype welder, but the company has a larger capacity machine in development. Somewhat surprisingly in this day of Asian-produced goods, the production pads will be made in Seattle.
The technology has taken over five years of development. They were initially looking to build a lightweight pad using conventional high loft insulation. This evolved into attempts to achieve semi-self inflation by orienting the matrix vertically. Eventually a horizontal matrix was decided upon to reduce the number of welds needed and improve warmth by reducing the vertical size of the "chimneys" inside each cell.
Materials consist of a 30 denier high tenacity ripstop nylon shell, nylon non-woven inner layers, and a central aluminized, urethane-coated, reflective layer. The layer sandwich is claimed to offer an R-value of R-2.5 at 1.85 inches of inflation. (As with all inflatable pads, the R-value depends on the inflation thickness - more air equals more insulation.)
The technology and design of the pad appear impressive, but as with any potentially revolutionary product, we'll have to wait and see if production versions live up to the initial promise. A full review of the NeoAir is in the works at BackpackingLight.com. The pad will be available April 2009 in four sizes.
Features of the Small Version:
- Dimensions: 20 x 47 in (51 x 119 cm)
- Claimed Weight: 9 oz (260 g)
- MSRP: US$119.95
- The Envelope Just Got Bigger
- What About Conventional Therm-a-Rests?
- No Oyl Shortage Here
- Want To Design Your Own Sleeping Pad?
# WORDS: 1400
# PHOTOS: 4
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