The Alpinist Mountain Standards reviews apply Alpinist's tradition of excellence and authenticity to gear reviews by providing unbiased, candid feedback and anecdotal commentary to equipment tested (hard) in the field. Our panel is comprised of climbers who use the gear every day as part of their work and play. Only the gear they would actually buy themselves, at retail price, qualifies for the Alpinist Mountain Standards award. The five-star rating system is as follows:
One Star = Piece of junk.
Two Stars = Has one or more significant flaws, with some redeeming qualities.
Three Stars = Average. This solid piece of gear is middle-of-the-road on the current market.
Four Stars = Better than most comparable gear on the market. It has one or two drawbacks, but still 90% positive.
Five Stars = Is there such thing as perfection? An Alpinist Mountain Standards award-winner.
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Therm-a-Rest NeoAir: Compact, But Fragile
Posted on: July 24, 2012
MSRP: $139.95 / $149.95 / $169.95
I should start this review by confessing that I have always been a bit leery of inflatable sleeping pads. In the mountains, the insulation you have under you is generally more important than the insulation you have over you, and the nights get a touch long when your air mattress develops a slow leak, or worse yet, pops all together.
I tend to favor a system consisting of a very short, thick, shoulder-to-mid-thigh foam pad and then a similar, short inflatable pad. I lay the inflatable down first, then put the foam pad over the top and use these two to insulate my core, with my legs and feet resting on my empty pack. My standard system consists of an old Ridgerest (cut short) and a Therm-a-Rest Prolite 3 (short), combined with whatever pack I happen to have with me. It is by no means luxurious, but when combined with whatever clothes I have and the contents of my pack, I almost always achieve a good night's rest while managing to stay warm.
My latest test item, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir, is all the rave among guides right now. I was given the regular length that measures 72 inches long (183cm) by 20 inches wide (51cm) and weighs 14 ounces (410g). When deflated and rolled tightly, it is around the size of a one-liter water bottle. Therm-a-Rest assigns an R-Value to all its pads, a measurement of a given material's resistance to heat flow. The NeoAir gets a 2.5, slightly more than the 2.2 R-Value of the ProLite. The pad retails for $149.95, an amount that would cover a two-week climbing trip back in the day when gas was cheaper and my needs were fewer.
In order for the test to be fair to both the pad and to the user, I took it on a three-week expedition to Aconcagua; a week on the Mexican volcanoes; several road trips; and around four weeks on Mt. Rainier. I camped primarily in tents pitched on both rock and snow, but also used it a few times on bare ground, wood hut platforms and a few basement floors.
I went into this field test being almost certain that I would pop the NeoAir at some point and was impressed that it came through intact with no pops or leaks. However, I have been on trips with other guides who popped their NeoAirs after accidentally dropping a knife in a tent or tearing it on crampons, both common situations for any inflatable pad, but slightly more catastrophic with the NeoAir, as this is strictly an air mattress containing no insulating material other than chambers of air and hot-cold reflective barriers.
On many of my trips I used the NeoAir in conjunction with a Ridgerest. In these situations I placed the Ridgerest on top—the foam pad tends to spread my weight more evenly and avoids occasional back pain that I get with the pads reversed. I also frequently used the NeoAir by itself in cold conditions where my tent was pitched directly on glaciers. I can report that it did as well as my Prolite, but seemed a touch light when used as a single pad. On these nights it was important for the pad to be fully inflated to give me the maximum warmth possible, and there were a few nights where I felt a touch cold, which is typical for any single, lightweight inflatable pad.
In all, the NeoAir's most impressive feature is its (remarkable) compressibility. Other features I appreciate are the pad's pleasant and grippy-but-not-sticky nylon outer layer that keeps the pad from sliding around the tent; compressibility; and durability that I wasn't expecting. When I have seen these popped you can almost always see the hole easily, and duct tape will at least get you through the night. More permanent repairs are easily made with a patch sold by Therm-a-Rest.
But there are a few things that keep this from being perfect in my mind. While my pad did not pop, I've seen them get holes often enough to worry me a bit about relying on the NeoAir as my only pad. But it's almost unfair to grade it on this, as nearly all lightweight camping gear is less durable. The NeoAir is remarkably tough for what it is.
It relies almost entirely on air for its structure and as a result takes awhile to inflate. A larger valve wouldn't allow me to inflate the pad any faster, but it would deflate more quickly.
Finally—and this is a common comment I make when reviewing lightweight gear—I still have a hard time wrapping my head around paying $150 for a sleeping pad that is, out of necessity, a pretty fragile piece of gear. I find the improvements from the ProLite to the NeoAir interesting, but am not sure that I am ready to pay an additional sixty percent for a weight savings of a bit over ten percent.
Pros: Compact, lightweight sleeping system that is durable for what it is.
Cons: Cost and an inherent fragility; when popped you're left with no real insulation.