Full disclosure: Having been in touch with Cascade Designs for many years, I requested their Therm-a-Rest branch’s new ultralight camping mattresses for long-term testing, feedback and review. I’m not obliged to write favourably; just honestly. I’ll never endorse a product that hasn’t proven itself to me personally in the field.
The NeoAir XLite is an outwardly astonishing piece of kit.
When packed, the mattress can squeeze into the side pocket of my trekking trousers. Inflated, it provides almost as much loft as my Exped Downmat. As far as I know, never before its recent launch has this kind of portability and comfort been available in one package. Those clever buggers at Therm-a-Rest.
There are, of course, many factors to take into account for the long haul. Hence this detailed write-up of what promises to be the last ultralight camping mattress I’ll ever need…
Who is the NeoAir XLite Camping Mattress for?
This mattress has been conceived for those who want to ultra-lighten their loads, still be able to sleep comfortably, and retain the assurance of quality associated with the Therm-a-Rest brand. It’s ridiculously small when packed. One reviewer called it “the lightest comfortable sleeping pad in existence”, and that’s really the only way to describe it. (I.e. there are lighter mats, but they aren’t exactly comfortable.)
It’s available in 3 sizes, but the one I’ll be reviewing here is the ‘regular’ version, full-length but slightly narrower than an average mattress and tapered towards the feet. It weighs in at 350g / 12oz, packs down to 23x10x10cm / 9x4x4in, and can be squashed even smaller when stowed if the valve is left open. There’s also a three-quarter-length version for ultra-minimalists, a large (wider) model, and a womens’ version too.
If you’ve a standard-issue long-distance cycle-touring setup with four panniers and a bar-bag, the extra bulk of a more traditional mattress is unlikely to be an issue, and so the benefits of kit like the NeoAir XLite might not be obvious. But what if you could pack everything for the long-haul into two panniers alone?
This is what I tried for a two-month trip down the U.S. West Coast last year. Along with a 1-man tent and other kit minimalisations, I found the two-pannier setup liberating (particularly after that time I hauled a trailer across Mongolia), and would have happily extended those two months indefinitely with no major changes of kit.
I then took it trekking in Iran in the spring of 2013, and on every shorter adventure I’ve made since. Its comfort was already assured; I was interested in putting its longevity and flexibility to the test. 18 months later, it’s still one of the first things I throw into my backpack or pannier.
So if you’re leaning towards the ‘less is more’ camp, the NeoAir XLite might be a good fit for you. Bikepackers and folding tourers might also like to look in on this, as well as shorter-term tourers looking to pare things down to a bare minimum.
The only meaningful measure of any sleeping pad, of course, is whether or not you can actually get a decent night’s sleep on it. The Klymit Inertia X Frame, for example, is significantly lighter than the NeoAir XLite. Unfortunately, if you’re not 5 foot 10 and you don’t sleep on your back, it can’t be described as comfortable.
Having used a variety of camping mats over the years, from the closed cell foam Multimat I began with to the utterly luxuriant Downmat that kept me warm at 30 below in the Arctic, I’m happy (and surprised) to report that the XLite — despite its packed size — really does deliver on this front.
Inflated, it’s 6.3cm thick. It’s important to note that the thickness of a mattress affects more than just comfort and insulation; it also factors into your choice of campsite, as a thicker mat can absorb rougher ground whilst still providing a comfortable sleeping surface. It’s possible to deflate the mat slighty to suit your preferred level of cushioning, though this will make it noisier (one of the mat’s few detractors; see below).
For someone of average build, the 20 inches of width are more than sufficient. There’s a wider version if you need it, but I chose the ‘regular’ width so I’d have a little space for belongings when I paired it with the MSR Hubba 1-man tent.
Build is typical Therm-a-Rest quality. I’ve owned this mat for more than 18 months now, using it not only on a daily basis for two 2-month trips (cycling and trekking) but also on every shorter trip in between, and I’ve found few reports of durability issues elsewhere online. As with all ultralight gear, it’s important to modify expectations of longevity accordingly as the materials used are intrinsically less durable, but even so it looks like the NeoAir XLite really has been built to last.
If it’s ultra-durability you’re after (i.e. permanent, long-term use), you’re risk averse, and you don’t mind the extra weight, you may prefer to look elsewhere until the NeoAir XLite has proved itself over a number of years.
The biggest issue (more of a niggle) with the NeoAir XLite is how noisy it can be. The nylon used in the construction sounds like a paper bag being screwed up whenever you turn over or — god forbid — attempt to kneel on the thing. This is exaggerated all the more if you let some air out to adjust the level of cushioning.
While this is hardly a deal-breaker and a non-issue when wild-camping in remote areas, it’s worth being aware of — particularly if you’ve pitched up in a campground close to a tent full of extremely sensitive and angry people.
The only other issue I encountered was that condensation seems to accumulate inside the mat under certain circumstances (inflating it with warm moist breath in cold weather). I know of at least one user whose mat began to grow mould after being stored long-term (i.e. months) in this state.
The easiest solution is to air the mattress for a couple of days before storing it, hanging it up in a warm, dry place with the valve open and at the top (this is probably good advice for all orally-inflated mattresses). Another solution would be to use an optional inflation bag rather than inflating it by mouth.
The problem with new products is that it takes time to field-test them, and in the relatively conservative field of long-term cycle touring, untested innovations set alarm bells ringing. Is it worth taking a risk on a product that doesn’t yet have years of proven reliability under its belt?
It’s a good question. My own experience with the mattress has been faultless so far, but let’s quantify that experience. I first subjected it to two months of solid, everyday use wild-camping down the Pacific Coast last spring. Since then, I’ve used it on every excursion I’ve made, which has consisted of a lot of overnighters and short multi-day rides in the UK as well as at various times during the two-month trip in Iran I’ve recently finished up.
The reason I’m not averse to a dice-roll on a new product from Therm-a-Rest (a manufacturer whose reputation has been built over literally decades of tried and tested innovation) is that I trust that they value that reputation enough not to release a product that doesn’t exceed expectations in every department. So far, so good.
It’ll be interesting to see how the NeoAir XLite fares over the next couple of years, but for the time being I can’t see why it wouldn’t continue to perform faultlessly. (It’s worth mentioning that it’s had consistently top reviews from all of the usual suspects, and has won several awards since its release a couple of years ago.)
Needing to replace several items of gear after years of use, I chose the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite so that I could tour really lightweight, picking other camping gear to match. Thanks to its ridiculously small packed size, the sleeping bag and mattress occupy nothing more than the bottom of a single rear pannier, making its durability all the more impressive. Two years later, I’m still using it on every trip I make. Highly recommended.