Categories
Equipment Gear Reviews

Long-Term Review: Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite Ultralight Camping Mat

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.

Therm-a-Rest_NeoAir_XLite_Regular_RadiantYellow_angle_PR

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.

MSR Hubba with fly

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.

Comfort

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.

MSR Hubba inner without fly

Build Quality

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.

Problems

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.

Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite + MSR Hubba

Long-Term Durability

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.)

Northern California coastline

Conclusions

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.

[DFR:GearReviewPriceComparison?compset_id=52675]

Search eBay for the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite. Full specifications are on Cascade Designs’ website.
Categories
Philosophy Of Travel

On the hidden benefits of being poor

Home-brewed coffee

So I recently expended my entire life savings on writing a book and making a film, which was exactly what I wanted to do and why my life savings existed. As a result, however, I find myself in the not unfamiliar situation of needing to stop arsing around and make some cash.

This is not a complaint, lest it sound like one. Nobody talks about the details of their personal finances. Nobody blogs about it. There is an enormous social stigma attached to being cash-poor. To ask for free hot water in order to brew your own instant coffee on the train, for example, is to invite looks ranging from pity to gloating to disgust.

I don’t see it as shameful at all. My attitude was born from years of pedalling the globe on a thread of a shoestring, eking every calorie out of every penny, itinerant and jobless and sleeping rough, and finding more contentment and happiness in it than being wealthy and career-driven and settled could ever serve up.

So when I’m forced — by my own idealism, stubbornness, lack of planning, dismal abilities as a businessman, whatever — to do the same within society instead of on its edge, I see it as just the same game of initiative and lateral thinking and resourcefulness as before, scoring counter-cultural points against consumerism and very much enjoying doing so.

There’s one big problem with having cash in abundance. It invites you to buy into convenience, into the ‘easy life’ that the pursuit of money promised in the first place.

This happens oh-so-gradually, but it doesn’t take long before you’re conveniently buying coffee on the way through the ticket barriers, upgrading your phone so you can use all those convenient apps, grabbing a convenient takeaway on the way home, and getting convenient open-returns instead of booking trains a month in advance. You can afford these conveniences now. So why not?

It’s not that paying for convenience sucks away every last penny — it usually doesn’t. It’s that it makes you lazy. Life isn’t quite as full of those immediate little victories as it used to be.

You miss the satisfaction of successfully procuring an extra discount from the yellow-sticker-man in the clearance aisle.

You no longer pop into charity shops, just-in-case, and so you don’t find the mint condition made-in-England 45l Berghaus rucksack that’s just gone on sale for a fiver.

You forget that it’s stupidly fun to boil up a brew in a parkful of folk too busy swilling from Starbucks flagons to notice the smoke.

You can’t remember how to quarter the price of train journeys through cunningly combining advance fares between ill-frequented stops.

You feel strangely helpless when your smartphone battery dies and you can’t remember how to navigate the city streets without a little screen telling you which way to go.

You don’t have time to grow your own food on the windowsill or beneath the skylight or in the vegetable patch because you’re too busy maximising your post-work free time to have time to do so.

And you’re no happier than when you were scrimping and saving, because happiness is mostly genetic, and an easy life that doesn’t test you or teach you misses the mark of what humans really find satisfying anyway.

I’m not saying poverty should be anyone’s goal, and I know some of these examples are at the extreme end of things (relative to life in the UK, in any case).

But I am saying that having the rug of financial stability pulled out from under us — even temporarily, for example in the form of a big bike trip — has a lot to teach us about navigating life.

It simply depends on the perspective with which we approach it.

What do you think?

Categories
Bikes Equipment Gear Reviews

Folding Touring: A Review Of The Tern Link P24h

Full disclosure: I visited Tern, the folding bike manufacturer, in Taiwan last year as part of a tour of the nation’s bike industry. I got in touch later to see if I could test their touring model for its obvious relevance here. Tern loaned me the bike described here for a few months in order that I could do so.

Tern Link P24h: Complete loaded bike

Over the years I’ve become a lot less of a fundamentalist about this thing called cycle touring. And one principle I cut loose a while back was that these journeys should be conducted entirely by pedal power — the ‘cycle every inch’ mentality. There are many reasons your might want to combine cycling with trains, buses, hitching and the like. Perhaps time is limited. Perhaps there’s an itinerary to keep to. Perhaps particular regions are more interesting than others. Whatever.

The problem is that every break from riding involves detatching panniers, unthreading pedals, removing wheels, getting covered in filth, arguing with drivers and conductors, nicking cardboard boxes from behind bike shops, and other such delights. The more developed the country, incidentally, the greater the fuss.

So what if it were possible to eliminate all this and happily skip around a continent, hopping on and off any kind of transport while simultaneously enjoying all that’s wonderful about cycle touring?

It’s been at the back of my mind for years, but I hadn’t experienced it until I got my hands on Tern Bicycles’ Link P24h.

Categories
Creative Projects

The Hero Myth Versus Everyman: The Two Faces Of Adventure Storytelling

End of Norooz

Tales of adventure tend to fall into one of two camps.

The first is about the adventurer who sets out to overcome an impossible challenge. Setting forth from familiar surrounds, he (it’s almost always ‘he’) regales us with impressive-sounding escapades that take place in worlds of decreasing familiarity, undergoing transformation after transformation — until a flash of enlightenment occurs: the impossible has been conquered! And the adventurer returns, transcendant, heroic, victorious, to bestow his new-found wisdom upon we adoring legions.

The second is about the common man (or, increasingly, woman). We see that he has no abilities beyond normal human potential. But he is afflicted by some deep desire; one with which we can all identify. And this leads him into extraordinary circumstances which test him in a variety of ways, and he, too, undergoes transformations and enlightenments. But we can see that we’d respond in just the same way, and that the challenges, while real enough, are not as impossible as they seem. And he returns, transformed, but humbled, to live again among us.

Almost every tale worth telling could be fashioned in either of these two ways. Which is chosen depends almost entirely on the ego of the teller. Because there are no superhuman adventurers; not really. It’s just Hollywood and its many messianic narratives that have convinced us that there are.

And so, as an adventure storyteller, it’s easy to play to the stereotype, thinking that only feats of physical and mental domination are worth writing about, and that sounding more outwardly impressive than anyone else is the only way to justify your opening your mouth or picking up your pen. Indeed, entire careers are built upon this principle, and with that much at stake, the myth of the superhuman adventurer will be readily defended.

There’s another way, which is to acknowledge humanity and frailty and self-doubt, and in turn to invite a reader or audience member to see that he or she has a hell of a lot more in common with us than not, and to acknowledge that anything impressive-sounding is simply the result of lots of tiny actions about which, individually, there is nothing very impressive at all.

But because this makes the storyteller’s neck an extremely inviting target for people (and they’re out there, especially on the Internet) who’ve been conditioned to judge and draw comparisons and who derive self-worth from belittling the actions of others, and because we’ve believed since school that external praise is the ultimate goal and that heroics are the easiest means of getting it, it’s very difficult to muster the bravery to lay ourselves bare. Casting yourself as the star of your own hero myth is less painful than acknowledging publicly that you are, in fact, just everyman.

I’ve tried with all of my storytelling to point out that there’s no difference between me and any other unathletic middle-class British bloke, and that my pedal-powered mile-count is beyond meaningless. I won’t even use tired rhetoric along the lines of “the only difference was that I took the first step”, because there were so many people who pushed me until I stumbled forward.

And while I’ve enjoyed — superficially — reading plenty of adventure travel narratives composed of cherry-picked, obviously exaggerated anecdotes, written for gob-smacking derring-do value alone, I’d rather read a book that ends with me saying to myself not “wow — I could never do that!” but “wow — I can’t wait to give this a go!”.

And so I’d rather write words that have the same effect — even if it means sticking my neck out.

What do you think?

Categories
Upcoming Events

Inspiring, Informing & Connecting Overland Adventure Travellers: HUBB UK

hubbuk-logo-home-advspec

I don’t normally dedicate entire blog posts to a single event, but this is one that deserves special attention. Because there aren’t many events in the UK calendar that deal specifically with the planning of long overland adventures.

HUBB UK, however, is one of them. Spawned from the hugely popular Horizons Unlimited overland travel bulletin-board, and covering cycle-touring, motorcycling, 4x4-ing and other forms of overland independent transport, this is much more than a handful of lectures: it’s a full-on festival lasting four days (with camping and beer and everything), consisting of over 200 sessions of talks, demonstrations, workshops, Q&As, challenges and competitions on every topic you’d imagine relevant to adventurous overland journeys.

The event’s stated purpose is ‘Inspiring, Informing and Connecting’, but I think it’s the first of these that’s the most important. Knowing that what you’re dreaming of doing is possible — and that others like you have already done it — is the most empowering piece of knowledge to have while you’re laying plans for your first big trip.

So while there’ll undoubtedly be plenty of informing and connecting on the cards, it’s really for the inspiration that I suggest you come along. I’ll be there all weekend, presenting on adventure filmmaking and getting involved wherever else I can, and I hope to meet a few readers in the process!

I’ll also be demonstrating the results of an ongoing project/experiment, involving fully-loaded touring bikes, recycling centres, Poundland, and very very tight travel budgets! More on that soon…

Find out more at the HUBB UK website.