Gear Review: Sea to Summit UltraLite Mat vs. Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite
Today we have a gear review brought to all of you by our good friend Tom (@thomas_rowan on Instagram) . Somehow I managed to trick him into writing a few reviews for us on our last trip. If you have any questions about the gear please feel free to ask in the comments.
When most campers think of sleeping pads, Therm-a-Rest is probably one of the first names that comes to mind – and for good reason. Cascade Designs has been at the forefront of pad design and innovation for decades now, and the Therm-a-Rest has been a staple in my kit for as long as I can remember. I’d used the ProLite and ProLite Plus for years, until the recent introduction of the NeoAir series of pads; these were a significant advancement in both R-Value (insulation/heat retention) and pad thickness, without any compromise in packed size or weight. I upgraded to a NeoAir All Season a few seasons ago and immediately fell in love with it. Knowing that this year I’ll be doing more backpacking trips than usual, I purchased a NeoAir XLite at the beginning of the season in the continued effort to decrease my pack weight.
Shortly after acquiring this pad, however, I began to read more and more about Sea to Summit’s new line of sleeping pads. Anyone who has been on a trip with me knows all too well that I’m one this company’s biggest supporters, as more and more of their products have made their way into my kit over the last few years. My curiosity (AKA my habit of buying gear that I don’t really need) got the best of me, so on my most recent canoe trip to Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park I decided to put the Sea to Summit UltraLite Mat up against the NeoAir Xlite: Scrappy up-and-comer vs. the long-reigning (figurative) heavyweight.
Sea to Summit UltraLite Mat
Weight: 13.9 oz / 395 g
Width: 21.5 in / 55 cm
Length: 72 in / 184 cm
Thickness: 2 in / 5 cm
Packed Dimensions: 3 x 6.5 in / 17 x 7.5 cm
Fabric Type: 40d Rip Nylon
Initially, the big draw to the Ultralite Mat is the packed size; it’s narrower than a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle, and takes up a miniscule amount of pack space. The pad comes equipped with both a stuff sack and a patch kit, and the entire package fits in the sack with ease. Upon unrolling the pad….I’ll be blunt: the material is reminiscent of a more traditional “air mattress” that you’d want to use while floating in a pool with a cocktail. The fabric type is listed as 40d rip nylon, so the major difference here is the absence of an exterior laminate that you would find on most camping sleeping pads. Sea to Summit claims that their lamination process (apparently almost exclusive to medical and aeronautical industries) eliminates most of the delamination issues associated with other sleeping pads. I’ve never experienced delamination issues with any of my pads, but given STS’s attention to technical detail, I’m fairly reluctant to question their motivation for manufacturing their pads in this fashion.
Inflating this pad didn’t do much to put me at ease in terms of either functionality or durability. Frankly: this thing is goofy looking….REALLY goofy looking. The “Air Sprung Cells” give it an egg carton-esque look, and I was immediately concerned with ground clearance while sleeping. I will say, however, that I’ve never blown up a sleeping pad as quickly as this model. Under a dozen breaths and it’s fully inflated. STS’s dual-valve system (as used with their INCREDIBLE inflatable pillows) is utilized with these pads: two valves stacked on top of each other – one to inflate, and one to deflate. This feature alone puts this pad head and shoulders above most in terms of ease of set-up.
With all of the concerns I had with this pad prior to actually using it in the backcountry, I’ll be the first to admit that it was extremely comfortable to sleep on. I’m a side-sleeper, but didn’t experience any issues whatsoever with my hips digging into the ground. The pad didn’t seem to rest evenly after inflation, but this was unnoticeable while sleeping. I probably could have had an even more restful sleep had I experimented a bit with air levels in the pad. Overall: most of my concerns regarding the pad were dispelled the first night. Solid sleep.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite (Regular)
Weight: 12 oz / 350 g
Width: 20 in / 51 cm
Length: 72 in / 183 cm
Thickness: 2.5 in / 6.3 cm
Packed Dimensions: 9 x 4.0 in / 23 x 10 cm
Fabric Type: 30d Rip Nylon
As mentioned previously, I’ve been using a NeoAir All Season for several seasons now, so I wasn’t expecting any major surprises with the XLite. While the All Season is a rectangular shape, the XLite is tapered to cut down on both packed size and weight. Like the STS Ultralite, the XLite also comes with a stuff sack and patch kit. The XLite does require a significant amount of effort to inflate; with the R-Value being over 4x that of the Ultralite, inflation isn’t restricted to blowing up empty chambers of plastic – a baffled inner structure of insulation requires quite a few extra breaths to reach full inflation.
Sleeping on the XLite leaves little to be desired; the consistency of the horizontally ribbed chambers provides a sturdy surface, and there aren’t any issues of air shift to speak of. I’ve read many reviews of NeoAir matresses that mention a persistent “crinkling” noise from the pads, but unless you’re an EXTREMELY light sleeper, this is barely noticeable (if anything, it’s more apparent with the All Season).
The only downfall of the XLite is its re-entry into its stuff sack. Returning this pad to its original state from the packaging is next to impossible. Fresh from the factory, the pad is folded in thirds, lengthwise into the stuff sack, but I would pay to see someone return this to its original, packed state. Once the air has been purged, even a half-fold and roll takes a considerable amount of effort. Despite this, the pad does fit into the stuff sack with fairly little effort, regardless of some increased bulk.
At first glance, this review would seem to be a no-contest decision for the Xlite. Granted, Therm-a-Rest has produced yet another pad that seemingly crushes the competition in almost every aspect. STS does offer an Ultralite Insulated pad that approaches the Xlite in R-Value, but any inroads made with insulation are quickly diminished by dramatically increased product weight. The XLite is more costly, but is hands-down the bigger bang for your buck: much lighter, and significantly more flexible as a three-season pad (especially in the shoulder seasons). However, take into account that this is STS’s first stab at the sleeping pad game, and given their innovations with valves, material, and overall innovative design, don’t be surprised if +pioneers such as Therm-a-Rest have some very stiff competition in the near future. That being said, it’s comforting to see a stalwart in the industry like Cascade Designs maintain a foothold among a rapidly evolving landscape in outdoor gear.