To stay warm and happy when you are sleeping on pilgrimage, you need to keep your body warm from the cold night air, and also insulated from the deep-cold earth below.
Furthermore, for us Westerners used to pocket-sprung and memory foam mattresses (or best of all, natural latex!) – the idea of sleeping on an uncomfortable floor is a massive turn-off. Lumps and bumps, or cold stone, sound like exactly the wrong thing after a long day’s walking, meeting and connecting with holy places.
You may have less-than-fond memories of camping as a child – perhaps in Scouts or DofE – when you used those foam roll mats that can’t keep from rolling up, and during the day stick out from your backpack. We’re here to say – those days have gone. The technology has arrived to make anywhere you sleep comfortable and warm – from cold flagstones to lumpy forest floors. Progress can be a true Godsend.
Closed Cell Foam vs Inflatable Air
We are by no means against closed-cell foam mats. They are incredible technology – cheap, waterproof, and almost indestructible. I have had one attacked by a feral cat, and I kept using for 4 years afterward, and sleeping well. No inflatable will ever say the same.
Perhaps most importantly, they are warm. If you find the right one, you can lay it on snow and sleep comfortably. The thermal rating (R rating) of these simple sleep-tools is incredible.
And they are simple. There’s nothing to go wrong, no weak spots. It is good simple technology, and often made in Britain – which is nice.
The best foam mats are made by Multi Mat. The model we recommend, if this is how you want to go, is the Discovery 10 XL – which weighs 310 grams and will keep you warm on almost any surface. It is also available in NATO green, which is better than the electric blue model displayed below, because a mat like this will need to remain on the outside of your backpack.
And this is the first main reason NOT to use a foam mat – its storage size. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
But the second main reason is perhaps the most important – comfort. Because these foam mats have that ‘mildly uncomfortable but maybe holistically healthy’ thing going on. Their attraction is their pain. Surely, it’s good for your bones? Like sleeping on a hard board? Isn’t that what the Saints did? Won’t they purge our contemporary softness form our bodies, and leave us stronger and more capable of endurance like our ancestors?
You know, this is all probably true. But it’s a rare person who wants to delve into heritage discomfort. After a long day of pilgrimage, being able to lie back in wonderful comfy sleep is a huge blessing – especially on the stone floor of a church. There’s no need to suffer on pilgrimage – walking all day, out among the weather, is beautifully tough enough. By nightfall, you want to relax into deep dark nutritious sleep. And that’s where the new technology really shines…
The new generation of air mats were initially billed as ‘self-inflating’. I think they have stopped using this term now. You will definitely have to blow. And this is certainly more awkward than simply unrolling a foam beast, but the results are so so so much better.
Firstly, there is storage. Inflatable mats can live inside your bag and take up almost no space at all. That’s simply marvellous.
Secondly, they are very very comfortable. No lumps nor bumps come through. The air protects you thoroughly.
Thirdly, they are not much heavier, considering how much more wonderful they are.
Fourthly, they are astonishingly warm, and almost as good as closed cell foam on cold surfaces.
And lastly, if you buy a Thermarest, they come with a (limited) lifetime guarantee. I have replaced mine once already, without hassle. I thought – but was not certain – that the air pressure was not so good in the morning as it was in the night. Bang – a new one was handed over. That is astonishing.
The main problem is the sense of security. Can i simply sit on it? Will it pop? What if there is a thorn or nail beneath my bed?
Well, it’s quite important to look out for thorns and nails, it is true. But a quick brush beneath your resting place is no great hassle. And you can plump your bottom down on a modern inflatable mat with quite some aplomb, and they simply don’t burst. Somehow, they are made to work, and work they do.
There is extra effort in blowing up and deflating an inflatable rollout (although some, like the Exped Synmat, don’t even need this). But it’s hardly any hassle at all, and the superb comfort they offer more than mitigates this extra minute of folding and squeezing out air.
There is also the question of cost. It is far easier to manufacture a slab of closed cell foam that a complex valved inflatable mat, and the prices obviously reflect this. But we assure you – the outlay is worthwhile.
So Which Roll Mat To Acquire?
As ever, the best trick is to borrow this equipment, to see if you like it, before buying. Chances are, your friends who own similar equipment – unless they are full-time tramps or totally dedicated pilgrims – will have their mats stored (loosely inflated) in a cupboard at home. So try someone else’s before you invest. Because they are not exactly cheap.
Our favourite models are these:
Thermarest are the pioneer brand in this field. Which does not necessarily mean they are the best, but they do have the brand reputation to uphold, which does mean something. And they are made in Ireland, which we like. The Prolite is not the lightest, or the warmest of their mats, but it is made of a quiet fabric which is vastly better than other more expensive and lighter Thermarests available, like the NeoAir. These sound like crisp packets, crinkling all night. That’s fine if you’re alone, but if anyone else is nearby, they’ll resent you. And this may sound funny, but it is real, and can affect your pilgrimage experience. Better choose a sleeping mat that doesn’t stop your companions from sleeping.
The ProLite is a workhorse (it is a mat), and weighs a few grams more (500g in total) than the lightest alternatives (as little as 350g for the NeoAir crinkle-crunkle @£130!) but it is made from more durable fabric – which in a device whose primary weakness is popping, can offer great peace of mind.
The ProLite tapers quite severely toward the foot-end, to save on weight. So this is not the vast wide boat of a roll-mat that you can roll about on, if that matters.In a sleeping bag, one tends to keep pretty still.
If this is too pricey, good old Alpkit offer a very similar model that weighs 630 grams and costs almost half – at £45 – the Airo 180. There is also their £50 Dirtbag – a more comfy and robust, but heavier model at 880g. Both mats have a great reputation, and the 3-year guarantee is reassuring too. You can see the rest of Alpkit’s range here. In fairness, they’re all pretty decent mats, if you enjoy brand loyalty or want to save on postage costs.
Another similar option – even cheaper and slightly heavier again – is the Mountain Equipment Helium 2.5 – only available from Cotswold Outdoors, and perpetually on sale, in that annoyingly misleading way. It never costs £70, and no-one else sells it, so the RRP is meaningless. But the mat is good – at 685 grams and £40, it is the cheapest choice. It will suffice! And it is available in high streets, if you need to acquire pilgrim gear quickly…
Another really good option, in terms of comfort, durability and weight, is made by Exped – the same people that make the waterproof bags we recommend you keep your inflatable mat inside when walking.
The Exped mat is called the Synmat UL 7 – and its best feature is that it is filled with synthetic down, so it can keep you warm at much lower temperatures. It also has vertical ridges, with slightly raised ones along each side, so you do not roll off. And it is really thick, so you are right off the ground. This is possibly the most comfortable mat available, but it costs £90. And it is somewhat noisy – though not as bad as the NeoAir mentioned earlier. And the SynMat is inflated not by breath – which can cause moisture build-up and associated problems in cold temperatures – but by a special Exped bag which you open and squeeze like a formless concertina. It sort of works – but some may prefer the simpler way…
If you are going to rock an inflatable mat – and you should – the most important thing to carry is something we pray you’ll never need – the repair kit. It weighs almost nothing, but offers tremendous peace-of-mind. I have never used mine, but carry it devotedly on every pilgrimage I make, just in case.
There may be generic repair kits that work just as well, and cost less than the shocking £8 that Cotswold Outdoors demand. We don’t know. Perhaps a £1 bike repair kit from PoundVille would work out fine. We don’t know. If you find out, please do update us. But we hope you never will need to…