Thursday, November 3, 2011

Big Agnes Air Core

I've spent a lot of nights snoozing on the ground this year. Between guided and recreational trips I'm edging towards the 60-night mark. For about 58 of those nights I've slept on a Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad. If I was 7 again, I'd swear to you that I could catch waves at the Jersey shore with this funny looking raft-thing. Unfortunately, my 190lb body would probably sink that raft nowadays. You get the idea though, the Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pad is basically a simple air mattress with durable welded seams and full-length cylindrical chambers. At 2.5" thick it's easily the most comfortable sleeping pad I've ever owned, and I've slept many a sound night on it.

How did I settle on the Air Core, when there are lots of good lightweight sleeping pads on the market? Well, after several years of sleeping on thinner foam pads or 1' thick Thermarest pads, I decided that I wanted to sleep well outside. Multiple nights on hard ground with thinner pads left my back and hips (I'm a side sleeper) feeling pretty sore. Try sleeping on bare bedrock with a 3/4" thick sleeping pad for several nights in a row. The chiropractor will absolutely love you after your trip. Other new thicker, yet lightweight, mattress options were available to me, namely the Thermarest NeoAir and the Pacific Outdoor Equipment Ether Elite. The catch here is that I'm not made of money. The NeoAir is $120, the Ether Elite is $70, and the Air Core is only $50. I didn't want to spend a ton, and the Ether Elite, which is 5 ounces lighter than the Air Core was backordered so I ended up with an Air Core before my trip to the Ruth Gorge this past April.

At first I was skeptical. After all, if you pop this puppy you're screwed, and it seems like it would be easy to pop. The 70-denier nylon feels thin. 60 nights so far this year seem to indicate otherwise though. I've used the pad on glaciers in Alaska, snowfields on Mt. Rainier and in the North Cascades, and on dirt, gravel and grass throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast all summer long. It seems durable to me so far, but I've been careful not to sleep on bare ground without some sort of layer underneath the Air Core.

Big Agnes suggests using a foam pad underneath when the temperatures dip below 35 degrees. This is sound advice, and I'd add that you should consider an additional piece of closed cell foam when you're going to sleep on snow even if it's 70 degrees outside. Air doesn't insulated the way foam does. A 5mm thick piece of evazote does the trick and doesn't weigh much either.  Evazote is hard to find in the states but can be ordered from the MEC website and has amazing insulative value. Look around at expedition pictures from the past and you'll see people using those bright yellow evazote pads in cold climates on big mountains. A good option is to use a full-length 5mm evazote pad as the backpad in your pack and then add it to your sleeping system in camp. This option works especially well with some of the smaller overnight/alpine climbing packs that have a foam insert as their frame.

The Air Core, while not as light as the NeoAir or Ether Elite, is still small and easy to pack. When rolled tightly it's about the size of a one liter water bottle. This is a major selling point; even if it doesn't give you substantial weight savings over your current sleeping pad it will reduce the size of your kit. Having a smaller, tighter pack for alpine climbs makes the climbing feel easier and safer. That alone is reason enough to choose one of the new inflatable pads like the Air Core.

So, if you're on a budget and in the market for a new pad, consider the Big Agnes Air Core. It's lightweight, small in size, and will provide you with a good night's sleep. What more could you ask for?

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