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Gear trek: the search for a light, packable and comfortable sleep pad.

I tend to take way too long researching major purchases. When looking for my truck last year, I spent well over a month and learned the scratches, tire wear and upholstery condition of just about every X Terra in the state. I knew salesmen by name and learned to recognize phone numbers on my cell. None of them had what I wanted. So I ended up in northern Virginia at a small, one-man dealership to find my Off Road package with under 20k miles.

So, is a sleep pad a major purchase? Well, financially, of course not. But from a gear standpoint, it sure is.

I returned a previous generation REI Trekker self-inflatable because it just didn’t pack well and was over two pounds, features I decided just don’t coalesce with a comfortable time in the backcountry. REI’s new version packs substantially smaller but is still over a pound. Big Agnes makes some really good inflatable pads but having owned one, I found it hard to get all the air out for re-packing. Nevertheless, I was tempted to go back to the Air Core but wanted to explore my options outside of those needing to be inflated manually. I just like camp to be set up quickly.

I gave Therm-A-Rest’s NeoAir a few seconds’ consideration, given the hype. However, that price should buy me more confidence in durability and not come with a guarantee to annoy the hell out of my tent-mate every time I shift in the night. (Seriously, go test this thing, it’s like laying on a potato chip bag.)

Now, I should include that I am by no means against the classics, like the Ridge Rest or Z-Lite. Those closed-cell pads are cheap, relatively comfortable, super-light and will never pop, tear or mechanically let you down. And I was heading straight down that path until I came across Exped’s SIM Light. The SIM (Self-Inflating Mat) had the weight, price and simplicity I was looking for.

Exped is known for some really posh air pads. They market several models that include built-in pumps and down-loaded baffles that still don’t even sniff a pound in weight. Pretty incredible. And freaking expensive, with some close to $200. When I poked around Exped’s site, I found a company that seriously knows what backcountry travelers need and doesn’t hide anything under overly airbrushed marketing or diluted mass-market outreach tactics. They’re not aiming at the once-a-year car camper.

What I liked most about Exped was how well they use video to introduce you to their products. The vids are not overly produced (you can even see a finger dart in and out of frame) and get up close and personal with the product. Without question, these guys are confident in what they sell.

The SIM Light is a great balance of traditional foam comfort and durability and, based on what I saw, deflates easily for a quick re-stuff when its time to get out of camp. It looks to pack a bit bigger than I hoped but still plenty small enough to be an interior pack item (almost everything should be). It’s green factor is middle of the road, as they re-use punched foam cores from the pad (making it lighter) in other products but I can’t imagine the process that bonds the exterior fabric to the foam uses materials that could double as a breakfast condiment.

You can’t buy directly from their site so I went straight to Sunnysports.com to find it for almost $10 less than Alltrec.com. And with free shipping. (Seriously, always double check that site, those guys rock.)

I’m expecting the pad in the next couple of days and will promptly give it a test run in a couple weeks out in the Smokies.

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