Just to set the record straight, I come from a long tradition that goes back to wafer-thin Ensolite pads that were a vague illusion of comfort back in the days of backpacking yore. Lightweight, inflated pads were an unbelievable breakthrough in my camping evolution that actually allowed for comfortable nights out and warm insulation from the cold ground. Now that I'm of an age to consider when I should start drawing Social Security, and, frankly, an age when my aching shoulders keep me up at night, I'm only feeling slightly guilty about pursuing some pretty deluxe cushion when it comes to bedding down in the backcountry.

Fortunately, the designers at Therm-a-Rest are on the same trajectory. Consider this the ultimate sleeping system, and mix and match to suit your needs and the trip at hand. For me, it has ushered in a whole new era of sleeping comfort that will support my Social Security phase in style. The entire package from cot to pillow weighs in at 5 lbs. 11 oz. and packs down to the size of a traditional sleeping bag and pad.


Don't get too hung up on the African safari image. It's just a bed for the woods. The design is pretty cunning, surprisingly light, and once you get the hang of it, fairly straightforward. It's worth practicing at home to get the best system down, and it does take a few minutes, even after you've practiced, but the end result is a firm mattress some 4 inches clear of the ground with rounded feet that shouldn't wear out the tent floor. If the bugs aren't bad, it's nice to sleep outside, immune from cobbles and lumps. The system is adaptable to body type and weight. I use 4 single wands and 2 double in the middle section for the best support. It's best to construct the cot on ground that is smooth and flat, and be careful not to lose parts when it’s time to pack up.

Intel: 2 lbs. 10 oz.; 24" x 72"; 4.5" ground clearance. Compact carrying case. $219.95. www.thermarest.com.


The latest family of light, compact, inflatable sleeping pads. The NeoAir line inflates quickly, deflates almost instantly, and has outstanding comfort. My only complaint is that they can be a little loud if sleepers move around much. But, with a sheet (below), that issue disappears. The All Season SV is a full 72 inches long, with 2.5 inches of cushion between you and the ground (or cot) for three-season warmth. The other set-up factor to pay attention to is to make sure that the seal at the wide-mouth opening is flat and without wrinkles. If it isn't, it will slowly leak throughout the night..

Intel: 1 lb.; 72" x 20" x 2.5"; packed size – 9" x 4"; $189.95; www.thermarest.com.

SYNERGY SHEET: This seemed a little over the top when I first saw it, but I'm a convert. The sheet has a great feel (brushed polyester), is much nicer than the pad alone, and dampens down noise. It slips over the corners of the sleeping pad and has fabric loops that fit to the snaps on the sides of a sleeping quilt. Easy to wash at the trip's end, and weighs next to nothing. Why not take it?

Intel: $39.95, comes in R-XXL sizes to fit various pads, 5.2 oz (lg.); www.thermarest.com.


With a full cot, beefy pad, and sheet underneath, who needs a full sleeping bag? There are a variety of quilts and blankets that pair with this system for comfortable sleeping in a very compact and lightweight package. I've slept out in temperatures around freezing in comfort, although that's probably the lower limit of the temperature range for this system. The down feel (650 fill) is unbeatable, and a set of snaps along the edges pair up with the loops on the sheet to keep drafts to a minimum. An elasticized foot box fits snugly over the pad.

Intel: weight – 1 lb. 6 oz; packed size – 10" x 7"; www.thermarest.com; $239.95.



Okay, a pillow seems a little much, but hey, when you're going for ultimate comfort, why not? And the down pillow is a nice compromise— it's incredibly light and compact (I just cram it in with the quilt and sheet in the sleeping bag sack) and has that sweet soft feel. What's nice is that a pouch under the down filling allows you to stuff in a fleece to increase the size of the pillow and still have the soft feel of down under your head. It's the biggest guilty pleasure of this whole sleep system shebang, but now that I've gotten used to it, I'm not leaving it home.

Intel: 6 oz.; 14" x 18"; $29.95; www.thermarest.com.

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