Gear Review: Therm-a-Rest Sleep System

Enjoying the last few minutes before bed on
my Sleep System in the Sierras. (J. Johnsen)
Imagine you’ve just hiked four miles at altitude in the glaring summer sun. You’ve post-holed through more snow than you expected to find. You’re under the shadow of one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the country with three friends. You’ve chosen a campsite and can’t wait to settle down for the night. You’ll have trouble sleeping because of the altitude, and the last thing you want to worry about is whether or not what you’ve brought to sleep on will make it worse.

That was me in late June on a backpacking trip in the stunning Sierra Nevadas. I took the sleep system Therm-a-rest provided me with for testing on two backpacking trips, one in the Sierras and another in the Catskills. After several nights out in the wild with my sleep system, I'll definitely take it on more trips in the future.

One of my initial concerns was that the system wouldn’t pack down to the same size as a standard set of sleeping supplies. Space and weight are important considerations when I’m lugging my stuff up and down mountains! But carrying the system was a piece of cake.

Despite the fact that my system has four components – pad, sheet, blanket, and pillow – it took up less space than my previous sleeping pad and sleeping bag did. I actually like the fact that there are separate components; I have more freedom to store them in different places depending on what else I’m carrying. The system weighs 3.5 pounds, pillow and mattress included.

The sleep system ready to go in the Sierras.
Getting the system set up is relatively easy, though at altitude, anything easy becomes difficult! I had to pause numerous times between breaths inflating the Neo Air All Season sleeping pad to avoid getting dizzy. As stipulated in the specs, 20 breaths got it fully inflated. To attach the sheet to the pad, I had to fit the corners of the pad into the corners of the sheet, and then slide the three elastic bands up the pad to the other end. It took a little finagling, but certainly wasn’t difficult. There’s a small protruding piece that fits over the inflation valve, which also helps you tell the top from the bottom of the sheet.

The sheet is made with three snaps on each long side, which is how the comforter attaches to the pad. The comforter has a pocket at the bottom end that slips over the pad, and then the three snaps attach it to the sheet. The comforter is long enough to almost completely cover the pad, and extra material on either side keeps drafts out between the snaps. The idea is to have the same sheet-and-comforter feel you’d get in your own bed out in the middle of nowhere, which Cascade Designs definitely achieved.

I was too warm with this system in the Catskills where temperatures only dropped to 50ºF, but was comfortable at just below freezing temperatures in the Sierras. I usually sleep cold, but at freezing, I was comfortable in long underwear and a t-shirt. The Neo Air All Season and Alpine Down Blanket definitely did their jobs.

In general, there are number of things I really like about the system I chose. I love the fact that it really does feel more like home and gives me more freedom to move around. I love how light weight the system is, and the fact that I get to sleep on a clean sheet every time. I was comfortable in the cold, and really did sleep better on both backpacking trips with this system than I had on others.

But, there are a few concerns. First, the snaps are relatively small. They came un-snapped easily, especially around my upper body when I rolled over. I’d love to see a stronger, larger set of snaps, perhaps even buttons, to make sure everything stays connected. Second, though I recognize there are different sizes, the compressible pillow didn’t pack down as small as I’d like. Even completely rolled, the large sized pillow is quite large. If I need to save space on a backpacking trip, I’ll likely still stick to my inflatable pillow or a stuff sack full of clothes.

One of the six small snaps that attaches the blanket to the mattress.
My main concern with the blanket is the potential for it to get wet if the inside of the tent is wet. Wet down is always a concern in poor weather, as it loses a lot of warmth potential. The fact that the down blanket wraps around the bottom of the pad is a functional need; everything stays solidly in place. However, this also exposes that part of the blanket to the floor of the tent. If I’ve set the tent up in the rain and the floor is wet, the blanket will be wet as well.

An additional concern is the system's price. My entire system retails for just under $450, all four components included. The most expensive piece, of course, is the down blanket. Though I haven't tested them, substituting the Ventra 40ºF Down Comforter drops the price a bit. If you know you're going to be camping in warm weather, the Tech Blanket could be worth a look as well.

All this being said, I’d recommend my system or one like it for overnight backpacking trips and car camping. I’ll continue to take it with me on overnight trips given how soundly I slept and how comfortable it was, which is the main goal of the system. I’d also consider the Ventra 40ºF Down Comforter or the Tech Blanket for spring and summer trips, given how warm I was in the Catksills.

Huge thanks to Cascade Designs for sending me a complimentary sleep system to test! As always, all opinions expressed here are my own. Have you tried one of the sleep systems? Have any questions or comments? Share your thoughts below!


Ryan Weller said…
are there any heated thermarests on the market?

 how about an idea using the latest technology for thin and flexi solar panels to soak up rays durring the day and keep you warm at night?
Wow, now there's an idea! I haven't heard of any heated camping sleeping pads, though if they make them for normal beds, I'm sure there would be a way to make them for camping. And using solar energy to charge them would be really unique! You might be on to something :)