A good sleeping mat is pretty much essential for a good night's sleep when camping or bothying, particularly when the weather is colder. Up until two years ago I'd used Thermarest inflatable mats for about ten years, which were a big step up from the closed cell Karrimats I used before that.
A friend recommended looking at the Exped range of downmats - I was intruiged by the concept and after some research took the plunge and purchased a Downmat UL 7
Exped are a European company with a reputation for producing innovative lightweight camping equipment, and the downmat series certainly fits this theme. The Downmat UL 7 is an inflatable mat with 170g of 700 fill-power goose down distributed along the tubes. The combination of the down and the thickness of the mat are designed to provide insulation from the ground, claimed to be effective down to -24 degrees Celcius. At a suggested retail price of £180, this is a premium product..... so is it any good?
The pack size is very compact - 23cm x 11cm and fitting into a 2.2 litre stuffsack. Shown here against a 250g gas canister and a lightweight "traditional" inflatable sleep mat, the pack size is noticeably smaller, and lighter too. The mat itself in the Medium size weighs 575g, and is supplied with a stuffsack, a useful repair kit and instructions (both of which fit into a pocket in the stuffsack - a good bit of design). Also supplied is the inflation method.....
.....which Exped have named a "Schnozzle". This is a large and lightweight stuffsack-type bag with a roll and clip closure and a "beak" fitted with a valve.
On the mat are two large valves, one to deflate and a non-return inflation valve. To avoid the down getting damp from oral inflation, the method is to attach the Schnozzle, capture a bagful of air and squeeze it into the mat. This takes a few goes to get the hang of, but is a really efficient method of inflation. In a breeze, the bag can be fully filled and the mat filled very quickly. The non-return valve ensures that no air escapes when removing the Schnozzle. Deflation is very quick via the large deflation valve and the mat is easy to roll up. Unlike many outdoor products, it also fits easily back into the stuffsack with the Schnozzle and other accessories. Incidentally, filled with spare clothing, the Schnozzle makes a useful pillow - I find it most comfortable if I then put the "pillow" of clothes inside a fleece top rather than sleeping in contact with the nylon bag.
Exped's website is packed with information about the mat, including full instructions, tips and repair instructions.
Fully inflated, the Downmat UL 7 is (as the name suggests) 7cm thick, the comparison with a traditional inflatable mat is quite striking. This provides not only insulation, but evens out bumps in the ground under the tent. The medium size is 183cm long and 52cm wide, ample for a 175cm tall, 75Kg adult. Although lightweight, the construction is tough. Like any inflatable product, care needs to be taken to avoid punctures, but this mat feels well made.
Of course the only measure a sleep mat should be judged against is whether it offers a good night's sleep. I can honestly say that the Exped Downmat has revolutionised my comfort and the quality of sleep. The combination of insulation and the "plush" feel of the 7cm thickness make sleeping on this mat more akin to sleeping in a proper bed. The outer two tubes are slightly larger than the other tubes which helps prevent any tendency to roll off the mat whilst asleep. Some lightweight and ultralightweight sleep mats sound like "crisp packets" when they are laid on; the Downmat is not, though there is a slight rustle when turning over.
The Downmat has is astonishingly comfortable in use. No more waking up with cold spots, and no more emerging from the tent in the morning feeling like the night has been spent lying on bumpy ground. It's and expensive product, but in my opinion pays this back many times over in the quality of sleep it provides. Another noticeable benefit of using the Downmat is that there's no condensation on the base of my sleeping bag or under the mat itself. After a look at my mat, Douglas and Mike also took the plunge and bought Downmat UL 7's - none of us would consider going back to our previous sleep mats for a second!
After multiple uses, the down sometimes "clumps" in the tubes a little, this can be made out if the mat is held up against bright light. Inflating the mat and giving it a good shake redistributes the down along the tubes. One thing to look out for is the length of the mat. For average sized folk, the Medium mat is well long enough at 183cm; if you go for the Long model, it's 197cm and it would be worth checking if it will fit in your tent. For very cold climates, a 9cm thick version with more down is available.
Having used the Downmat UL 7 for two years, in all kinds of conditions from well sub-zero to comparatively warm, in tents on a variety of surface and in bothies, I can highly recommend it - put simply it provides an extremely comfortable outdoor sleeping experience.