I've been cyclecamping now for over 25 years, and for much of that time I relied on the classic foam sleeping mats as popularised by Karrimore with their Karrimat series. In my case I preferred one called a 'Biomat' but after a friend borrowed it and somehow mangled it in the rear wheel of his motorbike I had to put up with whatever foam mat I could find.
Then in 1989 Kate and I set up Breton Bikes and because we wanted our customers to have the best equipment we searched and searched and eventually found the original 'Biomat' and happily provided them in our cyclists kit.
Wind on 8 years and you find me in the Alps leading a led trip. A lovely couple were with up and both of them were equipped with 'Thermarests', the latest in the way of camping mats.
The principle of these mattresses is simple. A layer of open cell foam is covered in an airtight material. The secret is that this material is bonded to the foam rather than just being a sleeve over it. There's an air valve and once open this allow air into the foam which then expands to a thickness of 1.5 to 3 cms depending on model. Then you close the valve and presto the foam will not be crushed when you lie on it, the fact that the cover is glued to the foam stops the cover bubbling up and allowing the foam to be crushed. To pack them away the valve is opened and the mat rolled carefully to squeeze the air out. Once packed it takes up less space than a foam mat though it is a little heavier - again depending on model.
So we go back to 1996 and our couple with the Thermarests. Much micky taking was indulged in - we were all 'hard' and didn't need such pampering, these wimps were definitely not real cyclecampers! Then one morning we found Paul with his Thermarest in the campsite sink trying to find a leak - he'd not slept a wink that night! I suppose you had to be there, but the sight of him trying to wrestle the mattress in a sink, water going everywhere, struck us all as hysterically funny...
The snag was that a couple of the people on the trip tried out the mattresses...
The following year much the same group of people turned up with me, and half of them had Thermarests, I was shocked and disappointed in them... So for the next few years I soldiered on with the foam mats whilst more and more of my 'gang' capitulated.
Then a couple of years back the inevitable happened and I too tried one out and yes - I now use a self-inflating mattress (a cheap copy - it wasn't a complete sellout!).
The thing is that foam mattresses are OK. They insulate you from the ground and offer some padding - and in the past I'd been fine with them. The difference is that the thermarest type offers even better insulation, and if you are careful with the ground you're on they can be almost as comfortable as a proper bed.
Now remember at the beginning of this article I said I wanted to give our customers the same sort of equipment we used, but this time it just wasn't possible - but why not?
It's not cost. The 'Biomats' are pretty expensive, and in the grand scheme of things the extra for one of the better self-inflating matresses isn't prohibitive. But the snag is that everything we hire out has to be a reliable as possible - for every breakdown we have a call-out and an unhappy customer, and the plain truth is that self-inflatable mattresses are very, very fragile.
If used carefully they can last for years, but pull it out of your tent and sit on it when you are having your picnic and every sharp bit of grass, any thistle, anything at all sharp and you have a puncture. Like as not it won't show up before the middle of the night, and no matter how good the mat is, once the air has gone you are sleeping on the ground. The cruel fact is that you cannot expect that someone inexperienced and using rented gear is going to treat their mat with the care of some fanatic like me... Despite my own care I've had two 'flats' in the 5 years I've used them and though they are supposed to be repairable that's not any comfort in the middle of the night and something like a thistle leaf or sharp bramble branch will leave a long row of tiny punctures that are really difficult to find, and fix.
So for our business we provide the old faithful Biomats. They never let you down, people use them as chopping boards (to judge from the cuts in them), kits play tug-of-war with them and they fall off the back of bikes and bounce down the road, all without effecting how well the work at all. Two different campmats, one indestructible the other fragile - is the difference ever worth it?
For our business, for the reasons above the answer has to be no. For me on a week-long tour then yes - the self-inflating mattresses just give me a better night's sleep. In our business we compromise by offering people the chance to buy the self-inflating alternative at cost price - but then treating it with kid gloves becomes their responsibility.
But going back to my personal use, remember that for a week or so I'd take the risk - especially as there'd be a chance of fixing it, or buying something suitable on-route. But if tomorrow I was setting of on a month's tour I think I'd take a good-old Biomat. If I was going round the world, the self-inflating mat would just not be practical.
So good though a self-inflating mattress is, it is a luxury, not something to be relied on. In fact when people buy them from us we usually advise they take a Biomat too as a second string, something to sit on for a picnic and as a safety net if the worse happens!