First Impressions: Exped Synmat UL7

The Exped Synmat UL7 is an insulated air mattress intended for use by lightweight backpackers.  It contains a microfiber insulation that is bonded to both the top and bottom panels of the pad.  When the pad is inflated the insulation expands to entirely fill each air chamber.  Let’s take a look:

Looks like I should have put in one more puff of air. 😉  The pad measures 72″ long by 20″ wide, fairly standard for a full-length mat.  The six inner chambers are 7 cm thick while the two outer ones are 8 cm thick.

There are two color-coded valves on the Synmat UL7, one for inflation (green) and one for deflation (orange).  The cover for the inflation valve also has a tab attached so that you can distinguish between the valves in the middle of the night without using your headlamp.  The Synmat can be inflated by mouth, my choice, or with an optional mini-pump or pillow-pump.  The inflation valve has a one way flap—air can go in but not come out.  This is a useful feature if you ever find yourself becoming winded or light-headed after a long day at high altitude.  Just take a break and start again when you’re ready.  It takes me twenty or so puffs to fill the pad.

The Synmat packs down to fit easily into its stuff sack, which is about the same diameter and a little longer than a 1L Nalgene Bottle.  On my scale the pad weighs 460g or 16.2 oz., exactly as claimed by the manufacturer.

My Synmat got it’s first field test last week on a quick overnighter in the Pike National Forest.  The National Weather Service pinpoint forecast for the area was for a low of 26F with moderate wind.  Though I didn’t bring a thermometer, that felt about right when I got up for a 4:00 AM nature call.

For the test, I wore a Polartec 100 top and bottom, a hat, and sleep socks.  The sleeping bag is EN13537 rated to 20F (-7c).  The Synmat lay on a sheet of Tyvek.  Though I had brought a piece of Evazote as a backup, I didn’t need to use it and was warm enough to sleep through the night.  Exped claims an R-value of 3.1 for the Synmat UL7.

Subjectively, the Exped medium is the most comfortable lightweight pad that I’ve ever slept on.  It’s closest major competition seems to be the NeoAir regular and the POE Peak Elite AC regular.

Though the NeoAir has legions of fans, I’m not one of them.  After a three-night trial in 2009, I sold mine.  I found it uncomfortable, no matter how I inflated it.  Each morning, I woke up with a backache.  Also, the horizontal air chambers decrease the effective width of the pad by leaving the edges soft.  Trying to stay centered on the NeoAir was a chore.  In contrast, the Synmat uses lengthwise chambers and oversized outer chambers that work together to keep you cradled in the middle of the pad.

As of this writing, I don’t believe that the POE Peak Elite AC is yet available in the states.  Bloggers in the UK have gotten a hold of some and have written favorably of them.  POE lists the weight of the regular size as 14 oz.  The price point of $80 is very attractive.  I have used an older (and heavier) sibling of the Peak Elite AC for the past year and have found it comfortable.  At least until trying out an Exped.  Let’s compare them:

Notice the difference in shape.   The POE is tapered at the head and foot to shave weight while the Exped has a fully rectangular shape.  Since I’m an active sleeper, lying on one side, then on my back, then on the other side, the Exped gives me more room to roam.  Looking closer:

Notice the deep groove between the air chambers of the POE and compare with the Exped.  It may not bother some, but I’ve sometimes experienced the grooves as an annoying distraction when trying to get to sleep.  So to my body, at least, the Exped is a jump up in comfort.

But let’s keep in mind that the Exped Synmat UL7 at $155 is almost twice the price of the POE Peak Elite AC.  Also, the POE weighs 2.2 oz. less than the Exped.

As I see it, the choice is between ultimate comfort and a really good deal on a comfortable enough and slightly lighter pad.

And of course, the NeoAir.  But you had better ask someone else about that one.

The Achilles’ heel of any air mat is its susceptibility to puncture.  A stuff sack and a patch kit are included with the Synmat, and I plan to pack them along on my trips.  My experience, though, is that sometimes a puncture hole is difficult to locate and patch in the field.  Accordingly, I’ll be checking out the ground and removing sharp sticks, rocks, pine cones, thorns, etc. before laying down my ground sheet.  Eternal vigilance is the price of a good night’s sleep.

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14 thoughts on “First Impressions: Exped Synmat UL7

  1. Nice review Dondo – coincides with my thoughts exactly. It is am impressive pad for the weight. Comfort, warmth, durability in a 16oz package. I won’t use mine all the time. In warmer conditions, I will likely stick to my BMW Torso Pad, but for shoulder season in the Rockies, this pad…well….rocks.

    • Thanks for your comments, David. I know that you’ve already had several nights on your Synmat. The designers seem to have to have gotten a lot of things right with this pad. I’ll be paying attention to long-term durability, but my impression is that it won’t be a problem.

  2. What is the pack in the picture ? How does it compare to the Vapor Trail with respect to carrying comfort, etc ?

    Thanks.

    • Hi John, That’a a Golite Pinnacle in the photo. My initial impression is that it’s not quite as comfortable as the Vapor Trail. Still, the Pinnacle has a lot going for it, so I’m going to stick with it for a while and try to get it to work for me.

  3. hi Dondo Great to see that youve gotten out already this season. Your new air mat looks fab but ouch the cost is high. Im still using my BA Clearview at 13-14oz but for below 30 f I defer to my BA insulated air mat at 24oz. my big aquisition this spring ar a new set of gossamer gear adj hiking poles which I customized to mount a camera to the top. those were also quite pricey but I really like them. thanks for the gear report . David Heath

  4. Yeah, David. It felt great to get out again. Trying out your Clearview that morning near Pawnee Lake is what got me thinking about air pads. There’s no getting around the fact that the Synmat UL7 is pricey, but combining the REI 20% off sale with my dividend and a couple of gift cards helped take the sting out it. Have a great time in Utah.

    • Hi Mark, I forgot to mention it, but the Synmat UL7 does have the pillow attachment points, just like the other Synmats. Right now, I’m still using my Montbell pillow, so I just use a thin piece of shock cord attached to the two bottom ends of the pillow and wrapped around the pad.

    • Thanks, Sam. Since posting this, I’ve had a chance to use the Synmat on a few more trips. My impressions have become even more positive. This mat has given me the best sleep I’ve ever had in the backcountry.

  5. Thanks for the review Dondo! I was on the fence with this one and your review helped push me over to the purchase column. Now I just need to wait for my member discount coupon from REI coming any day… 🙂 One question, do you mind my asking your height/weight? Just want to make sure it will be comfortable for my 6″ 225lb frame.

    • Hi Bryan, I also got my UL7 from REI with a discount coupon. I’m 5’9″ and weigh 155lb. To make sure it works for you, it’s probably a good idea to try it out in the store before buying. And remember, there’s really no risk in buying from REI because of their generous return policy.

      • Yes, that is correct, I wasn’t thinking about the return policy. I picked it up and I’m super stoked about how small it is in comparison to my Thermarest Prolite that I’ve had forever. Can’t wait to get out in a few weeks and give it a spin. Thanks again for the review!

      • My guess is that you’re going to be impressed by the comfort. Since the review, I’ve turned a couple of friends onto the UL7 and they both love it.

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