Exped DownMat & SynMat Review

Exped SynMatWe’re happy to leave a lot of things behind when we go bike touring but a good night’s sleep isn’t one of them.

That’s why we never skimp on sleeping mats. We always look for a reliable brand (the last thing you want is a failing sleeping mat in the middle of nowhere) and a mat that’s a bit warmer than we expect to need.

In our search for the perfect night’s sleep, we’ve tried several mats from Thermarest:

  • The inflatable Prolite Plus (our first mats, bought in 2006; they wore out long ago, after about 6 months of constant use)
  • The super-durable foam Z Lite (bought in 2007; endured 2+ years of steady bike touring and still going strong but not the warmest or most compact)
  • The Neo Air (ultra compact and very light; bought in July 2012 so still quite new)

For our bike tour of Spain in 2010, the Z Lite wouldn’t do. It was too bulky and not warm enough. We were – after all – travelling to Spain by plane and preparing to camp in below-freezing temperatures.

We hadn’t yet acquired the Neo Air mentioned above, so we were on the look out for a new mat. We’d heard a lot about Exped mats so we asked our local dealer if it was possible to try and review their sleeping mats. We agreed to buy the mats if we liked them.

A few days later, one DownMat 7 (filled with goose down) and one SynMat 7 (with a synthetic filling) arrived on our doorstep.

Already, we’d achieved one big goal for our Spanish bike tour: a lot of space saved in our panniers compared to the Z Lite.

Thermarest Z Lite vs Exped SynMat
An Exped mat is smaller and warmer than a solid foam mat such as the Thermarest Z Lite. The Exped mat is also three times as heavy and more expensive.

What’s The Difference?
We got both a DownMat and a SynMat because we wanted to compare the two different models. As it turns out, there’s not much difference between them. They’re nearly identical in size and weight. The DownMat provides a bit more insulation and costs more. The packed size of the SynMat is fractionally smaller.

SynMat DownMat 7
Weight: 860g (30 oz) same
Dimensions: 183cm x 52cm x 7cm
(72 x 20 x 2.8 inches)
Packed Size: 21cm x 15cm
(8.3 x 5.9 inches)
23cm x 16 cm
(9 x 6.3 inches)
Insulation: R-Value of 4.9
(rated for -17°C or 1.4°F)
R-Value of 5.9
(rated for -24°C or -11°F)
Price: $149 U.S. $229 U.S.

First Impressions
The mats are quite small when packed, so when we inflated them for the first time, we were surprised by their thickness. The Exped mats are nearly twice as high as a Thermarest Prolite Plus mat and 4 times as thick as a solid-foam mat like the Z Lite (the Exped mat is also 3 times as heavy as a Z Lite mat, at 860g vs 290g).

As far as comfort goes, we’ve tested the mats about 75 times so far and we find the sleeping experience to be identical between them.

They’re nice and thick – an especially nice feature on rough ground. Most campgrounds we’ve been in lately are pretty flat but we attempted to create some rough ground by sticking a headlamp under the Exped mats and flopping on top. We didn’t feel a thing. Great! All of a sudden, it became a little less urgent to move every pine cone and rock out from under our tent to ensure a good night’s sleep.

We also noticed that we can set up our tent on a slight slope and we don’t feel the slanting ground as much as we do with thinner mats.

Thermarest Z Lite vs Exped SynMat
The thickness of an Exped mat (seen here underneath a much thinner Z Lite foam mat) means you don’t feel things like rocks and pine cones under the mat.

What We Like

  • Comfort – These are seriously comfortable sleeping mats. It’s the next best thing to your bed at home; especially if you are a side-sleeper or if you always feel like your hips and shoulders are touching the ground through thinner mats. The Exped mat is thick enough to absorb the curves of your body.
  • Warmth – For late autumn or winter camping, you don’t want to risk being cold. We’ve slept on these mats in temperatures up to -15°C (with appropriate winter sleeping bags) and we’ve been completely cozy.
  • Small Pack Size – The Exped mats pack down small enough to be easily thrown in a pannier.
  • Easy To Use – We had no problem understanding how to inflate these mats. It was also easy to deflate and roll them back up. The stuff sacks are nice and big, so it’s never a struggle to get the mat back in the bag.
  • Warranty – These mats have a 5-year warranty. That’s not quite as good as the lifetime warranty offered by Thermarest, but it’s long enough for most of us to put a sleeping mat to the test. We’ve talked to a few friends who use these mats extensively, and they all speak highly of Exped’s customer service.

Testing Exped mats
Andrew tries pumping up the Exped mats for the first time.

What We’re Not So Crazy About

  • Inflation – To inflate an Exped mat, you lean over the mat, put your hands flat on the pump and push about 100-120 times to make it firm. This takes about 2 minutes if you’re pumping constantly. On shorter trips, this doesn’t bother us at all. Usually, one person inflates the mats while the other makes dinner. It is a bit tiring, however, and because the mat takes some work to inflate, we wouldn’t pull it out to sit on at lunch time (as we often do with our Z Lite mats).
  • Noisy – These mats are noisy when you toss and turn during the night. They creak and squeak – a lot! If you sleep lightly and move frequently, you might find the noise annoying.
  • Danger of Failure – As our friend Shane found out first hand, the Exped mats aren’t ideal for an extended international tour. They often fail after several weeks of steady use. Now, this isn’t unique to Expeds (it’s a risk with any inflatable camping mat) and it’s no problem if you can cash in on the warranty but that’s a lot harder if you’re in a foreign country. The dealer may tell you just to “bring the mat to your nearest camping shop” (often impossible on the road). He may also send you a replacement but then you have to arrange a place to pick it up, wait for delivery and hope that you aren’t hit with customs charges.
Exped Failure
A failing Exped mat. Photo from Shane Little.
Our Verdict
Overall, we decided that the comfort and warmth of these mats makes them worth the extra effort to inflate, and we decided to keep these mats for our upcoming bike tours. It’s hard to give up the luxury of a very thick and warm mat when you’ve had a taste of it!

Most of our planned trips are relatively short (up to 1 month). We’d still be cautious about taking any inflatable mat (Exped, Thermarest or any other brand) on an expedition bike tour of several months or years because of the risk of punctures, delamination or a failure with the pump. Even with the best customer service in the world, getting a mat sent to you when you are on the road is a hassle so for prolonged adventures we still favour the spartan but indestructible solid-foam mats.

One More Tip
If you get an Exped mat, you’ll find that the area around the pump stays flat after the mat has been filled, unless you deliberately fill it. Here’s how to fill the pumping chamber so you don’t have a little flat spot on the mat:

1. Fill the mat until it’s as firm as possible and then look for the “integrated pump” at the end of the pumping chamber. It’s easy to spot by the 2 white swooshes, and the words “integrated pump” written to the right of the pumping chamber.

Filling the pumping chamber of an Exped mat

2. Put your finger on the little dot at the end of one of the “swooshes” and push down until you feel the end of the pump, inside the mat.

3. Squeeze the pipe and watch the air flow into the pumping chamber, to give a nice, evenly filled mat.

Filling the Exped Mat

Reviews from other bike tourists: