Therm-a-Rest founders Jim Lea and John Burroughs show off an early sleeping pad model.

Sleeping on the ground is inevitable while camping—you might even say it's the definition. (Not talking about cheating with an RV or cabin, of course.) But for a long time, alfresco overnights meant a bed of blankets or, at best, dense foam. It took—who else?—some Seattle nerds to change that.

In 1972, three former Boeing engineers formed Therm-a-Rest based on a product one had invented the year before: a self-inflating sleeping pad. Now at 50, the company is still primarily known for camping mattresses, mostly inflatable. As part of Cascade Designs, based in SoDo, almost all their signature products are made in Seattle before ending up spread in tents, bivvys, hammocks, and plots of dirt in the outdoors.

"It probably took a good 15 to 20 years for people to understand you sleep warmer with a barrier between you and the ground," says Brandon Bowers, who has worked at Therm-a-Rest for decades and now oversees its military products. "It's not just comfort, it's warmth." And since the company's founding, he says, we understand even more about the value of good sleep—not just for long-term health but for better decision-making the next day, crucial in outdoor recreation. "Sleeping better outdoors has made people more efficient and able to achieve more," Bowers says.

Measuring that warmth has always been a bit tricky, and as other sleeping pads followed Therm-a-Rest into the market it became key to quantify just how well the product retained heat. In 2020 the American Society for Testing and Materials standardized the method of measuring R-value in sleeping pads, or how much heat is lost through the material.

The featherweight NeoAir Uberlite (a mere six ounces for the smallest model) has an R-value of 2.3, making it suitable for warm-weather backpacking. Meanwhile, mountaineers use the NeoAir XTherm and its whopping 6.9 R-value to sleep directly on snow. Camping doesn't have to mean punishingly terrible sleep; says Bowers, "I do think it has allowed people to explore things more. And for a greater number of people."

Today Therm-a-Rest products include inflatable pads as well as closed-cell foam pads.

Though it's been a half a century, sleeping pads haven't changed too much on the surface: Blow them up and lie down. But Therm-a-Rest has had to solve numerous problems over the years, like preventing microbes from growing in what's essentially a moist sack full of germy breath. But then there was also the pressure to make backpacking products smaller and lighter; a camper from 1972 would be blown away by sleeping pads that roll up to the size of a beer can. For car camping equipment, mattresses can be four inches tall.

The company has developed pads for the medical and military sectors, and now makes sleeping bags and pillows, blankets and ponchos. Seattle users benefit from Cascade Design's hometown warranty and repair shop, where customers can bring a faulty pad for immediate help (available by mail as well). Like other outdoor gear, sleeping pads keep getting lighter, warmer, and stronger as various companies innovate and compete. Where do you go from something six ounces and pocket sized? Jokes Bowers: "We're going to have a negative-weight sleeping pad that just levitates you at night." 

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