A few years ago, I asked Lou Whittaker, the mountaineer who led the first American ascent of the Mt. Everest’s North Col, what he thought the most important advancement in gear has been in the past few decades. “Weight is the main factor,” he told me. “Everything from your hat and gloves and boots — the lighter it gets, the better.”
Making outdoor gear lighter and smaller without sacrificing technical prowess has been the industry’s lodestar for decades. There have been a few watershed moments in the lightweight-packable story — such as when Eddie Bauer (the man, not the brand) came up with the Skyliner down jacket in the 1930s, and when Charles Cole made the Five Tennie and created the approach shoe in the 1980s. But mostly, the process of shaving tenths of ounces off tents, sleeping bags, jackets and everything else has been a slow, continuous plod.
And yet, even as the industry opens its arms to embrace lifestyle gear that makes its case in vibes rather than technical prowess — think chunky, retro hiking boots and sleeping bags with arm holes and hoods — the assault on size and weight continues. Just this year, Therm-a-Rest released the UberLite, an inflatable sleeping pad that’s 2.5 inches thick when full yet deflates and rolls up into a wad the size of a can of Coke; it weighs 8.8 ounces in its standard size.
I’ve backpacked and camped with the UberLite, and it’s a truly remarkable piece of gear. But allow me to make an alternative assertion: most of us don’t need a sleeping pad that small. In fact, we might be better served by buying the biggest one we can find. Coincidentally, or maybe instinctively, Nemo Equipment released such a piece of equipment this year, too.
The mastodonic mattress is called the Roamer. It’s four inches thick with a hearty filling of self-inflating foam and it’s lined with soft fabric on top and a more durable cover on bottom. It weighs over five pounds (more than most backpacking tents) and it comes in two sizes: the 25- by 76-inch “Long Wide” and the 30- by 80-inch “XL Wide.” It is neither lightweight nor packable, at least not by the outdoor gear world’s current standards. But it is awesome.
Let me explain. I’ve been camping for my entire life, in places as near to home as Upstate New York and as far-flung as the bush of New Zealand. I’ve gone on trips that require me to carry everything I needed to survive for nine days in a single backpack; that’s where a pad like the UberLite proves its merit. But unfortunately, those adventures are few and far between, and more often than not I make camp a few miles, or a few feet, from my car.
I’m not alone here, either. Most of the adventure stories published in magazines and made into films involve the epic; their protagonists travel to places few people ever go. As sponsors of these endeavors, many outdoor brands reinforce the notion that this is how we use outdoor gear (although the message is shifting). But I’d bet my dust-covered bank account more sleeping bags are brought to music festivals than Himalayan peaks.
In 2015, the number of visitors to US National Parks spilled over 300 million, and by 2016 it was already at 330. But according to a recent report by KOA, only eight percent of those who went camping in 2018 spent the night in the backcountry, while 65 percent chose to stay at campgrounds.
I don’t know about you, but when I camp at a campground, I become a goldfish. I expand in response to the space that I have, and I absolutely fill my car with gear. It doesn’t matter how many nights I’m staying, I bring it all, with no regard to packed size or trail weight specs.
This is where the Roamer shines. It makes no apology for its bulk, because giving up small size in exchange for more comfort is an easy bargain for most of us to make. And the oversized pad isn’t really competing with ones like the UberLite anyways; it doesn’t want to go backpacking.
Instead, it offers a comfier and yes, more packable, alternative to the cheap, heavy and ever-poppable plastic air mattresses you might buy at Walmart. Come to think of it, compared to those products, the Roamer does continue that old light-packable story after all.