As New Zealand’s easily accessible front-country huts burst at the seams, a blow up mattress is a sensible piece of gear for those of us who like a little bit of comfort at night. If you’re considering tenting they’re pretty necessary too. Sleeping on lumpy cold ground isn’t my idea of fun.

There are heaps of models available in the shops and even more on the internet, but I opted for the Exped Synmat Basic UL 7. At only 410gms and $NZ130 it was a no-brainer.

One thing my search for backcountry comfort threw up was the highly variable and often inconsistent prices of tramping gear around the world. Why do the Thermorest Neoair Xlite and the Exped Synmat cost the same in the US, but in New Zealand, the Thermorest costs twice the price, sometimes more (up to $399)?

I bought my first Synmat in 2013 as part of a Te Araroa gear upgrade. It was pretty comfortable and easy to inflate having no fancy pump and no messy blowbag. It’s not so big that a decent set of tramper’s lungs can’t fill it. For the first 500 kilometres, or 10 night’s sleep, it worked well. I had no doubts about it until I met a couple of Kiwi trail hikers who’d both had their Synmats burst along their baffles. They’d walked about 2000kms before this happened, so I figured I’d be alright, but a week later, on the banks of Lake Tekapo my Exped sprung its leak. Luckily we were sleeping beside a very calm and clear body of water, so finding the hole (a slow leak on a seam, not a puncture) wasn’t too hard. The mat comes with a repair kit, but the hole was in an awkward place, so I didn’t feel very confident that it would last the distance.

When I reached Christchurch, Bivouac were more than happy to replace it. On the bench behind the shop assistant sat a new Synmat with a replacement note on it…waiting for it’s possibly untrusting owner. They didn’t have my size, so I left the shop with the slightly bigger 7.5 model. A little heavier, it was great in the tent. Because it was wider, it wedged itself nicely on the floor beside my partner’s mat. These things are so light I would often find myself lying under mine when I woke in the morning, but our two mats now “combined” to hold each other down.

All was good. I finished the trail having spent about 20 nights sleeping on my blow-up bed. But 18 months later and a couple of months out of warranty I woke from a great night’s sleep in my tent and rolled over. A long fart noise filled the air – a common enough occurrence in the morning – but this time it was my mat delaminating along one of its baffles. A flat night’s sleep had just become impossible as one side of the mattress was now twice the height of the other.

What was I to do? We were about to set off on another 3 month trek through the mountains of the North Island. I did get a new replacement mat, an even larger model but any weight advantage is now gone and all the faith I had in my mat has now well and truly burst.

I weigh about 95kg and my partner weighs considerably less. Her Synmat has been fine although the other people we’ve met who’ve had problems with them were her weight.

These things are still available in the shops and on the net although they don’t seem to be on the Bivouac website anymore…there seems to be a new model. I’ll be gingerly carrying my partner’s old mat from now on – she’s traded it in for a Thermorest Trekker – the Neoair’s cheaper, more durable sister.

Rating: For lightness and comfort 5 stars. For reliability 2 stars. Exped and Bivouac customer response in difficult situations: 5 stars. Recommendation: If you buy any mat – KEEP THE RECEIPT! This is a great example of why buying from an actual shop has been worthwhile. If I’d bought from overseas I probably wouldn’t have had any comeback.


Exped Synmat Basic UL 7
Price: About $NZ130.00
Temperature: -4 °C
R-Value: 3.30
Thickness: 7 cm
Length: 183 cm
Shoulder Width: 52 cm
Foot Width: 52 cm
Weight Mat: 450 g
Weight Packsack: 9 g
Packed height: 24 cm
Packed diameter: 9 cm
Pack volume: 1.7 l

A comparative Exped product is the Exped SynMat UL Lite Sleeping Mat from Bivouac for $159.00