Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"Made in the USA" Gear Review: 2012 Therm-a-Rest ProLite Plus Self-Inflating Mattress

Cascade Designs has been making quality Therm-a-Rest sleeping pads and inflatable backpacking mattresses in the USA since 1972. The company got its start after two laid-off Boeing engineers took up a challenge from a mountain-climbing friend, who asked them if they could come up with a better air mattress than what was available at the time.

In taking up the challenge, one of the engineers accidentally discovered the memory qualities of open-cell foam while kneeling on a gardening cushion in his backyard. This key discovery led to the pair inventing the world's first self-inflating mattress.

These engineers, Jim Lea and Neil Anderson, along with their mountain climbing friend John Burroughs, formed Cascade Designs to sell their newly invented mattress. This new mattress was named "Therm-a-Rest," and it eventually became one of the world's most popular backpacking mattresses. Cascade remains a family-owned business in Seattle WA and continues to manufacture the Therm-a-Rest brand today.

Cascade Design's Seattle, U.S.A., manufacturing facilities:


Therm-a-Rest describes the ProLite Plus as the lightest four-season self-inflating mattress available, with a 10% reduction in weight for the 2012 model. With an R-Value of 3.8, it weighs only 23.1 ounces with the included stuff sack.

This R-Value puts it close to the minimum of 4.0 that most winter campers and backpackers use as guide for comfortable ground insulation. For the harsh conditions of the Rocky Mountains, I'd consider it more of a 3 season mattress unless used with a foam pad like Therm-a-Rest's Z-Lite or Ridge Rest.

ProLite Plus 2012 version advertised Features:

  • Lighter: New tapered shape reduces weight by nearly 10% without compromising performance
  • Year-Round Warmth: Patent-pending diagonal-cut foam slows convective heat loss
  • Durable Materials: Rip-stop fabric resists snags and stands up to years of backcountry use.
  • Stable Sleeping: Soft Grip fabric provides no-slip sleep throughout the night.

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The included stuff sack:

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Here's an informative video from Therm-a-Rest showing to how use the ProLite and put it back in a stuff sack:

Field Testing

I spent several nights on top of the ProLite Plus during our winter gear testing trials to see how it would perform. While it doesn't have the comfort of a cot or a large, inflatable mattress, it's much better than sleeping on foam pads for just a modest increase in weight.

There was just enough cushion to sleep on my side, which was important to me because I tend to sleep in that position. Even on a doubled-up foam pad, my hips usually dig into the ground when I'm on my side, so in this respect, the ProLite Plus was a big improvement.

For most of the testing, I used a Therm-a-Rest foam pad underneath the ProLite due to the cold. I did however try it out one evening without the foam pad (when temps were in the high 20s) to see how it would perform. Using a 20 degree North Face down sleeping bag on top of the ProLite, I experienced no chill from the cold ground below, so it appears that the R-rating is pretty accurate.

One of our weekend mountain trips in an improvised teepee Dave and I built. The Therm-a-Rest made for a more comfortable night than I normally would have with foam pads:

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The overall quality of the Therm-a-Rest was excellent, with a nice, sturdy feel to it. No air leakage or other problems occurred during testing. 

For those that have never used a self-inflating mattress, the description can be a little misleading. With all the self-inflating mattresses I've used, I usually have to give a couple of breaths into the air nozzle to get them started. The ProLite was no different, but once started it inflated on it's own easily (albeit slowly like all self-inflating mattresses).

With a street price of between $90-$110, the ProLite is a bit pricier than foam pads, but if you can afford it, it'll certainly make for a more comfortable night's rest without adding a lot of extra weight to your pack.

The ProLite Plus is available from LifeView Outdoors:

About the author
Jason Schwartz is the founder and senior editor of Rocky Mountain Bushcraft. He is a former Red Cross certified Wilderness & Remote First Aid Instructor, and has taught bushcraft and wilderness survival techniques to the Boy Scouts of America, interned with the US Forest Service, and studied wilderness survival, forestry and wildland firefighting at Colorado Mountain College in Leadville, Colorado. Jason has also written for magazines such as The New Pioneer and Backpacker, including writing the "Tinder Finder" portion of Backpacker's "Complete Guide to Fire," which won a 2015 National Magazine Award (NMA). Email him at rockymountainbushcraft @ (without spaces)


  1. Nice review. Is this the one that rolls up the smallest.
    I like your shelter and surroundings. Sure looks like a beautiful spot you have there. What part of the rockies are you in generally speaking.

    1. Thanks Cattledog. Not sure about it being the smallest. It's definitely one Thermarest's more robust models. We are located in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Most of our backpacking and gear testing is done in the Roosevelt and Arapahoe National Forests.