Until last spring, Big Agnes had no sleeping pads in its line that interested me. The pads looked comfortable, but they were considerably heavier than my time-tested Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite ($170, 12 oz).
But with the AXL sleeping pad, Big Agnes caught my attention — its weight and thickness looked promising. The AXL comes in two flavors:
- AXL Air ($140, 9.6 oz), for mild temperatures; and,
- Insulated AXL Air ($180, 10.6 oz), for 3-season conditions.
The listed prices and weights above are for the 20″ x 72″ mummy version. Both pads are also available in rectangular shapes: a wide AXL (25 x 72); and petite, regular, regular-wide, and long-wide Insulated AXL (20 x 66, 20 x 72, 25 x 72, and 25 x 78).
This year I have slept on the Insulated AXL (as a normal ground pad and as under-insulation in a hammock) for about 30 nights in southern Utah, the Colorado Rockies, and High Sierra. Big Agnes sent me two pads, and I loaned out the other to my wife and to guided clients for additional feedback.
Review: Big Agnes Insulated AXL Sleeping Pad
The Big Agnes Insulated AXL Air is a very lightweight and comfortable sleeping pad, and is best suited for weight-conscious backpackers who want quality sleep in the backcountry.
The 20″ x 72″ rectangular Insulated AXL specs at just 11.9 oz (although mine weighs 12.6 oz, or 12.9 oz with the included stuff sack). In its factory packaging, it’s about the size of a 1-liter bottle — although, it’s difficult (and not worth the time, IMO) to pack it that tightly again. I roll mine full-width, fold it in half, and keep it in a larger stuff sack.
Of the pads that compete with the Insulated AXL’s size and weight, none match its thickness (3.25 to 3.75 inches) or have over-sized outer tubes that help to cradle the sleeper — it’s a subtle feature, but helpful.
The Insulated AXL is reasonably quiet, avoiding the “potato chip bag” sensation of other leading pads. On my first trip out with it, on which I also used a new tent, it produced a sound similar to rubbing balloons together. But I have not noticed it since, leading me to think that it was the new pad, the new tent floor, or the combination of the two materials.
The Insulated AXL is appropriate for 3-season conditions, but not for shoulder seasons and definitely not for winter. Personally, I found the Insulated AXL to be amply warm in temperatures of 40+ (4+ C) and to be acceptable in temperatures of 30+ (0+ C) so long as I took other measures to maximize my nighttime warmth (e.g. bring a warm sleeping bag, pick a soft campsite, sleep in my insulated clothing, and eat and hydrate well before bed).
- Rated to 32 degrees
- 3.75-inch thick outer tubes, 3.25-inch inner
- 20d high-tenacity rip-stop nylon top and bottom shell
- Primaloft Silver synthetic insulation laminated to a Mylar sheet
- Five SKU’s, varying with shape, length, and width
- 10.6 to 15.9 oz, depending on the size
- $160 to $250, depending on the size
For those who prioritize pack weight and volume, the Insulated AXL is one of two 3-season pads that I can personally recommend, along with the aforementioned XLite.
On paper, other contenders include the:
- Exped SynMat UL ($170, 13 oz), which is the most comparable to the AXL and XLite, and which is reportedly comfortable, warm, and quiet;
- Klymit Insulated Static V Ultralight SL ($120, 16 oz), which is a few ounces heavier but a good value;
- NEMO Tensor Insulated Ultralight ($160, 15 oz), which has been updated for 2019, possibly causing closeouts of the current model; and,
- Sea-to-Summit Insulated Ultralight ($140, 17 oz), which is heavy but has proven reliable.
Big Agnes Insulated AXL vs Therm-A-Rest NeoAir XLite
The Insulated AXL is more comfortable than the XLite. It’s thicker and has oversized outside tubes, and it’s quieter.
But the XLite is warmer. I do not hesitate in using the XLite on elk hunting trips in the Colorado Rockies in November, or even on winter trips when I must sleep on snow. I would not use the Insulated AXL beyond 3-season conditions.
If your backpacking season extends into colder months, the XLite may cover you completely. Whereas if you were to purchase the Insulated AXL, you’d need an additional cold-weather pad.
When the Insulated AXL was first released, Big Agnes recommended a usable range of 15 to 35 degrees F (-9 to 2 C) on its website and product packaging. Based on my experience I believe these guidelines were generous, and unfortunately REI — which was the exclusive distributor of the AXL and Insulated AXL when it was first released — hyped expectations even more by advertising it simply as a 15-degree pad.
Customers were not pleased, and revenged their sleepless nights by giving the Insulated AXL many 1-star reviews.
Per the manufacturer website, currently the Insulated AXL is “rated to 32 degrees.” There is no discussion of how Big Agnes arrived at this number, or exactly what it means — i.e. Is 32 degrees a comfort limit, or a lower bound? And under what conditions (e.g. sleeping bag temperature rating, shelter type, ground surface composition) would this rating apply?
What is the R-value of the Insulated AXL?
Big Agnes does not publish (and, from what I can tell, does not test in-house) R-values, which is a precise measure of a pad’s resistance to conductive heat transfer. These values are useful in comparing the absolute and relative warmth of a sleeping pad.
Why? Len Zanni, a co-owner of Big Agnes, explained to me in an email that, “We believe [R-values] are still not consistent. Different brands use different testing methods. Until there is a standard (we’re involved in industry efforts here) we’re trying to guide users into the right pads using recommended season and a season spectrum guide (on product packaging).”
Why is the Insulated AXL not very warm?
To understand why the Insulated AXL is less warm than other pads, it’s useful to understand its construction. The pad is kind of built like a sandwich:
- The bread: 20d high-tenacity rip-stop nylon; and,
- The meat (or the vegies, for my Boulder readers): Primaloft Silver synthetic insulation laminated to a Mylar sheet.
Primaloft Silver is available in different weights (e.g. 30, 60, maybe 100 grams per square meter). Big Agnes will not share the insulation weight used in the Insulated AXL, which it considers proprietary information. But based on what I can feel and see, I suspect that the lightest version of Primaloft Silver was used. It could be quickly confirmed, using basic geometry formulas and knowing that there is a 1.0-ounce difference between the 20″ x 72″ mummy AXL and Insulated AXL (which are otherwise exactly the same).
Not only did it use a very lightweight insulation, but Big Agnes also had to:
- Cut holes in the insulation, so that the bottom and top sheets could be quilted together; and,
- Cut the insulation in two (one half insulates the upper body; the other half, the lower body), creating a gap between these sheets.
Big Agnes was also unable to attach the insulation to the edges of the pad, leaving an insulation-less gap around its perimeter.
With all of these holes and gaps, body-warmed air and ground-cooled air can circulate too easily, especially with active sleepers. Warmer pads more effectively trap air.
If Big Agnes could have produced a warmer pad without affecting the weight or price of the Insulated AXL, I’m sure that it would have. This is simply the cost of a 12-oz pad that is nearly four inches thick.
My Insulated AXL has not yet sprung a leak. But I’m careful with it. YMMV.
A client managed to break the valve on one of my pads. I didn’t hear an explanation, but I bet it happened while rolling it up — if the valve flap is not in a “closed” position, it could get caught between the sheets and be torn off.
Thankfully, the damaged pad is still usable: I blow it up completely and cap it as quickly as I can. About 25 percent of the air is lost, but that’s still plenty — and, in fact, that level of inflation is just about perfect.
Inflation and deflation
It’s a chore to blow up the Insulated AXL, requiring about 20 strong exhales. That’s only a few breaths more than the XLite but it seems worse, because the valve allows for unrestricted inflation. The reducer on the XLite slows the process, helping to avoid light-headedness.
If you think backpacking is hard enough already, consider the Big Agnes PumpHouse Ultra ($35, 3 oz), which doubles as a stuff sack.
Deflation of the Insulated AXL is fast and easy: open the cap and press the valve flap. I do it while laying on the pad before I get up — the body weight helps to expel most of the air.Buy now: Big Agnes Insulated AXL Sleeping Pad
Questions about the Insulated AXL, or have an experience to share? Please comment.
Disclosure. I strive to offer field-tested and trustworthy information, insights, and advice. I have no financial affiliations with or interests in any brands or products, and I do not publish sponsored content
This website is supported by affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors like Amazon or REI, at no cost to the reader. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
That’s my experience precisely…
It really presents a challenge when choosing a sleeping pad quiver, especially when you regularly sleep in cold situations and use a quilt.
I love my XTherm, but it’s overkill for a lot of trips. I’m a warm sleeper but the insulated AXL really can’t be used with nighttime lows in the high teens or 20s though, whereas an XLite can, all at the same weight.
Most people don’t want to have to buy 3 pads, or even 2 pads, but you sort of have to with the AXL if you’re ever sleeping below freezing.
I would be willing to wager that sales of the big Agnes insulated AXL will plummet when the NeoAir Uberlight comes out in the spring. The 3 ounce difference for a semi equivalent warmth is a big deal.
I love the valve though… As well as the larger side tubes. If TAR could incorporate vertical tube’s with larger side tubes as well as that valve or something similar, it would have an unbeatable product in my opinion.
Well of course the Xtherm is overkill for most trips. That is a 4 season pad. You can pretty much sleep right ontop of snow with it.
the 20×72 xtherm is only 15 oz, and it has a valve not requiring a proprietary valve adapter. i dont see how this axl can really compete besides being just a couple oz lighter
Ive found the 2-3 pad approach to work well for a versatile quiver: 1) inflatable for comfort 2) closed cell for r-value 3) mylar insulation. Combine and adjust for your goals and needs, if your inflatable is warm enough skip the foam or if you’re comfortable on foam go for it, don’t spring for the mylar insulated pad if you use a space blanket ground cover
I have the uninsulated mummy AXL but unfortunately it developed a slow leak so BA had to replace it (great costumer service!). I found the location of the valve ideal for dialing in the comfort range of the pad, simply open the valve cover and press the flap to let air out to the desired comfort firmness while still lying on the pad. I also discovered that the valve flap can easily be temporally dislodged to allow the user to roll up the pad without constantly pressing the flap to allow the air to escape. This greatly speeds up the time it takes to deflate and stow the pad.
Re: Colder temps. Do you think it is insulated enough that the addition of a closed-cell pad (very common for sleeping on snow) would be sufficient for at least mild winter conditions (roughly 15F)?
Re: Valve. I have the S2S Insulated Ultralight. I loooove the valve design. This is where Therm-a-Rest is losing the battle IMHO. You do not have to hold anything to release the air. I have determined that a good valve is worth an extra oz or to for me.
Re: Competition The S2S is heavier, and only 2 in thick, but uses a 40d face fabric, so it feels really durable. It has a “balloon” creaking sound and some crinkle that has decreased over time. Better than my XTherm. I it would be quite comfortable if I were a back sleeper, but have found it to be just a little thin and my hip can contact. I mitigate it by using my small ensolite butt pad under my hip. I believe it is also getting a major update for next year.
axl has a flush valve, thermarest xtherm has a raised one that makes it far easier to inflate with stuff or plastic bags, easy to deflate too. i cancelled my axl order and am looking at xtherm, for reasons including valve design
Did you ever find out if putting a closed cell pad underneath this pad would keep things warm enough?
While many people seem to default to putting a closed-cell foam underneath their air pad, my experience is that it’s far warmer to put the closed cell pad on top of the air pad to minimize how much heat is transferred to air pad and lost.
I have both the AXL and SLX; I take the tougher SLX when backpacking with our dogs, as my first AXL was shredded when my dog took off after a critter.
If I expect temps to be freezing or below, I’ll bring a full-size ZLite and put it on top of the AXL. My wife and I share an Enlightened Equipment Accomplice 10F quilt. Toasty warm, comfortable, and the ZLite also mutes some of the sound of the AXL.
The advantange of blowing ambient air into the pad with the PumpHouse Ultra is two-fold. The air in your lungs is both hot and humid. Blowing hot air into the pad means that it will lose some volume when that air cools down, meaning you will have to add another breath or two before bed to fully inflate it again. And blowing humid air into the pad, well… that humidity will condense as the air cools, and that condensation doesn’t really have any way to escape once it gets inside the pad.
Still waiting for a manufacturer to sell a short wide (roughly 48” x 25” x 1.5”) pad.
Haven’t seen one anywhere.
Yes, there are short pads and wide pads, but no short wide.
Thermarest used to have a short/wide NeoAir Trekker, but hasn’t offered that in years. Some folks (John Abela @ hikelighter.com e.g.) have posted guides on shortening pads if that helps. My Short/Wide NeoAir Trekker weighs the same as my Regular/Regular NeoAir Trekker FWIW.
i just bought one but NOW i see that the air valve is flush. YIKES. i never inflate pads with my breath, i don’t want humidity or microbe issues etc cropping up.
does anyone know if i can effectively use a plastic bag to squeeze air in as i have for my other pads in the past? would i have to rig some kind of adapter?
If you don’t want to blow it up manually, get the BA Pump House.
FWIW, I NEVER inflate mine in any other way than lung-power. I think there is some mold inside my 6 year-old XLite, but it has no effect on its warmth at all.
BTW i do know that there is a $35 / 3 oz option made by big agnes but i don’t feel i should have to use their proprietary solution for something like this.
The Exped flat adapter fits these Big Agnes valves (a bit tightly but it does fit and seal). That gives more inflation bag options/brands than just what Big Agnes offers. The Schnozzle will mate with it as does the Sea To Summit bag and their little jetstream accordion thing.
I’m able to store my pads inflated at home after a trip so I still inflate by mouth but it’s important to get that moisture out of there as soon as you can. Extended contact with moisture and/or the presence of mold can deteriorate the coatings on the fabric and cause both delamination and those warranty-claim mystery unfindable unfixable air leaks. I’ve also heard a couple of people share their stories online of Therm-A-Rest X-Lite pads that were punctured many times by small ice crystals inside the pad after rolling them up.
appreciate the info. right now i feel like the xtherm might be the best choice. 15 oz for 20×72, has a much more accessible valve design, and insulates FAR better
Interesting tidbit about BA pad valves…..a normal soda bottle cap like you’d find on a 2L bottle or whatever fit in perfectly. Cut the top off a bottle, drill a large hole in the cap, screw them together with your bag of choice sandwiched between, punch a hole in that and you have a cheap/easy/available anywhere pump bag.
Seems like filling the bag would be an issue, unless you are sacrificing a bag by putting a hole in it, in which case, why not just get a pump sack? I also can’t see threading the cap on with the bag fabric. Maybe I am missing something?
just scoop the bag into the air to fill it in 2 seconds, then put it over the protruding valve and clench fingers around it to get a seal with one hand, and squeeze / push the bag with the other. as the bag gets empty, shut the valve if necessary so you can get another scoop of air without deflating. the longer and narrower the bag, the better. a typical usable one is maybe a single gram, takes up almost no space, and is essentially free
Dan Timmerman yes interesting.. and now i get what langleybackcountry was asking. in that case i’d just use the bottle’s cap and neck to make a protruding valve
Any comments on the comparison between using it in the hammock vs on the ground? Warmer, colder?
It’s too conditions-dependent to say one way or the other. If you find a really soft spot, you can push the AXL pretty low without it being a problem. A hard, thermally conductive site, not so much.
Similarly, if it’s a calm night, the lad is reasonably warm. If windy, not so much.
Overall, I’d say that it’s similar.
Is it just me or has anyone else discovered that these big fat air mattresses are really a pain to inflate after 30 mile days (or 10 mile days for that matter) and that they actually aren’t really that comfortable, either. I did a Sierra pack trip with a really expensive, very thick and highly touted air mattress last summer; I got hypoxia blowing the thing up and my hips started aching about 2.00 am every night for a week. On the next Sierra trip I brought my old Thermarest ‘Prolite 3’ short inflatable pad. It inflated in seconds and my hips never ached. I may be singular here, but that is my experience. I think the air mattress thing is a fad… kind of like foam insulation in sleeping bags (circa 1974). But if it costs an arm and a leg and looks comfy we will buy it. Anyone want an Exped air mattress? You need the VO max of Greg LeMond to inflate the sucker!
The volume of air required for these pads is not insignificant. The BA pad is 20 breaths, versus 13 for the XLite.
I don’t think air pads are a fad. But I also don’t think you’ll see a lot of significant improvement in the category either — the AXL and UberLight are against the current limits of material strength. Maybe we’ll see a DCF version within a few years, which might save a few more ounces.
That would sure be crinkly. I love the AXL air- it is just as comfortable as my bed at home, and it really helps decompress at the end of a long day of miles.
If you use a pack liner like a trash compactor bag, you can pretty easily create an inflator that takes one or two light breaths.
Good article. It is more difficult to expel air from the AXL than the NeoAir.
What about Klymit Insulated pads? They seem more reasonably priced.
No personal experience. I’ve heard good things about the Insulated V Ultralight.
I love my Insulated V UL. I have 3 Klymit pads – the V design really works for my back and I sleep like a baby. I’ve had my Insulated V UL down to 30 comfortably. Below that, and on snow, I always place a 3/4 close cell pad underneath.
The patch kit that comes with the BA AXL includes a replacement diaphragm for the check valve. Hope this saves a few huffs and puffs.
I have the Klymit Insluted Static V Lite, which has an R-value of 4.4, weighs right at 20oz with the stuff sack and patch kit. I like the little bit of extra width (23″x72″) and the fact that its not nearly as “crinkly” as the xlite. However, I would like to lose more weight. The Uberlite has my attention but I know it gets into the upper 20s on many of my trips and dont know if that will work. What do you think?
4 or 5 years ago, Late June / Early July – Wind River Range, camped at 10K ft. for a week. maybe 20 degrees at night. BA Mystic SL 15 degree bag with the BA Q-core – insulated SL Pad. This is where the pad is ‘fitted’ to the bag and you don’t need any fill on the bottom, ‘cuse the ‘insulate’ pad makes up for this. WRONG. I was GD cold sleeping in insulated pants and a puffy coat, I tend to be a warm sleeper. My 25 yr. old REI ‘value’ down bag is MUCH warmer. I don’t know if the Q-core insulated SL has much if any R value. I’m glad to hear that improvements have been made, as far as I’m concerned the Pad I have is most useful as a floating beach toy. Oh Well, live and learn. I have a hard time recommending BA pads or bags and I’m sure I’ve cost them more than a few sales.
My new mattress choices:
1. 3 SEASON-> REI FLASH Insulated at 15 oz.
2. WINTER-> REI FLASH Insulated All Season at 18.4 oz.
Plus Sea to Summit 30 L. pump/dry bag. Also used for clothes storage.
The 3 season insulated mattress I have found is good to 25 F.
I haven’t found the lower limit for the All Season mattress but I suspect around -10 F. to -15 F..
REI Customer Service assured me any previous quality problems have been fixed. Several people experienced lamination failures at the periphery seals. Fingers crossed – Especially in winter!
I have the new Sea to Summit Ether Light XT Insulated pad and after 2 nights snow camping (with a closed cell pad under it) I am very impressed with it. I feels like substantial construction, it is 4″ thick, has an R-rating, their valve system is really good, and it is at a competitive weight. As a side-sleeper the Ultralight Insulated was not thick enough and was very heavy for what it was.
I noticed that both my REI FLASH insulated air mattresses are VERY similar to the StS Ether Light mattress. Dual valves plus REI’s valves are really StS valves so I got a StS pump sack. Even the “quilting” is similar, as are the R ratings.
My mattresses are a bit thinner, as in 3 1/2″ thick but still warm, using StS’s dual insulation of synthetic fibers bonded beneath the top layer and reflective coating inside the bottom layer. REI must have paid StS a license fee to use their tech and valves.
Hey Andrew, I know this is an old post, but I just came across it today and then saw that the Insulated AXL is 50% on REI Outlet. I ordered the Reg/Wide for $119. Then I read through the many reviews of people who have had leaks around the seams. It looks like there is a newer version where they might have fixed this problem (not 50% off). But based on the link you shared, I think you were using the older version. Just wondering if you’ve since encountered the leak issue/how long the pad lasted for you.
I had two of these pads, and both of them had issues.
With one, the inflation valve tab/stopper got ripped off, probably during the natural process of rolling it up in the morning. It’s still usable, but without that stopper that pad quickly deflates as soon as you take your mouth away, so it ends up being a race between you (specifically, your ability to seal it) and deflation.
With the other, it developed a leak around one of the quilting pillars (which connects the top and bottom of the pad, to prevent it from looking like a hot dog instead of a pad). I’ve never been able to successfully patch it, because it’s a really awkward spot — it’s curved and has hard corners.
These pads are on closeout at REI. The reviews there are terrible, not for lack of warmth, but for durability. I’ll pass.
Like many products, a sleeping pad is going to get a disproportional number of negative reviews because it really sucks to sleep on a deflated pad and those users are going to be very upset about it.
That said, I don’t think durability was a strong point of this product. I had two demos, and both were beat up after two seasons of client use — one has a leak that we can’t fix, and the other had an issue with the one-way valve. I’m certain that you could baby this product and it would last longer, but I don’t think they’re as reliable as other pads on the market, including pads that are equally light or warm.
My husband is looking for a new pad that will be lighter than his 32 oz first-generation rectangular NeoAir, so I’ve been reading a lot of reviews and spec sheets.
He’s looking at the Uberlite and the Nemo Tensor Insulated, among others. When I showed him the AXL, he thought that the super-thickness was overkill.
I had him lie on my Xlite briefly on our last trip, and he didn’t like it. He’s 6 ft, side-sleeper, and wants a very wide pad, preferably rectangular.
Anything new in the last couple of years that you would recommend?
I have two insulated air mattresses. An REI FLASH Insulated 3 season R 3.2 and an REI FLASH All Season insulated R 5.1.
Yeah, I realize REI FLASH mattresses have had some bad reviews due to LEAKAGE AT THE WELDS. I called REI and they said the have fixed the problem but if any of mine leaked at the welds (i.e. welds de-laminating) they would stand behind it and replace it. All other leaks besides valves were my problem. Fair enough. I do carry a repair kit and can fix puncture leaks – done it before.
“So far, so good.”