For the rest of your life. This was one of the earliest Therm-a-Rest slogans featured on print ads. There are no guarantees that any small business will make it, let alone for 50 years. And while that slogan primarily called out the superior sleep one could achieve with a newly invented self-inflating Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, there are adventurers out there who have spent their entire outdoor-pursuing lives sleeping on our products. As we celebrate our 50th, we’d like to especially thank our loyal customers who have been with us since the early days. Your passion for the outdoors is a big reason we do what we do and have made it this far.
For those of you who are just laying down with our products for the first time, or for those haven’t been heading into the backcountry since the 70’s, here’s a look back on our history. A lot has happened in the past 50 years, but all along the way our core mission has remained the same: to help adventurers get better sleep so that when they wake, they can have the best days possible out in nature.
Origins: The Invention That Changed Everything
Among the 50,000 Boeing employees that lost their jobs between 1970 and 1971 during the Great Boeing Bust, were two engineers, Jim Lea and Neil Anderson. The local economy was suffering harder than it had since the Great Depression. If the months of overcast skies weren’t enough, things were bleak in Seattle.
Both men were avid outdoorsmen, and while we all know the peace-of-mind that can be found in the hills, they were also engineers out of work. Perhaps out of concern, perhaps out of entrepreneurial spirit, or perhaps out of that raw urge to achieve solutions that tends to befall engineers—likely some combination of all three—their friend, climbing partner and former co-worker, John Burroughs (who had not been laid off), suggested they work on a project: designing a lighter, more comfortable and durable sleeping pad.
The idea had been kicked around between these friends well-before the layoffs. In the office, out on the trail, over beers after work—they had long lamented the available options for sleeping pads. Existing air pads were un-insulated and leaky, making them more or less useless. Closed-cell foam pads were bulky and uncomfortable, particularly on longer expeditions. So, these two engineers, with help from their friend, brought their engineering minds from aerospace down to the ground.
The light bulb went off one day in 1971 when Lea was gardening. He shifted his weight on his open cell foam ground cushion and heard air escaping a closed chamber. There in the garden, he reasoned that if open-cell foam could be sealed in air-tight fabric, and an airway in and out be regulated, then you could have a vastly more comfortable, insulated and compact sleeping pad.
The engineers tested the idea by making the very first prototype with a sandwich press. A year later in 1972, they filed for a patent, dubbed their invention the “Therm-a-Rest” and the three friends founded a company: Cascade Designs®.
In 1973 Therm-a-Rest production began in a Seattle facility, and the first ever Therm-a-Rest product was brought to the US market: the Therm-a-Rest Standard ¾. The Standard ¾ changed the way people slept outdoors. So much so, Outside Magazine included it on their list of The Most Influential Gear of All Time. Lighter, more compact, and vastly more comfortable, it was better in virtually every way than the existing sleeping pad options.
The 1970’s and 80’s saw an explosion of outdoor recreation. This era established the modern backpacking, camping and mountaineering techniques that we have become accustomed to today. There are many converging reasons why, but here are a couple of key examples:
In the late 60’s, in response to a growing trend of outdoor recreation, President Lyndon Johnson proposed the National Trails System Act. Congress passed it in 1968. Aside from officially establishing the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, it established four classes of trail: national scenic trails, national historic trails, national recreation trails, and side and connecting trails. Hundreds of miles of trail came under federal protection and maintenance and were opened up for public use and exploration.
Around the same time, Greg Lowe invented the internal frame backpack. His design is the framework for all backpacking backpacks that we know and carry to this day. The backpack allowed people to go lighter, carry their load longer and with more comfort.
Adventurers were pushing deeper and higher into the backcountry, while families packed up to experience the wilderness in greater numbers than ever. What is one thing that every one of these explorers, from the car-camping family to the high-altitude alpinists had in common? They all had to sleep outdoors.
Therm-a-Rest provided the resting place for an era of critical outdoor exploration and progress. Better sleep equals better days and better performance, right? Performance and participation certainly took off in the 70’s and 80’s.
Next Steps: Establishing Global Excellence
By 1985, things had gone global. Cascade Designs Ltd. formed in Ireland to manufacture and distribute product in Europe. New models came to market, like the Therm-a-Rest Ultra Lite (1983) and the Therm-a-Rest Camp Rest®. The Camp Rest became a lasting design and served as the foundational template for some of our current and most iconic models, such as the Basecamp.
By this time Therm-a-Rest products were circulating across continents, and had a reputation both as a fresh innnovations and serious high-performance pieces of gear. Not only was the blossoming camping and backpacking scene benefiting from the Therm-a-Rest advantage and dedication to quality, but the world’s most serious expeditions were choosing to sleep with the best as well.
Lou Whittaker of the 1982 China-Everest Expedition said, “…the comfort and reliability of Therm-a-Rest was an important physical and mental factor in saving our strength for the strenuous climbing.” While Larry Zecchel of the Canadian Polar Ski Expedition was quoted saying, “our Therm-a-Rest pads performed very well…the temperature dropped to -42C⁰.” Warwick Deacock of the 1980 Australian Annapurna III Expedition summed it up perfectly: “A great advance in sleeping comfort.”
Despite its global reach and accolades, Therm-a-Rest remained true to its grounded origins with commitment to quality and their customers. In 1984 Cascade Designs won the Seattle area SNEWS 1st Annual Award for Best Small Company, for doing the best job for retailers. It went on to win the award for 10 straight years.
More than a decade on from the first prototype, innovation continued to flow from Therm-a-Rest’s Seattle HQ and manufacturing facility. In 1984, the iconic Ridge Rest® closed-cell foam pad was introduced. Backpacker Magazine named it one of the 10 best designs in backpacking equipment in its 1987 awards issue. The product remains in our lineup to this day, joined by the ubiquitous closed-cell foam pads, the Z Lite™ and Z Lite™ SOL.
While Therm-a-Rest found success offering a warmer and more comfortable alternative to closed-cell foam pads, it’s molded design dramatically reduced weight and bulk compared to existing options. As we have learned in the past 50 years, there will always be a place for the pure indestructible utility of a closed-cell foam pad.
Expanding Sleep Comfort and Performance
After over 20 years of focusing our expertise on sleeping pads, Therm-a-Rest expanded its product line to include sleeping bags. By then we had the knowledge that a sleeping pad was essential for overnight warmth and comfort. That no matter how warm your sleeping bag was, without the proper insulation from the ground, you were going to get cold.
These days, the ASTM R-value standard is used to measure and communicate a pad’s insulation capability. As a founding member of ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials), Therm-a-Rest helped lead the effort to establish the industry standard so that customers can more accurately compare pads no matter the brand.
We reasoned that with the best insight into how a sleeping pad performs, we could design sleeping bags to more intentionally augment that performance. Put another way, way back in 1994, we began developing sleep systems. Our first sleeping bags were synthetically insulated and ranged from 0⁰F to a 20⁰F.
We marketed our sleeping bags with the name Therm-a-Nest. By the 90’s, the name Therm-a-Rest began to become synonymous with sleeping pad. This caused us to search for names to distinguish new products that we brought to market. At the same time, we offered a product to zip together two pads, called the Therm-a-Coupl’R. Nowadays, our sleeping bags bear the Therm-a-Rest brand and have space-themed names to evoke those magical nights under the stars, like Questar™ and Hyperion™.
A Company with a Conscience
While the business side of Therm-a-Rest grew, so did our responsibility as a leading brand in the outdoor industry. As a part of an industry that profits off outdoor recreation, we see donating to conservation efforts as a duty. In 1991, Therm-a-Rest began donating $1 from every sale of our Deluxe model to the Nature Conservancy. Founder John Burroughs said in 1994, “We view this as a way to give back to the natural environment…which is essential to our success as a business.”
Today our primary conservation partner is The Conservation Alliance. Founded in 1989 by industry business leaders, the Conservation Alliance represents a coalition of businesses and directs funding to community-led grassroots environmental organizations dedicated to protecting threatened wild habitat and outdoor recreation spaces. However, our advocacy efforts aren’t exclusively in the conservation space.
For years, Therm-a-Rest has financially supported and shared the mission of Big City Mountaineers as they strive to achieve equitable access to the outdoors for youth from disinvested communities. Throughout our history we have believed the outdoors are for everyone. Currently that belief is not fully reality, and in order to achieve that goal, there must always be wild spaces available and equal access for all people regardless age, race or socioeconomic status.
A better, more comfortable night outdoors is what Therm-a-Rest has striven to provide adventurers around the world since our inception. With more people enjoying the great outdoors, and more competition within the industry, each and every year, we have had to rely on our experience and expertise to ensure we keep delivering on that promise.
The last 15 years has been a defining era at Therm-a-Rest thanks in large part to defining the technological cutting edge of sleep comfort, just as we did 50 years ago. In 2009 we introduced the first NeoAir® model to the market. Originally named just that, the NeoAir, the pad raised the bar for ultralight pads. Entirely air-filled, super-compact and without the need for added insulation, the NeoAir used a revolutionary internal structure to provide plenty of warmth and 2-inches of stable loft. What’s more, is that it maintained Therm-a-Rest’s simple, repairable valve system that didn’t need a pump for inflation.
The NeoAir reoriented the market, and almost immediately the competitive landscape saw the introduction of pads attempting to deliver the same features and performance. None quite achieved it, which was made official a few years when we introduced the iconic XLite™ and Xtherm™ pads. Thanks to that internal structure, which we named Triangular Core Matrix™, we have led the competition in warmth-to-weight ratio ever since. We have no plans of relinquishing that position.
It’s been 50 years of technological leadership and innovation. 50 years of unwavering commitment to our customers. 50 years of stewardship to nature and our communities. It’s been 50 years of Therm-a-Rest, and we expect even greater things from the next 50.