I’m a big fan of camping generally, and car camping specifically. Given my penchant for running stupid distances in the New Zealand backcountry, perhaps it is unsurprising that I’ve spent many a night curled up in the back of the trusty Subaru before a mission or a race. Despite getting older and developing a penchant for comfort, car camping is still my happy place.
Perhaps, however, the fact I still like a good car camp has something to do with my equipment choices, specifically the camping mattress upon which I lie on said missions. That mattress, or at least a previous one, has gotten me thinking about quality, longevity and the curse of modern approaches to consumption.
For some context, I’m going to take you back a little over three decades, to my 21st birthday. Being a practical chap, my brother decided the perfect gift for his vaguely outdoorsy kid brother was what was at the time a new-fangled invention, a Thermarest. For those unaccustomed to the world of the outdoors, Thermarest is the company that invented the self-inflating camp mattress. Not those huge impractical ones, but the slimline and lightweight ones that were practical to take in a small day bag out into the hills. At a time when closed-cell foam was de riguer, Thermarest gave us a lighter weight and better performing option.
That 3/4 length Thermarest Original has been everywhere – from six months spent illicitly dossing in a vacant space in Chalk Farm, London, to trekking in Nepal. From the shores of the Red Sea to tramping in the Tararuas, the old faithful was a perennially trusted companion. On the occasion of my eldest son’s venturing out into the wide world, it seemed appropriate to pass on old faithful to him – nearly 30 years old and still going strong. As a replacement, I purchased myself a new, and slightly higher-tech alternative while on a work trip to the US.
It’s now a few years later and I have gone through two or three camping mattresses since that generational handover. Whereas old faithful is thirty years old and still performing, I’ve been lucky to get a year out of the replacements before they start leaking, delaminating or otherwise failing. It seems bizarre that in the space of three decades, the lifespan of a product can go from an actual (human) lifetime to a matter of months.
My father used to annoy his progeny by pronouncing one of his “Dr Kepes truisms.” He would tell us that we knew;
The price of everything, but the value of nothing
At the time his message landed on deaf ears, but increasingly it’s striking a note. I don’t know what my brother paid for that original item over thirty years ago, but I’d imagine it’d average out to a few dollars a year over that time. While there are cheaper options in the market today, they’re far more expensive when regarded on a “dollars per annum” or “cents per use basis.” But increasingly that seems to be what we (and when I say “we” I of course mean “the market”) get offered. Alternatives that seem cheaper, but cost much more when looked at from the longevity perspective.
I understand that, when it comes to consumer electronics, the new-fangled thing holds some allure. While that allure might be somewhat illusory, the reality is that subsequent generations of mobile phones, for example, offer new and attractive features and hence we accept, to a point, a limited lifespan on things of this type. But a camp mattress? Really? It has one purpose, to pack down small, inflate on-demand and keep the user insulated from the ground beneath. There is no rhyme nor reason for any kind of planned obsolescence.
Now of course the ultimate test of whether society has descended into peak camp-mattress consumerism would be to buy another Thermarest and wait thirty years to see how it compares to Old Faithful. If it is indeed as reliable a product today as it was when it was introduced, the only action possible would be to continue supporting brands that pride themselves on making good stuff. If, on the other hand, Thermarest has also caved to the market and lessened its quality, then the only option is to retreat, hermit-like, into a world that looks backwards and shuns modern developments.
So much to think about, when all I want Is a reliable mattress to chuck in the back of the car when I head off on mountain missions. Woe is me.