Backpackers are on an endless pursuit to make lighter, smaller, and more compressible gear, and sleeping pads are no exception.  Over the years, several different sleeping pad designs have emerged, but recently the market has shifted predominantly to ultra-thick (3 inch thick) air pads devoid of foam.  The Big Agnes Q-Core SLX is a perfect example of a modern sleeping pad: it insulates well and is comfortable, thanks to its 4.5-inch-thick layer, all while packing down into a nifty little 1.6L stuff sack (for size regular).  So how has this technology evolved?

Manually inflatable pads and bulky foam pads ruled the sleeping pad landscape for most of the 20th century.  But, in the 1970s, the Northwest’s own Cascade Designs Inc. released their self-inflating foam pads which revolutionized the sleeping pad industry.  For years, the Therma-Rest self-inflating pads from Cascade Designs were the go-to choice for avid backpackers.  However, the patents covering this self-inflating technology (U.S. Patent No. 3,872,525, and U.S. Patent No. 4, 624, 877) expired over ten years ago, and manufacturers have been quick to saturate the market since.

As of late however, manufacturers, including Cascade Designs, have felt pressure to shift to more compressible pads that use only air.  For example, Cascade Designs has rolled out their NeoAir Xlite line of pads which does not include foam, but does boast a patent-pending thermally reflective technology (PCT/US2009/000474, filed on Jan. 22, 2009).  The question is, is there any IP space left in the sleeping pad field?  Many backpacking experts regard the Big Agnes Q-Core SLX as the gold standard for comfort, warmth, and compressibility.  Yet, despite its acclaim and putative inventiveness, the pad does not seem to be covered by any patents.  Further, the pad still utilizes anachronistic technologies, such as manually inflating valves.  Where is the sleeping pad market headed?  Is there any innovation left to be had, or is the future of sleeping pad development a bleak one, relegated to marginal rote improvements of extant technologies?  That is, does intellectual property have any role left to play in the development of lighter, smaller, and more comfortable sleeping pads?