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Hands-on Gear Review

Big Agnes Air Core Ultra Review

The Air Core Ultra
Price:   $70 List | $59.95 at Backcountry
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Pros:  Has enough height to provide a good amount of cushion, inexpensive
Cons:  Not very warm, not particularly light weight for the warmth
Editors' Rating:     
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Manufacturer:   Big Agnes

Our Verdict

The Air Core Ultra (an air construction pad) is a new take on a model that has been on the market for years and was a popular alternative to the self-inflating options of the day. Since that time, other pad designs have emerged that we like better (specifically: air construction with baffled insulation). In respect to keeping you off the ground, the Air Core we reviewed gives you three inches of comfort over rocks and pine cones and is pretty comfortable. However, the vertical baffles are deep and are much less comfortable than shallower baffles found on pads like the Exped SynMat 7. Further, several testers woke up on the ground with the Air Core beside them… with the slippery surface fabric to blame. This pad also left a lot to be desired. A 2017 update to this product, though, attempts to improve upon these weaknesses in warmth and stability.

New Version Available — February 2017
Big Agnes confirmed that the Air Core was replaced with the new Air Core Ultra, and we have hopes that the latest version will improve upon the performance of its predecessor. Keep reading to get the full story on the updates!

Ultimately, the best reason you should buy this pad is because it is inexpensive and is often on sale. We think that the Best Buy Award winning Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Venture presents a better value and is quite comparable to the Air Core except that the Venture is warmer and more comfortable.


RELATED REVIEW: The Best Sleeping Pads of 2017


Our Analysis and Hands-on Test Results

Review by:
Jeremy Bauman
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Thursday
February 9, 2017

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The New Air Core Ultra vs. the Original Air Core


Big Agnes' new Air Core Ultra is available in six size combinations, including two wide options, and range in price from $60 (three-quarters length) to $110 (long and wide). When we reviewed the Air Core, we tested the regular length, the new version of which is $10 more expensive with a price tag of $70. The bag has a new vibrant color and has seen a few structural updates. Big Agnes has also added an insulated version of this pad in the Insulated Air Core Ultra, the regular size of which will run you $100. Here's a side-by-side comparison of the new model, on the left, and its predecessor, followed by a summary of the key updates.

The Air Core Ultra
 
  • Baffles — The outer chambers of the Air Core Ultra are bigger than in the original Air Core, which both we and Big Agnes hope will create a smoother and more stable surface.
  • Internal Construction — The I-Beam construction of this pad was designed to increase stability. One of the Air Core's main dilemmas was stability, so this has the potential to be a big upgrade.
  • Heat Reflective Technology — This is an update we're excited to see. The main reason the Air Core scored so poorly in our review was the lack of warmth, but it seems Big Agnes took this into account when designing the Air Core Ultra. We can't back their claim that the pad is warmer since we haven't tested it ourselves yet, but we're definitely interested to see how it stacks up against its predecessor.
  • Durability — In order to increase durability, Big Agnes has included a tougher, more precise lamination, though we can't back this claim without doing our own tests.
  • Air Valve — All the latest pads from Big Agnes have received an updated air valve in hopes of increasing inflation and deflation speed.
  • Price Hike — The Air Core Ultra costs $70, which is ten bucks more than its predecessor.

Because we haven't tested the Air Core Ultra just yet, the rest of this review continues to reflect its predecessor, the Air Core.

Hands-On Review of the Air Core


The Big Agnes Air Core is an inexpensive pad that is pretty comfortable. However, other pads in this review overshadow the Air Core because they are often warmer and more comfortable.

Back and side sleepers will be comfortable on this pad. If it had shallower baffles  it would have scored much higher. Some testers complained of a bouncy sensation when moving the feet.
Back and side sleepers will be comfortable on this pad. If it had shallower baffles, it would have scored much higher. Some testers complained of a bouncy sensation when moving the feet.

Performance Comparison



Comfort


The Air Core series pads made a mark on the sleeping pad market when Big Agnes introduced them. The self-inflating pads of the day were thin and never very comfortable unless you sprung for models that were bulky and heavy. The Air Core's 3.25 inches of plush comfort alleviates the common pains of sleeping on irregular surfaces. No more did unruly rocks and roots affect a good night sleep!

While we love the thickness of this pad, other products we tested provide a smoother sleep surface that our testers consistently found more comfortable. When under-inflated, some testers complained that vertically baffled pads like the Air Core can feel bouncy. The Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Venture has a much smoother sleep surface than the Air Core and has horizontal baffles that feel more stable. Meanwhile, the Big Agnes Q-Core SL is also more comfortable because of its unique baffling.

The price of three inches of air construction comfort is that this pad takes about 30-40 breaths to inflate.
As pictured  the Air Core has very deep baffles. This is not a very comfortable design because it creates pressure ridges along your body. A consistent theme among testers was that the smoother the surface  the better.
As pictured, the Air Core has very deep baffles. This is not a very comfortable design because it creates pressure ridges along your body. A consistent theme among testers was that the smoother the surface, the better.

Weight


Weighing in at 22 oz (in the regular size), the Air Core is neither particularly heavy nor lightweight. Those seeking the lightest should buy something more akin to the Sea to Summit Ultralight that won our Top Pick for Ultralight Backpacking award. The Ultralight is nearly 10 oz lighter, packs down much smaller, and is practically comparable when it comes to warmth. Both pads earned a 6/10 for comfort. If you aren't pushing your limits in the backcountry, the added weight of the Air Core probably won't slow you down

If you have extra cash to spend, we'd recommend the Big Agnes Q-Core SL, which is nearly 3 oz lighter, plus it's warmer and more comfortable.

Warmth


With an R-value of 1, the Air Core measured up pitifully in our warmth category. You'd be warmer using a foam pad like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL, which has an R-value of 2.6. If you mostly adventure in the summer in relatively temperate climates, this probably won't be a big issue, but if you venture into cold places, you'll wish you bought a warmer pad.

With an R-value of just 1  this pad is fit only for warm climates. The valve is situated on the side of the pad keeping it out of the way.
With an R-value of just 1, this pad is fit only for warm climates. The valve is situated on the side of the pad keeping it out of the way.

Packed Size


This pad packs down to a little over one and a half liters. It feels on par with many air construction pads and is much smaller when packed than most foam or self-inflating pads. You'll certainly be able to stuff this into the bottom of your pack or just put it in a compression sack with your sleeping bag.

Love to bivy? Stow this pad and your sleeping bag inside your bivy sack and cram this bundle into the bottom of your pack. Once you get to camp, just pull out the bivy, inflate your pad, and you're ready to go!

The Air Core packs down to a little over two liters making it quite packable.
The Air Core packs down to a little over two liters making it quite packable.

Durability


Though the course of this review is only three months, we have friends who have used this pad for years and years. We have no major hesitancies with this pad's durability. However, as with any air construction pad, it is vulnerable to sharp objects, but as long as you do your part to avoid prickly situations, we expect this pad to provide years of sleeping comfort.

Best Applications


This pad is best used for summer backpacking by those who are on a budget but want a comfortable pad. We don't recommend it for winter use and think that there are better alternatives for car camping, including the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Camper.

Value


Retailing for $60 in the regular size, the Air Core provides a great bargain if you aren't looking for a warm pad. The Venture scored much higher (and retails for just $70 in the regular size) thus winning our Best Buy Award. The Air Core often goes on sale and if it does, you should pick one up, just be sure to understand its strengths and weaknesses.

Conclusion


The Big Agnes Air Core scored poorly in our review, but may be a good budget option if you can't afford a more luxurious sleeping pad. It isn't our favorite, but it is much more comfortable than many self-inflating pads. Because it isn't insulated, we don't recommend this pad if you expect to encounter snow or cold weather. It may not be the best pad on the market, but it is a good option for budget conscious backpackers looking for a comfortable sleep surface.

Jeremy Bauman

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OutdoorGearLab Member Reviews


Most recent review: February 9, 2017
Summary of All Ratings

OutdoorGearLab Editors' Rating:   
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 (2.0)
Average Customer Rating:     (0.0)
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