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, the Insulated Air Core Ultra. 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.
- 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.
Photo: David Clark
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.
Photo: Jeremy Bauman
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.
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.
Photo: Jeremy Bauman
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.
Photo: Jeremy Bauman
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.
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.
Retailing for $70 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.
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.
Photo: Jeremy Bauman