Therm-a-Rest wants to save the world, one recycled foam scrap at a time

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Anyone who spends time in the backcountry knows the importance of a good night’s sleep. Sleeping on the ground without adequate padding or warmth is one of the least appealing parts of roughing it, no matter if you’re on a weekend hiking trip or an extended mountaineering expedition. It’s the difference between being able to properly enjoy your outing or counting down the minutes until you get to crawl into your bed at home.

What happens behind closed doors is as impressive as any of Therm-a-Rest’s products.

In 1971, sleeping bag and mattress giant Therm-a-Rest began as a group of unemployed engineers with one goal in mind: To change the outdoor experience. In the decades that followed its humble beginnings, the brand has successfully become a household name, recognizable by outdoor enthusiasts and homeowners alike. But while much of its prominence is observed by outside consumers, what happens behind closed doors is as impressive as any of its products.

To get a sense of its innovative research, development, and sustainability practices up close, we joined Therm-a-Rest on an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of hits headquarters in Seattle, Washington. It didn’t take us long to realize that its commitment to comfort and quality is anything but sales speak. Rather, it’s a dedicated, company-wide effort geared toward improving the lives of casual campers and outdoor enthusiasts in the backcountry.

A better way

Though we expected the tour to begin and end with the brand’s upcoming innovations, stepping into its facility unveiled a different side to the brand, one concerned with preserving the environment and reducing its environmental footprint. Therm-a-Rest’s devotion to these initiatives is impressive, and the fact it developed, implemented, and continues to maintain its own sustainable manufacturing practices is a boon for its longevity.

Several stops along our tour showed tangible examples of this ethos in action, beginning at the birthplace of Therm-a-Rest’s mattresses — an area of the facility where machines specifically cut large slabs of foam to the required thickness and perimeter for its individual products.

“We cut out the foam on the inside of our pads and then use the inserts to make our pillows,” Therm-a-Rest public relations manager, Jennifer Curto, told Digital Trends. “Anything we don’t use in our pillows we sell back to our foam distributor to use as carpet padding, and we even use a baler to pick up leftover scraps. Nothing is wasted.”

Using foam inserts to make pillows and employing a scrap-hoarding baler are both genius methods for improving overall business efficiency. By doing this, Therm-a-Rest reduces what it puts into landfills and all its raw materials are used to create a final product — whether it’s your NeoAir XTherm or the carpet padding in your house. This is sustainability in action and it’s how the brand hopes to continue to define itself.

“We’re doing this process now called lean manufacturing where we’re really doing things on a per order basis, as opposed to getting a roll of fabric and cutting it all at once,”  Curto added. “This allows us to stay more nimble, flexible, and to be more efficient — it keeps our inventory under control. That’s the cool thing about manufacturing our own products. If we find any kind of issue, we can make changes right away.”

Pulling back the curtain

But sustainability at Therm-a-Rest extends beyond even reducing its environmental footprint. One of the company’s pillars of philosophy is to sell products built by Therm-a-Rest employees, as opposed to waiting for shipments from far-off factories. The brand even uses this same mentality in regards to other parts of its manufacturing processes.

“These are all our own built machines we’re utilizing.”

“Not only do we invent a product, but we have to build the specific machines to make the product,” Curto added. “That’s really unique. With the exception of one, these are all our own built machines which we’re utilizing because we’re having trouble keeping up with demand.”

This model doesn’t just encompass its product line but also carries over into the employment sector. Many of the brand’s employees have been employed for more than 3o years. What’s especially impressive is the fact it has very low employee turnover, something that says a lot about the brand considering its factory environment — Curto even individually greeted employees during our walkthrough, most of which she knew by name.

Of mannequins and cold chambers

For 2018, Therm-a-Rest was able to finally unveil its new line of fast and light are sleeping bags. Considering the fact temperature ratings are one of the most important labels for differentiating products, this new entry makes the brand’s product line that much more comprehensive. Though most companies send gear to Kansas State University for cold testing, Therm-a-Rest went a step further by building its own cold chamber specifically to test its sleeping bags. The brand also enlisted the help of a $200,000 mannequin named Hugh.

Built by Thermetrics — the same company behind KSU’s mannequin — Hugh features four sensor panels which allow Therm-a-Rest to monitor is relative body temperature. After setting his internal temperature to 92 degrees, the company then sets its chamber to 38 degrees and sticks Hugh in a sleeping bag. Similar to the way an actual human body might react, Hugh’s energy levels fluctuate based on how hot or cold he gets.

“During the test, we measure how much energy it takes Hugh to maintain his temperature at 92 degrees within the 38-degree room,” Curto told us. “Then, we put that calculation into a formula which gives us a temperature rating. Basically, we’re measuring the energy he’s outputting to maintain his body temperature.”

“Having this cold chamber […] ensures that our products are above and beyond the temperature rating baseline.”

While Therm-a-Rest has its own in-house cold chamber, it also sends out its products to Kansas State University for a second round of testing to make sure its tests are standardized. Though this seems repetitive, the advantages to having a cold chamber on site are numerous.

“Having this cold chamber allows us to do multiple iterations of our products without having to send it out for third-party testing,” she added. “We can develop a mattress or a sleeping bag, test it, and be doing multiple versions immediately. It also ensures that our products are above and beyond the temperature rating baseline. By being able to test in-house, we’re making sure we’re totally in the clear on our temperature ratings.”

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Despite its rigorous testing, Therm-a-Rest is conservative with its sleeping bag ratings. The EN standard defines temperature ranges pertaining to Comfort, Limit, and Extreme delineations. Most companies define the temperature range of their sleeping bags according to Limit — and Therm-a-Rest is no exception. In this way, the company ensures that any sleeping bag that passes Hugh’s test will no doubt pass KSU’s tests.

Therm-a-Rest’s lifetime promise

While Hugh and the cold chamber are solely used for testing sleeping bags, Therm-a-Rest also owns its own guarded hot plate — an additional advantage over its competitors and one that allows the brand to maintain its high standards.

The factory has its own on-site repair shop home to a library of Therm-a-Rest mattress fabrics dating back decades.

“We test the R-value of mattresses on our guarded hot plate,” said Curto. “We basically put the mattress in between these two plates because R-value is a measure of heat resistance. We measure how heat is transferring through the mattress.”

The mechanism behind the madness circles back to Therm-a-Rest’s dedication to quality. When the company puts a product on the market, it stands behind it one hundred percent. The commitment to this carries over into every facet of the company, from product inception to end of life.

Even Therm-a-Rest’s end of life is considered a rebirth within the company. Put plainly, the factory has its own on-site repair shop staffed by designated employees that’s home to a library of Therm-a-Rest mattress fabrics dating back decades. This makes it easier to service its products while also dramatically extending their lifespan.

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“We really intend for our products to last a lifetime,” Curto concluded. “If you have a puncture or any sort of warranty issue, we want to make sure that product doesn’t end up in a landfill. So, we have an entire repairs department that exists to fix those things.”

Considering the brand’s ongoing efforts in preserving the environment, that intention of a lifetime’s worth of durability means much more than a feeble attempt at marketing jargon — it’s the essence of a company committed to quality and conservation.