Hands-on Gear Review
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Pros: Lightweight, compact, warmer than original Z-Lite
Cons: Dimples collect dirt, foam compresses over time and becomes less comfortable and less warm
Best Uses: Budget backpacking, alpine climbing, mountaineering
The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is the most versatile lightweight closed-cell sleeping pad we've tested. The pad works in just about any camping situation, whether on a big wall in Yosemite, alpine climbing, mountaineering, backpacking, or car camping. We love using this pad to supplement other inflatable pads or on its own when we want don't want to have to worry about durability issues associated with all inflatable pads. This pad has a silver reflective coating and an R-value of 2.6 making it warmer than the non "SOL" version. Because it packs an incredible punch for just $45, this pad wins one of our two Best Buy Awards. The great downside of this pad is that it's one of the least comfortable pads we've slept on. If you want comfort, look elsewhere. If you want ultra durability and versatility, buy the Z Lite SOL.
For an affordable inflatable pad, we highly recommend checking out our other Best Buy Award winner, the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Venture. This super comfortable pad will only set you back $70.
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OutdoorGearLab Editors' Hands-on Review
The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is our favorite closed cell foam pad because it packs relatively small for a foam pad, is very versatile, is inexpensive, and is very useful around camp and in the winter.
This was the most uncomfortable pad we reviewed. We weren't surprised by this, after all, how could half an inch of foam ever compete in the comfort category with the 2 inches of cushioning provided by air construction sleeping pads like the Therm-a-Rest XLite? When sleeping on smooth ground, foam pads just don't have the thickness required to support your nooks and crannies. On uneven terrain, foam pads are especially outdone by thick air construction mats because they don't absorb lumps. With all that said, before you discredit foam pads like the Z Lite completely, we can tell you that we've spent plenty of restful nights sleeping on the Z Lite.
When using foam pads, there are a couple things that'll really help you pound out the ZZZs. Any time you're about to sleep outside, site selection is very important and perhaps even more so with foam pads. If you can score a site that's as smooth and level as possible, you're well on your way to a good night's sleep. If possible, sleep on pine duff or non-clumpy grass. Also try sleeping on your back to minimize pressure points on your hips and side. Perhaps the best way to ensure a superb night's sleep on a foam pad is to hike and climb enough to make you tired. We've lead countless backcountry trips where Z Lite pads are standard issue for clients. Many clients complain a little the first night, but by the second night they're more tired and sleep through the night and awake rested and ready. If you like camping in a hammock, foam pads like the Z Lite often work better than their inflatable cousins because the suppleness and low profile of foam pads keeps them under you unlike inflatable pads that often slide out from under you. Comfort is by no means the Z Lite's strong suit, but rest assured, this pad delivers on other fronts.
If you're looking for a super lightweight way to sleep outside, the Z Lite is a great pick and has been used on countless ultralight endeavors. The short version of the Z Lite SOL weighs just 10 ounces making it super light. In addition, you can trim weight by tailoring the edges to give it a mummy shape like the Sea to Summit UltraLight or cut it even shorter. We like the short version of this pad because it is so lightweight and works really well when supplementing an inflatable pad in the winter. For 4 ounces more, you can pick up the regular length version of this pad that's 72 inches long.
Perhaps the best thing about foam pads is that they can replace the back panel of many backpacks. The Z Lite SOL is especially apt to this task because of its folding nature. Just fold it so that two sections stack in parallel and slide into the back of your pack. Sure it'll take away internal space from your pack, but many backpack frame-sheets weigh about the same if not more! In this way, foam pads can equate to zero extra ounces if you can use them to replace your frame!
The Z Lite SOL improves upon old designs by adding a silver reflective coating to boost warmth. With an R-value of 2.6, this pad is warm enough for three-season use but should be supplemented in winter, or rather, this pad should be used to supplement an inflatable pad. Though it isn't very warm in itself, the Z Lite Sol is a superb pick if you're looking for a foam pad that you can couple with another pad for winter. Remember, R-value functions in a linear way, so if you add this pad to a pad like the XLite that has an R-value of 3.2, in ideal conditions you'll have an added R-value of 5.8!
If you plan on using the Z Lite SOL in the winter, there are a couple things you should consider. First, the small dimples in this pad are designed to help the pad fold up into a small size and add warmth, but to their detriment they also fill with snow. You'll have to brush them out completely before going to sleep lest snow melts into your sleeping bag. In winter, moisture is the enemy that should be battled at all costs. Placing the foam pad on the ground under an inflatable pad can help mitigate this issue because any snow that does melt will be trapped in between the foam and the inflatable pad. Another problem with the dimples is that they increase the surface area of the bottom of the pad maximizing the amount of heat that can be lost to the snow below. If you're camping inside a tent, consider putting the pad on top of your inflatable pad and make sure you brush snow out of each dimple. Overall, the Z Lite is a fantastic foam pad if you're looking to supplement an inflatable it just takes some special care. We've used it everywhere from Alaska to Colorado with great success and recommend it if you need to boost the warmth of another pad.
When compared to other foam pads, the Z Lite Sol packs down very small thanks to the dimples and accordion style way that it folds. We calculated that it packs down to about 9 liters in size unless you trim it smaller. If you have a backpack with a removable back panel, you can use this pad in place of it although you'll lose some internal volume in your pack. Alternatively, you can lash this pad onto the outside of your pack so that it takes up no volume inside your pack. Still, we prefer inflatable pads that fit inside our packs most of the time.
If there is one reason to buy this pad, it's because it's as tough as nails as far as sleeping pads go - earning a 10/10 in the durability category. This is by far the most durable pad in this review. Feel free to use this pad on sharp rocks, stickers, or cacti (not recommended!). Heck, you could take a hole puncher to this thing without ruining it. The great advantage of foam is that you practically can't destroy it in the field. If two sections come apart after extreme folding/unfolding (we haven't experienced this, but it is conceivable), you can just tape the thing back together. This pad's high level of durability is the reason that many thru hikers and mountaineers continue swearing by it. We love using this pad along with an inflatable as insurance in the event that something punctures the inflatable pad. Simply put, buy this pad if you can't afford the chance of your pad failing mid-trip.
A Note on this Pad's Versatility
Though versatility didn't work it's way into our rating metrics for sleeping pads, we think that this pad earns a special note about it's superb level of versatility. Versatility is a very big reason to buy this pad. You can use this pad:
Though foam pads like the Z Lite SOL may be replaced in many instances by more comfortable inflatable pads, foam pads still have their place. They work extremely well for ultralight thru-hiking where you're days or weeks away from civilization and want the assurance that you won't be left flat on your back should your pad rupture. This pad is also an excellent companion to an inflatable pad for winter and on expeditions were you need the insurance of an indestructible mat below you.
The Z Lite SOL retails for just $45 in the regular size and only $35 in the small size making it one of the cheapest pads in this review. Add to that the versatility when added to another pad and it's tough for anyone not to pick up this pad.
The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is a fantastic pad that scored low in our review. It is fantastic because it is inexpensive, lightweight, and durable. It scored low because it isn't comfortable and doesn't pack very small. Buy this pad if you're on a very tight budget or if you already have an inflatable pad but want more warmth in the winter. Be assured, this pad has been around for years for a reason. It is a constant pick among long distance thru-hikers and mountaineers for good reason.
The Original Z Lite (without the "SOL" reflective coating) costs $40 and is slightly less warm.
The Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOlite rolls rather than folds and is $30 in size regular.
— Jeremy Bauman
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Most recent review: August 14, 2015
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