Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol Review
Compare prices at 3 resellers Pros: Lightweight, affordable, great warmth adding supplement
Cons: Breaks down over time, dimples gather dirt and moisture
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Our Analysis and Test Results
We've started to refer to the Z Lite SOL as Ol' Reliable. It isn't made from fancy space aged materials that pack down to the size of a mini can of coke. It's a foam pad segmented into 1 ounce rectangles and metalized for heat reflection. It works every time. There is no worrying about popping it and spending the night flat on the ground; with the Z Lite SOL, you know exactly how uncomfortable you will be each night no matter what.
First off, if you're looking for extreme comfort from a sleeping pad, the Z Lite SOL shouldn't be on your list of potential candidates. Ol' Reliable is made to get a job done consistently and every time. The 3/4-inch foam pad is insufficient to absorb most ground debris and demands that you spend time searching for a suitable campsite. One of our testers spent a horrendous night on the concrete floor of a pit toilet (the "John Muir Hotel" he calls it) hiding from the cold with only a summer sleeping bag and a Z Lite SOL. He still regards this night as the lowest point in his life. The Z Lite SOL is ill-equipped to protect your hips and other pressure points from such hard surfaces and performs exponentially better on sandy or pine bough covered ground.
Side sleeping, unless on ultra-soft ground, is a no-go with the Z Lite SOL. The thin foam demands the user sleep either on their front or back. Our testers attempted to side sleep in the name of thorough testing, but minimal sleep was received, even on some pretty soft duff. Potentially sleeping on sand, perhaps on a river trip, would be soft enough for decent side sleep. It's difficult to compare a closed-cell foam pad with the super plush inflatable offerings on the market today. Ultimately, the Z Lite SOL is much more comfortable than nothing, and there is no potential to damage it or render it useless.
Weight and Packed Size
Several of our gear testers are past Yosemite SAR team members and used the Z Lite SOL extensively for its no-nonsense design and extremely lightweight. Most rescue operations required moving quickly and had the potential for benighting team members in uncomfortable, often cliffside, locations. The beauty of the Z Lite SOL was that it offered insulation and relative comfort in almost any situation. Each segment weighs one ounce, and they are effortless to cut and shorten. Often the SAR members would take a half Z Lite SOL, which would only weigh five or six ounces but provide a critical buffer between them and the rocks.
Another weight-saving trick is to utilize the Z Lite SOL as the back panel structure in frameless ultralight backpacks, such as the offerings from Hyperlight gear. Compared to other foam sleeping pads, the Z Lite SOL does pack down reasonably small. When compared to the inflatable sleeping pads of today, it's much larger than even the burliest sleeping pads. Relative to inflatable pads, it takes up an excessive amount of space with no way to compress or compact it. This obvious fact took a big chunk out of the otherwise great score for weight and packed size.
We have even seen a Z Lite SOL used as a splint for first aid applications in the backcountry. If given a little bit of extra structure and the right amount of medical tape, the Z Lite SOL can be an effective way to immobilize a broken bone or joint. The fact that it's so light makes it practical to bring along for potential emergencies.
The reflective Z Lite SOL does offer a significant amount of heat retention, especially considering the extremely light weight of the pad. The 2.6 R-value is enough to keep you toasty through three solid seasons but needs some supplementation in the winter months. One of our favorite uses of the Z Lite SOL is as a R-value supplement to other, more comfortable, sleeping pads for winter camping. Not only does stacking pads boost the overall R-value, but it can also create a luxurious dual-layered backcountry mattress.
We tested the Z Lite SOL with the reflective side up and down and noticed a significant difference. Having the reflective material pointed towards our body was critical for getting the most warmth out of this pad. During warm summer months, it would be wise to flip the pad and have the non-reflective side towards your body to reduce night sweats.
Ease of Inflation
It doesn't get any easier than not having to inflate anything. As the Z Lite SOL was the only closed-cell foam pad we tested, there isn't much to compare to its ease of use. All we can say is after getting a bit dizzy from Wim Hofing a mountain of inflatable pads, the Z Lite SOL was a relief.
Having such a high R-Value of warmth at your fingertips is a powerful thing. Not only is it an excellent adjuvant to other sleeping pads, but the Z Lite SOL's closed-cell foam also made it great as an instant chair or place to kneel while out on the trail.
While we did test some reliable and durable inflatable sleeping pads this year, there is no competition for the Z Lite SOL. The closed-cell foam, while it does break down over time, won't suddenly leave you stranded with a large irreparable hole or a broken valve. This is one of the reasons we recommend this pad so heavily for individuals undertaking extremely long treks or adventures where durability is critical.
It's no surprise why so many thru-hikers turn to the Z Lite SOL year after year. It is lightweight, versatile, and while it can be damaged, it will still function perfectly.
No matter the size or style, the Z Lite SOL is affordable. While it might not be the ultimate pad for comfort, the versatility and ability to stack with other sleeping pads for added winter comfort make this pad a great value. We awarded the Z Lite SOL with the Best Buy Award for closed-cell foam pads once again because it still holds up as the most packable and functional pad at a reasonable price.
The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is a fantastic pad. For thru-hikers, individuals just getting into the outdoors, or experienced wilderness sages alike, the Z Lite SOL has something to offer. For thru-hikers, it boasts the ability to supplement an ultralight Dyneema backpack with a Z Lite SOL for structure. For those camped at Denali basecamp looking to boost the R-value of their plush inflatable, the uses of the SOL never end. Year after year, we've tested and found new applications for the Z Lite SOL, and it doesn't seem like that is changing any time soon.
— Brian Martin