This photo shows the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad attached to a backpack during the testing and review process.

Review: Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad: Best ‘Cushion’ Ever?

- Field-tested -

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The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad is a compact, ultralight closed-cell foam pad. To give this relatively thin pad improved warmth, Therm-a-Rest adds its ‘ThermaCapture’ coating to reflect radiant heat.

If you’re reading this review, you’re probably wondering if the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL is any good. Is it comfortable? Is it a good buy? Should you buy it?

I’ve used the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad for years while backpacking and camping and I’m a fan — but probably not why you’re thinking.

Compared to ultralight air sleeping pads, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL isn’t particularly comfortable. In fact, it’s only ‘comfortable’ to sleep on when you don’t have a good inflatable pad handy. It is better than nothing . . . and yet, it’s awesome, too.

How is this possible?

Incongruent Awesomeness

This photo shows the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad in the process of being unfolded for use.
Fast deployment: The Z Lite SOL simply unfolds for use — no inflation necessary!

First, let’s talk about sleeping on it. The ingeniously interlocking bumps and recesses create a fairly comfortable mattress that softens the feeling of hard ground. At just .75″ thick, though, there’s only so much cushion the Z Lite can give you over a full night. If you’re a side sleeper, your hip will likely get tired during the night.

It gets worse, though. Because the Z Lite is so thin, it can’t suck up a rock or bump and make it seemingly disappear to you while you sleep. What’s worse is that, if there is a slight depression somewhere under the pad, the Z Lite will mold to the depression, which may be uncomfortable during the night. Quality air pads are stiffer and thicker and are better at ‘bridging’ small depressions in your sleep surface.

If you find perfectly flat surfaces, the Z Lite SOL is survivable as a sleeping pad . . . but I’d be hard pressed to see myself or anyone actually choose it if given a choice to use an air mattress right next to it. Caveat: It’s pretty good for soft forest soils or spots loaded with pine needles (but less great on high-country packed dirt/stone tent spots.

 

Super Durability

This photo shows the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad strapped to a backpacking backpack.
Because closed-cell foam sleeping pads like the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL never pop, you don’t have to worry much about thorns or poky pinecones.

The only situation where the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL excels as a backpacking sleeping pad is when you must sleep in thorny or sharp-rock conditions. You simply don’t have to worry about popping the Z Lite SOL because there’s nothing to pop. And this rugged durability leads us to why I take the Z Lite backpacking and camping so often: I don’t have to worry about it at all.

Oh, here’s one more benefit: It works well for kids, partially because they weigh a lot less, but mostly because they seem to stay on top of the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL better than on thicker inflatable air pads during the night.

Best Ultralight ‘Chair’ Ever?

In fact, I sometimes bring the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad when I go backpacking . . . along with another ultralight air sleeping pad. Occasionally I’ll double-up on cushion and insulation by placing my air pad over the top of the Z Lite, but I mostly take the Z Lite SOL as a seat cushion.

If you leave the Z Lite folded up — or half-folded up — it makes a thick cushion to place on top of rocks, logs or stumps. What if the rock or log is wet? No problem. The closed-cell foam blocks water and won’t absorb it. It’s waterproof.

This photo shows the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad strapped to a backpack and ready for use.
If you strap the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad to the back or bottom of your backpack, it’s ready for instant use on the trail as a waterproof seat or lounge pad.

This also means you can lie down on the Z Lite SOL on wet grass, rocks, or dirt and take a break or eat a meal. You don’t have to worry about it getting wet and you don’t have to worry about it popping due to some unnoticed bramble or pine cone.

And it’s not just me. Other Man Makes Fire gear testers sometimes haul the extra weight of the Z Lite SOL for the same purpose. Because it’s a long rectangular pad, more than one person can sit on it at the same time.

Personally, I particularly like to lean it halfway up a slab of rock, a bank or a log, and turn it into a lounge-like mat. It’s great for napping.

Benefit: On-Trail Accessibility

Because the full-size 20″ x 72″ Z Lite SOL weighs less than a pound (14 oz), the weight penalty for backpacking is minor. And because it’s so light, you can easily strap it to the back or bottom of most backpacking packs and carry it without unbalancing your pack.

Plus, because it’s usually strapped to the outside of a backpack, it’s super easy to use while take short breaks on the backpacking trail. (If you’re hiking with kids — or just hiking for day-trip picnics — the Z Lite SOL is handy, too.)

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Z Lite SOL Drawbacks

This photo shows the bulky packed size of a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad.
There’s no getting around it: Closed-cell foam pads are bulky.

The biggest Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad drawback is its packed size: It’s bulky. There’s no getting around it. Because you can’t compress the air out it, it takes up space.

If you like the idea of the lightweight chair pad, you can reduce the size by choosing the Small version, which is 20″ x 51″ long. It’s long enough for two people to sit on it side-by-side and it’s long enough to let one person lounge on it as well.

To reduce the bulk, you have an interesting modification option: You can buy the Regular and cut it in half, giving you two separate pads. Or cut just a couple of panels off to create smaller seat options that are still great for hiking and backpacking but take up less space.

Of course, Therm-a-Rest offers a micro-version of the Z Lite design as a dedicated seating pad, but it’s sized for just one butt.

 

Z Lite Competition & Alternative Options

Therm-a-Rest isn’t the only manufacturer to produce quality closed-cell foam sleeping pads. Here are a few competitive options to consider as well:

Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad — The Exped FlexMat Plus Sleeping Pad uses a similar nesting, folding design as the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite, but it’s thicker. At 1.5″ thick, the Exped FlexMat Plus gives you improved comfort for sleeping. Better yet, while Exped offers it in the expected shorty XS and regular M size options, Exped goes one better with a Long Wide version that’s 77.6″ x 25.6″.

NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad — The NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad is slightly thicker than the Z Lite SOL. At .9″ of thickness, the nodes are also slightly taller with a dual-peak and valley design. Like Therm-a-Rest, NEMO includes a metallic thermal reflective film. Is the extra .15″ thickness meaningful? The extra thickness only results a half-ounce gain of weight over the Z Lite SOL, so that’s good, but the R-Value of 2.0 remains the same as the Z Lite SOL.

Therm-a-Rest Ridge RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad — The RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad’s competitive differentiating feature is that it rolls up instead of folds up. Because it doesn’t have the eggshell design, it’s slightly less comfortable than the Z Lite — but that’s splitting hairs. It has the same 2.0 R-Value and the same 14 oz weight. It does, however, cost a bit less. (Incidentally, we prefer the foldable design of the Z Lite because it’s easier to deploy as a multi-functional cushion.)

The Bottom Line

The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL Sleeping Pad is an outstanding lightweight closed-cell foam sleeping pad. While there are some competitors that come very close to it, the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL has proven its durability at Man Makes Fire over many trips and several years. We trust it. While we occasionally sleep on it or use it as an extra layer of insulation for cold-weather backpacking and off-road camping, our favorite use is as a waterproof, ultra-versatile lightweight backcountry seat cushion. Very highly recommended.

Get the Gear:

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Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL
Benefits
Closed-cell foam won't pop or fail like inflatable sleeping pads
Waterproof and durable
Works well as a backcountry cushion seat
Drawbacks
Not nearly as comfortable as air pads for sleeping
Bulky
4.7

 

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