The Therm-A-Rest Z-lite is a closed cell foam mattress that might be the single best ultralight mattress on the market today. I have used many of these mattresses while thru-hiking and can vouch for their extended durability, amazing comfort, and innovative design.
The closed cell foam used in the production of the Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite can not be imitated cheaply. I have tried a half dozen or so competitors and always found my way back to the Z-lite.
I got my introduction to long distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail; up until this point I had been an average backpacker and so I started the AT with 50+lbs in my gigantic backpack. As the miles rolled by and my fellow hikers continued to pass me with their light-weight packs and gear inventories, one item simply could not be ignored; the familiar, accordion-style yellow and gray sleeping pad lashed to a vast majority of the backpacks passing me by!
The Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite was literally the first lightweight item I switched out on my road to becoming a ultralight backpacker!
Previous to this I had been carrying a self-inflating pad; this single decision cut my pack weight down by almost two full pounds! Before doing this I had debated heavily the value of getting a good night’s sleep with the thicker, more comfortable air mattress, and realized that while I did lose a little in terms of overall comfort, the weight saved and easy access to the pad more than made up for it!
INSIDER TIP: When hiking along with your Z-Lite lashed to the backpack, it can be extremely tempting to pull the straps and spread out your mattress during your breaks. I absolutely recommend doing this, but have a couple points to make I learned over the years!
1. Carefully check the ground underneath the area for sharp sticks or cactus needles. They will become lodged in the foam and create a very bad situation when you pair the Z-Lite with an inflatable during the snow season!
2. Even on breaks throughout the day where you just sit on a stump or fallen tree, pull off the Z-Lite and leave it folded in two thick sections (it automatically does this when you open it). This is like sitting on air!
3. If you are a larger person like myself (I am 6’5” and 210lbs) expect the Z-Lite to wear out more rapidly than if you are a smaller person. For example, some of my lighter hiking partners can use a Z-lite for double or triple the time I can and still have a comfortable nights rest!
After finishing the Appalachian trail I continued to hike, climb, and adventure around the globe. The Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite continued to be part of my gear inventory, no matter where I found myself on Planet Earth!
Trek to Cape Froward in Southern Chile along the Straights of Magellan, winter. Using my Therm-A-Rest as a seat – I had to camp early here because of the river crossings, at high tide they were impossible to make solo cross, so I camped and waited for the water to go down!
LET’S TALK R-VALUE!
A Therm-A-Rest Z-lite has an R-value of 2.2 (and the Z-Lite Sol comes in at 2.6), but what does this actually mean?
The sleeping pad’s R-Value is a technical measurement of how well it insulates. The higher the R-value, the warmer the pad, this is a good way to think about it. Of course, insulation is not everything – weight and compacted size are two major issues when dealing with the decision on which pad to use on your expedition. One versatile option I use in the winter is to pair the Z-Lite or the Z-Lite Sol with an inflatable pad in order to increase the R-value of my sleeping system!
I meant to sleep on two pads during this trip (here I packed a Z-Lite and Pro-Lite Plus, both Therm-A-Rest), but when I saw my buddy Darwin was not warm I decided to share!
So let’s get into some technical specs for the Z-Lite and Z-lite Sol, then finish up with some comparisons to other major brands you might be considering.
Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite Review
THE NUTS AND BOLTS – THERM-A-REST Z-LITE AND THE THERM-A-REST Z-LITE SOL
As I mentioned earlier, the Therm-A-Rest Z-lite has a R-Value of 2.2, but what else does this great sleeping pad offer in the way of options?
- CONSTRUCTION: Both the Therm-A-Rest Z-Lite and the Z-lite Sol are closed cell foam with a Cross-linked Polyethylene fill.
- SIZES: Both sleeping pads come in Regular (14oz, 72”) and Short (10oz, 51”). Both pads are 20” wide and .75” thick. Of course, the Regular packs down slightly larger than the Short!
- COLORS: The Regular is available in Coyote or Limon/Silver, while the Short is only available in Limon/Silver.
- TECHNOLOGY: It might look like an egg-crate, but those heat trapping dimples will insulate FAR better than classic flat foam pads!
MORE MINIMALIST THAN THE Z-LITE?
The Therm-A-Rest Z-lite is thought to be the lightest minimalist closed cell foam pad on the market today. As I mentioned, this is a vastly popular piece of gear, and for good reason; it works, and works better than anything else in it’s category! However, I have met die-hard ultralight backpackers who think even this can be improved upon!
When sleeping on a hard surface there are two major points of contact that need to be padded at a minimum for you to feel comfortable. One is in the hip/buttock area (depending on if you sleep on your side or back) and one is around the shoulders. Most people use a pillow of some sort (clothing bag, extra jacket) and so the head and neck area is supported.
I have seen backpackers who will take a pair of scissors to their Therm-A-Rest in order to create two small pads, both one or two sections wide, and simply place these scraps under their hips and shoulders for the night! Talk about extreme!
If you are looking for a way to work in a weight-saving option without sacrificing so much, try to use the Short. I am 6’5” and can get away with the Short while tucking my empty backpack under my feet for comfort!
SO WHY SHOULD I BUY THE THERM-A-REST SOL VS THE CLASSIC THERM-A-REST?
The Therma-A-Rest SOL comes with one great improvement over the Therm-A-Rest Classic – a custom coating called ThermaCapture® that increases the raidiant heat capture by 20%.
So this comes down to a question of when you will be using the sleeping pad. If you plan on sleeping in warmer climates, I would recommend the classic Therm-A-Rest sleeping pad. More heat retention can actually be a negative when you are already hot! However, if you are using the sleeping pad in colder weather, or in conjuction with an inflatable pad for sleeping on snow or ice, the extra heat retention provided by the SOL definitely comes in handy!
Let’s look at some common competitors you might be considering too!
THE THERM-A-REST VS EXPED
Exped sleeping pads are vastly popular and this is justified; they make a very high-quality product with some innovative design options. However, in their massive line of sleeping pads, only one can fairly be compared to the Z-Lite:
This Multimat is really meant to be used in conjuction with an inflatable; Exped indicates the mat can be folded to give you a comfortable night’s sleep, but this will just not compare to the Z-Lite or the Z-Lite Sol.
The one benefit is that this pad is LIGHT. If you are using this with an inflatable it might be a better option than the Z-Lite series. However, for a stand-alone closed cell foam pad nothing beats the Therm-A-Rest!
THE THERM-A-REST VS THE SEA TO SUMMIT
Sea to Summit is a company that makes some seriously awesome lightweight equipment, however, they do not manufacture a closed cell foam mattress. It is not productive to compare a high-end air mattress to the Z-Lite or the Z-Lite Sol. Check out my air mattress review here to see how the other members of the Therm-A-Rest family stack up vs the Sea to Summit!
THE THERM-A-REST VS BIG AGNES
I have been using Big Agnes Products since I was a young backpacker. Their sleep systems with integrated sleeping pads that fit in the back of the sleeping bag are incredible! However, their sleeping pads are inflatable – check out how the Big Agnes stacks up against the Therm-A-Rest in my next review!
I will throw in one cool option for the Big Agnes pad you might already have – the memory foam accessory!
MY THERM-A-REST Z-LITE SLEEPING PAD IS WORN OUT, SHOULD I THROW IT AWAY?
Absolutely NOT! Want some ideas on how to recycle this awesome piece of gear?
1. Cut a small section to use as a seat in rough areas you don’t want to ruin your primary sleeping pad.
2. Make a pot cozy to keep your dinner warm or simmer by retaining the heat
3. Add to the padding on your backpack to make it more comfortable!
Now that you have the run-down, enjoy your new sleeping pad, and Happy Trails!