Best Ultralight Sleeping Pad? The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Gets My Vote.

Investing in an ultralight sleeping pad can save a pound or more off your pack weight—and the Therma-a-Rest Z Lite offers one of the best, most durable, most convenient, and least expensive ways to accomplish it. I've used the Z Lite as my go-to pad for years—here's my evaluation of its many advantages, as well as a few drawbacks.

The Z Lite is basically a thin piece of closed-cell foam that features a dimpled surface to increase its comfort. It's unique in that it folds up accordion-style, rather than rolling up like other pads. Folding seams are built into the design, which makes it a snap to instantly fold closed—I can do it in less than two seconds. It unfurls even faster. Just grab the end and toss it out flat.

Using a foam pad like the Z Lite eliminates the need to inflate and deflate your sleeping pad every time you set up or move camp, a mildly time-consuming process that I prefer to avoid. (Say you spend three minutes inflating and deflating the pad every time you use it. If you use it 20 times a year over 20 years, that's 20 hours of effort, or nearly an entire day of your life just dealing with your sleeping pad!)

Being able to instantly use the pad also means that I can easily pull it out for use on short rest stops—something I would seldom do if I had to inflate and deflate the pad. Plus, unlike closed-cell foam pads that roll up, you never have to deal with those annoying curled ends when you open it up.

The Z Lite is incredibly durable. After years of intense use and abuse, I have never torn or punctured a Z Lite. And even if I did, I wouldn't need to waste time and effort patching it up as I would with an inflatable pad. The only reason I have replaced my Z Lite over the years is that the dimples slowly flatten out after many seasons of use, which makes it noticeably less comfortable. (This flattening effect takes a while. I'm on only my third pad after 15 years of regular Z Lite use.)

The Z Lite is also one of the lightest weight and most inexpensive pads available. The full-length version (6 feet long) weighs only 14 ounces, the short version (51 inches) a mere 10 ounces. It's cheaper ($45 full-length, $35 short) than an inflatable pad ($60 to $150 or more), though I still think it's a bit of a racket that Therm-a-Rest can charge so much for what's essentially just a thin piece of foam.

The drawbacks of the Z Lite? It's much bulkier than ultralight inflatable pads, which often pack down smaller than a one-liter water bottle, making it necessary to attach the Z Lite to the outside of your backpack. It's not nearly as cushy as an inflatable pad—you'll need to like (or at least tolerate) sleeping on a harder surface. And it offers minimal insulation. With an R-value of only 2.6, it provides adequate insulation for three-season camping, but falls far short for cold-weather or winter camping. Ultimately, though, it's comfort that makes the call. If you need lots of cush under your tush to sleep well, the Z Lite probably isn't for you.

The latest iteration of the Z Lite is known as the Z Lite Sol, which incorporates a reflective barrier on the pad's surface. Supposedly this keeps you slightly warmer by retaining more of your radiant heat, though I'm somewhat skeptical since radiant heat accounts for only a tiny portion of our body's heat loss. (Then again, I haven't reached the five-year upgrade point on my now "original" Z Lite, so have not yet had the opportunity to test this claim firsthand.)

Happy ZZZZZs out there!

Learn More:
Nice Pad: Sleep Warm, Sleep Comfy (2011)

“Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

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