We’re not going to discuss inflatable sleeping pads very much.
They can be wonderful, and they have their time and place… especially when you’re over 40.
But this post is all about good old classic foam. Closed cell foam, to be specific.
Foam pads are easy, simple, and cheap. And they get the job done.
Inflatable pads are cushy and great, but if you were given a choice between a foam pad and an inflatable one with a hole in it, which would you choose?
That’s what I thought.
5 Advantages of Foam Sleeping Pads vs Inflatable
You probably know all the benefits of using foam vs an inflatable pad, or else you wouldn’t be here (you’d be clicking the “place your order” button for that fancy $200 Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite), but let’s just take a moment to spell it all out.
Besides, lists are fun.
1) Foam is more durable.
Sooner or later, an inflatable pad will inevitably get a hole a in it. It may take months or even years… you can do thousands of miles of thru-hiking before it happens. But it will happen. Then you can either patch the hole and move on, praying that the patch holds in cold weather, or you can replace it.
You will not pop a hole in foam. Therefore you don’t have to be careful with it. You can cowboy camp with confidence, under the stars. You can use it as a convenient little seat throughout the day. You can do all this with confidence in pointy, poky environments – like the Grand Canyon and the Arizona Trail.
2) Foam is fast.
There’s a lot of chores when you’re thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. Every day you’re packing and unpacking. Packing and unpacking. Stuffing that sleeping bag. Cooking. Cleaning. Treating your water. And so on.
Inflatable pads add an extra step to those chores. You’ve gotta let the air out, squish it, wrap it up tight, and wrestle it into a staff sack. Every. Single. Day.
Foam is faster and easier. I can personally attest that when you’re on a long distance hike, it makes a world of difference to cut down on your daily chores as much as possible.
3) Foam is silent.
Inflatable pads are noisy. They make squeaky plastic noises every time you roll over, and just won’t shut up. It takes some getting used to, and all your neighbors can hear when you’re having a hard time getting comfortable.
4) Foam is affordable.
The most popular inflatable pad is $200.
The most popular foam pad is $55.
You can even go the classic, old school route and get a budget blue pad for $15.
All the pads listed on the chart at the end of the page are under $100, and most of them are even under $50.
Some of the inflatable pads are comparable in weight, but in general you’ll find that foam pads are lighter – especially when weighed in cost effectiveness. This is especially true when you account for how many lightweight backpackers will take a knife to a foam pad and shorten it.
I think even the “short” versions of most pads can stand to be cut down a bit… and I’m 6’0.
5) Foam is versatile.
One of creeds in ultralight backpacking is that it’s best to have multiple uses for your gear.
Inflatable pads serve just one purpose. You can try using it for other things, but in the back of your mind, you’ll always be worried about popping it.
Foam pads do indeed have multiple uses. I mentioned having a nice clean seat throughout the day. It can serve as a windscreen for cooking, or as a splint in an emergency. There’s a lot of possibilities. Some of the super-mega ultralight hikers will even use their pad as frame for their backpack.
3 Disadvantages of Foam Sleeping Pads vs Inflatable
Just to be clear, foam isn’t 100% sunshine and rainbows. There’s some significant downsides versus inflatable pads that need to be considered.
1) Foam is less comfortable.
Inflatable pads are more comfortable than foam. They dampen all the rocks and roots better than any foam pad could ever hope to achieve. They’re customizable too, because you can blow up an inflatable pad all the way for a nice firm mattress, or you can let a little air out to soften it up.
Younger people under 40 won’t mind foam so much. They tend to sleep better, and utter exhaustion at the end of a typical backpacking day dampens the bumps in the terrain.
Older people tend to have a harder time sleeping (you know: past demons, regrets, fear of death’s approach… and so on), so they need more things to insulate against external factors to blame for their discomfort at night. Haha that got dark, but yeah, older folks are just more likely to be comfortable on a foam pad.
At home I’ve always preferred an extra-firm mattress on my bed, so it’s only natural for me to like harder foam. I’m mostly a side-sleeper too, for what it’s worth… but I don’t see how your sleeping position should affect your choice in a sleeping mat.
Sleeping bags and quilts… sure, I get it, it’s a worthy concern when considering these – but not sleeping pads. As a side sleeper I guess I have more weight condensed into smaller pressure points… but… really? Sometimes we love the act of researching our gear just a little too much.
2) Foam is colder.
This is the biggest disadvantage in using foam – inflatable pads will usually provide more insulation between you and the cold ground.
This is really something to consider for cold weather – when you’re sleeping on the ground, you lose significantly more body heat from conduction to the ground than you do to the air. So the R-value of your sleeping pad (more about R-values down the page) is ultimately more important than even the temperature rating of your sleeping bag.
In truly cold weather, some backpackers will carry a foam pad and an inflatable one, and layer them up. It’s effective in these scenarios to use an emergency blanket as a bottom base layer, or check out the Gossamer Thinlight pad at the end of the page.
On the bright side, this means that foam pads are better for hot weather.
3) Foam is bulky.
It’s nice that we have the cool accordion-folding style of pads nowadays (in the old days they all used to be roll-up), but there’s no avoiding the fact that foam pads are super bulky. You’ll have to carry it on the exterior of your pack, and this factor alone is deal-breaker for activities where bulk really matters, like bicycle touring (wind resistance), kayaking, and so on.
With that said, foam still works just fine for most backpackers. The most experienced of us are going to cut it down to at least a 3/4 length, which significantly reduces the weight and bulk. And we can still manage to achieve somewhat of a tidy exterior appearance, you know, without pots and pans and coffee mugs dangling from our packs.
What is “Closed Cell” and “R-Value?”
Closed cell foam is a term used versus its other variation, open cell. This is a distinction that applies more so when you’re choosing something like insulation for your home. Closed cell simply means that the bubbles that make up the foam are closed off from air and moisture. Closed cell also tends to be more dense and rigid.
The most important thing about closed cell is that it doesn’t absorb water. So if you’re using a waterproof backpack (aka a Hyperlite), then your pad can be stowed on the exterior of the pack with confidence.
I’ve never seen a foam pad designed for backpacking that was not closed cell… so why are we here? Pure curiosity, I suppose.
The R-Value of a sleeping pad is used to rate how well it resists the flow of conductive heat. So warmer sleeping pads will have a higher number for their R-value, and that’s all you really need to know. If you’re good with math and want to investigate the specifics involved in it (and similar metrics), check out this Wikipedia article.
The 10 Best Closed Cell Foam Pads for Thru-Hiking
The winner for what’s best is a toss-up between 2 choices!
They’re very similar, but let’s compare them!
Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol vs Nemo Switchback
Alright, so both of these pads have a folding design, and both have the same sort of bubble texture.
Both have a regular version available (both 72 inches long), as well as a short version (both 51 inches).
Both are 20 inches wide.
Both have the same R-value, listed at 2.0.
Both list at a retail price of $55 for the regular lengths. But hold up a second… the “small” Therm-a-Rest lists for $40, and the “short” Nemo lists for $45! Ladies and gentlemen, we have a difference!
Here’s another difference – the Therm-a-Rest is 0.75 inches thick, but the Nemo has a cushy thickness of 0.9 inches! Sounds cozy and warm!
But wait… the Therm-a-Rest weighs 14 ounces, and the Nemo weighs 14.5 ounces. Phooey.
The parameters of your choice are crystal clear:
I almost forgot – the Therm-a-Rest comes in yellow or blue, and Nemo only comes in orange.
We should also mention that the Nemo packs down a little smaller than the Therm-a-Rest when they’re folded up.
My Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol Review
For many years I used a classic Ridgerest, roll-up style pad (pictured above, torn to shreds). When I overhauled my gear in 2019, I picked up a Z-Lite Sol. I wanted to try a shiny new thing, especially a shiny new thing that folds. The Ridgerest felt outdated.
After 4 years of using the Z-Lite Sol (and over a decade on a Ridgerest) I’ve reached an important conclusion, and it’s this: at the end of the day, all foam pads are very similar. There’s only slight differences, and a significant contrast is only noticed when you swap a fancy brand name pad for a basic blue foam style.
With that said, I think the Z-Lite wears down faster and loses its cushioning (and R-value warmth) faster than the old Ridgerest. The folding bubble pattern found in this style of pad seems technologically advanced at first, and maybe it’s more effective when the pad is brand new, but I think the bubble design breaks down faster.
I have not tried the Nemo Switchback (it’s near the top of my list for shiny new things), but since it’s virtually the same as the Therm-a-Rest, I imagine it will wear down in the same manner, too. Maybe its extra thickness helps to cushion against this effect, and therein lies my curiosity.
If I were starting fresh and had to choose between the two, I’d opt for the Nemo Switchback. The extra half-ounce isn’t much (even for an ultralight backpacker) when it buys that extra (if minuscule) degree of thickness.
8 More Sleeping Mats for Backpacking
Here’s a list of some more worthy contenders.
All the stats for these pads are listed in the charts below.
The Ridgerest Classic is the pad I used for a very long time, referenced above. I think it’s more durable than the Z-Lite Sol, but unfortunately it doesn’t fold up, all hip like an accordion. You have to roll it up.
The availability of this pad seems to be lagging while the fold-up style advances in popularity. RidgeRest is a copyright owned by the Therm-a-Rest company, so I’d bet that they’re focusing on other products. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RidgeRest is permanently discontinued in the coming years. That would be too bad… I hope I’m wrong.
Once upon a time there was a version of the RidgeRest called the SOLite, but I think this one actually was discontinued.
If you’re looking for a cheaper version of the Switchback or the Z-Lite Sol, then the Exped FlexMat is a worthy consideration. At just $35, it appears to be virtually the same product, but with one major drawback – the Exped has an R-Value listed at 1.5, so it’s not very good for cold weather.
Don’t be put off by their listed “medium” size, because upon closer inspection, a “medium” Exped FlexMat has virtually the same dimensions as “regular” versions of other brands.
There’s also a Plus Version of the Exped FlexMat. It sports a lot of extra thickness, at the cost of about 5 extra ounces. The R-Value for it goes up to 2.2, versus the 2.0 found in most foam pads… proof that double thickness doesn’t translate into double warmth. The egg-shaped bubbles are bigger than the usual style, so I’m sure they can feel weird and uncomfortable until you break in the pad or get accustomed to it.
Featherstone is an interesting little company from Southern California that’s only been around since 2017. They make just a handful of products – tents, quilts, and sleeping pads. That’s it. It looks like they’re doing things well (especially in offering a low cost alternative to Enlightened Equipment quilts), so I’m curious to see how they grow in the coming years.
Featherstone gear is manufactured in China, but that’s not a huge deal – especially when you consider the practice of a big company like Big Agnes. They brandish STEAMBOAT SPRINGS COLORADO all over their logo, but Big Agnes has plenty of fine print that reads “Product of Korea – Sewn in China.”
Anyway, their foam sleeping pad is very similar in design to the Z-Lite Sol, but there’s a couple of notable differences. The Featherstone is 4 ounces heavier than the Therm-a-Rest, but it’s 2 inches longer and 2 inches wider. The width is kind of a big deal, making it the widest pad on this list.
It’s relatively thick at 0.9 inches, and lists an R-Value of 2.1, as opposed to the more common foam pad rating of 2.0… is this even noticeable?
This sleeping mat is basically Amazon’s knock-off version of a folding pad… or in other words, China’s copycat product.
I just did a little digging, and Redcamp is a trademark of a company called Freeland Exceed, registered as a corporation in California. If you look a bit further, this website called Import Genius (for example) shows that Freeland Exceed receives its products from China.
I’m actually somewhat of a fan of this style of backpacking gear. Though I enjoy the high-end stuff, backpacking is 99% all about the hiker and their mindset. So you might as well save a few dollars and get cheaper stuff – especially when you’re first starting out.
The most interesting thing about Redcamp is that they sell a backpacking sleeping pad made for two people, and it’s the fold-able egg-cushion design. You don’t see that very often.
This pad from Ozark Trail (Walmart’s brand name for outdoor gear) looks like a great value. If you’re on a really tight budget, it’s one of the best options on this list. I’d personally go for the Ridgerest instead, but if you prefer a folding style, this may be your best overall budget choice. It’s listed online at $27.
By most measures, we have essentially the same product as many of the folding pads listed here, but for a few dollars less. This one is just longer and wider than most others (but just by a hair). It weighs 17.6 ounces (significantly more than the Z-Lite and Switchback), and the R-value is the usual 2.0.
The classic blue pad is always an option. You’ll see variations of these in your travels, often in camping stores near the National Parks. They can be found in many colors and under several brand names that we’ve never heard of, but I cannot take this sort of a pad seriously unless it’s blue. 🙂
This generic pad is the soul of Boy Scouts, makes me want to dig a trench around my tent, and so on, but there’s a certain beauty to it, no? I think they should offer iodine tablets with these as a free bonus, haha.
Here’s one from Walmart. If you’re getting one of these, it kind of has to be from Walmart.
Finally, this skinny little pad is worthy of a mention. It’s not designed to be a standalone pad – it’s rather meant to be used in addition to another something else. Think of it like a sleeping bag liner – a lightweight, 3 ounce piece of gear that adds a whole lot of versatility to your options. Or think of it as a glorified (but lightweight) yoga mat, without the floral patterns, essential oils, or incense. Salt lamp not included.
You can carry it to add a bit of extra warmth in the winter, or maybe as a protective layer to place underneath an inflatable pad. Better yet, it helps keep those slippery inflatable pads in their place, and prevents them from being so daggum noisy!
The Thinlight comes in a rolled or fold-able version.
I threw this in at the end of the article just to mess with you. If you’re like me, this little 3-ounce option is going to make you reevaluate your entire sleeping pad system! It creates a new world of options!
Back to the drawing board, mwa-ha-ha-ha.
Comparison Chart for “Regular” Length Foam Pads
|72 x 20 in
|Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol
|72 x 20 in
|72 x 20 in
|72 x 20.5
|Exped FlexMat Plus
|72 x 20.5
|Featherstone El Cordion
|74 x 22 in
|72 x 22 in
|Ozark Trail Folding
|72.8 x 20.6
|Old Budget Blue
|72 x 20 in
Comparison Chart for “Short” Versions
|51 x 20 in
|Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite Sol
|51 x 20 in
|Exped FlexMat Plus
|51 x 20.5