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Ultralight Foam Sleeping Pads: Benefits and Advantages

Sleeping-under-a-tarp-with-an-ultralight-foam-sleeping-pad

Closed cell foam sleeping pads are quite popular with ultralight backpackers who want to shave every ounce from their gear list and need gear that can’t fail. If you want to carry multi-purpose gear to save weight, you’re hard on gear, or want to save money, closed cell sleeping pads provide many advantages over inflatable and self-inflating pads.

Advantages of Foam Sleeping Pads

  • Fail-proof, puncture proof
  • Durable
  • Ultralight
  • Don’t absorb water
  • Good R-value
  • Inexpensive
  • Firm
  • Quiet to sleep on
  • Simplicity
  • Don’t have to be inflated or deflated
  • Easily combined with other sleeping pads for more warmth (inflatable, self-inflating, underquilt)
  • Easy to trim

Granted, foam pads aren’t for everyone. But they are simple and reliable to use. You don’t have to blow them up before use or struggle to deflate and pack them each morning. There’s nothing to break, they’re inexpensive, easy to modify and trim, and quite lightweight. You can stack them for cold weather use. You can even shape extra pieces of foam to support parts of your body, like a donut shape to support your hips, or a raised platform for your head, that you can stack on top of a foam pad for extra comfort.

Egg carton foam pad used to create a backpack frame in a frameless backpack
Egg carton-shaped foam pad used to create a backpack frame in a frameless backpack (Granite Gear Virga 2)

Multi-Purpose Ultralight Backpacking Gear

One of the cornerstones of ultralight backpacking philosophy is the use of multi-purpose gear. If you can use one piece of gear multiple ways, you can reduce the number of items you carry, the size of your backpack, and the overall weight of your gear. If you take this route, it’s obviously prudent to use gear that can’t fail…like a foam sleeping pad. It can never leak or burst.

You can use a foam pad as a :

  • Sleeping pad
  • Second sleeping pad to augment inflatable/self-inflating/hammock underquilt in winter
  • Sit pad
  • Tent or hammock door mat
  • Backpack frame (rolled or flat)
  • Stove wind screen
  • Pot cozy
  • Foam padding in a (broken leg or arm) splint
Foam pads are easy to lash to the outside of backpacks
Foam pads are easy to lash to the outside of backpacks (Granite gear Crown2)

Best Foam Sleeping Pads

The three most popular foam sleeping pads with ultralight backpackers are the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite, the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest, and Gossamer Gear’s Thinlight foam pads. The high quality ubiquitous blue foam pads of yesteryear are now quite difficult to find and buy, so these are your best options.

1. Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol Foam Sleeping Pad

Thermarest Zlite sleeping pad
The accordion shaped Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (w/ aluminized reflective surface) sleeping pad is a backpacking classic that’s easy to attach to any backpack. Weighing 14 ounces (72″ x 20″), this close cell foam pad has an R-value of 2.6 and costs $35 – $45, depending on the length. While easy to trim with a pair of scissors, you can also buy a short (51″ x 20″) Z Lite Sol which weighs 10 ounces.

Read the SectionHiker.com Z Lite Sol Review.

2. Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Classic

Ridgerest Classic
The RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad is made with crosslinked polyethylene foam. With an R-Value of 2.6, it ‘s available 48″, 72, and 77″ lengths, weighing 9, 14 and 19 ounces ($19-$29). Like the Thermarest Z Lite, it can be trimmed using a pair of scissors. An aluminized version, the RidgeRest SOLite, is also available with an R-value of 2.8, as well as the thicker aluminized RidgeRest Solar, which has an R-Value of 3.5. 

3. Gossamer Gear Thinlight 1/8″ Foam Sleeping Pad

Gossamer Gear Thinlight Hammock Foam
Gossamer Gear’s Thinlight 1/8″ Foam Pad is a multi-purpose item that can be rolled and placed inside a frameless UL backpack to provide structure, attached to the outside, or used as back panel padding with backpacks that have an external pad pocket or elastic attachment system. Made with closed cell Evazote foam, it can also be trimmed to make a custom ground pad, a hammock sleeping pad, or paired with an inflatable pad for protection and greater thermal insulation. Weighing just 2.4-2.8 ounces per roll, it’s a hardcore UL option for DIY enthusiasts. Cost: $18. 

4. NEMO Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad

Nemo Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad
The NEMO Switchback is a relative newcomer to the foam pad scene and was first introduced in 2019. It’s an accordion-style pad lik ethe Therm-a-rest ZLite and also has one aluminum reflective coated side. Weighing 15 ounces (72? x 20?), this closed cell foam pad costs $50 and is rated for 20-35 degrees (NEMO doesn’t use R-Values yet). When folded it packs up slightly smaller than a Therm-a-rest Zlite pad.

Read the SectionHiker Review

 

Tom and his trusty Z Lite
Tom and his trusty Z Lite

Wrap Up

However you slice it, closed cell foam sleeping pads are a tremendous ultralight backpacking sleeping pad option. Lightweight, affordable, and easy to customize, they provide tremendous value for the money, which explains their continued popularity within the ultralight backpacking and long distance hiking community.

Updated 2019.

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33 comments

  1. Should the aluminized surface be to the ground or facing up?

  2. My first backpacking pad was the blue foam pad. I never could sleep worth a flip on that thing. The first time my brother and I backpacked to South Rim in Big Bend National Park in 1972, we saw a blue foam pad at the bottom of a 500′ cliff. Maybe that guy couldn’t sleep on it either!

    With all of my back problems (10 procedures on my spine in less than 3 years), I need a cushier pad, however, I use small sections of foam pads for sit pads, backpack structure on some of my lighter packs, etc. An accordion pad is also what I use in place of a creeper when I have to crawl under one of my vehicles.

    My granddaughter likes the accordion pad and sleeps on it when we camp.

    • I also need a cushier pad because I have very very stiff shoulders. I actually just sold my RidgeRest classic* to another hiker b/c it has always been too hard for me to use except as an underpad in the winter. The Z-rest is quite a bit softer and I can use it alone if I need to but I usually bring an inflatable b/c it’s more comfy.

      *And now I have only four sleeping pads instead of five!

  3. My RidgeRest is nearly 25 years old now. Bought it in the early 90’s. Can’t tell you how many Thermarest pads of various types have come and gone in that time. When I use it, I typically bring along a thin short self-inflating mattress as well. The Ridge Rest alone isn’t quite enough.

  4. If your looking for one of the blue pads, for example as something cheap to cut into hip donuts, a quick Google search showed they are still widely available online, for example through the Wal-mart website.

    • I’m pretty sure that the Ozark pads at Walmart are made with a different material than the old time blue ones. You can find lots of “blue pads”, but just because they’re blue, doesn’t make them any good.

  5. I know Gossamer Gear doesn’t publish an official R value for the Thinlight, but what would you estimate it as based on your experience?

    • No idea. It’s really thin though. Maybe 1 if you’re lucky. I wouldn’t use it by itself.

    • I’ve seen estimates online that put it around R-0.5, which is about the right ballpark if its at all like building insulation foam which is typically R-4 to R-5 per inch. It’s 1/8″ thick and for a given material, R-value is proportional to thickness (excluding egg crate patterns to trap air pockets, reflective coatings, etc etc).

      I’ve used one by itself in the summer a few times. If it’s warm enough for me to want to bring my 45-ish degree quilt, then I’ll consider bringing just the 1/8″ pad. Otherwise I definitely lean towards something warmer. Some folks push those tiny pads into pretty cold temps, but I’ve never tried it on anything other than a warm summer night.

    • It’s not going to provide much if any noticeable insulating value, but at the price and less than 3 oz, I have a couple and I always take one with me. Mainly it’s good for rolling up and sitting on. And putting under my NeoAir to protect it from the desert floor. Maybe folding and putting in the back of a frameless pack, but here you’d probably be better off with a piece of a ZLite or similar, because that’d provide a lot more structure and protection from hard stuff in your pack.

      I couldn’t sleep on it alone, either, because at 1/8 inch, it’s not really providing any noticeable cushion.

      Still though, an indispensable piece of gear for me.

      • The R value for the Thinlight 1/8″ is 0.5. I think its best used for a full-length pad under a foam or inflatable torso pad, to protect the 2nd pad and give your lower legs/feet some insulation. I’ve used it under a Klymit Inertia X-Lite (6 oz) for my most minimal summer sleep system.

        I think it’s also good for summer hammock camping, where the thinness makes it more comfortable and less likely to shift in a hammock and night temps of 60F+ means you don’t need much insulation.

      • I can tell you definitively that Gossamer Gear has never had the R-value of their pads tested, so you’ll have to cite your source for that R-value.

  6. For 3 season use I always used/use a Nightlight Torso length sleeping pad. It was/is also the frame in my frameless packs. Not the greatest for comfort, but made up for it in weight.

    • I’ve always found that the nightlight works best in “tube” mode inside a pack rather than in the pack pocket, just because it’s so thick when you fold up the three panels. I often wish I’d never sold my Bozeman Mountain Works torsolight pad (self inflating).

  7. My Z-lite pad also gets some wakeful use when stargazing close to zenith with binoculars. Less neck strain!

    If you like the smaller REI flash daypacks and aren’t hugely attached to using reservoirs, you can get a rectangular closed cell foam gardener’s knee rest, trim to fit, and stash it in the reservoir slot for better protection than one gets with the 1/8″ pad that comes in the pack. It makes a comfy and dry lunchtime seat for when sitting on sub-freezing temperature rocks loses its appeal.

  8. I don’t care how much it weighs, I wouldn’t trade my Big Agnes QCore for anything. So comfortable! And warm. That being said, I appreciate all the advantages cited for Thermarest.

  9. I would never use it by itself but cut to torso length and placed under my inflatable mattress the thinlight adds insulation and most importantly keeps my sleeping pad in place all night, even on a slope.

  10. The ALPS Mountaineering Foam 375 Camping Mat is only 9 oz. and it’s a warm, comfortable pad.

  11. Friar Rodney Burnap

    You should mention external frame backpacks they can be doable for a lot of people… one of the problems with external frame backpacks is that a lot of people don’t know how to pack an external frame backpack. You don’t pack an external frame like an internal frame pack. Your have your items go higher up inside the pack… the external frame gives you a lot of support which is a great thing for lot of people…

    • I keep eyeing all these beautiful, sub-kilo ultra-lightweight internal frame packs. But oh! I love my old Peak 1 pack sooooo much. I hate the sweaty back feeling, and there’s simply nothing like that little gap of air to minimize the sweaty back. Sure, the thing weighs a couple of kilos, it doesn’t have accessories like the newer backs, and because Coleman no longer makes them I can’t find replacement straps. But we’ve been through a lot together, and having to cobble things together & make modifications on my own suits me.

  12. Friar Rodney Burnap

    You’re heavier items go higher up inside the pack is what I meant to say…

  13. Would you be willing to comment on the integration/pluses and minuses of foam pads in the context of new sleeping bags, hopeless bags and quilts as the newer sleeping systems seem to integrate more and more with the pads? Thanks!

    • Hoodles*, not hopeless, tho my spelling is.

    • I haven’t really used the two together much, but it seems to me that quilts do better when used with inflatable pads where the insulation can drape over a higher side. It probably matters less in warm weather than cold though. Shouldn’t really matter that much with hoodless bags or sleeping bags with sleeves as long as you don’t mind sleeping on foam.

      • This sounds kind of like what I was thinking. I’m itching to buy a new bag and leaning towards a quilt. The down mummy I have is rarely zipped until it’s 35 or cooler out. I’m a side and stomach sleeper yet prefer the foam pads for their simplicity and ruggedness. However age is creeping on me and the thicker self-inflating pads and the likes are looking more and more appealing….perhaps it’s time to get both a new bag and pad! Thanks Philip for the input and great website full of informative reviews.

  14. I can no longer bear sleeping on the ground (I get very little sleep). I switched to a hammock last year.* My old blue closed-cell foam pad has been chopped up to provide extra padding for the shoulder straps of my very old external-frame pack. I kept my old green Z-rest, but I carry a couple of the Z-rest sit pads. They’re an ounce each. They’re just wide enough to cover my shoulder blades & hip bones if I have to sleep on the ground. (I’m going to sleep poorly regardless, so why not just go with the lighter weight?) They’re narrow enough to fit well in the hammock. I haven’t had to sleep on the ground yet, so this is an untested theory.

    I think you can still find the old blue closed-cell foam pads in little independent general stores in rural areas. It’s been a year or so since I’ve seen them, but they’re still out there. Otherwise, yes, the foam pads I see in big box stores aren’t the same closed-cell foam. They’re not an open-cell foam, but they’re heavier & bulkier.

    *I rejected the idea of a hammock forever. After researching it, learning there’s a “right” way to sleep in them, and discovering how to set up a hammock set-up as a bivy, I decided to switch. It makes stealth camping easier, there’s less pressure in the ground than a tent — you generally cannot tell if I’ve camped in a spot — and it’s much breezier (in a good way) than a tent or a bivy. I’m still trying to get the ‘hang’ of it, but even my worst night in a hammock I slept better than I would have on the ground.

  15. I don’t know why someone can’t make a slightly thicker pad, say 1″-1.5″. Why do they all have to be so thin?
    I think Nemo’s Switchback is .9 inches. That’s the thickest one on the market today. I’m tempted to try it.
    I returned my Z lite after the first trip. It was like sleeping on a piece of paper.

    • Oware’s 1/2″ thick pad is quite comfy, and if you get the 40″ wide, you can double it up for 1″ thickness.

      Beware the thickness of egg-carton-style pads like Nemo’s Switchback or Therm-a-Rest Z-Lite. The dimples compress and then you’re on a pretty thin pad.

  16. 2 other high-quality ccf producers I would suggest are:

    Oware – their 1/2″ Plastazote pads are great bang for your buck. Quite comfy. R value is 2 but arguably winter worthy. You can even splurge for the 40″ wide and double it up for a 1″ thick pad.

    Multimat – a UK company that produces a wide variety of CCF pads, but only a subset are distributed in the US. For example, the Trekker XL is a good 0.4″ thick, 9 oz, full length pad R 1.4, available for a whole $12.

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