Why Do Backpackers Use Foam Sleeping Pads?

Why do backpackers use foam sleeping pads?

Many backpackers carry closed-cell foam sleeping pads because they’re lightweight and don’t fail like air mattresses. 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

  • Inexpensive
  • Fail-proof, puncture-proof
  • Durable
  • Ultralight
  • Don’t absorb water
  • Good R-value for warm-weather backpacking
  • 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 like a pillow for your head.

Some backpacks has pad sleeve that let you use a foam pad as back padding.
Some backpacks have a pad sleeve that let you use a foam pad as back padding.

Multi-Purpose 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.

For example, you can use a foam pad as a :

  • Sleeping pad in a tent
  • Back insulation in a hammock
  • Sit pad
  • Tent or hammock doormat
  • Backpack frame (rolled or flat)
  • Stove windscreen
  • Pot cozy
  • Foam padding for 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 most popular foam sleeping pads with backpackers are the:

High-quality blue foam pads of yesteryear are increasingly difficult to find and buy, so these are your best options.

1. 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 like the Therm-a-rest ZLite Sol and also has one aluminum reflective coated side. Weighing 14.5 ounces (72″ x 20″), this closed-cell foam pad costs $40-50, it is 0.9 inches thick, and has an R-value = 2. When folded, it packs up slightly shorter than a Therm-a-rest Zlite Sol pad because its “bumps” are designed to fit together more tightly. Read our review.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

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

Thermarest Zlite Sol 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″), it is 0.75 inches thick and also has an R-value of 2.0. It costs $35 – $45, depending on the length. Read our review.

Check for the latest price at:
REI | Amazon

3. Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest Classic

Ridgerest Classic
The RidgeRest Classic Sleeping Pad is made with crosslinked polyethylene foam. With an R-Value of 2.0, it’s available 72, and 77″ lengths, weighing 14, and 19 ounces, and costs $20-$30, Like the Thermarest Z Lite, it can be trimmed using a pair of scissors. Unfortunately, it can only be rolled, not folded. Nevertheless, it’s still quite popular because it more comfortable than lying on an egg-carton surface.

Check for the latest price at:
Campmor | Amazon

4. Gossamer Gear Nightlight Foam Sleeping Pad

Gossamer Gear Nightlight Sleeping Pad
The Gossamer Gear Nightlight is a torso length foam sleeping pad that is pre-scored into thirds, so it can be used to pad the back of a backpack that has a pad sleeve or lash it to the outside of your backpack. Sleeping on a torso-length pad is a lot less comfortable than sleeping on a full-length pad and is best done in warmer weather when you can stuff other gear under your legs to keep them warm at night since they need a lot less insulation than your torso. The Nightlight is 29″ x 19″ and 0.75 inches thick. It weighs between 5-6 ounces, depending on the batch, and costs $24. It does not have a tested R-value but it is estimated to be about 2.0

Check for the latest price at:
Gossamer Gear

5. 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 many backpackers use under an inflatable sleeping pad to prevent slippage in tents with silnylon floors. Even a small piece works great. It can also 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. It does not have a tested R-value.

Check for the latest price at:
Gossamer Gear

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.

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30 comments

  1. I switched over to to a ZLite from my inflatable a little over halfway into my AT thru-hike a few years ago for all the advantages you laid out. The two people I was hiking with both had them and was jealous at how quickly they were set up in the evening and ready to go in the morning. It was really quite nice to be on the move so quickly. The time it takes to inflate/deflate a pad is not much but after so many days in a row, it annoying and the foam pad really alleviated that frustration. The quietness was also great when sleeping in shelters. Not only could I get out quickly, didn’t have to rustle around as much getting packed up when leaving early in the morning and there were others still sleeping.

    The only con was the bulk/size. I prefer to have everything inside my pack instead of lashed to the outside and that was impossible with the foam pad. There were a lot of blow downs on the trail as there were a few severe thunderstorms passing in front of us and it would get snagged on branches or thorns trying to go through or around them. I don’t know if I would have minded as much if I could have lashed it vertically like in that picture with the granite gear up above, but my pack (Exos 58) didn’t allow that so it was either lash it to the bottom which came loose or throughout the day and was a pain to get in and out or up top under the lid where it restricted my view if I tried to look behind me.

    For shorter or cold weather trips, I think I will stick with my inflatable, but for the longer trips, the foam pad will continue to be my go to.

    • If I use my 3/4 length foam pad I often put it in my GG Virga2 which still leaves plenty of room for gear in the pack. In. GG Crown2 60l I put it inside but flat against the front pocket side. Lots of room for gear and food.

  2. You listed the advantages, but what about the disadvantages? Such as many people can’t get a good night’s sleep on one, because they are so uncomfortable. Such as people wake up with sore and numb hips, arms, etc.

    A little more balance, please.

    • This is just an explanation. Not a prescription. Ease off.

    • I agree, for the novice hikers out there it should have been mentioned that people don’t use them because a fraction of the depth of the cushion provides a fraction of the comfort. Personally I will use a closed cell pad on non rocky ground, that is my limit. But this limit comes with effort and sacrifice. I am writing ?? (poking at my iPhone), from the floor at 4:35am. Just a very thin topping mattress on a hard floor. Without this Spartan training, I am 54, I could never cope with a non inflating pad.

    • I sleep GREAT on them!!

    • The comfort level of an inflatable pad with an unreparable valve problem on day 4 of a 12 day backpacking trip is always inferior to the comfort level of a foam pad… true story!

  3. michael orenstein

    Also used as makeshift rain skirt — or so I read on Reddit. Never tried it.

  4. Let’s just name the elephant in the room though. How many people find them comfortable enough?

  5. MLD Goodnight Eva in 1/8″ and 1/4″ and they sell it in more sizes than the Gossamer Gear pad. It’s the same exact material and it’s often in stock more than GG’s.

  6. I normally sleep in a hammock as I find it very difficult to get a good night’s sleep on the ground. But my GG 1/8″ pad goes with me on every trip. It’s incredibly versatile. When I go somewhere I know I’ll have to sleep on the ground, it goes under my inflatable pad to protect it from stabby things in the ground and to keep my sleeping pad from sliding all over the place.

    Up through my late 40s I was fine sleeping on the ground with a Zrest pad. Those things are pretty awesome. My cranky old bones won’t tolerate that any longer.

  7. In July , my wife and I visited Needles District, Canyonlands . Upon setting up our tent I discovered that her NeoAir XLite was left at home . Doh ! Wisely, i had packed my Nemo Switchback pad . So she got to use my NeoAir whilst I slept on the switchback . After the first night , there were mild feelings of discomfort in my lower back for a couple of hours however the next four nights were easy as and I had no problems at all with the adjustment . So some of us do find the foam sleeping pads to be fine and comfortable to use.

  8. I am opening up to sleeping on the ground after many years of hammock camping and have a question about pads. I brought a MLD EVA pad out recently and had it in a roll on the outside of my pack through an entire day of rain. When I got to camp both sides of it were wet. There would be no way that I could sleep on it.
    I see these strapped onto peoples packs all the time, what do they do when they get to camp?

  9. I removed the frame from my hmg pack and use the nemo switchback in its place. I’ve also started using the switchback folded in half for a little more cushion with my empty pack under my legs.

  10. I’m a restless side-back-side-back-side sleeper who’s on his third inflatable pad in 6 years. Also a quilt user. Current Nemo Tensor still ok, but I’ve been wondering if the Switchback provides enough hip padding. My back is killing me by dawn on the inflatable by dawn anyway. How do quilt users like the Switchback?

  11. +1 on the MLD version of the thinlight pad. It’s my go to for supplemental warmth in my hammock, makes an adaptable sit pad, and packs up easily and quickly.

  12. I value CCF pads because they can’t deflate. It helps that I like a firm bed, but they definitely can be rough on the hips if you’re a side-sleeper. If you are a side sleeper, it helps to not be perfectly perpendicular to the ground. A little over (an acute angle with ground) helps with the pressure points. Elevating your head with a good pillow (or whatever) also helps side sleeping. Most of all – be dog-tired from hiking!

    Stomach sleeping is great on CCF, because they’re quiet. I’m not a back sleeper but I suspect they’re good for that too. But yes, side sleeping on CCF can be tricky.

  13. I’ve slept on the Z-Rest, the original self inflating Thermarest Trail Lite, the Thermarest Pro-lite which is a self inflater that puffs up a little more and the top of the line super expensive NeoAir X-Therm that I bought for my wife. The last one is an inflatable with extra r-value for warmth.
    The comfort level follows the price point up to the $225 X-Therm which is by far the most comfortable and packs down super small and light. Just sayin. Haven’t popped it yet, but I only get to use it when I go solo.
    As a side note I highly recommend buying super expensive gear for your spouse! ??

  14. Very interesting that GG sells a 1/8″ pas. I have 1/8″ loser cell floor underlayment that is pretty tough. I curt a piece the shape of my winter mattress and use it for the extra insulation. I may be overly optimistic but thank it could add another 10 F. to the REI FLASH Insulated All Season air mattress wicks a lot like a Sea to Summit winter air mattress.

    If I knew I was going to be in my solo tent in -40 F. weather I would put my RidgeRest under my REI FLASH air mattress and use my LL Bean -20 sleeping bag WHILE wearing my light down jacket and down pants over my polar weightily one johns. That might do the trick but it wold be pushing matters as far as the bag and insulated long johns.

  15. I used the Nemo Switchback on a kayaking trip and really liked it. Had to set up tent on rock. I am only 5 foot 2 and it fit nicely into the cargo hold. My friend (also female) used it and hated it because of her heavier hips. She is sticking with her inflatable. I love the nodules and crevices – they are very comfortable for me. My husband liked it to – he is 6 feet 225 pounds but is not a picky sleeper.

  16. I have an old “old-school” full length 3/8″ blue foam pad that clocks in at just 10.5 oz. THat weight INCLUDS a home made ripsop stuff sack. It does not roll down nearly as small as a ultra-light neo nor as comfortable, but it has never failed me in 45 years.

  17. I really enjoyed this article. I’m almost 60 and don’t sleep as well nor carry as much as I once did. In the summer I use a z-light sol cut down to 6 sections. In the late fall I use an xlite inflatable (R=4.2) and when it’s cold (by mid Atlantic standards) I use both. I do sleep better in the cooler months when the air is brisk and the padding is thicker!

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