Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Gear Review: Therma-a-Rest Z-Lite Sleeping Pad

Therm-a-Rest Z Lite
This foam mattress is one of the most popular sleeping pads for ultra-lite backpackers, and for good reason, it only weighs a scant 14 ounces. I bought this last year while planning my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, which I had to cancel do to a back injury (see I Wake Up ). I wanted something to sleep on that I didn't have to blow up every night, and wouldn't ever go flat. Other than the weight, that's the best thing about this pad. You reach your campsite for the night, unstrap it from your pack, toss it in the tent, and you are done. You don't even need a tent either. Set the pad on the ground, it won't damage it in any way. Need a chair to sit by the fire? Fold it up, it works great. It's durable with multiple uses, and compared to the inflatable pads, it's very inexpensive, just 39.95 on Amazon.

The problem is that the ultra-lite weight comes with a catch. The first, and most obvious, is that it's bulky. Unless you have a really big pack, you'll have to strap this to the outside, which in itself presents a new problem, how to protect it from the rain. Therm-a-Rest does not sell a stuff sack sized for the Z-Lite, so you'll have to either find one that fits, or make one yourself if you want to go that route. The other option is to buy an over-sized pack cover, or a poncho that will cover both you and the pack. Even if it get's wet, in my experience it did not soak or retain any moisture, so wiping it down with a camp towel or a piece of clothing could work too.

My biggest issue with this pad is comfort. Through my youth and even as recently as last summer, I slept on the bare ground while out in the wilderness. Hard ground never bothered me. As I've gotten older however my sleeping style has shifted to more of a side posture, which is just fine in a bed. On the ground or the Z-Lite however, I've found myself waking up in the middle of the night in pain or with a dead arm, which sucks. On my back or stomach I sleep fine. Ground selection is something to really consider when using this pad. Unlike the Big Agnes Air Core, you don't want to lay the Z-Lite on hard or rocky ground, because you'll feel it in the middle of the night.

I can't really comment on the insulating qualities. I've mostly used this pad in Arizona in Spring and Summer where the nights rarely get below 50. I used it for a 5 day 50 mile trek around the Seven Devils in Idaho last August, and with my North Face Orion 20, I never slept cold into the 40's.


If you don't mind trading comfort for light-weight simplicity then I would recommend the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite. It's easy, durable, and you don't have to worry about it going flat in the middle of the night. I've read plenty of cases where this pad lasted an entire 2,000 mile-plus thru-hike. But if you're a side sleeper, or need the comfort of a soft bed, then you may want to reconsider.
Sleeping Pad
Hells Canyon Wilderness with my cousin Jesse. Z-Lite strapped to my backpack.

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