Our Thermarest Z Lite Sol & Nemo Switchback Comparison compares a well established closed cell foam sleeping mat with the more recently introduced Nemo Switchback. We also explore the uses and benefits of this type of mat. We hope you find it useful.
Mats For Every Occasion
Go into your local camping shop to check out sleeping mats and you will be spoilt for choice. Along with the various lengths, thicknesses, colours, materials, makes and patterns, you also have to choose between inflatable or closed cell foam options.
For many users a lightweight inflatable mat may suit them best for most of their activities as they offer comfort, compact packed size and minimal weight. However, there are times where the simplicity, durability, value and light weight of a closed cell foam mat shines through.
We discussed mat usage with Lorna Preston (Trekitt Marketing Manager) and her insight surprised us. She said closed cell foam sleep pads are by far their most searched for type of camping mat. It seems many people still value this type of mat and the focus of this comparison is to consider two of the market leaders. Please read on to find out more.
When To Use A Closed Cell Foam Mat
Closed cell foam mats have been around long before inflatable mats and in some situations they have very notable advantages. They can’t be punctured and require no set up. You just pull it off your rucksack, spread it flat and you are ready to go. Even if they do sustain some damage on your adventures, they will still be usable. As soon as an inflatable mat is punctured it offers virtually no insulation or comfort as you are simply lay on a couple of pieces of material. Closed cell foam mats are also much cheaper than a good quality inflatable.
We love them for Alpine climbing where you really want that speed, simplicity and reliability. They are also popular with long distance walkers who wouldn’t easily cope with a punctured mat. They can also be a great option for providing an extra layer under an inflatable. This works well if, for example, you are camping in extreme cold (we love them for sleeping in snow shelters). They also offer protection under an inflatable if you are worried about puncturing your blow up mat. This might suit if sleeping on stony ground. Essentially, a foam mat will be optimum if you have budget limitations or any time you are concerned about the durability or reliability of an inflatable.
Carrying A Closed Cell Foam Mat
This type of mat will never fold up anywhere near as small as a super light inflatable. Some inflatables fold up to the size of a can of coke making them extremely easy to pack inside your rucksack. A foam mat will never get close to that. If you carry a closed cell mat you have to accept that it will be a more bulky.
This isn’t usually a problem as you can easily fasten one onto the outside of your pack. Most rucksacks will have some method to attach items onto the side or front and, even if they don’t, you can easily add a couple of bits of bungy cord. You do need to be aware that they may get caught or snagged on things, but they are generally easily durable enough to survive general wear and tear.
Stashing them on the outside does expose them to the weather. In colder or snowy conditions this generally isn’t a big deal as any accumulated snow can be brushed off. If you are using one in very wet conditions you may want to pack it inside a dry bag. Alternatively, we find just giving it a wipe down with an absorbent cloth before unravelling your sleeping bag on top is usually sufficient.
Thermarest Z Lite Sol
There are lots of simple and very inexpensive models available and they will all serve you well. However, there are also some that stand above the rest. For ages our go to model has been the Thermarest Z Lite Sol. This has long been the Rolls Royce of closed cell foam mats. I should note that there is also an original version of the Z Lite. The Sol variant boosts the thermal capabilities of the original with Thermarest’s ThermaCapture reflective coating. Thermarest say this increases overall warmth by nearly 15%. The Sol version is the focus of this comparison and the only Z Lite variant we have used.
The Z Lite series, as the name suggests, closes via the clever z fold system. This might sound complicated and yet simply it means it folds up like a concertina. It couldn’t be simpler. This makes them much more compact than a roll up option as, when packed up, there are no gaps between the layers. It also makes them exceptionally quick to pack or deploy. We’ve used the Z Lite Sol extensively over many years and, although a little tattered and torn in places, the originals we purchased are still going strong.
The Regular length model weighs 410 grams and has a R value of 2 (the R value is a measure of thermal resistance). There is a useful explanation of R Value on the Thermarest website here. It’s open thickness is 2cm, width 51cm and length 183cm. The packed dimensions are 51 cm x 13 cm x 14 cm. An online search showed the price of the Z Lite Sol averaging around £50.
A more recent addition to Z fold mat options is the Nemo Switchback. Nemo brought this to market in 2019. This is one from Nemo’s broad range of high end mats which also includes various inflatable options. It folds in the same way as the Thermarest Z Lite Sol and has the same additional reflective silver insulation layer.
However, says Nemo, it offers some significant advantages over other models on the market (and the Z Lite Sol has to be the main competition). So what is different?
Firstly, and perhaps the main stand out difference, is that the Switchblade has a unique pattern. Nemo have cleverly designed it so that the bumps that you lie on correspond with a series of hollows that the bumps sit in when folded. Nemo refer to these as hexagonal nodes and, when you closely examine them, they are indeed hexagon shaped. Simply explained, this means that for a similar packed thickness the mat can be thicker when unfolded. This is a really clever idea.
Nemo have also moulded the mat with what they call their dual density Axiotomic foam. This apparently creates ‘Hypnoelastic’ zones that conform to your body. Axiotomic foam is a dual density foam combining a softer lower layer for comfort with a resilient surface layer for durability and support. The benefits of all this are that the sleeper enjoys a thicker and more comfortable sleep and yet a more compact packed size. Infact, Nemo says it is the thickest of these mat types on the market.
The other advantage off the taller hexagonal nodes is that more space is created. This minimises sleeping bag insulation compression and so allows more warmth. Nemo say this allows 15% more air space.
The Regular length model weighs 415 grams and has a R value of 2. It’s open thickness is 2.3cm, width 51cm and length 183cm. The packed dimensions are 51 cm x 13 cm x 14 cm. An online search showed the price of the Z Lite Sol averaging around £50.
Which Should You Choose?
Just to be clear, we really rate both of these mats and either will undoubtedly become a trusted sleeping companion. We should also make it clear that the Nemo Switchback was provided to us for testing. But, even with that in mind, if we had to choose, we would definitely choose the Nemo Switchback.
Why? Simply because we believe all the claims made by Nemo are true. Over the summer we took both mats on our Alps trip and could make a direct comparison between them. The Switchback is definitely more compact when packed. Interestingly, both Thermarest and Nemo state the same packed thickness, but in our experience the Switchback definitely packs thinner. This certainly offers a welcome benefit when you are carrying on the outside of your pack (the photo at the top shows the Thermarest being carried on the Frendo Spur in Chamonix).
We definitely also notice it’s thicker opened size which makes it more comfortable for sleeping. The reality of any sleeping mat of this type is that you will compress the foam to some extent. On the Switchback you seem to compress the raised bumps less. Mats of this type are never going to offer the comfort levels of an inflatable, but any extra comfort is always welcome.
Our Thermarest Z Lite Sol has been going strong for years and has survived many Alpine trips. Durability with this pad isn’t an issue. We can’t make the same claims about the Nemo yet as we haven’t been using it anywhere near as long. However, general build quality is excellent and the foam certainly seems durable and up to some serious adventures. We suspect it will be as durable as the Z Lite.
Having more space between the bumps also seems to allow more space for the underside of your sleeping bag insulation to stay lofted. We can’t offer any scientific data to back up this claim, but we tried direct sleep comparisons between different sleepers on both mats and certainly all felt this was the case.
Another small benefit is that, because the bumps and troughs mesh together, it seems to stays really securely locked together when folded up. This certainly helps when it is stashed on your pack.
If we are looking for comfort and compact packed size then an inflatable mat will always be our top choice. However, there are plenty of situations where the advantages of a closed cell mat shine through.
In those situations either of these two options will perform extremely well, but we do think the Switchback offers some significant advantages. Nemo say they have redefined the closed cell foam mat and, although that’s a bold claim, we think the weeks they have made mean they might just be right.
The Switchback’s durability, packed size, value and comfort make it a great option for a broad range of users. It is a very high performance mat that will give the long established Z Lite Sol a serious run for its money. Please do check it out if you are in the market for this kind of mat. Full details on the Sol are available on Thermarest website here and details on the Switchback are available on the Nemo website here.
Finally, it is great that both companies stand firmly behind their products. The Switchback is covered by Nemo’s lifetime warranty (details here) and the Z Lite Sol is covered by Thermarest’s comprehensive warranty (details here).
We are getting to know Nemo products and love their sustainability ethos and have previously reviewed one of their Dagger Ridge Porch 2P tent and you can find that here. We also have one of their Osmo tents on test and that review will be live very soon. Please do check out details of this innovative tent here.