Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol vs. NEMO Switchback Review

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Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are a popular option among thru-hikers and lightweight backpackers on a budget, and the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol has dominated that market for many years with very little competition. We like closed-cell foam pads for their versatility - they can be used underneath an air pad for extra warmth, they double as a sit pad, and they can even serve as a make-shift frame for a frameless backpack.

We enjoy the Z Lite for how affordable and lightweight it is and have used one for many years. The NEMO Switchback is new for 2019 (see our full review here) and has brought some long overdue updates to the closed-cell foam pad market with its superior comfort and packability. We were curious to see how the two matched up, so we tested them side by side to determine a winner.

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Quick Specs Comparison

NEMO Switchback

  • MSRP (regular size): $49.95

  • Weight (reg.): 14.5 oz.

  • R-value: NEMO doesn’t list R value, but they estimate this pad to be good down to 20-35 F (we wouldn’t recommend it for sub-freezing temps)

  • Dimensions (L x W x H, reg.): 72 x 20 x .9 in.

  • Packed size (L x W x H, reg.): 20 x 5.5 x 5 in.

  • Other available sizes: short

Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol

  • MSRP (regular size): $44.95

  • Weight (reg.): 14 oz.

  • R-value: 2.6

  • Dimensions (L x W x H, reg.): 72 x 20 x .75 in.

  • Packed size (L x W x H, reg.): 20 x 5.5 x 5 in. (Therm-a-Rest lists the same packed dimensions even though the Switchback packs down about an inch smaller, see pics below)

  • Other available sizes: short

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DURABILITY

In our opinion, the biggest advantage to a closed-cell foam pad is that it’ll never pop or have valve issues. Both the Switchback and the Z Lite are very durable, but we’ve noticed that the nodes on the Switchback don’t compress as much as the nodes on the Z Lite when you lay down on them. This could make a difference over time as the nodes start to lose their ability to rebound after repeated compression. The Switchback also features a durable film layer over the metalized side for protection from abrasive objects like sticks and rocks. The Switchback seems like it may be more durable, but it’s been out for less than a year, so it’s hard to say for sure which pad wins the durability category for now.  

Winner: Undecided

WARMTH

R-values stack, so you can easily turn your 3-season air pad in to an all-season sleep system by adding a foam pad. Both the Z Lite and the Switchback are effective for this purpose, but we like Therm-a-Rest’s transparency a bit more. NEMO doesn’t list R-values - they give an estimated temperature range instead. They say the Switchback is effective all the way down to 20°F, but we wouldn’t recommend any closed-cell foam pad for sub-freezing temperatures (below 32°F). Therm-a-Rest lists an R-value of 2.6 for the Z Lite, which we think is a little more realistic. Starting in 2020, all sleeping pads sold at the outdoor co-ops REI and MEC will be required to list an industry standardized R-value, and we are interested to see where the Switchback stands. Either way, we didn’t notice any difference in warmth while testing both the pads, but we will give the warmth win to the Z Lite for listing an R-value.

Winner: Z Lite

The nodes on the switchback (left) are taller, adding more comfort.

The nodes on the switchback (left) are taller, adding more comfort.

COMFORT

Many people won’t find closed-cell foam pads comfy enough on their own - we certainly prefer air pads. If you don’t mind sleeping on firm surfaces, however, a foam pad may be all you need. Something we don’t really like about the Z Lite is that when you lay on it, the nodes compress almost completely flat and provide very little support. The Switchback’s nodes are taller and wider and have more room to compress. This means that they support weight a bit better and it’s harder to bottom out. The Switchback wins the comfort category and is the only non-air pad that made it on to our list of the 10 Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads.

Winner: Switchback

WEIGHT

Closed-cell foam pads are generally considered ultralight, and the Switchback and Z Lite are no exception. The Z Lite weighs .5 ounces less than the Switchback, but we think carrying that half ounce extra is worth it considering the Switchback packs down smaller and is more comfortable. The Z Lite wins the weight category, but just barely, by about the same weight as a bite of a Clif Bar. Also, it’s important to remember that while these pads are light, there are many air pad options that are lighter or weigh about the same. Check out our list of the 10 Best Backpacking Sleeping Pads to see our favorite lightweight and comfy air pads.

Winner: Z Lite

The Switchback (left) packs down roughly an inch smaller than the Z Lite sol.

The Switchback (left) packs down roughly an inch smaller than the Z Lite sol.

PACKABILITY

One of the biggest drawbacks to any closed-cell foam pad is that they are bulky and hard to pack. They’re usually strapped in under the top lid or in the side/bottom compression straps, which means they have to be moved every time you want to access your main compartment or they are blocking access to side pockets. Oddly, both pads list the exact same packed dimensions on the manufacturer websites. The Switchback very clearly packs smaller, but we measured them anyway to see the exact difference. When folded up (we had to hold the Z Lite down, because it has a habit of springing back up if you don’t), the Z Lite measured 6.5 inches high and the Switchback measured 5.5 inches high (measured from the top of the tallest node to the ground). We like that the Switchback packs smaller and stays folded even when not strapped down and we’re disappointed that Therm-a-Rest’s listed packed dimensions of the Z Lite seem to be inaccurate. The superior pad in this category is the Switchback. 

Winner: Switchback

COST

Foam pads are a great option for backpackers on a budget, as they generally cost no more than $50. The Z Lite’s MSRP is $5 less than the Switchback, so it takes the cost category, but both pads are priced similarly. For a few dollars more, though, you can upgrade to one of our favorite budget air pads, the Klymit Static V2.

Winner: Z Lite

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BOTTOM LINE

Both the Switchback and the Z Lite are great options for thru-hikers, backpackers on a budget, and people who like sleeping on firm surfaces. We like both pads for adding warmth to an air pad on frigid trips or for doing double duty as a sleep system and a camp chair. In our opinion, the Switchback ekes out the win thanks to its superior comfort and packability. It’s too early to tell for sure, but it also seems like it will be more durable in the long run. That said, the Z Lite is still a great option if you’re a gram counter or if you’re looking to save a few bucks.


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