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.

See Also:

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