I think we can all agree that getting a good night’s sleep is essential to enjoying a backpack trip. But it is also a challenge. If you are accustomed to sleeping on a bed, as most of us are, then the transition from mattress to ground is a hard one. We need something to cushion that transition and thus some sort of sleeping pad is a part of nearly every hiker’s kit. Inflatable sleeping pads best mimic the mattress sleeping experience. But they have their drawbacks: they are fairly heavy (often over a pound), require work to inflate and deflate, and worst of all, are subject to leaks. Inflatables usually come with a patch kit and can be repaired in the field. Still, no one enjoys waking up at midnight with a bottomed out pad and having to hunt down and repair a leak.
Foam pads solve the leak problem. But pads still need to insulate you from the cold ground and provide enough cushion to sleep. How well do they perform these functions? And how does one of the newest entries in the foam pad category, the NEMO Switchback, stack up against its competitors?
Foam pads have evolved over the decades. Closed-cell foam pads (which do not absorb water) started out as simple flat sheets of uniform thickness (like blue foam or Ensolite pads). Ridged pads, such as the RidgeRest provide more cushioning and insulation with the same amount of material. The Z Lite SOL pad introduced an egg carton design, along with a reflective coating to reduce radiative heat loss. The NEMO Switchback, introduced in late 2018, uses a more-complex egg carton design along with the reflective coating. I have used all of these products over the years, logging dozens to hundreds of nights on each. The Z Lite SOL has been my go-to pad for years. I find it is plenty warm for 3-season hiking and – on the right surfaces – plenty comfortable.
The NEMO Switchback has specs very similar to those of the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite SOL, and if you’ve seen both pads, the similarities are hard to overlook. Both are 20” in width, and either 48” or 72” in length. The longer version of the Switchback weighs 14.5 oz vs 14.0 for the Z Lite. Both claim an r-value of 2.0. Packed sizes for both are 20 x 5 x 5.5 inches for the 72-inch version. The Switchback has an MSRP of $49.95 vs $44.95 for the Z Lite SOL.
The principal claimed difference for the Switchback is cushioning. A complex hexagonal design gives the unfolded Switchback a thickness of 0.9 inches vs 0.75 for the Z Lite. An extra 0.15 inch of cushioning doesn’t seem like much, but every little bit helps. I bought a Switchback in the summer of 2019, prior to my hike of the Theodore Solomons Trail. I now have some 40 nights on the pad. My subjective impression is that there is very little difference between the Switchback and the Z Lite SOL. It is perhaps a little more cushy at first, but that difference quickly fades as the pad compresses with use.
Switchback unused (back) and used (front) half-pads
I typically buy a 72” pad and cut it in half. I measured the average thickness of the used and unused folded half-pads after about 30 nights of use, and then again after 40 nights. Folded up (7 panels), the half-pad has an average thickness of 2 3/4 inches when new. After about 30 nights use, this thickness decreased to 2 1/2 inches. After another 10 nights it was 2 7/16. Those values correspond to a loss in thickness of 9 - 11%. As you would expect, there is more compression in the center of the pad than at the sides. A used Z Lite pad shows a similar degree of compression.
By both objective measurement and subjective experience, there is very little difference between the Z Lite SOL and the Switchback. I’m sure I could not tell one from the other in a blinded test. Both are fine products and are more comfortable compared to earlier shaped pads such as the RidgeRest, although with slightly lower r-values, and much superior to closed-cell foam sheets.
If you have been using inflatable pads and are considering switching to foam, there are a few tips you can use to maximize their usability and comfort. Foam pads are bulky compared to inflatables. Cut the pad down (or buy a smaller size) so that you carry only what you need. I use half of a 72” pad to cushion my hips and shoulders, and put a small square of Ensolite in the foot of my bag to cushion my feet.
Plan on lashing the pad to the outside of your pack, unless you are using a frameless pack and need the pad as a pack stiffener. Not only will this free up space in your pack, but the pad will be accessible for use as a sit pad during breaks. Lastly, choose your sleeping surface carefully. Foam pads by their nature will not make a rock slab comfortable the same way that an inflatable pad can. Instead of that rock slab, look for campsites that feature durable but softer surfaces (forest duff for example). If you are a side sleeper, if you can work a small natural depression into your site selection for your hips you’d be surprised how much more comfortable you will be. As a bonus, this will keep you from sliding downhill if camped on a slope. Compared to an inflatable, a closed cell foam pad inherently has more traction in this regard as well.
Overall the NEMO Switchback offers a solid value when it comes to closed cell foam backpacking sleeping pads. I have found it to provide good insulation in three-season conditions. With some care in site selection, it also provides good comfort for sleeping and sitting. It tends to compress and lose cushion after a few weeks of use, and while this compression keeps the Switchback from achieving complete excellence, its performance is overall and nevertheless still very good.
The Author: Drew “HappyHour” Smith is an ultralight backpacker who enjoys backpacking long trails – from well-known pathways to those more obscure routes where a map and compass is always in hand. Drew particularly likes exploring areas close to home in Colorado and across the desert areas of the southwest. Find more of Drew’s writing in back and future issues of TrailGroove Magazine.