Sunday, December 16, 2012

Thermarest Z-Lite vs ProLite Plus - Review

Z-Lite vs ProLite Plus Pads
Almost as important as your sleeping bag to a good, comfortable night's sleep when backpacking, is the sleeping pad that you put it on.  The two components together are what comprise a good sleep system.  Opinions will vary as to what the best pads are; and conditions such as season, weather, terrain, as well as campers age and physical condition are all factors in deciding what will work best for you.

In my case, I like to backpack and camp in remote areas, and often in rugged, rocky terrain.  I like a firm sleeping surface, but not rocky/lumpy; and I am typically a side-sleeper who likes to toss-and-turn at night.  Also, I am a 4-season camper, so I need to consider sweltering summer temperature conditions as well as sub-freezing.

I rely on two different sleeping pads that I own - both are Thermarest products - the ProLite Plus self-inflating foam mattress, and the closed-cell foam Z-Lite pad.  I feel that Thermarest pads are the standard by which all others are compared; and they make excellent quality products.  Other brands may perform as well, but I have never had problems with Thermarest - and they remain cost-competetive with other brands.

When I was a younger man, I could make due with just about any pad - I could sleep on a concrete slab and be perfectly happy; but with age comes wisdom and a battle-worn body that could use a little comfort.  What I need is some good insulation from the cold ground (particularly in the winter and shoulder seasons), and some padding from rocks and roots when sleeping on my side.  So, what do I use, and how do I like them...

Thermarest ProLite Plus Mattress
My first 'modern' sleeping pad was the Thermarest ProLite Plus.  It is a self-inflating, open-cell foam core, mattress with a inflation/deflation valve and fabric surface.  It is marketed as a 4-season pad, and it has an insulating R-Value of 3.8.  The regular size version is 72" long and 20" wide, with a thickness of 1.5".  The bottom of the pad has a textured surface that helps to prevent it sliding around on your tent floor, and the top is a smooth, flat surface.  I really like how small this pad rolls for packing - opening the valve allows you to fold the pad in half length-wise and roll the air out of the foam, resulting in a packed size of 7" dia. x 9" (pretty small).  It only weighs 22 oz., too.  Setting it up only requires opening the valve to let it self-inflate.  You can assist the inflation by blowing in the valve, particularly if you would like it to be a little more firm.  I was a little concerned about my breath freezing inside the pad during winter backpacking trips; but I haven't found that to be a problem in weather down to 28 degrees F.  So how comfortable is it?

Similar in size
I have used the ProLite pad on the soft sand of the Pine Barrens and the hard, rocky slopes of the Catskills and Harriman SP, and I have no complaints.  I'm not a fan of air mattresses, because they feel too 'floaty', squishy, and soft. The foam cored ProLite provides good cushioning from the ground while still giving me the firm support that I like in a pad (I guess that some others really like thick air mattresses, but not me).  Like I said, I sleep on my side, with a lot of pressure on my shoulders and hips; but I have always been comfortable on this pad.  The bottom material of the pad is also very durable, and I don't have much fear of punching a hole in it.  In summer, insulating quality is not as important in a pad; but come winter, insulation is a big deal.  Down to about 40F, the ProLite pad is perfectly comfortable.  However, from 28-39F, you can sometimes start to feel the cold from the ground seeping through the pad at the highest pressure points (shoulders and hips) - it's not bad enough to spoil a nights sleep, but you can feel it even in a 20 degree sleeping bag.  Many people recommend using a self-inflating pad on top of a closed-cell foam pad in very cold weather for additional insulation...since I have a Z-Lite pad, I'll have to give that a try.

Thermarest Z-Lite Mattress
I purchased the Thermarest Z-Lite pad as a spare pad for a planned backpacking trip with my son in some chilly Fall weather (and I knew that I could pair it with the ProLite for solo winter trips later).  Anyway, in comparison, the Z-Lite pad is a closed-cell foam mattress, with a durable coating material.  It is grey on one side and brown on the other - there is a new version (the Sol) that has a silver Mylar coating on top to reflect body-heat (maybe my next pad).  The pad has an insulating R-Value of 2.6.  Like the ProLite, the regular size Z-Lite is 72" long x 20" wide; but it is a thinner 0.75" thick.  The surface of the Z-Lite, unlike the ProLite, is an egg-carton like hill and valley shape made of fairly dense foam.  Because the Z-Lite is more rigid, it must be folded accordion-style for packing.  The packed size is roughly 5" x 5.5" x 20"; and it can readily be strapped to the top, side or bottom of your backpack without fear of it getting damaged.  It only weighs 14 oz; but is surprisingly supportive for its small thickness.  But, how is it in use?

Z-Lite is half as thick, but just as comfortable
I have been nothing short of amazed by this is extremely durable, and shows no damage after repeated usage as a sleeping pad, as a sitting pad on the ground at camp, and strapped to the side of my pack while bushwhacking.  The egg-carton bumps of this pad provide just as much, if not more, supportive cushioning than the ProLite pad despite its smaller thickness; and, the bigger surprise is that those hills and valleys trap air that provides excellent insulation and traps body heat.  Despite the lower R-Value, I have found the Z-Lite to be warmer than the ProLite in temperatures below 40F.  I have yet to try stacking the ProLite on the Z-Lite in sub-freezing temps - but that should make for a warm bed - I just hope it's not too soft.

In summer, when it is warm and there is more room in my backpack, I'll still carry the ProLite Plus pad, since it is comfortable and packs down small.  In the shoulder seasons and when my pack is full to the brim on longer trips, then I'm happy to strap the Z-Lite pad to the outside.  Later this winter, I'll try using both pads together and report back.  But overall, you can't go wrong with either of these pads.  For the price and flexibility of use, if you could only get one pad, I'd make it the Z-Lite at around $40.  But, if you have your heart set on a self-inflating mattress, or want one that packs down small, then try the ProLite Plus - it costs around $80.      

Update:  See my post discussing my new Z-Lite Sol!

1 comment:

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