Sleeping pads are a crucial piece of gear. With the incorrect pad, you can not only have an uncomfortable sleep but also be too cold at night. Sleeping pads are a compromise between weight, bulk, comfort, and effectiveness.
Short self-inflatable pads are in vogue currently. The weight to performance ratio is quite good. And the bulk vs. a foam pad is desirable to many.
However, I’ve had mixed luck with inflatable pads. Other than winter use (and combined with a full-length foam pad), they inevitably fail me out in the field.
For three-season use, I still prefer the humble blue foam pad. Cheap, practical, and near indestructible. With careful site selection, I can use this type of pad well into Fall.
And for the colder weather outside of deep winter? A Z Lite pad works well for me.
But foam pads eventually do pack out. The foam becomes thin after much use and is no longer as effective at insulating you from the ground.
Before I took off on my Utah trip last year, I did a quick evaluation of my gear. My blue foamer would be too thin for the colder weather I would expect in Utah in October and November, I found the shorter Z Lite too packed out to be effective, and I did not want to cut up my full-length Z Lite that I use for winter backpacking.
So, I figured I’d give the short NeoAir that I use for winter a whirl. But I’d test it out on the Collegiate Loop first.
Well, within a night or two, the NeoAir started leaking at night! Glad I tested it BEFORE I went to Utah!
Time to get a new pad…
However, a bit shocking to see $45 for a new full-length Z Lite Sol and $35 for the short version I’d cut up anyway!
But I remembered the NatureHike brand of products. NatureHike sells Z Lite Sol clones for about half the price. Weight, design, and overall specs appeared to be the same (if slightly wider for the clone.) So I purchased a full-length pad for approximately half the price of the Z Lite and cut down the new pad for my Utah trip.
I did not feel like I took too big of a gamble; IT IS CLOSED CELL FOAM! How different could it be?
And here it is a year later. And now Nemo is coming out with their $50 alternative to the classic Z Lite that is similar, too.
How did the budget pad hold up and work compared to a Z Lite and possibly the new Nemo Switchback?
To sum it up: Rather well.
The more thorough review? Read on…
Specs of the NatureHike Pad vs. Z Lite Sol vs. Nemo Switchback
My cut down version of the NatureHike foam pad weighs just under 7 oz. The specs online seem near identical to the Z Lite, overall. The Naurehike clone is a little bit wider.
The NatureHike claims a thickness of .71 inches vs. the .75 inches of the Z Lite. Of course, I am converting from metric to Imperial and using specs supplied by both companies. I did not measure myself. But my gut feeling is that both the Z Lite Sol and the NatureHike pad are about the same thickness with the Z Lite Sol being marginally thicker. In other words, I don’t think the listed R-Value of 2.6 (which is only a guideline) for the Z Lite will be far different from the NatureHike clone.
As with the Z Lite Sol, the NatureHike clone has a reflective coating to help radiate heat back to the sleeper.
For comparison, the Nemo Switchback has this feature along with similar specs to the Z Lite Sol. If with a slighter claimed thickness of .9 inches vs. .75 inches of the Z Lite. How much this matters in the real world, and how accurate of a comparison between different manufacturers is TBD, of course.
I don’t notice any difference with the reflective coating compared to the older Z Rests in the past without the coating. For winter, I will take a reflective sun shield, but I think the wider surface area makes this technique more effective. YMMV.
Comfort in the field
Always subjective of course, but I found the comfort of the NatureHike pad to be comparable to the Z Lite in the field. And similar effectiveness, too. Site selection is always essential with foam pads even with a decent R-Value. The only time the NatureHike pad failed me when I had to camp in non-ideal and heavily packed down sites during cold snaps. As with any pad that has about a sub-3.0 R-Value in my opinion. Of course, site selection for warmth, comfort, and weather protection is important with any gear you use!
But the longevity is a significant concern for many. How quickly does the clone pack out versus the real version?
After more than 600 miles in Utah, steady use on my road trip this past year, and 600+ miles on the Great Divide Trail, the NatureHike clone is almost at the point where I am thinking of replacing it. About the same amount of use as Z Lites (and earlier Z Rests) in the past.
Here are some photos to illustrate the overall use:
The first photo shows, from left to right, the current version I use with a smaller section of the pad that I’ve had in storage. The foam section I used is more packed out after about a year of hard use vs. the unused foam pad section.
The second photo displays the NatureHike pad next to an old Z Lite that is well past its practical use. The reflective film is peeling on the NatureHike.
In other words, for my application, I only see a marginal difference in the longevity between the Nature Hike vs. the Z Lite as far as the foam goes. To be exected as both pads are of similar material and design. The film did start peeling somewhat quickly on the Nature Hike clone. But that is not as important to me vs. foam longevity. Of course, I can’t directly compare to the Nemo Switchback pad.
And when you are ready to retire the foam? Why old foam has many different uses!
And now an ethical quandary.
The NatureHike gear, be it pads or tents, are often directly, ah, inspired by US manufacturers.
Is NatureHike profiting off the R&D done by other manufacturers and then selling the designs as NatureHike gear? In some cases, probably.
Is outdoor consumer gear sometimes marked up high due to that is what the outdoor consumer will pay? Good chance of that, too.
YMMV as to the ethics of either view.
Overall view: The NatureHike Z-Lite clone is an excellent and budget-friendly alternative to the Z-Lite and the Nemo Switchback. The NatureHike pad appears slightly less thick and packs out marginally faster vs. the direct “inspiration” but at half the price. I don’t think most users will notice any performance difference in the field.
UPDATE 2019: The Nature Hike version does not seem to be available. But this similar clone for $30 may be purchased.
Also to consider: And various clones of the clones are available. Some are $13 shipped from China. These even less expensive pads do not appear to have a reflective film. Per the listed specs these pads are slightly longer, wider, and thicker compared to the classic Z Lite. A budget alternative for the curious. Or a potential augment for your shorter three-season inflatable pad when winter backpacking without spending a lot of money.
Disclosure: I purchased the NatureHike pad with my funds.
Good point about the ethics. Makes me wonder. Sometimes gear is marked up. Sometimes it’s expensive because the company is paying employees that want benefits and time off and raises and such. It costs more to be made in USA, for instance, because USA employees get paid more. I want my neighbor to be able to have a vacation, buy his kids a gift, upgrade his car when it’s time, etc. I want those things for myself too. How else can I afford outdoor gear and time to spend in the outdoors to begin with? How do we know when… Read more »
I think with straight up gear, the costs do make more sense for the reasons you stated for the most part (With some exceptions, of course). For apparel, OTOH, esp in commodity items such as fleece hats, jackets, gloves, etc. I think there is a much bigger markup as that is what the consumer will pay for say a Northface fleece jacket vs. an REI house brand jacket vs. a generic one. Points to ponder in any case with no 100% correct answer IMO.
Well written review. My experience with NeoAir has been 3500 miles over 6 years not one leak or problem. At 66 yrs old I can’t imagine sleeping on anything else.
I have found that any inflatable pad appears to leak overnight but I feel that the air inside is cooling and therefore has less volume. I have brought pads home from trips that I though had a leak and left inflated for days inside and haven’t found them to be leaking.
Both my pads were flat as a pancake leaking by the morning. :O
I’d have to inflate them int the middle of the night. No fun.
Thanks, helpful. How do you decide where to cut the pad? Thighs on the pad?
Different for every person, but the thigh is a good bet for three-season use.
I’ve always liked the Thermarest self-inflating pads. I have one that is 28 years old and I still trust it. I always add some air to it and use a good pillow.
Good deal. I still don’t! 😀