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NEMO Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad Review

The NEMO Switchback is a accordion-style closed-cell foam sleeping pad that can be used as an ultralight pad by itself or to augment the warmth of a second sleeping pad, when sleeping outdoors in colder weather. It’s quite similar to the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol sleeping pad, but made with modern materials and precisely molded. Like the Z Lite Sol, one side of the pad is coated with aluminum to reflect your body heat back at you and keep you warmer.

Specs at a Glance

  • Type: Closed-Cell Foam
  • R-Value: Not Available from manufacturer (estimated at 2)
  • Manufacturer Temperature Rating: 20 F / -7 C
  • Thickness: 0.9 in / 2.3 cm
  • Weight: 14.5 oz / 415 g
  • Length x width: 72 x 20 in / 183 cm x 51 cm
  • Packed Size: 5 x 5.5 x 20 in / 13 x 14 x 51 cm
  • Color: Pumpkin

If you’ve never owned an accordion-style foam pad, they’re a useful piece of backpack gear to have around because they can serve so many purposes. I’ve used them as virtual frames in frameless backpacks, extra insulation under an inflatable sleeping pad, sit pads to keep my bum warm and dry, hammock insulation, winter stove insulation, hot water bottle insulation, insulated seats for pack rafts, even as shims to keep air conditioners from falling out of windows. You just need a sharp pair of scissors and your imagination to figure out ways to use them.

The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite even though they both have 14 panels and are 72" long.
The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite (left) even though they both have 14 panels and are 72″ long.

What makes the Switchback Different?

The Switchback’s main competitor is the legendary Therm-a-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad. That accordion-style foam sleeping pad has been around for as long as I can remember. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is coated on one side with an aluminum film like the Switchback.

The Switchback takes everything that’s good about that pad and makes it better. Well, almost everything. The Switchback is a bit thicker, for instance, measuring 0.9 inches thick compared to the Z Lite Sol’s 0.75 inch thickness. It also weighs about a half ounce more at 14.5 oz, compared to the Z Lite Sol, which weighs 14 oz. Despite that, the Switchback folds up more compactly because the raised portions of the pad slot in better with the recessed areas. This makes it easier to strap to the side of your backpack or under a floating lid.

The Switchback is also a good deal more comfortable than a Z Lite Sol, perhaps enough to convince you to switch from an inflatable pad to a foam pad again. NEMO uses two types of foam in the Switchback, a softer foam that comes in contact with your body and a more durable foam that reduces pad compression over time, while Therm-a-Rest uses just one type of foam in the Z Lite Sol. Both pads are also comparable in price: a 72″ NEMO Switchback retails for $50, while the regular length Z Lite Sol costs $45, and is available in a variety of lengths.

The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top).

Temperature Ratings vs R-values

The biggest difference between the NEMO Switchback and the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pads is in how they’re rated in term of insulation value. Therm-a-Rest rates their sleeping pads using R-values which are well understood by backpackers. For example, an R-value of 2-3 is good for 3 season use, while an R-value of 5-6 is good for sleeping on snow. Sleeping pad R-values are also additive, so you can stack two sleeping pads to create enough insulation to sleep on snow in winter.

While the method used to measure R-values varies somewhat between manufacturers and testing labs, a new outdoor industry standard is likely due out in 2020 (according to my well-informed sources) that will standardize the testing process and it make it possible for consumers to compare sleeping pad R-values across manufacturers. It will also force manufacturers to re-rate or redesign their products so they match their marketing claims, much like the process that occurred when standard sleeping bag temperature ratings were introduced.

Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.
Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.

NEMO doesn’t use R-values to rate their sleeping pads, including the Switchback. Instead, they assign the Switchback a 20 degree temperature rating, which makes it quite difficult to compare it with other sleeping pads that are rated using R-values. It also raises a number of questions about how the temperature rating should be interpreted.

For example:

  • Is the 20 degree temperature rating a measure of air temperature or ground temperature? There’s a big difference.
  • Is the 20 degree rating the same for men and women, who are known to sleep colder than men?
  • Are sleeping pad temperature ratings additive, like R-values? For example, will two sleeping pads rated for 20 degree temperatures provide sufficient insulation to sleep in minus 20 below zero (F) weather?
  • What kind of guidance does a temperature rating provide you if you want to combine the Switchback with an inflatable sleeping pad for cold weather use that has an R-value, but not a temperature rating?
  • How is the 20 degree rating calculated? Is it based on a automated testing procedure or by human observation in a cold room, where individual differences in sex or physique could skew the results.

In the absence of an R-value for the Switchback, it’s difficult to assess NEMO’s claim that it is the warmest closed-cell foam sleeping pad made. If you do buy the Switchback, my conservative guess is that it has an R-value in the range of 2-2.5, which is pretty standard for closed-cell foam pads.

The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.
The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.

Recommendation

The NEMO Switchback is actually a well-engineered and very comfortable closed-cell foam sleeping pad, despite its lack of an R-value rating. While it’s not as comfortable as an inflatable sleeping pad, it is definitely a step up from a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol in terms of design, manufacturing, and materials. It’s really about time that someone went head-to-head with Therm-a-Rest when it comes to closed-cell foam sleeping pads. While the NEMO Switchback is in many respects a knock-off of the Z Lite Sol, it is a better knock-off, which is a pretty impressive feat, if you think about the engineering and design that goes into making high quality foam products on an industrial scale.

Disclosure: NEMO provided the author with a sleeping pad for this review.

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Last updated: 2018-10-11 11:45:35

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