Outbound Collective logo

Arguably the most versatile piece of backpacking gear

The 4-section foam pad

By: Addison Klinke + Save to a List

When I first started backpacking, I grabbed a free Therm-a-Rest Z-lite from a blemish bin at work. Since I already had an inflatable sleeping pad, there wasn’t much reason to pick up an alternative, but I figured why pass up on free gear. Maybe it’d come in handy some day. A few months into the summer, I decided I wanted a seat cushion so I cut it up into three pieces (each with four folded sections) and shared the extra two with my family. Little did I know, I was only scratching the tip of the iceberg. Since then I’ve found many more uses for this simple piece of foam, and it has become one of the most cherished items in my pack! Below is a list of uses I’ve identified so far.

1. Seat cushion

Obviously the 4-section fulfills it’s original purpose – making that rock or log around camp a bit more comfortable. You’re probably thinking, well duh Therm-a-Rest already makes a Z-lite seat, why do I need to cut one up myself? Well the dedicated seat is 13x16 (208 in2) vs. 20x22 (440 in2) for a custom cut, so over double the area. I find the extra size opens up a ton more use-cases beyond the original.

2. Knee pad

Lots of campsite tasks require you to either stoop down straining your back, or kneel on hard ground. With all sections folded together, the 4-section provides ample padding for your joints while tending the stove, pounding in tent stakes, etc.

3. Sleeping aid

Backpacking sleeping pads aren’t the most luxurious accommodations around, so a little extra padding in key spots can go a long ways. Especially for the older, oops I mean more experienced, hikers among us ;) Personally, I like to fold the pad all the way together and tuck it under my knees so that they have a slight bend to keep them from feeling hyper-extended. You can also use the 4-section as a spartan pillow if you want to save some weight over carrying a dedicated one.

4. Torso pad

Speaking of spartan, many in the hardcore ultralight crowd will forego a full length sleeping pad in favor of a torso length. If this is your cup of tea, the 4-section is just about the right size when using your pack and/or spare clothes under your head and legs.

5. Windscreen

While cooking around camp, you can prop the 4-section up with some rocks to help shield your stove from windy weather. Even stoves with integrated windscreens still have holes for ventilation, so while they might not go out in a storm, you can probably improve the efficiency by adding the 4-section as a second wind barrier.

6. Cozy

With regards to food, many backpackers opt for freeze dried or dehydrated
meals. After pouring hot water in, most brands recommend waiting 15-20 minutes for the ingredients to cook. Unfortunately in cold weather backpacking, your food might only be lukewarm by the time you get around to eating it. I’ve seen plenty of people tuck the pouch inside their jacket, sleeping bag, etc. which can work fine until you
don’t seal the ziploc tight enough and spill food all over your nice down equipment! Instead, take advantage of the insulating properties of the 4-section and wrap it around your pouch like a cozy.

7. Campfire fan

Like inflating a sleeping pad, blowing air on a campfire to get it started can be pretty exhausting at high elevation where the air is thin. Save yourself some effort and use the 4-section to fan the fire. Compared to other items you have along, the foam material is likely more durable and cheaper to replace should you smudge it with some soot or catch an ember.

8. Yoga mat

One of my favorite routines while backpacking is daily yoga. It keeps my knees and back feeling great on longer trips, but unless you’re camping exclusively in grassy areas, it can be tricky to find enough padding for certain poses. While the 4-section certainly isn’t as big as the standard mat you’d use at home, I’ve found it gets the job done well enough.

9. Gear staging

95% of the time while backpacking, my gear is either in my pack, in the tent, or being worn. I try to keep stuff off the ground to avoid dirt build-up on long trips and also to protect more fragile items from damage. The 5% where it’s hardest to do this? When I’m packing up the tent in the morning. At that point, I need to clear out the tent but I also like to lay out my gear so I make sure it goes into the pack in the right order. Previously, I’d try to find rocks to set gear on during this intermediate stage, but that’s not always an option. Spreading out the 4-section gives me just enough room to stack all my gear on a clean surface before it goes in my pack. And best of all, I always put the 4-section on top of my pack for easy seat cushion access during the day, so naturally it’s the last thing to get packed up!

10. Rope tarp

Similar to staging gear, it’s great to have a clean place to flake a rope if you’re on a technical adventure. At the crag, I’ll bring a dedicated rope tarp, but in an alpine environment it’s nice to cut out the extra weight.

What’s your favorite piece of multi-use backpacking gear? Let’s see if anyone can top 10 uses!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Do you love the outdoors?

Yep, us too. That's why we send you the best local adventures, stories, and expert advice, right to your inbox.