by Diane Spicer
Backpacking pillows: frivolous luxury, or essential hiking gear?
Either way, let's look at the benefits a backpacking pillow can give you after a long, tiring day on the trail.
Then we'll look at options for pillows that stand up to backpacking.
The most important part of a restful night's sleep might be a pillow for you.
Even more important than staying warm and dry!
A pillow keeps your neck in alignment with the rest of your spine.
Why aggravate that?
Need another reason to bring a pillow?
It acts as a cue to your body that says here is your soft nest for the night, just like your bed back home.
To test out these ideas, go for one night at home without a pillow.
In the cold light of the next morning, either add, or cross off, a backpacking pillow as part of your backpacking sleep system in your gear list.
One final reason to consider bringing a pillow backpacking: safety.
If you're just beginning to work out the intricacies of taking good care of yourself on a backpacking trip, you can read my extensive tips here:
We are going to keep these things in mind when shopping for the best backpacking pillows:
For the best chance of finding the perfect backpacking pillow, focus on two or three things on the list that are your top priority.
Or consider each of them in turn to maximize your options.
Let's get started on that list!
Weight is always a top priority for a backpacker, so make your pillow decisions with ounces in mind.
Coming in around 3 ounces is a good estimate, but again, if a pillow is important to you, go a little higher and shave off ounces somewhere else.
There are three main ways to tackle the weight problem, based on the design of the pillow.
Your options, going lightest to heavier:
1. Inflatable backpacking pillows
2. Compressible pillows for backpacking
3. Some type of mix (hybrid) of the two
use air, either your own or a through a valve (auto inflation). Air is
light, making these pillows the best choice for counting ounces.
Compressible backpacking pillows don't use freely available and lightweight air, so count on more weight from the material inside of them (foam, synthetics, feathers, or some combo).
Hybrid backpacking pillows play around with various iterations of inflation and compressibility. They will fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in terms of weight (and bulk, which is where we're headed next).
Please don't expect a backpacking pillow to be king sized.
Or even queen sized.
They're small. You're roughing it, remember?
What you're really asking is this:
How bulky is the footprint the pillow will create in your backpack?
If you're going ultralight with the smallest pack possible, it may surprise and dismay you to see how much space a rolled up, deflated pillow will hog for itself.
And if space is at a premium in your backpack, don't even glance at compressible or (some) hybrid pillows, for fear of fainting.
It all comes down to your safety and comfort.
If you prioritize a good night's sleep, and a pillow is part of that equation, make room for it!
Or take a serious look at stuffable pillows below, using your own compressible puffy jacket as filling.
The answer may surprise you.
A small pillow needs to be the right shape for your sleeping comfort.
If you're a restless sleeper, prone to turning over a lot during the night, a square flat pillow might get flung into a tent corner.
A rounded pillow might look good in theory, and if you tend to stay put once you fall asleep, you can expect that this pillow will do the job for you.
Side sleepers will enjoy a contoured pillow that can be snuggled into.
Some pillows, like the Klymit pillow below, are designed for keeping you squarely on the pillow no matter what kind of sleeper you may be.
A hiking gear budget can only go so far, so choose a pillow wisely and then splurge elsewhere on your gear list.
That means you need to go through this list of features very carefully.
Recommendation: Put a star next to your top 3 "must haves".
If price is among them, look only at pillows at low price points.They can be had for under $30 US, sometimes way under (stuffable and inflatable pillows).
Realize that some of your other important factors, durability and comfort for example, will be compromised.
So if there's wiggle room in your budget, look at higher price points in order to gain other features that can lead to a kink free neck in the morning.
Then go pillow shopping! (drop down to options here)
Questions to ask yourself when choosing backpacking pillows:
To find the answers, you might have to borrow a few backpacking pillows, and give them a try during a nap or two.
Or read gear reviews ever so carefully.
Another consideration in the comfort category: how noisy is the pillow when your head is resting on it?
FYI: Some gear stores like REI allow you to "field test" the gear inside the store.
See if you can find a store that allows you to play around with pillows. Bring something clean to put over them while you test them out.
Even when you've done your homework, you might find that a pillow that worked well on one backpacking trip just doesn't cut it on another.
Be prepared to hack around and find a fix by adding clothing beneath it for support, covering it with an extra shirt, or inflating it to a different degree.
If the pillow slides around on you, deploy some strips of Velcro glued to the pillow, and to whatever you want to anchor it to.
You do have options for plumping up a pillow, as I just mentioned with inflatable and hybrid options, but the essential question is this:
If you also have to inflate your backpacking sleeping pad with your own breath, you might feel a little peeved to have to blow up your pillow before you can get some rest!
"Blow it up" might come to take on a new meaning ;)
So if this is a big concern for you, look at self inflating pillows, or compressible pillows that are good to go right out of your backpack.
In other words: Will your investment pay off, season after season?
Maybe you don't care.
But as a thoughtful long term backpacker, always choose gear with durability in mind.
Your investment of time (in choosing wisely) and money (hard earned hiking budget) should pay off, season after season.
That attitude toward buying backpacking gear usually equates to paying more up front, and sticking with reliable brands with a good track record of customer ratings, favorable comments from other backpackers, and decent designs.
So you want a pillow covered in outer fabric like high quality nylon or thick materials that will stand up to abrasions, if durability is at the top of your "must have" list.
You'll be spending a lot of time drooling on that pillow (just me?).
sometimes often your face and hair will be less than squeaky clean.
Is the outer surface of the pillow going to absorb skin oils and moisture as you sleep?
Can the pillow be cleaned with a quick wipe the next morning?
So you already know the punchline:
To keep bacteria and grime from building up, it's important for a hygienic backpacker to choose a pillow that can be wiped clean.
Also consider how breathable the outer surface of the pillow is, which depends on the materials in it.
A pillow can make you feel sweaty (which accumulates on the surface), or keep you cool (less sweat, thus less grimy).
Some pillows, like the NEMO inflatable pillow below, come with their own snug little pillowcase that can be easily laundered, even on the trail.
Down pillows are the hardest to keep clean on the trail, and will take more effort to clean up once you're home.
Now it's time to get real about selecting a pillow.
Allow me to show you a few good backpacking pillows.
We'll start with the most simple, inexpensive design: using a stuff sack plus your own clothing to create a pillow.
If you're traveling light and have extra clothes (an outer layer like a puffy jacket that you don't wear for sleeping, for example), use a minimalist approach to cradling your head and neck:
NOTE: if all of your clothing is wet, will you want to stuff some of it into your pillow as one solid glob of dampness?
But in dry weather, it might make a great choice.
Be sure to use a dedicated stuff sack, one that is free from food odors and can be kept with your sleep system, rather than pulling double duty on your gear list.
Ditto for a clean shirt you put over it to make the surface more inviting.
This is especially true in bear country.
Here's a good inexpensive choice, an REI Co-op Durable Stuff Sack with options for color and size:
Good news: Cheap, lightweight, uses what you already have for filling.
You can repurpose it later if you choose a different pillow option.
Bad news: Lumpy and uncomfortable if you don't dial in the stuffing just right; (sometimes wet and dirty) stuffing can and will shift as you shift throughout the night.
Good news: These pillows may be as comfy as the ones on your bed at home.
Bad news: These pillows are bulky!
They will also wrack up many more ounces than other pillow choices.
Trail tip: If you have a feather allergy, be sure to choose an inert synthetic filling like foam. Read the label carefully.
When comfort over weight, coziness over compressibility, are your choices, this puts you in the market for a compressible backpacking pillow.
This Therm-a-Rest compressible, full size pillow scrunches down to one fifth its size.
That's still going to take up a lot of room in your pack, but if the support and cushioning of a pillow is necessary for your well being as a backpacker, take a look.
There are three size choices, with corresponding weights, from 7 to 15 ounces. Go as light as you can!
Here's a feathery choice from GooseFeetGear: 850+ fill power down, and pretty compressible, too.
You know what they say about feathers being light! And warm, if that's important to your sleeping comfort.
Worried it will get too compressed?
There is a clever little pocket for insertion of clothing to give you the power to hack the pillow to your satisfaction.
The DWR treatment on its outer surface will help with the drool problem, not to mention add durability.
The main question to ponder: who is doing the inflating?
Self inflating pillows are one less thing you have to deal with at the end of a long backpacking day.
While a pillow that needs a healthy dose of your own air is easier to adjust in terms of cushiony softness versus rock hard rigidity (according to your preferences).
Both of them will deflate easily and quickly into a small size.
Any inflatable pillow can go wonky. Now where is the duct tape for the slow leak you discovered last night? Oh, it's in your gear repair kit!
Or maybe you're just too tired to breathe into the darn thing at the end of a brutal trail day. Resentment does not make for good sleep.
Disclosure: An ultralight inflatable pillow is my personal preference as a side sleeper. Neck soreness seems to add up with the number of days on the trail, so I like being able to adjust the height and firmness.
Here's another good choice for an inflatable backpacking pillow, starting out with the deluxe version for pillow connoisseurs:
NEMO Fillow Elite Luxury Pillow: the name says it all.
If you truly do consider a pillow a trail luxury, skip this one.
If you consider a good night's sleep a necessity, not a luxury, give this pillow a good long look.
When ounces truly matter AND you want to bring a pillow, look at this:
Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow makes every ounce count, as well as keeps a small footprint in your sleep system.
You'll need to cover it with a piece of clean clothing in order to warm it up and keep it from slipping around.
Ditto for hygiene concerns.
Restless sleeper? Who isn't after a few days on the trail!
Note the interesting X shape of this Klymit inflatable pillow. They call it "self centering". Sometimes it's good to be self centered ;)
It's designed to keep you on it all through the night, a nice bargain for its 2 ounces, soft top and durable bottom, and super compact footprint.
There are those backpackers among us who don't want to choose between categories.
Instead, they prefer to have the best of all worlds by using a hybrid pillow, one which is compressible (to a certain degree) as well as adjustable.
Good news: A hybrid pillow gives you more comfort but spares some of the weight by using an inflatable section (air bladder) overlying an insulated bottom layer (foam or down).
If a pillow is a big psychological boost at the end of the day, and you are not an ounce counter, consider this style.
Bad news: You know what's coming: heavier, bulkier, you still need to inflate it, and it may be harder to clean after your trip.
Example of a good hybrid backpacking pillow:
Therm-a-Rest Air Head Down Pillow comes with a removable (as in washable) cover, so if hygiene is a top concern, here's your backpacking pillow.
It's shaped to be compatible with your sleeping bag as well as your neck, and will stay in place.
I've been on the trail for decades, and there are two things that I absolutely refuse to skimp on any longer:
You can read more about how I choose nourishing, satisfying backpacking food here.
And you've just read about how I put a lot of thought into choosing the best backpacking pillow for my sleep style and pack weight. Because it really matters to my well being on the trail!
Only you (and your sore neck) can decide which backpacking pillows works best for you, and don't be surprised if the answer changes over the years as your body does that thing called aging.
Maybe it has already?
A few more tips before we wrap this up:
Don't forget to bring along your backpacking pillow on car camping adventures.
Or toss it in a backyard hammock or picnic basket, or in the car (commuters, looking at you), for impromptu naps.
They also make a great spot for your small pet (no claws, please) to catch some Zzzzz's.
Get your money's worth!
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Best Backpacking Pillow Choices
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