When you head into the woods for a backpacking trip, chances are your pillow isn’t the first thing on your mind or packing list.
But nevertheless, if you’re like me, having a pillow can make or break your trip. In fact, there are two things I must have to get rested for another long day of hiking: a good sleeping pad and a comfy pillow.
Now, I’m an ultralight die-hard and I usually just use a stuff sack filled with other hiking clothes, but this is usually stinky and only mildly comfortable. With advances in manufacturing and materials, it’s totally possible to pick up a lightweight and comfortable pillow at a great price these days and, honestly, I’ll be jealous!
First, we’re going to talk about what criteria to look for when selecting your next backpacking pillow. Then we’re going to dive into a few of the best backpacking pillows you can get your hands on and why I like them.
Let’s get to it!
How to Choose the Best Pillow for Backpacking
Picking out a great pillow involves understanding the pros and cons and matching that with your backpacking style and preferred sleep arrangement. Of course, you can do my move and stuff clothes in an old bag, but there’s no substitute for a great night’s rest on the trail – trust me!
Do you want to puff your pillow full of air every night, or would you rather just open up the valve and let the pillow do the work?
Self-inflating pillows may be more convenient but they’re heavier and bulkier. However, because they don’t ever get hot, moist breath inside of them they are less likely to get moldy or gross. This can extend the life and attractiveness of your pillow.
Manual inflating pillows require a breath of fresh air every time you want to inflate them. Unlike manually inflated mattresses, however, they only take about one breath to puff full. They’re lightweight because they don’t have internal foam, and they pack down tiny!
Packability and Weight
These go hand in hand and they’ll change based on which type of inflation method you pick. See the section above for more details on inflation methods.
I always recommend keeping bulk and weight to a minimum whenever possible. That being said, many would consider the pillow to be an “essential” item due to it standing between us and a good night’s sleep. If you’re in this category I would still recommend a manually inflatable pillow because, frankly, no one needs a self-inflating pillow. Keep it simple.
By opting for a manually inflatable pillow you’ll get all the comfort of a pillow with a fraction of the weight and bulk that come from a more traditional foam or self-inflating pillow.
Pay careful attention to how you like to sleep before you pick up a pillow. Some backpacking pillows are for side sleepers, while others are for back-sleepers. But of course all pillows will suffice for either.
To get the most out of your backpacking pillow, look for pillows that contour and hold your head. Because backpacking pillows are so small, it can be a real challenge to actually keep your head on it while you sleep. Contoured pillows help a ton with this!
The Top 4 Backpacking Pillows
This pillow tops our list for one main reason: extreme value for the price. I know many of you want to stretch those dollars for all their worth! With a moderate size, self-inflating features, and a great price this is a good choice for many reasons! Those who want self-inflating ease will have it at their fingertips while also saving some cash.
Weighing in at 12oz, it’s not a lightweight pillow by any means but at least it comes in under a pound, eh? I like that even with a steal of a price, the pillow still comes with a nice cloth outer. This is awesome so you won’t have to wake up in a pile of your own drool on a plastic pillow. Trust me, I’ve done it more times than I’d like to admit. Cotton is better than nothing but I would’ve loved to see this pillow come with a synthetic fabric top for longevity and a potential increase in wicking.
Luckily the TETON Sports ComfortLite pillow comes with a lifetime warranty which seems like a great cherry on top of this tasty deal.
If you’re read any of my work before then you’ll know I’m a huge lightweight and ultralight backpacking proponent. Me personally? I usually go for whatever gear is light enough to float away on a balloon. So, of course, I had to include the lightest pillow that I know on this list!
At just a featherlight 2.4 ounces it’s able to practically blow away in a light breeze. How’s that possible? This ultralight pillow is made from a nylon shell that’s totally occlusive to air. The thin denier nylon isn’t particularly robust, as is the case with most lightweight gear, so you’ll have to be aware of where you use the pillow. Don’t lay it down on a bed of pine needles and expect it to live a long life. One thing to keep in mind is that there’s no fabric shell, so any moisture will get quite nasty.
This is a perfect option for those who want the lightest possible weight but in a dedicated pillow format. If the stuff sack full of clothes just doesn’t cut it for you, this is the next step!
Premium is a really good title for this pillow, I must say. I love the lined polyester knit fabric on the outside. Not only is it comfortable, it’s a great fabric pick. This keeps your face dry and comfy while you’re sleeping. Of course, while all these things aren’t strictly necessary, they make carrying a pillow worth the effort.
This is the first pillow we’ve reviewed here that is offered in multiple sizes. If you’ve ever tried to spend a night on an inflatable sleeping pad with an inflatable pillow, then you’ll understand how easy it is to roll off. If this is a problem or concern for you, then the larger pillow size will definitely help. I like that the design is well-thought and effective. They even included some padding under the wicking face fabric.
Overall, I have to say the Sea to Summit Aeros is a serious contender for the top spot in quality and luxury. The Cadillac of mobile facial padding in the backcountry, if you will. I’ll also note that despite the robust features, the pillow does manage to pack down quite well for carrying. Not bad!
If you want to buy the best your pillow and sleeping pad from one manufacturer with amazing customer service and cutting edge products, this is it. Therm-a-Rest is one of the most prolific names in outdoor gear and you’ll see their name on the majority of sleeping equipment on the market. Why? Because they know how to make great stuff.
Of all the items we’ve reviewed, the Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow comes in the most diverse number of options. It’s totally self-inflating, using some kind of magical future-foam to compress to 1/4 or less of its expanded size when packed. I personally love that Therm-a-Rest decided to offer the pillow in a total of 32 different options! That’s 8 colors each of which come in 4 sizes you can pick from.
I've always had great products and great services from Therm-a-Rest's partent company, Cascade Designs. They own brands like MSR, Platy, and SeaLine. You'll be hard pressed to make a wrong move here!
See something to rest your head on?
It’s important to be comfortable when out on the trail. A good-night’s sleep makes it easier to deal with those long days of trekking and ensures you’re more alert. So if you’re committed to using a pillow while out backpacking, invest in a good ones that both comfy and lightweight.
And if you can’t find a pillow that does it for you from this list, you might as well go back to the ol’ stuff sack trick.