Where you lay your head at night makes a difference in how you perform the next day. The average human head weighs 11 pounds so it makes sense to pack 2–3-ounce comfortable pillows for camping, for a restorative, great night’s sleep.
Camping pillows are generally offered as stuffable, inflatable, compressible, and hybrid options. Some key considerations include support, material, weight, sleep style, and size – both when in use and packed.
Ultimately, your type of outing, environment, sleep system, and personal preference result in the best choice for you.
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What to Look For in a Camping Pillow
Camping pillow styles vary; so begin with the qualities of your pillow at home. This will narrow down the options.
Is your pillow:
- low or high profile
- firm or puffy
- foam or down
- king, queen or standard size
Consider existing injuries, muscle tightness, or health issues that require specific support. Neck issues often require a specific loft and cushioning that cradles the cervical spine. Shoulder pain may be alleviated with a higher profile pillow that creates space between your head and sleeping pad.
Sometimes, in addition to my camping pillow, I use a sit pad under my sleeping pad to create more height under my head and shoulders. Doing this helps to alleviate pressure on my lower back or help with allergy congestion.
Determine your type of outing before choosing your camping pillow. Are you traveling by plane, car camping, backpacking, or going ultralight? Airline travel benefits from small packed size, but large size when in use.
That saId, car camping allows for the most weight and size (packed and in use) equaling luxury. When backpacking, space is limited and weight matters which limits your options. If you are going for ultralight, then small and light are the most critical which may sacrifice some comfort.
In order to buy the right camp pillow, factor in your sleep system and environment. What type of sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and shelter are you using? Several companies offer compatible products like camping pillows that attach to sleeping pads and/or perfectly fit the hood of a sleeping bag to reduce slipping at night.
If you expect to be in humid or rainy conditions, then only select synthetic materials as they absorb less water and dry quickly. If the conditions are cold to freezing, then a down comfort layer will be useful to maintain warmth.
Camping Pillow Types
A stuffable pillow is simply a pillowcase that you fill with your down jacket and/or hking clothes to create your preferred loft and support. Providing dual purpose, by day the stuff sack can be used to store clothes or protect gear in your pack. I’ve used an older, generously sized stuffable pillow from Patagonia.
While flexibility and light weight are pros for the stuff sack, the primary con is the reliance on other gear. After a hard hike, I am not excited to rest my head on sweaty, dirty clothes. I’ve also experienced temperatures so chilly that I end up wearing all my “extra” clothes – leaving me with no stuffing material.
Regardless, multi-purpose gear is always a win so the benefits may outweigh the challenges.
- Packed Size: 6 x 5 inches
- In Use Size: 16 x 11 inches
- Weight: 3.2 ounces
Inflatable pillows rely on air to create loft, as a result, you control support based on how much or little you add air.
As with any inflatable, moisture from your breath may create issues with cold air leading to a cold surface or, over time, mold. If you want to prevent mold from growing, then I suggest using a hyperlight, micro-pump to provide some relief for these issues. Also, you want to think about how much support you need, since this is one of the key considerations with inflatables.
The Big Agnes AXL Air is an ultralight camp pillow (1.6 oz) made of four-way stretch nylon with a slim profile. Providing little elevation for your head, this ultralight camping pillow may be ideal for stomach sleepers and some back sleepers.
- Packed Size: 4 x 2.5 x 2 inches
- In Use Size: 16 x 10 x 4 inches
- Weight: 1.6 oz
The Sea-to-Summit Aeros Premium Pillow (2.8 oz) has a high profile with a brushed 50D polyester knit exterior for added comfort against your skin. I find this camping pillow to be ideal for side sleepers, especially those with a shoulder injury.
Both inflatable pillows provide a curved shape that fits well into the hood of a sleeping bag. However, other models are the rectangular shape of standard pillows – providing more surface area.
- Packed Size: 2.8 x 3.3 inches
- In Use Size: 13.4 x 9.4 x 4.3 inches
- Weight: 2.8 oz
Undoubtedly, the inflated size value is a critical component of design. As you often adjust inflation levels while laying, you need a value that will slowly deflate to reduce firmness. Comparable products to those mentioned are offered by Trekology Ultralight Inflatable Camp Pillow, Klymit Luxe Inflatable Pillow, and Nemo Fillo Pillow.
Compact size and ultralight weight are pros for the inflatable pillow, with the material representing the biggest con. For most inflatable pillows, there is a higher likelihood of puncturing the air bladder and the plastic feel against your face must be taken into consideration when selecting the inflatable that’s right for you.
My camping mate has experienced a punctured inflatable pillow during the night, which (without a repair kit) results in no pillow for the rest of the trip.
Compressible Pillow (Foam Pillow)
Compressible pillows are the ultimate in camping comfort. Usually comprised of foam or synthetic material the compressible pillow packs down into a compression stuff sack that keeps the packed size manageable.
The bulkiest of the bunch, the compressible option opens and puffs up into a pillow somewhat resembling what you use at home. This makes them the most supportive pillow of the camping pillows, but usually also the least customizable, heaviest, and warmest. While I rarely bring this travel pillow on backpacking trips, I often use them during car camping and road trip adventures.
Overall, I’ve been pleased with the Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow (foam, 7 oz) and the Wenzel Camp Pillow (synthetic, 8 oz). The Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow packs up into an integrated stuff sack, which makes gear management simple.
Foam with polyester cover
Packed Size: 10.91 x 6.81 x 4.88 inches
In Use Size: 16 x 12 inches
Weight: 7 oz
The foam pillow takes some time to unroll and create loft, so unpack it at least 15 minutes before you plan to use it, for it to become fully inflated. The Wenzel Camp Pillow is not a blow up pillow, ready to use, requires less prep time and shines when used in a hammock setup.
- Synthetic with flannel cover
- Packed Size: 10.47 x 6.22 x 5.67 inches
- In Use Size: 20 x 12 x 3 inches
- Weight: 8 oz
Hybrid pillows provide the packability of the inflatable with the comfort of the compressible. Usually enhanced with a down or synthetic fill, hybrid pillows commonly have a removable machine washed cover, which makes this pillow type easy to clean between uses.
I’ve used the Cocoon Air-Core Hyperlight Pillow (2.7 oz) on some of my international adventures – including while on the plane – and appreciated the compact size and extra cushioning. While comfort steps up a notch with the hybrid pillows, so does weight and packed size.
- Inflatable air core under a layer of synthetic fill
- Packed Size: 4.3 x 2.6 inches
- In Use Size: 16 x 12 x 5 inches
- Weight: 2.7 oz
If you’re backpacking in winter and have the pack space to spare, then the added warmth of the padding may well be worth it. The pros are the added comfort while maintaining a lighter weight, while the con is larger packed size and continued risk of puncture in the air chamber, resulting in gear failure.
What do Backpackers use for a pillow?
While some ultralight enthusiasts may skip the camping pillow altogether, the promise of a restful night’s sleep makes the 1-3 ounce addition priceless. Inflatable and stuffable options make the best camping pillows for backpacking and ultralight trips.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow weighs in at 1.7 ounces and can be used as a gear/clothes sack when not in use as a backpacking pillow. This multi-use capability makes it a great option for ultralight trips.
When backpacking, the liter volume of your pack will inform how much size and the weight you can allocate for an inflatable or hybrid ultralight backpacking pillow. If you are in the 30-50 liter range you will want to stay small in size and weight. The 50-70+ range may allow for a bigger size, but still light in weight.
How to Pack a Pillow for Camping
Camping pillows often come with a stuff sack, except for stuffable pillows. It’s often wise to keep it in the stuff sack to make it easy to locate in your gear. If you are looking to shave off every ounce, then remove the pillow from the stuff sack.
In addition, you can either put it in another stuff sack you are already bringing, place it inside your sleeping bag. But if you carry your camping pillow, it is usually placed into a compression sack or stuffed directly into the hiking backpack.
Are Camping Pillows worth it?
When you’re counting every ounce you may be inclined to eliminate the camping pillow. Having traveled many miles with no pillow or an inferior pillow, I can assure you that the quality of your sleep will directly impact your performance the next day.
I experienced a miserable night prior to summiting a snowy Mount Shasta that made me rethink how I select my sleep system for future trips. Overall, I encourage you to make your trip an enjoyable success by selecting and packing along the right camp pillow, and sleep kit, that will best meet your needs.
About the Writer
Nina Pukonen is an avid outdoor enthusiast and gear aficiando. She began camping at the age of one, skiing at three, fishing at five, hiking/backpacking at twenty-one, and rock climbing at twenty-six. Her favorite activity is hiking with her dog, Sierra Snow. When not in the forest, she provides business operations services and consulting to higher education, public sector, and private sector clients. Instagram: @thenordicgypsy
Last update on 2022-08-18 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API