A guide to the best ultralight backpacking pillows.
Updated: January 19th, 2021
Lots of ultralight hikers consider backpacking pillows a luxury gear item. But because they weigh just a few ounces and occupy minimal space, they can make a world of difference in how you sleep in the backcountry. We breakdown what you need to and give you some suggestions.
|Weight||Packing Size||Inflated Size|
|Cocoon HyperLight Air-Core Pillow||2.7 oz||11 x 6.5 cm||28 x 38 cm|
|Sea to Summit Aeros Premium||2.7 oz||7 x 8.5 cm||34 x 24 x 11 cm|
|Klymit Pillow X||1.95 oz||11.3 x 6.35 x 2.5 cm||38.1 x 27.9 x 10.2 cm|
|Exped Air Pillow UL||1.95 oz||11.43 x 6.35 x 2.54 cm||38.1 x 27.9 x 10.2 cm|
|NEMO Fillo Elite||2.8 oz||10 x 8 cm||27 x 39 x 8 cm|
|Therm-a-Rest Air Head Pillow||5.6 oz||8.9 x 11.4 cm||28 x 39 x 10 cm|
|Trekology Aluft 1.0||2.75 oz||5 x 2 cm||30 x 40 x 10 cm|
|Big Agnes AXL||1.6 oz||10 x 6 x 5 cm||25 x 40 x 10 cm|
|Therm-a-Rest Pillow Case||2.7 oz||n/a||19 x 43 cm|
|Zpacks Medium Pillow||1.4 oz||15 x 30.5 cm||15 cm x 30.5 cm|
|Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack||1.16 oz||n/a||n/a|
COMPRESSIBLE. These pillows are filled with various foams and synthetic fibres or some sort of combination. They may be super comfy and instantly ready for your heavy head, but they are very bulky and can be much heavier than their inflatable counterpart. If comfort is what you want and you are willing to pay for it, then go for a compressible pillow with down feathers. They are the softest, most compressible and the lightest to carry.
INFLATABLE. Take your pick - self inflation (blow up with your breath) or—for the lazy souls—you can get one that auto inflates (open a valve and let the pillow expand). You can adjust the amount of air for more comfort, but they can be noisy when you move your head. The big advantage with inflatable pillows is that they are super minimalist and lightweight. The downside is that they often provide little cushioning and can be quite stiff.
Two different types of valve
HYBRID. These are the best of both worlds, as they are a morphing of inflatable and compressible designs. A hybrid pillow has the fluff on the top to make it comfy for your head and an inflatable bottom to increase support. It will give you the dream catching night's sleep, but you will have to be prepared to sacrifice a moderate amount of space and weight.
STUFF SACKS. Stuff sacks use your own clothing to inflate the pillow. You simply stuff your clothing inside the sack and lay down your head. When you wake up, you don’t even have to deflate the pillow. You can keep the sack filled with your clothing until you need them. Just make sure you use soft clothing, like socks and shirts, that don’t have buckles or similar hard items.
Packed inflatable pillow (Sea to Summit Aeros).
SIZE AND SHAPE: KEEPING YOUR HEAD ON THE PILLOW ALL NIGHT
How do you sleep… on your back, on your stomach or on your side? This will determine how much support you need to keep your spine aligned. Backpacking pillows can tend to be on the small side, so you may want to go for a contoured pillow rather than a square shape, which will help to keep your head actually "on" the pillow all night.
Side sleepers should consider pillows that are firm and have more loft. They need that extra height to support their head, neck, and shoulder while they sleep. Back and stomach sleepers typically rest with their head closer to the ground. As a result, they can choose softer, low-profile pillows that cradle their head and not prop them up.
The X design keeps your head in the center of the pillow (Klymit Pillow X)
WEIGHT: NO MORE THAN 3ISH OUNCES
Preferably you don't want to add anything more than 3 oz. to your backpack. These are, afterall, a luxury item.
LIFT: DIFFERENT HEIGHTS FOR DIFFERENT SLEEPING STYLES
Consider the height of the pillow for how you normally sleep. Backpacking pillows with inflatable bladders give the option to customize the level of support. A pillow of this variety will cost you more, but it may be worth it, if you are prone to a sore neck or back. Also consider the thickness of the outer material and whether you can add padding to it.
Adjusting the softness and lift of the Exped Air Pillow UL
INSULATION: KEEPS YOUR HEAD WARM AT NIGHT
Similar to sleeping pads, some pillows have insulation for cold weather backpacking. This insulation traps the heat inside the pillow so you won’t feel like you are sleeping on an ice cube.
PACKED SIZE: SOME PACK DOWN TO THE SIZE OF A LIGHTER
The smaller the better when it comes to your backpacking pillow. You want a pillow that you can compress down and stuff into your pack. Mist pillows are compact but they do vary in size. The addition of valves for inflation and insulation add to the weight and size of a pillow.
Pillow lift can make difference in how comfortable you sleep.
NOISE: TEST 'EM BEFORE YOU BUY 'EM
One overlooked aspect of a pillow is the noise that it makes. Some pillows are nearly silent while you sleep, while others make an annoying crinkly noise. Visit a local retailer and test out the pillow if you can. If you cannot, then scour online reviews or ask existing owners about the noise level of the pillow you would like to purchase.
COMFORT: PILLOW MATERIAL, GRIP AND CASING
You may have your nose buried in your pillow for half the night, so check out what the outer fabric is or make sure you have an item of soft clothing to wrap around your not-so-skin-friendly pillow.
Some pillows ship with an outer pillowcase that provides a soft sleeping surface. It also gives the pillow some grip, so it doesn't slide around at night. Many pillows incorporate this soft layer into the pillow material, while some add it as a removable pillowcase.
A separate, removable pillowcase adds extra weight, but it does allow you to wash it. The ability to launder your pillow may be critical to those who tend to drool, have easily irritated skin, or want to always sleep on a clean surface.
Removable cover on the Therm-a-Rest Air Head pillow.
Weight: 2.7 oz; Packing Size: 11 x 6.5 cm; Inflated Size: 28 x 38 cm
The Cocoon HyperLight Air-Core is a super lightweight and compact pillow, featuring an inflatable air core chamber that is lined with foam for extra cushioning. It is made from ultralight ripstop nylon that is soft to the touch and not crinkly. It is slippery, though, so you'll need a way to secure it to your sleeping bag or pad. The Cocoon HyperLight Air-Core has a basic rectangular shape with a twist-lock valve that sticks out slightly from the side when it is inflated. It is a bit dated -- most pillows have a flush valve and curved shape that hugs your head and shoulders. Despite its classic design, the Cocoon HyperLight Air-Core is a comfortable and durable pillow that provides hours of quality sleep on the trail.
Weight: 2.7 oz; Packing Size: 7 x 8.5 cm; Inflated Size: 34 x 24 x 11 cm
A pillow to cradle your neck lovingly, the Aeros Premium has a scalloped bottom edge that will center the pillow over your shoulders, no matter how you sleep. This design is not only comfortable, but it also helps prevent the pillow from moving around while you sleep.The Aeros Premium is made with a durable 50-denier polyester material that is both rugged and soft. It has a brushed polyester stretch knit on the top and bottom that is soft against the skin. The Aeros Premium stands out for its loft that offers ample support for side sleepers. Complete with a high-flow, multi-functional valve, it only takes a couple of deep breaths to blow it up and a few seconds to deflate. You also can use the valve to fine-tune the inflation for optimal comfort. This allows side sleepers to pump the pillow to the max, while letting back and stomach sleepers lower the height as desired. You can take your pick of 2 sizes - regular and deluxe. There's also an ultralight version that shaves a few ounces by using a lighter 20-denier polyester material.
Weight: 1.95 oz; Packing Size: 11.3 x 6.35 x 2.5 cm; Inflated Size: 38.1 x 27.9 x 10.2 cm
Tied for the lightest pillow on the list, the Klymit Pillow X offers a winning combination of lightweight, comfy, and rugged. The hybrid construction of lightweight 75D polyester makes it tear, puncture, and abrasion-resistant. You can sleep on it and even kneel on it without it bursting its seams. Its winning feature, though, is its compact size. The Klymit Pillow X is so compact that it can pack down to the size of a lighter. On the comfort side, the pillow has a definite advantage, thanks to its signature x-shaped design that cradles your head. At the end of a long day of hiking, you'll look forward to support and comfort. Because of its X-shape, the Klymit Pillow X has a low profile and not a lot of loft in the center. Side sleepers can make it work, but the Klymit Pillow X is best for back and stomach sleepers. Regardless of how you sleep, you can adjust the height and the air pressure so you can dial in the firmness and the loft to your liking.
Weight: 1.95 oz; Packing Size: 11.43 x 6.35 x 2.54 cm; Inflated Size: 38.1 x 27.9 x 10.2 cm
The Exped AirPillow UL will catch the eye of ultralight backpackers who want one of the smallest and lightest pillows on the market. Like the Klymit Pillow X, the Exped AirPillow UL only takes up a dot of space in your backpack. When fully compressed and folded, the pillow is the size of a lighter. Because it is so small, you don't have a large sleeping surface. You may find yourself off the pillow if you toss and turn a lot at night.
Compact and comfortable, the Exped Air Pillow UL stays in place thanks to a textured surface that also is skin-friendly. If you need more staying power, the pillow can easily attach to a sleeping pad using the two side fabric grommets. The pillow is easy to inflate and deflate via separate flat valves. You can adjust the height for how you either side or back/stomach sleeping. It is noisy and has a reputation for being less durable than the competition.
Weight: 3 oz; Packing Size: 10 x 8 cm; Inflated Size: 27 x 39 x 8 cm
You can make a fashion statement with the hybrid Nemo Fillo Elite rectangular pillow. It has a washable jersey blend cover available in a blue, dark gray, or sapphire striped pattern. It comes complete with its own stuff sack and packs down to the size of a lime. You can stash it in your pack, side pocket, or even the hip pocket.
The Nemo Fillo Elite is insulated with a Primaloft layer that keeps your face warm while you sleep. It’s one of the few pillows that are insulated for three to four season use. On the inside is an inflatable bladder with baffles that’ll cradle your head instead of push uncomfortably against it. Unfortunately, it's a small pillow and doesn't have as much loft as some of its competitors. Side sleepers may find the Nemo Fillo Elite too small, while back and stomach sleepers will love the comfort and compact size.
Weight: 5.6 oz; Packing Size: 8.9 x 11.4 cm; Inflated Size: 28 x 39 x 10 cm
The Therm-a-Rest Air Head Pillow gives the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium a run for its money as the loftiest and most firm pillow on our list. On the inside is a supportive, curved-shaped air chamber that delivers ample support for side sleepers. When inflated fully, it is a firm pillow, but this firmness can be dialed down using the side-mounted twist-lock valve. It’s not the lightest pillow on the market, but you can cut that weight in half with the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Lite which keeps the internal inflatable pillow and ditches the outer covering.
You will sleep comfortably through the night as long as you don't move around too much. The pillow is noisy when you move, especially when it is underinflated. To cut down on the crinkling, you can fully inflate the pillow and sleep with minimal noise. As a bonus, the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Pillow ships with a soft, brushed fabric covering that can be removed for washing.
Weight: 2.75 oz; Packing Size: 5 x 2 cm; Inflated Size: 30 x 40 x 10 cm
A discount pillow with a sub $20 price tag, the Trekology Aluft 1.0 has been a staple of frugal backpackers. For its cost, the Trekology Aluft 1.0 delivers an outstanding value. It inflates quickly and is super comfy, thanks to its scoop design. It'll last at least a season and can go even longer if you take care of it on the trail. It's a no-brainer for someone who is on the fence about owning a pillow. For under $20, you can buy it and try it. If you don't like it, you then give it away without too much financial loss.
The 1.0 version is Trekology's most popular pillow, but the new 2.0 model offers a handful of small upgrades. First, the Trekology Aluft 2.0 adds an anti-slip surface to keep the pillow in place. It also has improved ergonomics to make the pillow even more comfortable than version 1.0. Trekology kept the price affordable for version 2.0, so you can purchase either version and still get an incredible deal.
Weight: 1.6 oz; Packing Size: 10 x 6 x 5 cm; Inflated Size: 25 x 40 x 10 cm
Big Agnes is known for its sleeping pads, so it's not surprising to see the company jump into the backpacking pillow market. When it comes down to it, a backpacking pillow is a small version of a sleeping pad. One of Big Agnes's most popular pillow is the AXL, a lightweight backpacking pillow with features typically found in larger and heavier camp pillows.
The Big Agnes AXL Air Pillow's top feature is its two0way, quick release valve that allows for fast inflation and deflation. Just two or three breaths, and it is fully inflated. It has a micro-release button to let you fine-tune the pillow to your preferred amount of support. The AXL also has a kidney bean shape that helps keep the pillow under your head and shoulder. It also is relatively noise-free.
If you want a pillow with a bit more luxury, then you should look at the Big Agnes Q-Core. It has the same durable construction but has a significantly larger footprint (35 x 50 x 12 cm), making it a lot more comfortable for sleeping. This boost in size, though, nearly doubles the weight (3.1 ounces).
Weight: 2.7 oz; Inflated Size: 19 x 43 cm
The Therm-a-Rest Pillow Case lets you convert your daytime stuff sack into a comfortable pillow. Being able to use a single bag for two purposes is a lifesaver. It cuts down on the amount of stuff you have to carry and helps trim weight ]s. Like the Zpacks Medium Pillow, the inside of the polyester stuff sack has a brushed polyester lining. It's this lining that you lay on and is soft against your skin. The fabric is crinkly, which is not very conducive to a good's night sleep.
Weight: 1.4 oz; Packing Size: 15 x 30.5 cm; Inflated Size: 15 cm x 30.5 cm
The Zpacks Medium Pillow takes the company's ultralight stuff sack and turns it into a comfortable backpacking pillow. Ultralight and super strong, the Zpacks Medium Pillow is made from waterproof Dyneema. On the interior, the stuff sack is lined with a soft microfleece layer on one side. When you are ready to sleep, just turn the sack inside out to expose the fleece layer and fill the empty sack with spare clothes. You can stuff your puffy into the sack at night and then use the sack for your sleeping bag during the day. AAt 5.6 liters, the Zpacks Medium Pillow is an excellent size for sleeping with just enough room for your head and neck. Even though it has fleece on one side, the Dyneema can be crinkly whenever you move.
Weight: 1.16 oz; Dimensions: 25.4 x 35.6 cm
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack pillow is a jack of all trades. By day it's a place to stash your gear to keep it dry and compartmentalized. At night, it's your gateway to a good's night sleep. You don't even have to unpack it. Just fill the sack with soft clothes and use it as needed. It's so convenient. You may even be tempted to take an occasional afternoon siesta.
A simple design, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack pillow is made from strong but lightweight Dyneema fabric. The Dyneema fabric is waterproof, and it comes complete with a waterproof zipper. The pillow is lined on one side with Polartec® 100-weight fleece for comfort and warmth while sleeping.
The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack comes in 2 sizes -- small and large- - that will fit into your pocket when not in use. The large pillow weighs half an ounce more than the smaller sack, but it is roomier. The large pillow fills the hood of a sleeping bag and provides just enough room to lay your head and move around a bit.
You can use your unworn clothes and turn them into a makeshift pillow or pillowcase. You’re already carrying your clothes, so you might as well put them to good use.
Wad your clothes into a pile that you place under your head
Stuff your clothes inside a buff or a t-shirt to hold your clothes together
You also can take a minimalist pillow and wrap it inside a t-shirt and add some extra clothes for cushioning.
Using your own clothes means you won’t have to carry around a separate pillow. Not only is it efficient to use your existing clothes, but your clothes also will be nice and warm to put back on in the morning (especially awesome in colder climates).
This, of course, works best when your pillow-packing clothes are clean. You don’t want to be sleeping on your dirty, stinky socks.
One other consideration is comfort. Clothes-based pillows also are not as comfortable as their inflatable counterparts. Clothes can be lumpy and have zippers, buckles and other components that are uncomfortable for sleeping.
For a lightweight DIY pillow, stuff clothes inside a Buff or another piece of clothing.
Are backpacking pillows worth it?
Sleep is critical when you're backpacking. You won’t be in top form if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. This need for quality sleep is the main reason why backpackers choose to bring a pillow. It’s an easy decision—backpacking pillows are not only plush, but they are lightweight and take up minimal space. If comfort is important to you, then a pillow is a worthwhile purchase.
Not everyone needs a plush sleeping surface, though. Many people do just fine with a folded puffy jacket under their head. Folks who want to spend as little as possible on their gear or want to go as light as they can won’t need a backpacking pillow. Save that money and spend it on other gear that is more important to you.
How do you keep a pillow on a sleeping pad?
Just like sleeping pads, backpacking pillows are slippery. They tend to slip off your sleeping pad and your sleeping bag in the middle of the night.
The easiest way to keep them from moving is to grab an extra t-shirt and stuff your pillow inside it. You can place the pillow at the neck opening and position the bottom of the shirt underneath you so you are laying on it. Not only is the t-shirt material not very slippery, but your body weight also will serve to anchor the pillow in place.
If you don't mind modifying your sleeping pad or sleeping bag, you can secure the pillow with velcro or attach elastic straps to prevent your pillow from moving while you sleep.
You also can look for a sleeping bag with an integrated pillow sleeve, but those are free and far between.
By Kelly Hodgkins: Kelly is a full-time backpacking guru. She can be found on New Hampshire and Maine trails, leading group backpacking trips, trail running or alpine skiing.
About Greenbelly: After thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, Chris Cage created Greenbelly to provide fast, filling and balanced meals to backpackers. Chris also wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail.
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