A guide to the best ultralight backpacking pillows.
For the ultralight backpacker, a comfy pillow may not be first priority on the packing list. Sleeping on a flattened, rolled up pile of stinky clothes can lead to a horrible night sleep though. Let’s go over a selection of pillows to ensure that your sleep is not spoiled.
First, we ain’t talking about pillows to take on a plane, foam pillows for car camping or glamping accessory pillows. This is the low down on ultralight pillows that are small and compact. Most can fit into your pocket if need be and add a much needed level of comfort at the end of a day's long hike.
Numerous factors need to be considered before you purchase a backpacking pillow, such as inflation method, shape, size and weight to suit your backpacking style and how you like to sleep.
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 the lightest. The downside is that they often provide little cushioning and can be quite stiff.
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 . 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.
HYBRID. 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.
WEIGHT: Preferably you don't want to add anything more than 3 oz. to your backpack. These are, afterall, a luxury item.
SIZE and SHAPE: 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.
LIFT: 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.
COMFORT: 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. Remember a washable soft cover will allow your skin to breathe and won't leave you in a sweaty mess in the morning.
Weight: 3.7 oz; Packing Size: 11 x 7.5 cm; Inflated Size: 33 x 43 cm
Super lightweight and compact, featuring an inflatable and urethane air core. Microfiber shell on one side and and ultralight nylon on the other side. You can take your pick from a light blue grey or wasabi grey to hide the night's drool. The optimized hybrid version comes with an inflatable, exchangeable air core under a layer of synthetic filling and a microfiber/nylon shell, but weighs twice as much. Note to self to remember to inflate the pillow before washing.
Weight: 2.78 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 centre the pillow over your shoulders, no matter how you sleep. Complete with a multi-functional valve, it only takes a couple of deep breaths to blow it up. You can take your pick of 2 sizes with both having a fabric that will keep your face dry from the night sweats.
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 lightest pillow on the list. This pillow is lightweight, comfy and rugged. A hybrid construction of lightweight polyester makes it tear, puncture and abrasion resistant. Offering adjustable height and pressure so you can adjust the firmness and the lift to your liking, it is specifically designed to be sleeping bag compatible and is about the size of a lighter.
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
Another super ultralight pillow and only takes up a dot of space in your backpack (think the size of a lighter), the Exped Air Pillow is skin friendly and can easily be attached to a mat by 2 fabric grommets. You can adjust the height for how you sleep and the anatomical shape will hold your head in place. The pillow is easy to inflate and deflate, via separate flat valves. However, it is known to be less durable.
Weight: 2.8 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 and it's pajama grey-stripe cotton/polyester jersey fabric. It comes complete with its own stuff sack about the size of a tennis ball, so you can shove it in a pocket if need be. It has a compressible top layer and an inflatable bottom side, which increases support
Weight: 1.16 oz; Dimensions: 25.4 x 35.6 cm
A comfy pillow at night and by day the place to stash your gear to keep it dry and compartmentalized, the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack comes in 2 sizes of convenience and comfort that will fit into your pocket when not in use. Made out of waterproof Dyneema, it comes complete with a waterproof zipper.
Weight: 1 oz; Packing Size: fits into your pocket; Dimensions: 36 x 14 x 43 cm cm
Stuff your unworn clothes into this brushed polyester pillowcase. It feels great on the skin and a treat to put your head at night. It only weighs an ounce and packs down to almost nothing. If your clothes are sweaty and dirty, it can be nice resting your head on a clean surface at night. Not to mention, your clothes will be nice and warm to put back on in the morning (especially awesome in colder climates).
By Chris Cage
Chris launched Greenbelly Meals in 2014 after thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail for 6 months. Since then, Greenbelly has been written up by everyone from Backpacker Magazine to Fast Company. He wrote How to Hike the Appalachian Trail and currently works from his laptop all over the globe. Instagram: @chrisrcage.
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