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Backpacking and Camping Pillow Comparison

by Alicia MacLeay
July 18, 2007

Many backpackers consider pillows a backcountry luxury, one usually left behind to save weight and pack space. But a good night’s sleep can be worth a few ounces (and maybe more) in your pack. So if you, and your neck, want to move beyond that rolled up fleece or stuff sack pillow, take a look at the range of backpacking and camping pillows below.

Backpacking pillows come in two primary varieties: compressible and inflatable, and some that combine the two.

Compressible pillows are filled with down, synthetic fibers, foam, or a combination, and come in a range of outer fabrics, such as fleece, cotton, and nylon. Just like in sleeping bags, down and synthetic fills each have their merits. Down is lighter, softer, and more compressible (both for packing and under your head). Synthetic fills are firmer, bulkier, and more affordable. Hybrids, which use both down and synthetic fill, aim to combine the best attributes of each. Inflatable pillows offer the advantages of weight and space savings for a relatively large surface area, and their firmness can be adjusted. Both compressible and inflatable pillows are available in a variety of sizes and shapes.

Judging pillows has a certain Goldilocks aspect to it—“too hard”, “too soft”, and “just right” can be highly subjective. But overall we found the compressible pillows more comfortable than the inflatable ones. Of course, that comfort comes with a bulkier size and heavier weight.


Down Compressible Pillows
Synthetic Compressible Pillows
Inflatable Pillows
Pillow Accessories

Down Compressible Pillows

Cocoon Down Travel Pillow (small) * Trailspace Pick for Lightweight Backpacking *

Weight: 2.6 oz (60 g)
Fill: white goose down
Dimensions: 10" x 13" (25 x 35 cm)
3" x 4" (packed)
MSRP: $24

Pros: The Cocoon Down Travel Pillow can’t be beat for its light weight, softness, and high compressibility. Its small size means it fits well inside a sleeping bag and it easily compresses into its stuff sack to become a tiny ball. Ultralighters who want a little something to take the edge off their scratchy, bunched-up jacket, but don't want the weight and size of a full pillow, will appreciate this one. Also available in medium and large.

Cons: The down fill may be too soft and compressible for some heads; I doubled my pillow over for more support. The nylon covering can be a little noisy against hair, but this can be remedied with one of Cocoon’s microfleece or silk/cotton pillowcases or by putting a piece of clothing on top.

Western Mountaineering Cloudrest * Trailspace Pick for Backpacking Comfort *

Weight: 5 oz
Fill: 800-fill power goose down
Dimensions: 12" x 16"
MSRP: $39

Pros: The 800-fill Cloudrest is amazingly soft and comfortable and offers sufficient support, cradling your head and preventing any head rolling. For not much weight you get a fairly large surface area, and it's extremely easy to compress into its built-in stuff sack. This pillow is just about perfect for backpacking.

Cons: It's pricey, and it doesn’t compress down quite as tiny as the Cocoon Down Travel Pillow.

Sierra Designs Sleep E-Z Pillow (down)

Weight: 5 oz
Fill: down
Dimensions: 11" x 6.5" x 3.5"
MSRP: $27

Pros: The Sleep E-Z Pillow is the firmest and smallest of the down pillows tested. It has a curved shape to fit inside mummy bag hoods and sleeping bags with pillow pockets, and it comes with a very soft, removable fleece cover and permanently attached stuff sack that you can’t lose.

Cons: Both the down and synthetic E-Z Pillows were quite firm initially, bordering on overstuffed (though some may find that a pro), but softened after some use. This small pillow is more comfortable for sleeping on your side than back, where it can feel like your head might roll off to the side. Its full size is roughly the same as its packed size, since it doesn’t compress much further inside its stuff sack. A balled up fleece or stuff sack pillow might be just as comfortable at the same size, without the added weight or cost.

REI Travel Down Pillow

Weight: 6 oz
Fill: polyfiber synthetic insulation core surrounded by 500-fill goose down
Dimensions: 18" x 12"
12" x 4" x 3" (packed)
MSRP: $15

Pros: Reasonably comfortable and lighter weight than other pillows its size. The two-sided outer fabric gives you the choice of polyester on one side or polyester/cotton on the other, and the hybrid design combines the softness of goose down with the firmness of synthetic fill. When stuffed into its tubular stuff sack, the pillow becomes a neck-support pillow or lumbar pad. The larger size makes it best for basecamp and travel. It's the most affordable of the down pillows.

Cons: Despite its synthetic core, the pillow still feels a bit flat, and it's too big to fit inside a mummy bag. However, doubling it over works nicely. It isn’t as compressible as the other down or hybrid pillows and it took a couple tries to roll it up and get it back into its tubular stuff sack properly.

Kelty Luxury Pillow * Trailspace Pick for Basecamp Comfort *

Weight: 10 oz
Fill: 600-fill power duck down on top, Thermolite Quallo on bottom
Dimensions: 18" x 14" (46 x 36 cm)
5" x 9" (13 x 23 cm) (packed)
MSRP: $25

Pros: Aptly named, the Kelty Luxury pillow is the most comfortable of all the pillows we tested, striking the right balance between softness and support. It feels like a “real” pillow, just a bit smaller. It cradles your head in its center without becoming squashed down or your head rolling off to the side. Its soft cover offers the choice between cool nylon and soft polyester-cotton. Its large size makes it an excellent choice for basecamp.

Cons: Designed for basecamp, it’s too heavy for backpacking and too big to fit inside a cinched down mummy bag hood. It takes a little effort to stuff it back into its stuff sack. Kelty should consider making a half-size version for backpackers, which could be perfect.


Synthetic Compressible Pillows

Cocoon Synthetic Travel Pillow (small)

Weight: 5.3 oz (150 g)
Fill: synthetic
Dimensions: 10" x 13"
3" x 4" (packed)
MSRP: $16

Pros: Where the down version of Cocoon’s travel pillow scores on light weight and softness, the synthetic version offers a firmer, more supportive feel. It’s small enough to fit inside a mummy bag hood and quite comfortable, no doubling over for support necessary. Also available in medium and large.

Cons: The synthetic version isn’t as compressible as the down and is a bit heavier for the same full size. Like with the down, the nylon covering can be a little noisy against hair, but you can add Cocoon's optional microfleece or silk/cotton pillowcases.

Sierra Designs Sleep E-Z Pillow (synthetic)

Weight: 6 oz
Fill: synthetic
Dimensions: 11" x 6.5" x 3.5"
MSRP: $20

Pros: While both versions of the Sleep E-Z Pillow were firm, the synthetic one didn’t feel as overstuffed and was more comfortable. It also softened with some use. Just like the down, it has a small, curved shape to fit inside mummy bag hoods and sleeping bags with pillow pockets, and comes with a very soft, removable fleece cover and permanently attached stuff sack.

Cons: Due to its firmness and small size, the Sleep E-Z is more comfortable for sleeping on your side than back, where it feels like your head might roll off to the side. Its full size is roughly the same as its compressed size, since it doesn’t compress much further into its stuff sack. A balled up fleece or stuff sack pillow might be as comfortable, without adding any weight to your pack.

Sea to Summit Travel Pillow

Weight: 6.6 oz
Fill: Dacron filling
Dimensions: 16" x 11"
7" x 5.5" x 4 1/2" (packed)
MSRP: $19.95

Pros: The Sea to Summit Travel Pillow is a favorite for its simple design. It has a nice balance between super softness—including the soft brushed fabric on its face—and support. With the help of a built-in drawcord it neatly and easily compresses into itself, with the nylon underside forming a protective shell, like a clam. There are no stuff sacks to lose. The design also allows you to adjust firmness slightly by gathering in the pillow a little.

Cons: It’s not the lightest pillow, even out of the synthetics, but for its weight it is possibly the most comfortable of the synthetics tested. Some will find it too soft.

Therm-A-Rest Compressible Pillow (small) * Trailspace Pick for Family Camping Value *

Weight: 7 oz
Fill: recycled self-lofting ProLite foam
Dimensions: 12" x 16"
12" x 4" (packed)
MSRP: $17.95

Pros: Sufficiently comfortable, the Therm-A-Rest Compressible Pillow is an affordable, environmentally-friendly choice for family camping. It's filled with the star-shaped foam scraps left over from manufacturing Therm-a-Rest ProLite mattresses. The pillow rolls up easily and neatly into its own flap, becoming a quarter of its full size. Also available in medium (9 oz) and large (12 oz).

Cons: Even the smallest size is larger than most backpackers are willing to carry. After being stored compressed it’s initially quite lumpy, but washing and drying gives back its loft and a more uniform feel. Though the foam fill remains slightly lumpy to the touch, it isn't noticeable when sleeping on it.

Pacific Outdoor Equipment InsulMat Deluxe Pillow * Trailspace Pick for Family Camping Value *

Weight: 8 oz (215 g)
Fill: recycled foam chips
Dimensions: 10" x 17" (24 x 43 cm)
MSRP: $12

Pros: The InsulMat Deluxe is a firm but comfortable pillow with a very soft, fleece top and lots of support. It cradles your head well, and has a built-in nylon cover on the bottom that stretches over the fleece face side to keep it clean when not in use. It's filled with foam scraps and diamond chips left over from manufacturing POE sleeping pads, making it an environmentally-friendly choice. The large size makes it good for basecamp. It's very affordable and at $12 is a great value for campers.

Cons: It's too bulky for backpacking. When first unfolded you can feel lumpy bands of foam inside, but after washing and drying it becomes full, soft, and uniform. The fleece side collects lint and hair when not covered. It's difficult to get back inside its stuff sack, although that’s not much of an issue for basecamp.

Sea to Summit Luxury Pillow

Weight: 12 oz (inflating insert only: 6.8 oz, pillow only: 5.2 oz)
Fill: self-inflating insert, Dacron-filled pillow
Dimensions: 16" x 10", height adjustable up to 5.5"
MSRP: $39.95

Pros: The Sea to Summit Luxury Pillow will appeal to those looking for a larger, firm to very firm pillow, with some adjustability. The self-inflating insert lets you adjust the pillow’s height and firmness and can be removed and used as a seat or separate pillow. While it initially seemed a tad too firm and high to me (even when adjusted), I slept on it with no complaints or need to readjust all night. Comes with a Velcro compression strap to tighten around the rolled up pillow.

Cons: It won’t appeal to those who want softness or a very simple design. It's pretty expensive for a camping pillow, and lacks a cover or stuff sack to help keep it clean, only having the Velcro strap for compression.


Inflatable Pillows

Pacific Outdoor Equipment InsulMat Aero U-Pillow

Weight: 3 oz (104 g)
Dimensions: 18.5" x 11" (47 x 28 cm)
MSRP: $12

Pros: If you're weight-conscious, but still want a decent-sized pillow, you'll probably need an inflatable, like this affordable one. The Aero U packs down very small and is quite light. For a nylon-covered pillow, the brushed surface was fairly comfortable against the skin. It's also offered as the larger, rectangular Aero Pillow (8 oz, $17).

Cons: It comes with a small plastic tube to blow it up more easily, which is quickly lost. The tube isn't essential, but it takes a little more effort to inflate and deflate the pillow without it. You have to like a U-shaped pillow, or opt for the heavier rectangular version.

Exped Pillow Pump * Trailspace Pick for Multi-Functionality *

Weight: 4.2 oz (120 g)
Dimensions: 13" x 6" x 4" (33 x 15 x 10 cm)
6" x 3" (15 x 8 cm) (packed)
MSRP: $19

Pros: The Exped Pillow Pump does double duty, first helping you pump up your air mat by hand or foot, then becoming a contoured pillow once you close its valves. The foam interior makes it surprisingly comfortable and with an adjustable firmness and height it's suited to a wide variety of sleepers. While the edges of the outer fabric may look scratchy, they're not. The pump packs down quite small for its bulk and works with any standard inflatable sleeping pad.

Cons: If you don’t need or want a pump for your sleeping pad, you probably won’t bring it along. While the contoured shape is adequate, you don't have a lot of surface area and can move off the pillow during the night.

Big Agnes Air Core Pillow

Weight: 4.5 oz
Dimensions: 12" x 16" x 2.5"
2" x 7.5" (packed)
MSRP: $22

Pros: The Air Core packs down very small, but can be inflated to a large size. Unlike compressible pillows, you can easily adjust its firmness to your own liking and comfort. The I-beam interior construction panels keep it from becoming too rounded on top for an even surface. It's easy to inflate and you get a lot of surface area for not much weight or pack size.

Cons: Despite the many advantages of this inflatable, there was one con that trumped all—the nylon is quite noisy and drove one tester nuts. Putting clothes on top of it or placing it inside a very large pillow pocket (like in Big Agnes’s rectangular sleeping bags) can muffle the sound some. If the nylon was covered in something softer and less noisy this pillow would be vastly improved.


Pillow Accessories

Big Agnes Sleeping Giant Memory Foam Pillow (upgrade kit)

Weight: 7 oz (not including Air Core or other pillow)
Dimensions: 16" x 12"
7.5" x 9" x 3" (packed in stuff sack)
7.5" x 3" (rolled compressed)
MSRP: $15 (upgrade kit); $29 (deluxe)

Pros: The Sleeping Giant Pillow lets you add a layer of comfortable memory foam on top of a Big Agnes Air Core or other pillow inserted inside its cover. The foam layer adds a soft, uniform, pillow-top feel to your air pillow, while still being able to change the air pillow’s firmness and height by inflating and deflating. Adding the Upgrade Kit to the Air Core pillow made it much more comfortable than the Air Core alone. The Deluxe version ($29) comes with an air pillow.

Cons: At 11.5 ounces for total set-up it's heavy. While the foam layer and cover significantly diminished the noisiness of the Air Core’s nylon covering, it was still a little noticeable to obsessive types. However, using a different pillow in the upgrade kit might fix that.

Therm-A-Rest Wrap-It Pillow (20") * Trailspace Pick for Multi-Functionality *

Weight: 3.2 oz
Dimensions: 20" x 26" (51 x 66 cm)
MSRP: $22.95

Pros: The beauty of the Wrap-It is its simple, lightweight, multi-functional design. Slide it on the end of your sleeping pad and leave it there. It works as both a pillow sleeve and a storage sack for your pad by simply rolling up the pad inside it and compressing it with the straps. At night simply unroll. The fleece-covered sleeve holds a pillow or extra clothes. Ultimately, it’s an appealingly simple design that’s as comfortable as whatever you use for your pillow stuffing. Also available in a 25-inch version.

Cons: Despite the name, it's not really a pillow; the Wrap-It requires a pillow or clothes to provide support. Any pillow or clothes in the sleeve are underneath your sleeping bag, which may not be as comfortable as directly under your head. Also, the Wrap-It can slide several inches off your sleeping pad on the floor of a slippery tent and there’s no way to secure it on.