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|Top Pick & Best Value: Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case||
|Best Inflatable: Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow||
|2.4 oz||Polyester fill with nylon shell||3 breaths|
|Honorable Mention: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light (Regular)||
|2 oz||Polyester||2 breaths|
|Honorable Mention: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium (Regular)||
|2.8 oz||Polyester||2 breaths|
|2.75 oz||Polyester||3 breaths|
|Exped Air Pillow UL (Medium)||
|1.6 oz||Polyester||2 breaths|
|Exped Air Pillow (Medium)||
|2.5 oz||Polyester tricot||2.5 breaths|
|Klymit Pillow X||
|1.95 oz||30D Top/75D Bottom Polyester||2 breaths|
|2.4 oz||Nylon||4 breaths|
If you’re on the hunt for the perfect backpacking pillow, it’s time to look past the inflatables. After field testing 9 popular options over the course of a month, we think the Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case is the best ‘pillow’ for most backpackers.
Unlike an inflatable, the Trekker Pillow Case gets its cushioning from whatever clothes you take with you. It simplifies outdoor sleeping, and — if you stuff it with the right clothes — is the most comfortable and reliable of all the pillows we tested.
If you want an inflatable, though, or are tired or making pillows out of your clothes, our favorite is the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow. It’s lightweight and incredibly soft and won’t slip or slide during use.
Our testing judged each pillow on its comfort, support, durability and practicality. We used them in the car, in the tent, at home, and on planes. Read on for the full reviews of our winners and losers.
Top Pick & Best Value: Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case
Before testing for this project, I rarely ever used pillows when backpacking. I just stuffed all my extra clothes in my sleeping bag’s compression sack and used that.
The Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case follows the same philosophy, but in a much softer and more comfortable package — when filled and fluffed with the right clothes, it’s comfier than anything I have in my home (Is that sad?).
What’s more, because it’s not inflatable, it’s guaranteed to never pop. That reliability is reassuring, especially when stories of leaky inflatables abound.
At the time of publishing, the Trekker Pillow Case also has the lowest MSRP of all the options we tested. This means our Top Pick is also the option on the list that offers the most bang for your buck. It’s a great value all around.
What’s the catch?
The pillow’s comfort and support are reliant upon the clothes you stuff into it. If you want a soft pillow, you’ll need to bring soft or puffy clothes. If you want a firm pillow, you’ll need to fill it with multiple articles of clothing. If you stuff it with clothes that have lots of buttons and zippers, the metal parts could uncomfortably press against your face.
I stuffed my puffy jacket inside each night and loved it for the squishiness. However, Taylor, my boyfriend, found that a puffy alone wasn’t firm enough for his liking. And he actually prefers to sleep in his puffy jacket, meaning that he didn’t have many squishy clothes to spare for filling. If you’re like him, opt for an inflatable instead.
Is it the lightest option we tested? No. (That would be the Exped Air Pillow UL.)
Will I be carrying this pillow case with me on all future trips? Yes.
Best Inflatable: Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow
The most comfortable inflatable backpacking pillows are the ones that feel the least like an inflatable. If the only support they offer comes from the air from your lungs, you’re resting your head on a glorified balloon.
To that end, the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow uses both an inflatable “air core” plus polyester fiber fill to create its support. Along with the soft nylon shell, these features make this pillow the most comfortable inflatable we tested.
The Cocoon inflates quickly, sits snug and even fits in the hood of most sleeping bags. With most pillows, the comfier the fit, the more slippery it is on the ground. Not the case here.
I also appreciated the Cocoon’s simplicity. Unlike many options, it’s a simple rectangle. There are no scalloped edges or neck contours.
If I had to change anything, it would be the inflation valve. While I haven’t yet had a problem with it, I don’t completely trust the twist seal style. I preferred the multi-functional flat valve on Sea to Summit’s pillows.
If you’d like to know more about this pillow, check out our full review.
Honorable Mention: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light
You likely picture the S2S Aeros line when you think of backpacking pillows. They’re so classic there are even Chinese knockoffs.
They’re feature-heavy with high price tags to match. Overall, I liked both of them, but not for their flashy specs.
Weighing in at 2 oz, the S2S Ultra Light was the third lightest pillow we tested. However, the two lighter pillows — the Klymit X Pillow (1.95 oz) and Exped Air Pillow UL (1.6 oz) — didn’t perform as well overall, nor were they as comfortable.
This well-executed balance of weight and performance makes the S2S Ultra Light great for ultralight backpackers. For most, the weight difference of 0.3 oz between this pillow and the Trekker Pillow Case will be negligible, but if you count ounces (or, in this case, tenths of ounces) we highly recommend it.
I love the two-part valve system on the S2S pillows. It allows you to quickly and effectively inflate and deflate and proved to be durable during testing. However, reviews online suggest that this is not always the case. Both the S2S Ultra Light and Premium have been known to pop and the valve has reportedly given out for multiple people.
In spite of my ruthlessness towards gear, I experienced no such misfortune. That’s a good thing too, since the two-layer pillow would be nearly impossible to patch.
The Ultra Light model, despite being larger in size than the Premium when inflated, packs down much smaller and is 0.8 oz lighter. It’s also softer than its counterpart, slightly cheaper and doesn’t hold a static charge.
Honorable Mention: Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium
The S2S Premium, the Ultra Light’s upgraded cousin, was also great overall. It has the same durable and effective valve system and was one of the comfiest pillows we tested.
That comfort comes with a slight weight increase, though — at 2.8 oz, it’s the heaviest pillow on this list. It also doesn’t pack down nearly as well as the S2S Ultra Light.
It fits comfortably inside a sleeping bag hood, which can be preferential for some people, and doesn’t slide or slip.
It would work well as a car camping pillow and, while I personally wouldn’t carry it into the backcountry, Backpacking Light gave it a rating of “Highly Recommended,” saying that “this is the luxury choice of [the whole bunch of pillows we tested]. Enough thickness for most side sleepers.”
Reviews of the Other 5 Backpacking Pillows We Tested
I died laughing after first inflating this thing. I call it my second mattress. Why is this pillow 16″ long?
According to Trekology, it’s because it’s “a proper size as a pillow or for back support.” Well, then!
Though you might be tempted to by its size, I don’t recommend using this pillow for two people. One night, Taylor and I shared it between the both of us. It was alright…for a few minutes.
That being said, I like the Trekology. It’s the underdog next to all these big brands. For one person it’s pretty comfortable. The valve system is unique, using a button to open and seal the airway, and actually works well.
This is one of the biggest and most durable pillows we tested, but it’s heavier than most and — at full retail — not worth the price. Our favorite inflatable, the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow, retails for a just a tiny more as of this writing.
This pillow appears to be on sale often, though, so if you can find it for a reduced price (and don’t want the Trekker Pillow Case) then it might be worth it.
The Exped pillows are fine. They are fairly on par with the rest as far as specs go.
Here’s the problem — Despite their “anatomically shaped” design and ultralight material, both crinkle.
I have a 0% tolerance for waking up in the middle of the night to what sounds like my tentmate munching on Lay’s potato chips. No.
For those who can stand the crinkly material, though, the Exped Air Pillow UL isn’t such a bad option. It isn’t the most comfortable or durable backpacking pillow, but — at a mere 1.6 oz — it is the lightest on the list. Backpacking Light also gave it a rating of “Highly Recommended” and said it’s a “good choice for back and side sleepers.”
Based on specs alone, the Klymit Pillow X seems great. It has an intriguing design. It’s super lightweight. And Klymit touts its durable 75D polyester bottom that “resists abrasion and punctures.”
In reality, it feels like a poorly stitched together dromedary bag. While awesome that it weighs only 1.95 oz, that doesn’t really matter if it’s less comfortable than my sleeping bag’s compression sack. I couldn’t get comfortable using it unless I was sleeping on my back.
Taylor had high hopes for this pillow and defended it passionately before the first night. Then, he slept with it and didn’t argue much after that.
Oh, and the Pillow X’s twist seal valve is the only valve I had durability problems with.
Full review: Klymit Pillow X
Feb 2020 Update: It appears the InstantCamp Pillow has been discontinued.
InstantCamp, the only pillow that took 4 full breaths to inflate. It’s made of nylon and it’s huge, so — with a surprisingly high retail price — I’m not really sure what the makers are proud of here.
It slips, it’s bulky and it just wasn’t pleasant to use. Sure, it’s durable and could be easily patched if there was a problem.
But you can patch a pool float too, which is what this reminds me of.
Here are the best backpacking pillows:
- Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case
- Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow
- Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light
- Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium
- Trekology Pillow
- Exped Air Pillow UL
- Exped Air Pillow
- Klymit Pillow X
- InstantCamp Pillow
How to Choose the Best Backpacking Pillow for Your Needs
How do you find the perfect balance of comfort, durability and quality? It depends on what you plan to do with it.
Weight & Size
When choosing your ideal pillow, consider first where and for what you will be using it. Backpackers must take weight and size into account much more than a weekend car camper.
Personally speaking, unless the product is really remarkable, 2.5 oz is my weight limit for a backpacking pillow. It may not seem like much, but when you’re carrying your house on your back, every ounce counts.
Where will you be storing your pillow when not in use? Your purse? A briefcase? A tiny compartment in your pack? While a larger pillow may seem like a taste of the good life, it’ll be heavier and bulkier. In my experience, a packed-down backpacking pillow should be no larger than the palm of your hand.
As a general rule, you don’t want a pillow that has a slippery texture. While extremely comfortable, these are prone to sliding out from under you (which is the worst).
Stay away from fabrics like silk or rayon. Only under one condition is slippery fabric excusable — if the pillow is small enough to fit securely in the hood of your sleeping bag.
Frequency of Use & Durability
You will also want to consider how often you will be using the pillow. The more frequently you use it, the more important durability and comfort become.
If there are any particular features that bother you in the beginning, you won’t get used to them. The more you use the pillow, the more a leaky valve will drive you nuts. It’s always better to buy one higher-priced product once than buy multiple cheap replacements.
Comfort & Support
To state the obvious, comfort and support are some of the most important things to take into account when searching for your next backpacking pillow. We’ve indicated each pillow’s comfort level throughout the article to help.
For side sleepers, as you likely already know, support is paramount in making sure you don’t wake up with a sore neck the next morning (or during the night). A well-stuffed Therm-a-Rest Trekker Pillow Case or a more supportive inflatable — such as the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow or Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Premium — are the most supportive pillows we tested.
Back sleepers who need a supportive pillow should also consider the options listed above. If you don’t prioritize support you likely could make do with less supportive options such as the Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Ultra Light, Trekology Pillow, or Exped Air Pillow UL
Inflatable vs. Pillow Case
There are two main types of backpacking pillows: inflatables and pillow cases.
Inflatables need to be blown up. Pillow cases need to be stuffed with clothes. We tested eight inflatables and one pillow case.
Pillow cases are usually cheaper and are at no risk of popping. However, their level of comfort and support depends entirely on the clothes you stuff into them. If you don’t have the right clothes or the right amount of clothes for your desired levels of comfort and support, it’ll be hard to make the pillow case comfy.
Inflatables, on the other hand, are usually more expensive and there’s always a chance they could pop or leak air. Their levels of comfort and support are more consistent — a good thing if you find them comfortable, a bad thing if not. You can also try customizing an inflatable pillow to your needs by inflating or deflating it as you see fit.
How We Tested
First, we researched the pool of available backpacking pillows and narrowed our options by instituting an upper weight limit of 4 oz. We then purchased the 9 options that had received the best ratings and reviews. Once they arrived, we started testing.
Some people (me) love soft pillows. Others (Taylor) love a more firm package. Because of this, Taylor and I each took turns sleeping with the pillows, making snarky remarks and sassy notes along the way.
We tested them in the car, tent, plane, and at home. We also inflated and deflated the pillows each day of testing, forcing the inflation valves through as much wear and tear as possible.
Pillows lost points due to valve malfunctions, long inflation times, uncomfortable fabrics, slippery fabrics, and the worst sin of all — crinkly materials.
Each night, we inflated every single pillow. It was fun…and colorful. Before retiring to bed, we’d switch out between them all and take notes until both of us eventually settled on a new brand we hadn’t tried yet.
Each pillow was tested under a full night’s sleep. There were immediate and obvious favorites, but after each pillow was given a chance under multiple conditions, there were a few surprises.
Tent Camping Test
Sleep is sleep, no matter where you are. Still, camping in a tent occasionally poses challenges you won’t find elsewhere — such as a tilted stage, moisture, or a slippery floor.
We slept with the pillows under these conditions to see how they’d fare. If any pillows were slippery or awkward to use, we found out here.
Car Camping Test
By car camping with the pillows, we tested the pillows’ durability and quality and judged them for their size. It was cramped. This was the first time that pillows ever made me feel claustrophobic.
We counted the number of full breaths it took to inflate each pillow. The InstantCamp inspired this test, as the number of breaths required to inflate it wasn’t so instant.
I was disappointed that none of the pillows inflated on a single breath. Maybe I have sissy lungs?