When packing for your camping trip, your most important consideration should be your comfort. After all, you need to get a good night of sleep so you can enjoy your trip. One of the more overlooked pieces of gear that can play a major role in your comfort is a camping pillow. This guide answers the question: Do I need a camping pillow? To help you decide, I’ll list the pros and cons of using a camping pillow. We’ll cover comfort, weight, cost, and more. I’ll also outline the different types of camping pillows available and list a few of their strengths and weaknesses as well as share a few pillow recommendations. In addition, I’ll share a few camping pillow alternatives.
Table of Contents:
- What is a camping pillow?
- Types of Camping Pillows: Inflatable, Stuffed, and Stuff Sack Pillows
- Reasons to Use a Camping Pillow
- Reasons Not to Use a Camping Pillow
- Considerations When Choosing a Camping Pilow
- Camping Pillow Recommendations
What is a Camping Pillow?
A camping pillow is a lightweight, compact, water-resistant, and easy to clean pillow that is designed specifically for camping.
The main difference between a camping pillow and a standard pillow you would use in your bedroom at home is the size and weight. Camping pillows are smaller and lighter than traditional pillows. They are designed to pack down small so they don’t take up too much space in your pack. Most models are either inflatable or stuffed with a compressible material. They are also designed to be light enough that you won’t notice the extra bit of weight in your pack. Even ultralight hikers can pack a pillow these days.
Most camping pillows are also waterproof, water-resistant, or quick-drying. Many offer a removable outer layer that you can machine wash. Some camping pillows also feature a layer of insulation to help your head stay warm while you sleep in cold weather. Many camping pillows also include built-in straps or a grippy material on the bottom to prevent the pillow from sliding around on your slippery sleeping bag or sleeping pad while you sleep.
Types of Camping Pillows
There are a number of different types of camping pillows to choose from. The three main designs include:
- Inflatable camping pillows- These have a plastic air chamber that you fill with your breath. Air pillows are the most compact and lightweight camping pillows, making them excellent for hiking. Most models fold up to the size of an apple when deflated. They offer good comfort and support.
- Filled camping pillows- These pillows are stuffed with foam, polyester, cotton, or down filling. Most are designed to be compressible. These are the most comfortable camp pillows. They are also the heaviest and bulkiest. These work great for car camping.
- Stuff sack pillows- These are specialty stuff sacks that are designed to be used as a pillow. Most models feature a soft outer for extra comfort. They are lightweight, compact, and offer multiple uses.
Hybrid inflatable/filled pillows are also available. There are some DIY pillow options as well. In this section, I’ll describe each of the different types of camping pillows in-depth and outline the packed size and weight. I’ll also list a few benefits and drawbacks of each camping pillow design.
Inflatable camping pillows
Inflatable camping pillows have an internal plastic air bladder. You inflate the pillow by blowing air into a valve on the side. They inflate just like your air mattress. Most models take just 3-8 breaths to fill. You can inflate an air pillow as firm or soft as you desire. If you prefer a firmer pillow, just blow in a bit more air.
Most inflatable camping pillows feature internal baffles inside of the air chamber. These divide the air chamber up into multiple smaller chambers. This improves the pillow’s stability so it doesn’t feel wobbly when you move your head around on it as you sleep. The same valve inflates all of the chambers.
These pillows are some of the lightest and most compact camping pillows available. Ultralight inflatable pillows pack down as small as 5” x 2” (around 13cm x 8cm). That’s about the size of a deck of playing cards. Inflatable pillows are also lightweight. Most models weigh just 2.5-7 oz (around 70-200 grams) depending on the material. The lightweight and compact design makes inflatable pillows the go-to for ultralight hikers. Inflatable pillows are also pretty affordable. Prices start at around $15 for basic models. higher-end options with additional features such as extra padding as well as better build quality cost around $40-$50.
The exterior texture of inflatable camping pillows varies. Most models feature some kind of soft outer shell to improve comfort. For example, the outer may be coated in a fuzzy or velvety textured fabric made from polyester. On some models, this layer is removable and machine washable. Some models also feature a built-in topper that is filled with soft synthetic fiber for added comfort and insulation. High-end models may even feature a down topper. The toppers add warmth as well. Keep in mind that these comfort features do add some weight and bulk.
Lower-end inflatable pillows are simply made from slippery plastic material. As you can imagine, they can feel pretty uncomfortable against your skin. If you use one of these, you’ll probably want to lay a shirt or fleece over it to make the surface feel a bit softer. You could also use a small pillowcase. Low-end inflatable pillows also often don’t have baffles. They can feel a bit unstable. They are also made from thicker materials, making them slightly bulkier and heavier.
The biggest drawback to inflatable camping pillows is that they aren’t as durable or reliable as the other designs. They can get punctured by a thorn and deflate. Generally speaking, the lighter weight an inflatable pillow is, the less durable it will be. The reason is that these ultralight pillows are made from thin material that can get punctured more easily. If your pillow gets punctured, it will deflate and become useless. Many models do include a patch kit. After heavy use, a seem will eventually blow out. When this happens, it’s time to get a new pillow. It can’t be repaired. For this reason, an inflatable pillow may not last as long as other types of campaign pillows. They are a bit less reliable as well.
Inflatable camping pillows also tend to slide around on your sleeping pad because the bottom is usually made from slippery plastic material. Some models feature rubber grips or a strap to hold the pillow in place. Another solution is to place the int the hood of your sleeping bag.
Another drawback is that inflatable pillows aren’t the most comfortable. They offer good support but they aren’t as soft as stuffed pillows. Your head kind of sits on top of the pillow instead of sinking in. They can also get cold. Many models don’t offer much in the way of insulation. If you plan to camp in cold weather or during the winter, look with a model with an insulated top layer.
Filled Camping Pillows
These are similar to pillows that you would use back home. They are filled with some kind of soft stuffing such as shredded foam, cotton, down, or a synthetic fiber like polyester. Some manufacturers use recycled materials from sleeping pad or sleeping bag construction to stuff camping pillows. These are great environmentally friendly options.
Filled pillows are designed to be compressed to make them easier to pack. A stuff sack is usually included. Some models feature a built-in elastic pocket or strap that allows you to compress the pillow and roll it up into itself.
The main difference between a regular pillow that you would use at home and a stuffed camp pillow is the size and weight. Most filled camping pillows measure around 12” x 16” x 4” when decompressed. When compressed down for storage, filled pillows pack down into a cylinder that measures about 9” x 6”. Filled camping pillows weigh around 7-14 oz (around 200-400 grams) depending on the materiel they’re filled with.
Stuffed camping pillows are affordable. Prices start at around $15 for a basic pillow filled with foam or some other type of synthetic stuffing. Higher end models might feature a down topper, memory foam, or multiple layers of material for added comfort. These models run around $40-$50.
The biggest benefit of stuffed pillows is comfort. They tend to be softer and more supportive than air pillows. Your head sinks in instead of laying on top of the pillow. Many models feature a soft brushed fabric outer that feels comfortable against your skin. On most models, the outer case is removable and machine washable. Lower end models might not have a removable case. You may want to use a small pillowcase to keep the pillow clean.
The main drawback of filled pillows is their size and weight. As you can see, filled camping pillows are significantly larger and heavier than comparable inflatable models. On average, filled pillows are around 3 times larger than inflatable pillows when packed. They also weigh 5-10 oz more than inflatable pillows. For this reason, filled pillows are not ideal for ultralight hiking. They work fine for car camping, travel, and shorter backpacking trips where weight and bulk aren’t as important. Stuffed campaign pillows can also take longer to dry if they get wet. This is particularly true if they are stuffed with cotton. Synthetic stuffed pillows dry faster.
Tip: Before ordering a stuffed camping pillow online, be sure to check the weight. I have seen some foam pillows that are marketed as camping pillows that weigh over 30oz (850 grams). That is far too heavy for a camping pillow, unless you’re car camping. Ideally, your camping pillow should weigh less than half a pound (around 226 grams).
Stuff Sack Camping Pillow
This is probably the most ultralight option because you’re not bringing any extra gear. To make a stuff sack pillow, you simply stuff something soft like a puffy jacket, fleece sweater, or piece of soft clothing into a stuff sack and use the sack as a pillow. Your sleeping bag stuff sack works well for this.
You can also buy stuff sacks that are specifically designed to be used as camping pillows. These usually feature a soft outer lining that feels comfortable against the skin. For example, models feature a thick fleece lining or a soft suede or polyester lining. Higher-end models feature a built-in topper that is stuffed with synthetic or down filling. This adds a bit of weight and bulk but improves comfort and adds insulation. The topper or liner also helps smooth the stuff sack out to make the sleep surface feel more uniform and less lumpy.
Because of the lining, purpose-built stuff sack pillows are a bit heavier than standard stuff sacks. Ultralight models weigh around 1.8-2.3 oz (50-65 grams). Prices start at around $15 for basic models. High-end stuff sack pillows made from Dyneema cost around $50. Of course, you don’t need to buy a special stuff sack to use for a pillow. You can stuff a jacket in any standard stuff sack and place a shirt over the top to make it feel softer against the skin.
The biggest benefit of stuff sack pillows is that you aren’t adding any weight or bulk to your pack. You can use the stuff sack for storing clothes or gear during the day. When setting up camp, you simply stuff something soft into the sack to turn it into a pillow. You were going to carry both a stuff sack and clothing anyway. For this reason, stuff sack pillows are ideal for ultralight hikers.
There are a couple of drawbacks. Stuff sack pillows can feel a bit lumpy. Particularly if the stuff sack is thin. You can solve this problem by using a stuff sack pillow with a topper or thick lining. Folding or rolling the clothing you put into the stuff sack also helps. Setting up a stuff sack pillow also takes some time. You’ll have to remove whatever you were storing in the stuff sack then carefully stuff it so it has a comfortable thickness and firmness. This can take a couple of minutes and often requires some trial and error. Stuff sack pillows may not be as comfortable or supportive as other pillow types. Of course, you also have to carry extra clothes to stuff the pillow with. If you’re hiking in a warm climate, you might not have a jacket to use for stuffing.
Hybrid Inflatable/Stuffed Camping Pillow
These are inflatable pillows with a thick top layer stuffed with synthetic, foam, cotton, or down filling. They offer many of the benefits of both inflatable and stuffed pillows with a few drawbacks.
The inflatable air bladder allows you to adjust the firmness of the pillow. It also allows the pillow to pack down smaller than a standard stuffed pillow because the whole pillow doesn’t need to be stuffed. The foam or stuffed upper improves the comfort, insulation, and support of the pillow. You’ll get that feeling of your head sinking in the pillow rather than just resting on top. Most hybrid pillows also have a soft and comfortable case or outer shell that is removable and machine washable.
In terms of weight and packed size, hybrid pillows fit somewhere between inflatable and stuffed pillows. They are heavier and bulkier than inflatable pillows but lighter and more compact than stuffed pillows. They offer a nice middle ground between the two designs.
Hybrid pillows tend to be on the pricier side. Most models cost somewhere around $30-$60. They are more expensive because the design is more complicated. Another drawback is that punctures are still an issue. Most high-end camping pillows are hybrids these days.
A Standard Bedroom Pillow
If you’re just going car camping, you don’t really need a lightweight and compact camping pillow because you’re not going to be carrying it around on your back. You could just bring a pillow from your bed at home. This way, you know it will be comfortable. Alternatively, you could pack a smaller throw pillow from your couch.
The drawback to this is that the pillow can get wet, dirty, or smelly while you’re camping. You might not want your favorite pillow to smell like a campfire when you return home. Of course, you can always wash it.
DIY or Improvised Camping Pillow
There are a number of creative ways to make your own camping pillow. For some examples, you can:
- Sew your own- If you know how to use a sewing machine, you can easily sew a basic pillow. Just buy some lightweight and durable fabric, cut it into two rectangles of your desired size, and sew them together around the edges. Before you sew the pillow completely shut, stuff it with your desired filling. This could be cotton, down, foam, or some kind of synthetic material. You can also cut down a larger pillow into a smaller camping pillow. This way, you can customize your pillow to your exact desired specifications. You can also convert a large Ziploc plastic bag into a kind of inflatable pillow. For some DIY pillow ideas, check out this guide.
- Use a dry bag or stuff sack- Simply stuff your dry bag or stuff sack full of clothes and use it for a pillow. To make it more comfortable, put the stuff sack inside of a soft t-shirt or fleece jacket.
- Use a jacket for a pillow- Roll up a jacket or shirt and place it under your head and neck for support. Fleece and down jackets work well for this. This is what I always used to do before I started packing a camp pillow.
Sleeping Pad with Built-In Pillow
A handful of manufactures offer sleeping pads with a pillow built into the pad. When you inflate the pad, the pillow inflates at the same time. The pillow is basically a raised hump at the head end of the pad. It is made of the same material as the pad. Most models feature an ergonomic shape and raise the head around 2-3” above the rest of the pad.
This design offers a couple of benefits. The main one being that the pillow can’t slide around under your head while you sleep because it’s part of the pad. Also, you don’t have to inflate your pad and pillow separately. This saves time. You’ll never forget your pillow when it’s attached to your pad.
There are some drawbacks as well. You usually can’t adjust the firmness of the pillow independently from the pad. For example, you can’t have a soft pillow and firm pad or vice versa. Some higher-end models do allow you to adjust the pad and pillow separately. The pillow also has the same texture as the pad, which is usually a bit plasticky. You might have to lay a piece of clothing on top for some added softness. If your sleeping bag has a hood, you won’t have to worry about this.
Reasons to Use a Camping Pillow
Most campers will benefit from using a pillow. The pros outweigh the cons. In this section, I’ll outline the main reasons to use a camping pillow.
Sleeping with a Pillow is Healthier for Your Neck and Spine
The purpose of a pillow is to hold your neck and spine in a neutral and comfortable position while you sleep. Your pillow should support your head and neck and keep them aligned with the rest of your body. This reduces stress on the muscles and joints in your neck and spine. The most significant health benefits of sleeping with a pillow include improved posture and reduced neck and back pain. This is particularly true for back and side sleepers.
Maintaining good sleep posture with your spine properly aligned is good for your health. Your circulation will improve. The muscles and ligaments in your back and neck will relax and heal as you sleep. As a result, you’ll experience less pain.
Sleeping without a pillow, on the other hand, can put unhealthy pressure on your neck and spine. This can cause discomfort, which can cause you to wake up in the night. It can also lead to neck stiffness and pain.
Stomach sleepers are one exception. They can benefit from sleeping without a pillow. The reason is that a pillow can raise your head into an unnatural position when you sleep on your stomach. For more info, check out this interesting article about sleeping with and without a pillow.
Camping Pillows Improve Comfort and Sleep Quality
Let’s be honest, camping isn’t comfortable. Sleeping pads are narrow and firm. Sleeping bags constrict your movement. Everything gets damp. You’re either too hot or too cold. It’s all part of the fun. Anything you can do to increase comfort and improve your sleep is worth it, in my book.
A camping pillow is a small and lightweight piece of gear that can greatly improve your comfort and quality of sleep. It does this by lifting your head and neck to help you maintain a more comfortable sleep position.
When you’re comfortable, you’ll sleep deeper and you won’t wake up in the night as often. You won’t have to change position as often either. You toss and turn less when you’re comfortable as well. When you wake up, you won’t experience as much neck stiffness or pain.
You’ll Feel More Rested and Enjoy Your Trip More
As mentioned, a camping pillow can increase your quality of sleep. When you get a good night of sleep, you feel more rested when you wake up. As a result, you’ll have more energy throughout the day. You’ll feel awake and alert. This way, you’ll actually get to enjoy the experience of hiking and camping.
In my mind, it’s worth it to carry a few extra ounces if it means I’ll sleep better and feel more rested. If I feel good, I enjoy my trip so much more. I know when I don’t sleep well, I feel lousy for most of the next day. It can ruin the experience because all I can think about is getting through the day and going to sleep. When I’m feeling lousy, I’m not enjoying my trip.
You’ll May Stay Safer When Using a Camping Pillow
Camping pillows help you get a better night of sleep. You’ll feel more well-rested, wide awake, and alert when you wake up. A major benefit of this is that your mind and body function better when you’re well-rested. A good night of sleep improves your memory and improves cognitive function. Being well-rested also improves your coordination. You’re less likely to make a mistake when your mind is sharp. This improves safety.
For example, when you’re well-rested you’re less likely to get lost because you think more clearly. You will be able to read your map and compass better, remember directions, memorize landmarks, etc. You’ll also make better decisions. In addition, you’re less likely to trip and fall while hiking rugged terrain after a good night of sleep because your coordination is better.
The longer the trip, the more important sleep becomes. If you camp for a week and sleep poorly every night, you can suffer some serious cognitive decline from lack of sleep. This can be dangerous. You may become clumsy and forgetful. As a result, you’ll make more mistakes. When you sleep well, you’re much sharper.
Camping Pillows are Lightweight
Packing a camping pillow adds very little weight to your pack. For example, an ultralight inflatable pillow weighs just 2.5-5 oz (70-140 grams). That’s light enough that you won’t even notice you’re carrying it. Inflatable camping pillows are light enough even for ultralight hikers.
An average filled pillow weighs a bit more at around 12-15 oz (340-425 grams). That is still plenty light for shorter trips and those who don’t mind carrying a bit more weight. It may be a bit heavy for some hikers.
A Camping Pillow Doesn’t Take Up Much Space in Your Pack
Camping pillows are designed to pack down very small so they don’t take up too much space in your backpack. The most compact inflatable pillows pack down to a bundle that measures around 5 inches tall by 2 inches in diameter. That’s about 16 cubic inches, which is slightly larger than a baseball. It’s small enough that your pillow could get lost in your pack. You may even be able to stuff your inflatable pillow into your sleeping bag’s stuff sack.
Stuffed camp pillows are a bit bulkier. An average-sized model will pack down to around 13” x 4” x 4” when compressed. That’s about 200 cubic inches. Most models feature loops or a pocket on the side that allow you to roll the pillow into itself. This helps keep the pillow compressed so it doesn’t take up too much space.
Camping Pillow are Affordable
A camping pillow is a cheap piece of gear. If you shop around, you can find a basic inflatable pillow on sale for $10. At non-sale prices, you’ll spend about $15 for a low-end pillow and around $40 for a high-end pillow. For your comfort, that’s not too bad.
Of course, you can likely make a stuff sack pillow for free with the gear you already have. If you’re car camping, you could just take a pillow from home. There is no need to buy something if you’re on a tight budget.
Camping Pillows Have Multiple Uses
Camping pillows are versatile pieces of gear. You can get some use out of your pillow, even when you’re not camping. For example, camping pillows can double as travel pillows. You could use your pillow when sleeping on an airplane or in a car during a long road trip. Some thinner models can be used as lumbar support as well. This comes in handy during a long flight or drive. While camping, you could also use your stuffed pillow as a sit pad. If you do this, you’ll want to be careful not to get it dirty. You could also use your pillow at home. Put a colorful case on your stuffed pillow and use it as a throw pillow on your bed or couch.
Camping Pillows are Easy to Clean
Your camp pillow may collect odors from your sweaty body, a smoky campfire, food, etc. It may get muddy, wet, sticky from food, or greasy from oils on your skin. It may even get contaminated with some smelly bacteria or mildew. Eventually, you’ll need to clean your pillow.
The benefit of using a camping pillow is that you can easily clean it when you return home. Most models feature a removable cover or case that you can wash in your washing machine. Simply zip off the case and throw it in with your laundry. The inner pillow is often made from a plastic material that you can simply wipe off. After a good cleaning, your camp pillow will be smelling sweet.
This is a good reason to use a camping pillow instead of a standard pillow from home. Camping pillows are designed to get dirty and clean off easily. A regular bedroom pillow might smell like smoke for years after you take it camping, even if you wash it.
Most Camping Pillows are Water Resistant or Quick Drying
Chances are, your camping pillow will get a bit damp during your trip. Most likely, it will rub up against your tent walls or floor. These are often covered in condensation that can rub off on your pillow and get it wet. Your pillow could also get wet in the rain or rub up against other damp gear in your pack.
Luckily, camp pillows are designed to designed to deal with a bit of moisture so you don’t have to worry too much about getting them wet. Most models feature a quick drying cover made from synthetic material. If it gets wet, you can lay it out in the sun for a few minutes to dry. Some models feature a waterproof outer made from silicon coated fabric. If this gets wet, you can simply wipe the pillow off.
Generally, inflatable pillows deal with moisture best because the air bladder is waterproof. Only the cover needs to dry so they dry faster. Filled pillows may take a bit longer to dry if the stuffing gets soaked. Standard bedroom pillows don’t deal with moisture well at all. In fact, moisture can ruin a pillow if it’s not dried out properly.
Reasons Not to Use a Camping Pillow
Camping pillows aren’t necessary for every trip or every camper. In this section, I’ll outline a few reasons you might not want to use a camping pillow.
Camping pillows take time to set up
If you use an inflatable pillow, you have to blow it up. This takes about 3-8 breaths depending on the size of the pillow. In the morning, you have to deflate the pillow and fold it up.
If you use a stuff sack pillow, you have to take some time to properly stuff it so it doesn’t feel too lumpy, too thick, or too firm. In the morning, you have to un-stuff the pillow and fold it up or re-stuff it with other gear.
Using an inflatable or stuff sack camping pillow adds a minute or two to your camp set up and take down routine. Filled pillows don’t take any additional time to use.
You May Not Need a Camping Pillow if You Sleep on your Stomach
As mentioned earlier, stomach sleepers are often better off sleeping without a pillow. The reason is that a pillow can lift your head and neck into an unnatural position when you sleep on your stomach. This can cause neck pain or stiffness. It’s often more comfortable and healthy to do without. Alternatively, some stomach sleepers find it comfortable to place a pillow under their stomach. This can raise the lower back into a more natural position. For more info, check out this guide to stomach sleeping.
A Camping Pillow Adds Weight and Bulk to Your Pack
You could add anywhere from 2.5-14 oz (70-400 grams) to the weight of your pack by packing a camping pillow. The weight depends on the type of pillow you choose. Generally, stuff sack pillows and inflatable pillows are the lightest. Stuffed pillows tend to weigh more.
For most backpackers adding a few extra ounces isn’t that big of a deal. For ultralight hikers, adding any unnecessary weight is unacceptable. If you’re a hardcore ultralight hiker, the best solution is either using no pillow or using a piece of clothing for a pillow. A stuff sack pillow might be an acceptable alternative as well.
A pillow also takes up valuable space in your pack. For example, a pillow could take anywhere from 16-400 cubic inches of space (0.26-6.5 liters) depending on the type of pillow you choose. Inflatable pillows and stuff sack pillows are much more compact than filled pillows. If you’re not careful, your bulky foam or synthetic-filled pillow could take up a quarter of the space in your pack. That’s far too much. When you pack a bulky pillow, you may have to use a slightly larger backpack or leave another piece of gear at home.
Camping Pillows Can be Expensive
A camping pillow is another piece of gear that you have to buy. If you’re on a tight budget, spending $20-$40 on a pillow might not be the best use of your money. You might be better off putting that money toward a better sleeping bag or backpack instead. You can always use a jacket as a pillow until you can afford a decent camping pillow. Remember, a pillow is a completely optional piece of camping gear.
It’s Easy to Use Another Piece of Gear as an Improvised Pillow
Many campers see no need to pack a dedicated pillow. Instead, they simply use a jacket, shirt, or other bunched-up piece of clothing for head and neck support. I did this for many years and slept fine. Other campers are perfectly happy to use a stuff sack or dry bag stuffed with clothing for a pillow. If you find these improvised pillows to be comfortable, then there is really no need to pack a dedicated camping pillow. Some campers sleep fine with no head or neck support at all.
You May Not Need a Camping Pillow if You’re Car Camping
When car camping or camping in a rooftop tent, the weight and bulk of your gear doesn’t really matter because you’re not carrying it around on your back. Instead of using a camping pillow, you might as well use a standard full-sized pillow. These are more supportive and comfortable than small camping pillows. You can simply bring a pillow from home or buy a cheap one to use for camping. Remember, it may get dirty or wet.
Considerations When Choosing a Camping Pillow
Not all camp pillows are built the same. They vary in quality, size, comfort, and durability. A few of the most important considerations when choosing a camp pillow include:
- Your sleep style- Side, back, and stomach sleepers all require different pillow shapes and sizes to stay comfortable. For example, a side sleeper may require a taller pillow to support the head and neck while they’re laying on their shoulder. Pillows with 4-5” of height are ideal. A back sleeper may prefer a softer and lower-profile pillow that keeps the neck in a more natural position. A 2″-3″ pillow may be preferable. Stuffed pillows work well. Stomach sleepers may prefer a thin and flat pillow. When choosing a pillow, think about the position that you normally sleep in.
- Temperature- On cold nights, your pillow can get cold. Laying against the cold pillow can make your face, head, and neck cold while you sleep. Inflatable pillows tend to feel the coldest. The baffles can actually work to cool the pillow. If you plan to camp in cold weather, you’ll want to choose a pillow with some level of insulation. Look for a filled pillow or an air pillow with an insulated topper. Down, foam, fleece, and synthetic materials all work well to add insulation. It can also help to place the pillow in the hood of your sleeping bag if you use a mummy-style bag. If you’re sleeping in hot and humid weather, you’ll want to choose a pillow that can keep you cool. Look for an inflatable pillow that has a soft fabric synthetic fabric surface. This way, the pillow can wick sweat as you sleep to help you stay cooler and more comfortable.
- Packed size and weight– The ideal packed size and weight of your camping pillow depends on the type of camping you do. If you’re an ultralight hiker or long-distance hiker, you’ll want to choose the lightest and most compact pillow available. This most likely means an inflatable pillow or a stuff sack pillow. The most ultralight models weigh just 2.5-5 oz and pack down to the size of a pack of playing cards. If you’re car camping, weight and size don’t really matter. You could use a heavier stuffed or foam pillow. If you’re bicycle touring or taking an overnight backpacking trip, you might choose a mid-sized pillow because weight isn’t as important. Also, keep in mind that many camping pillows come in multiple sizes. If you find a pillow that you like but find that it’s too large or heavy, you may be able to buy a smaller and lighter size.
- Noise- Some pillows are made from materials that make a lot of noise as you move around in your sleep. Dyneema and certain plastics are particularly noisy. The sound can bother both you and anyone you’re sleeping next to. If you are sensitive to noise or you tend to move around a lot in your sleep, you’ll want to choose a pillow that is made from materials that don’t make any noise. Soft fabrics such as fleece and polyester are silent. Stuffed pillows tend to be quieter than inflatable pillows because there is no plastic air bladder that can crinkle as you move.
- Slippage- Camping pillows tend to slide around under your head as you sleep. This happens because sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and pillows all tend to be made from smooth and slippery materials. Having your pillow slide out from under your head is one of the biggest annoyances of using a pillow. Luckily, there are some solutions. Many pillows have small loops on the sides. These loops can attach to an adjustable strap. The strap secures around your sleeping pad and prevents your pillow from moving. Some pillows include a strap and sometimes you have to make or buy one. Some pillows also feature grippy rubbery pads or strips on the bottom. These increase the friction between your pillow and pad so the pillow doesn’t slide around as easily. It can also help to place your pillow inside of your sleeping bag’s hood if you use a mummy-style bag. Lower-end pillows tend to slip around more than higher-end models. Simple plastic inflatable pillows are particularly slippery. Inflatable pillows tend to be more slippery than stuffed pillows.
- Cleaning the pillow- Over time, your pillow will get dirty. Mud, dirt, dust, tree sap, food residue, and grime can make their way onto your pillow. Sweat and oils from your skin can also get into the fabric. Maybe you drool on your pillow in your sleep. Eventually, you’ll want to wash your camping pillow. Some models are easier to wash than others. The best camping pillows feature a removable case that is machine washable. After your trip, you can simply take the case off and throw it in the washing machine. If you use a stuffed pillow or a pillow with a stuffed topper, filth can work its way into the filling. You may need to wash the entire pillow. You’ll want to follow the washing instructions that came with the pillow to avoid causing damage. Down, in particular, is fairly fragile. You need to wash it properly with a downwash to avoid damaging it and reducing its loft. Some inflatable pillows can simply be rinsed off in the sink or just wiped off and spot cleaned.
- Sleeping pad style- If you sleep with your pillow on top of your sleeping pad, you can get away with a thinner pillow. If you use a ¾ length sleeping pad and you sleep with your pillow on the floor of your tent, you’ll need a much thicker pillow that can accommodate the height difference between the pad and the ground. For example, if your sleeping pad is 2 inches thick, you’ll need a pillow that has over 2 inches of height to raise your head at all if you sleep with your pillow off of the pad.
- Price- Camp pillows are available in a wide range of prices. If you’re on a tight budget, you won’t want to dedicate too much of it to a pillow. Entry-level models can cost as little as $10-$15. Premium inflatable and hybrid pillows cost around $40-$50. High-end ultralight pillows can cost as much as $70.
Camping Pillow Recommendations
There are a wide range of camping pillow options on the market. In this section, I’ll outline a few of the more popular choices.
This is one of the most comfortable camping pillows available. It is stuffed with soft, supportive, and compressible foam that was upcycled from Thermarest mattresses. The outer is made from soft and durable brushed polyester. It feels great against the skin.
The Therm-a-Rest Compressible is available in four sizes. The small size is ideal for camping. When packed, it measures 13” x 4” x 4”. The pillow compresses into a pocket that is built into the pillow. A drawstring keeps the pillow compressed when not in use. When decompressed, the pillow expands to 12” x 16” x 4”. The 4 inch thickness offers plenty of support for your head and neck. The pillow is also relatively light for a foam pillow at 7 oz for the small size.
This ultralight inflatable camping pillow weighs just 2.8 oz (79 grams), making it one of the lightest pillows on the market. It’s also one of the smallest. The Aeros Premium packs down to the size of a deck of cards. The pillow features a brushed 50D polyester knit outer, which feels great against the skin. There is a layer of synthetic fill between the case and TPU bladder. This increases comfort and wicks sweat, making this pillow an excellent choice for warm weather use. The air bladder features curved baffles, which create a comfortable contour that supports your head and neck. This is an excellent pillow for side sleepers. The Sea To Summit Aeros Premium measures 14” x 10” x 5” when inflated. A larger size is also available. The biggest potential drawback is that insulation is minimal. This pillow isn’t ideal for cold weather. It is also fairly firm.
This high-quality air pillow weighs just 5.6 oz (about 158 grams) and packs down to 3.4” x 4.5”. When inflated it measures 11” x 15.5” x 4”. The Therm-a-Rest Air Head features a baffled air bladder and a removable polyester cover with an insulated synthetic fill top. The cover has a soft brushed finish and it is machine washable. The baffled design gives the pillow excellent stability. Perhaps the best feature of this pillow is its durability. The air bladder is made from a thick, puncture-resistant material that is built to last. It is also available in a large size. A stuff sack is included. This is a great choice for camping, backpacking, and travel.
This has been one of the most popular camping pillows on the market for the past few years. Probably thanks to its comfort, high build quality, and warmth. The pillow features a soft foam upper and large internal baffle. This design gives the pillow a natural feel which allows for excellent support for your head and neck. The Fillo can also be used as lumbar support. It has a soft suede case that is removable and machine washable. The pillow also features an integrated stuff sack.
The Fillo is an inflatable/foam hybrid. It inflates with just a few breaths through an ergonomic valve. When inflated, it measures 17” x 11” x 4”. It packs down into a relatively small bundle that measures 6” x 4”. That’s around the size of a potato. The biggest drawback to the Fillo is that it is relatively heavy for an inflatable pillow at 9 oz or 255 grams.
This stuff sack pillow from Granite Gear is made from durable 30D Sil-Nylon Cordura fabric. One side of the pillow is lined with soft fleece. You can stuff the pillow with a soft item of clothing like a fleece or down jacket. When stuffed, the pillow measures 14.5” x 7” x 3.5″. When not in use, you can use the Pillowsack as a 6 liter stuff sack. It weighs just 2 oz or 57 grams.
This ultralight inflatable weighs just 5.9 oz (110 grams) and rolls up into a cylinder measuring 5” x 2”. That’s smaller than a soda can. This is one of the more affordable camping pillows available. One unique feature of this pillow is the anti-slip bottom. The underside of the pillow is covered in small rubber dots that create friction with your sleeping pad and prevent the pillow from sliding out from under you. The pillow also includes an optional strap that you can attach around your sleeping pad to hold the pillow in place while you sleep. The Trekology pillow also features a comfortable ergonomic design, making it ideal for both side and back sleepers. When inflated, the pillow measures 16” x 12” x 4”. It inflates in 5-8 breaths.
My Experience with Camping Pillows
In the past, I used to think of camping pillows as an unnecessary piece of gear that just added weight and took up valuable space. Instead of using a pillow, I just rolled up a shirt or jacket and placed it under my neck and head for extra support. It wasn’t comfortable but it at least lifted my head off of my sleeping pad.
One day, I saw an online sale for ultralight inflatable camping pillows for $10. I’m usually not one to make impulse purchases but in this case, I did. The pillow turned out to be one of my best camping purchases.
When using a camping pillow, I find that I wake up fewer times during the night. This allows me to get a bit more sleep during the night. I feel more rested in the morning. My neck also feels much better. I never really suffered from neck pain but I do feel less stiffness in my neck and upper back.
I still consider a camping pillow to be a luxury item. If I have to, I can easily make do without it. In fact, while traveling, I don’t carry a pillow because I only camp occasionally. Usually only one night at a time. While on a multi-day camping trip, I always pack a camping pillow these days.
Final Thoughts About Camping Pillows
A camping pillow is one of the most overlooked pieces of camping gear. With a pillow, you’ll sleep better, feel more rested, and experience less neck stiffness and pain while camping. You’ll feel more wide awake and enjoy your trip more as a result. Of course, it’s also important to weigh the drawbacks. Camping pillows can be heavy and bulky. Some people sleep fine without a pillow. Some models also take a bit of time to set up.
If you’re the kind of camper who just uses a piece of clothing for a pillow or simply does without, do yourself a favor and try a camping pillow out. They are inexpensive, lightweight, and take up hardly any space in your pack.
Do you use a camping pillow? Share your experience in the comments below!
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