5 Best Backpacking PILLOWS of 2019

JUMP TO:  SEA TO SUMMIT AEROS PREMIUM / COCOON HYPERLIGHT AIR-CORE / ZPACKS PILLOW DRY BAG / HMG STUFF SACK PILLOW / NEMO FILLO / BUYING ADVICE

The Short Version

The Long Version

Modern materials and improvements in design mean that backpacking gear just seems to get lighter year after year. Lighter gear translates into a lighter pack, which translates into a more enjoyable and safe experience on the trail.

But as the weight of our load shrinks, there becomes room for the naughty endeavour of adding a few luxuries. Luxuries that remind us of home. Luxuries that might not have previously been thought possible.

And one of those luxuries is a backpacking pillow.

On any multi-day backpacking trip, having a pillow with you can change the whole experience.

Sure, you can scrunch your jacket up into a ball and stuff it under your sleeping bag hood. Or you can get those stinky hiking socks and t-shirt and ram them into your dry sack and lay your head against the sticky waterproof fabric. But none of that even comes close to the bliss of having a proper, good quality, backpacking pillow to rest your head upon.

Trust me, a backpacking pillow can be the difference between just making it through the night, and sleeping peacefully through the night.

And the backpacking pillows below won’t add a ton of extra weight to your backpack. Many are lightweight and tiny when packed away. And with a wide variety of backpacking pillows now available, you can dial in your perfect compromise between weight and comfort.

If you love reading this list of Best Backpacking Pillows, then you'll likely love reading some of our other gear review pages:


DIMENSIONS:
13.4 x 9.4 x 4.3 in / 34 x 24 x 11 cm (Regular)
16.8 x 11.8 x 5.1 in / 42 x 30 x 13 cm (Large)

WEIGHT:
2.8 oz / 79 grams (Regular)
4.0 oz / 114 grams (Large)

FILL TYPE: Air (with a synthetic fill layer between the pillowcase and air bladder)

PROS: Lightweight, Comfortable

CONS: May not be high enough for all side sleepers, Can be punctured

MRRP: US $43, $47 (Regular, Large)

At Ultimate Gear Lists, the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow is our favourite backpacking pillow. This pillow is epic! We take it on all our multi-day adventures, regardless of the expected temps, location, or the remainder of our sleep system (e.g. quilt, sleeping bag, etc).

We believe the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow provides the perfect compromise between weight and comfort.

In the regular size — which is the size we’d recommend for all backpackers — this pillow weighs in at just 2.8 ounces (79 grams). That is amazingly light for how much comfort this pillow manages to pack in!

The brushed polyester pillowcase is soft to the touch, and much more comfortable than the material of a sleeping bag hood, dry sack, or other make-shift pillow. Couple that with the thin layer of synthetic fill located between the air bladder and the pillowcase and — for it’s weight — this is one plush ride.

The polyester material is also comfortable in sweaty or damp conditions. And although after a long trip the top layer may start to smell a bit funky — this can’t be blamed on the pillow! — and it’s easy to just hand wash this pillow with a little soap and air dry it. The thin pillowcase and thin synthetic mean that it dries in no time.

 

If you want to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth, here is Sea to Summit describing the Aeros Premium Pillow range for themselves.

 

The Aeros Premium uses a multi-function valve for inflation / deflation. This works well and allows you to inflate the pillow using one or two big breaths and deflate the pillow in about one second. The valve also allows you to dial in the exact amount of air pressure you desire. Personally we find it most comfortable when the pillow is not quite fully inflated since this provides more stability when laying our head down.

We believe the Aeros Premium is suitable for both back and side sleepers. If you are a side sleeper who has broad shoulders and/or prefers a thick pillow then you may want to consider the large size, or look elsewhere, but for most backpackers the regular size is fine. If you are exclusively a stomach sleeper, then this probably isn’t the pillow for you — but then again — perhaps no pillow is.

Although there are the occasional reports of faulty valves or easy punctures, these seem rare, and we’ve had absolutely no issues with our Aeros Premium. After several years of use, this pillow is still going strong. In any case, Sea to Summit offer a lifetime warranty and seem reliable at following through with any warranty claims.

Included with the purchase of this pillow is a lightweight tiny stuff sack with a drawstring. Personally, we find it easier to just deflate the pillow and throw it into the same dry sack where we store our sleeping bag.


DIMENSIONS:
15 x 11 in / 38 x 28 cm

WEIGHT:
2.7 oz / 77 grams

FILL TYPE: Air (with a synthetic fill layer between the pillowcase and air bladder)

PROS: Lightweight

CONS: Ripstop nylon pillowcase isn’t the best, Can be punctured

MRRP: US $33

The Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow is also an inflatable pillow with a thin polyester fill between the air bladder and the pillow.

It is therefore similar in design to the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium described above. Both the Sea to Summit and Cocoon offerings are similar in terms of dimensions and weight. Specifically, the dimensions of this Cocoon pillow are placed somewhere between the regular and large sizes for the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium.

While the baffles on the Aeros Premium are curved in an arc to try and cradle your shoulders and head, the design of the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core is more rectangular. The pillowcase on the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core is made from a ripstop nylon. We tend to find to find this fabric a little bit slippery, and not nearly as comfortable as the softer polyester fabric found on the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium range. We also find the inflation / deflation valve superior on the Aeros Premium, but this is only a small gripe.

If you are using Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core with a sleeping bag that has a hood, then placing the pillow inside the hood should keep everything in place during the night. However if you opt for a backpacking quilt or a hoodless sleeping bag, like we tend to, then you may find the Cocoon Hyperlight slips off your sleeping pad frequently during the night. Although, the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium also suffers this fate! Albeit to a lesser degree.

Overall, we think the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow has the edge over the Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core Pillow, owing to it’s softer face fabric and better shaped baffles leading to a more comfortable ride. But the Cocoon Hyperlight is definitely the front-line competitor and holds a close second place due to it’s ideal balance of weight and comfort.


DIMENSIONS (when laid flat, unrolled):
18.8 x 10.0 in / 48 x 25 cm (Medium)
19.8 x 11.3 in / 50 x 29 cm (Medium-Plus)

WEIGHT:
1.4 oz / 40 grams (Medium)
1.8 oz / 51 grams (Medium-Plus)

FILL TYPE: None (fill it with clothes)

PROS: Ultralight, Pillow can’t be punctured

CONS: Not that comfortable, No spare clothes = No pillow

MRRP: US $35

The Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag is a great solution to a common problem.

Most backpackers have — at one time or another — filled a stuff sack with clothes and used that as their cushion-like pillow. But if you’ve done that, you’ll likely know how uncomfortable the sticky, sweaty, drool-non-absorbing, feel of water resistant nylon is.

So Zpacks thought… why not take our medium-sized dry sack — supplied free with all sleeping bag purchases — and line the inside of it with soft micro fleece.

The outcome? Every backpackers dream. Namely, a multi-functional piece of kit! By day, this dry sack is used to store your sleeping bag, and by night it becomes a luxury addition to your overall sleep system. Simply turn the dry sack inside out, fill it with whatever spare clothes you have available, roll the top down, clip it, and you’re good to go.

Since you are likely to be carrying a dry sack for your sleeping bag anyway (or at least you should be!), the weight penalty for this pillow really only amounts to 0.7 ounces (20 grams). In other words, the weight of the piece of fleece.

The micro fleece used on this pillow is soft, and we find it comfortable against our skin. The manufacturing standard is also high. The fleece is sewn in with awesome craftsmanship, and all seams are taped so that the dry sack remains fully waterproof. Even though we have been pulling our sleeping bag in and out of this dry bag for several years with little care or patience, the fleece lining hasn’t ever torn or separated at the seams.

It seems like this Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag will go the distance.

There are downsides though.

First, this pillow is only ever going to be as comfortable as the clothes you stuff inside it. The upside of course is that most clothes are soft. Nonetheless, the pillow can sometimes get lumpy or lack support. Which brings us to the next downside.

You need to have spare clothes! In colder climates we will often sleep with all of our hiking clothes on (except for maybe our stinky hiking socks and potentially muddy trousers). This is common practice amongst lightweight backpackers since it means you don’t need to carry unnecessary quantities of spare clothes. But if you don’t have spare clothes, you don’t have a pillow.

Lastly, the Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag is relatively expensive. If you are in the market for a cuben fiber dry sack anyway (they are lighter than sil-nylon dry sacks and just as waterproof!) or if you are purchasing a sleeping bag from Zpacks, then the extra $5-7 to upgrade to a fleece-lined Pillow Dry Bag is a bargain and — we believe — a worthwhile investment. But, if you aren’t planning on purchasing a cuben fiber dry sack anytime soon, then the $35 outlay for what amounts to a thin layer of fleece may be too much for some.


DIMENSIONS (when laid flat):
14 x 10 in / 36 x 25 cm (Small)
17 x 12 in / 43 x 30 cm (Large)

WEIGHT:
1.2 oz / 33 grams (Small)
1.7 oz / 48 grams (Large)

FILL TYPE: None (fill it with clothes)

PROS: Ultralight, Pillow can’t be punctured

CONS: Not that comfortable, No spare clothes = No pillow

MRRP: US $37, $47 (Small, Large)

The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Stuff Sack Pillow is based on the same design principle as the Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag described above.

In short, this a cuben fiber dry sack with a fleece lining sewn along one half of the inside. Flip it inside out, stuff it with clothes, zip it back up, and you’re good to go.

As with all HMG gear, this is a high quality piece of kit made with care and offered with a one year warranty against defects or workmanship (this is the same warranty as offered by Zpacks).

The key difference between the HMG and Zpacks offerings is the type of closure used. The HMG Pillow Stuff Sack uses a water-resistant #5 YKK zipper located about half way down the stuff sack, whereas the Zpacks option uses a typical dry sack style roll top with a clip closure.

 

This quick vid from HMG gives you an idea of the relative sizes and design of their Stuff Sack Pillows.

 

This means that the HMG stuff sack is going to be less suitable for storing your sleeping bag, and more suitable for storing clothes or something similar. This may make more sense for a pillow stuff sack, since you are going to be stuffing clothes into it during the night anyway, but really it’s all much of a muchness, and it just comes down to personal preference as to how you want to arrange and pack your gear.

If you opt for a large size in the HMG Pillow Stuff Sack, then beware that prices do start to get pretty steep. Of course you do get a high quality cuben fiber stuff sack with your purchase. But when you factor in that we usually opt for colour-coded Sea to Summit Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks, which — for a similar sized item — retail at about $20, the $47 price tag for the large-sized HMG Pillow Stuff Sack starts to get a bit hard to swallow.


DIMENSIONS:
17 x 10.5 in / 43 x 27 cm

WEIGHT:
10.8 oz / 306 grams

FILL TYPE: 3 inch air chamber + 1 inch memory foam

PROS: Very comfortable

CONS: Heavy

MRRP: US $40

Truth be told, the NEMO Fillo Backpacking Pillow doesn’t exactly belong on a list of best backpacking pillows.

It’s not that this isn’t a comfortable pillow.

Hell — without a doubt — it is the most comfortable pillow on this list.

No, rather, the NEMO Fillo Backpacking Pillow doesn’t belong on this list because any rational backpacker wouldn’t want to carry a 10.8 ounce (306 gram) pillow in their pack during the day.

But then again, can you really put a price on a good night’s sleep?

Although the NEMO Fillo doesn’t exactly fall into the ultralight, lightweight, or “even a little bit fucking light” backpacking category, there is no denying that this pillow is very comfortable for an inflatable hybrid. If you are a backpacker who prioritises comfort well before weight, then this pillow may be just what you were looking for.

It is also a great choice for travelling, car camping, bike touring, or kayaking trips.

The NEMO Fillo consists of an inflatable chamber that allows you to choose exactly how much air pressure you want inside the pillow. That means that it is suitable for front, back or side sleepers, since you can dial in the perfect height for your sleeping style.

The inflatable chamber is then covered with a one inch thick layer of memory foam. This is the real joy of this pillow, since it leads to a much softer, more dreamy and more stable ride than the other (lightweight) inflatables on our list like the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium. With the NEMO Fillo we find it much less likely for our noggin to roll off during the night.

The microsuede pillow case is a joy to sleep on. And the pillow packs down into an integrated stuff sack about the size of a one litre water bottle.

If you want to ensure a good night’s sleep on your next outdoor adventure, then the NEMO Fillo Backpacking Pillow is your ticket.


BUYING ADVICE

Most people are relatively experienced with pillows, owing to the fact that they sleep on one each night at home. You probably know what you like in a pillow better than we do. Nonetheless, there are a few features unique to backpacking pillows that you might want to consider before purchasing one. We outline some of the key considerations below.

TYPES OF PILLOW: There are four main types of backpacking or travel pillow:

  • Inflatables: these pillows use an air sack as the main form of support. The upside is that they are generally quite lightweight and packable, relative to their comfort. This makes them a great choice for backpacking. The main downside is that they can lack stability and support in that they are “kinda like sleeping on a balloon”. The other downside is that they can be punctured (and generally aren’t very easy to repair, since the air sack is not easily separable from the face fabric).

  • Compressibles: these pillows use some form of compressible fibre to provide support, for example, synthetic foam or down feathers. This type of pillow is most similar to what you are used to at home. The upside is that they are comfortable. The downside is that they are bulky and heavy, and therefore not really suited to backpacking.

  • Hybrid (inflatable/compressible): these pillows attempt to maximise the upsides of each of the inflatable and compressible categories, whilst minimising their downsides. They use an inflatable air sack for the main support, whilst having a thin layer of compressible material against your face to increase comfort. This reduces the “balloon” aspect of the inflatable air sack, which is great! But it also makes these pillows slightly heavier and less packable. Nonetheless, different manufacturers use different combinations to find the ideal balance for their intended user. For example, both the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium and they NEMO Fillo use a hybrid design, but they have dramatically different weights: the former uses a small amount of down feathers under the face fabric, whilst the latter uses a 1-inch thick piece of memory foam!

  • Pillowcases and convertible stuff sacks: these pillows are, well, not really pillows at all. Rather, they are sacks for you to stuff your own clothing or other cushioning into. They often consist of a nice soft face fabric, such as polyester fleece. The upside is that they are lightweight, packable, and can’t be punctured. They are sometimes multi-purpose too — for instance, like the Zpacks Pillow Dry Bag or HMG Stuff Sack Pillow reviewed above. The downside is that they are only as comfortable as the items you stuff inside them. And in cold weather, you might be wearing all your clothes to bed, which effectively means no pillow at all.

FACE FABRIC: A variety of face fabrics are used on backpacking pillows. The face fabric is effectively the pillowcase and therefore the choice of fabric can dramatically affect how comfortable the pillow is. The most comfortable face fabrics are generally some form of brushed polyester or fleece. A less comfortable alternative is ripstop nylon — it is more slippery and sticky than the brushed polyester and therefore a sub-optimal choice for those who drool during the night, who — let’s admit — is probably most of us. It goes without saying that we also recommend avoiding even slipperier fabrics, e.g. silk or rayon.

SIZE & SUPPORT: This one is a bit of a balancing act. The smaller and thinner the pillow, the lighter and more packable it will be. But a pillow that is too narrow or too thin will provide inadequate support and might lead to you slipping off it constantly during the night.

In terms of width, a pillow around 13-15 (33-38 cm) inches wide should be adequate for most people. However, if you are a particularly restless sleeper, then consider sizing up. In terms of height, front sleepers should be able to get away with a thinner pillow and, therefore, a pillowcase or convertible stuff sack is probably a good choice for a front sleeper. Side sleepers (and some back sleepers) will likely require more support, and should look at thicker hybrid inflatables like the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium and Cocoon Hyperlight Air-Core.

WEIGHT: There is no perfect recipe for lightweight backpacking. Each backpacker needs to decide for themselves what sacrifices they are willing to make to minimise the weight on their back. Obviously, the lightest pillow to carry is no pillow at all. But many people require a pillow to sleep comfortably — and a comfortable night’s sleep is paramount when you are out hiking!

Pillowcases and convertible stuff sacks are the lightest options, but we think they make some sacrifices in terms of comfort and support (particularly for side sleepers). Several inflatable options are only slightly heavier and provide better support. With the current state of backpacking pillow technologies, 2.8 ounces (80 grams) is a reasonable maximum weight for a backpacking pillow. If you carry a backpacking pillow heavier than that then you really are treating yourself to luxury on the trail!

DURABILITY: This shouldn’t be too major a consideration if you stick to one of the pillows reviewed here. The inflatables are of course at risk of punctures or leaky valves, but most of the manufacturers should be relatively reliable in providing a replacement or repair if that happens. If you are particularly weary of punctures or leaky valves then stick to a pillowcase or convertible stuff sack.

WASHING: Inflatables, pillowcases & convertible stuff sacks are all easy to wash. Just use a soap or detergent to hand wash your pillow, and then lay it flat on a clothes rack (or something similar) to air dry. If you are a washing an inflatable, be sure to close the valve before washing it — and then don’t forget to open the valve again before storing it away for a long time!


MORE INFORMATION

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Happy hiking, and take care out there in the wild!