Pillow Talk…

It's All About Backpacking Pillows!

When it comes to backpacking pillows, I have tried out quite a few, too many actually. I know what you’re thinking, “Pillows? Who needs a pillow? Just fashion your shoes and dirty underwear into a hump and sleep on it, sissy!” Ok, true! But that’s not only uncomfortable, it’s possibly the only way to smell your feet and butt at the same time – no thanks! Although that actually might knock you out, I prefer a clean, comfortable, and consistent pillow for a good night’s sleep. So yeah, I’ve experimented with a lot of pillows and sadly many of them are not well designed. There are a couple though, that in my opinion are worth their weight. Let’s have a look at the good, bad, and ugly of backpacking pillows…

Backpacking Pillows

A Survey of the Backpacking Pillow Market

First, let’s define what we mean by “backpacking pillow” – any pillow whose compressed size and weight makes it a practical choice to carry on overnight or multi-day hikes. The following list isn’t a complete roundup, instead you might consider it a good cross section of what’s out there in the world of backpacking pillows. Also when we talk about “side sleeping”, 4 inches of pillow loft is about the bare minimum that most people will consider comfortable (says we). The broader the shoulders the more loft needed to make it comfy, so take that with a grain of salt while reading the notes below.

  • Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow: Currently my favorite pillow. An in-depth look at this one can be found below.
  • Exped Air Pillow: My previous favorite pillow, possibly still a tie. Again, see below for the full scoop.
  • Klymit Pillow-X: The Pillow-X is a decent inflatable pillow but didn’t make the cut for me. The X-shaped baffles do help to keep the pillow centered under your noggin however the thickness is right on the cusp for side sleeping.
  • Big Agnes Air Core Pillow: A miserable pillow. Sorry Big Agnes. The thickness is just not anywhere in the ballpark for a comfortable pillow. It seems as if it was copied directly from a B.A. Air Core sleeping pad… I’m sure Big Agnes can do better.
  • Big Agnes Q-Core Pillow: Big Agnes improved on thickness of the Air Core pillow but it’s still not really in the realm of being comfortably thick. This one will at least fit into the pillow pocket of their sleeping bags and that’s probably best given its slick surfaces.
  • Cocoon Ultralight AirCore: The Cocoon is a crinkly, bouncy little jobber. While fairly light and cost effective it’s not very comfortable nor durable. I would wager that a lot of people have tried this pillow and at some point returned it to REI (like me).
  • Nemo Fillo: The Fillo is massive and heavy among these backpacking pillows, it is damn comfortable though. The 2-piece design boasts a plush microfiber cover filled with memory foam and a separate inflatable inner. The inner can be used alone, but that would be missing the point!
  • Sierra Designs DriDown Pillow: I have not tried this one so I can’t comment on comfort. The two piece design sports a nice looking down filled cover with an inflatable inner. If the overall height spec of 4 inches is accurate it will probably be borderline for side sleepers.
  • Goosefeet Down Pillow: A true down pillow for the purists. These can be pretty comfy and warm but work best for those who sleep on their back or stomach. A “stuffsack” option allows them to be beefed up with extra clothes or even another pillow such as the Exped Air Pillow for the ultimate in plushness!
  • Therm-a-rest Compressible Pillow: Initially they’re lumpy as heck, then they get more comfortable with use, eventually going too soft to support the weight of your head through the night. This leads to a fluffing session at zero dark thirty. Worst though may be how large it is when compressed… lots of real estate taken up in the backpack.

The Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow – In Depth

This is a great pillow, I guess it’s my new favorite. It ticks off nearly all of the right boxes… thick enough (5 inches) for side sleeping comfortably, contoured shape is comfortable for back and side sleeping, outer material has a soft hand which feels good on the face and isn’t slippery at all, the valve is unobtrusive and very nicely designed, easily inflates and deflates, very lightweight, packs down to an extremely small size. So what’s missing? About the only thing I can say would be some sort of tabs that could be used to secure the pillow to the sleeping pad – Sea to Summit… if you guys are listening this has got to be in a future update, then it will be the perfect pillow!

Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow
Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow

The outer material is a synthetic (polyester?) with a very soft hand – even better feeling than the Exped Air Pillow UL, and sooo much better than being on plain ol nylon. I haven’t owned this one long enough to comment on durability and long term comfort though (expect a future update).

Back of the Aeros
Back of the Aeros
3-in-1 Valve
3-in-1 Valve
Packed Size
Packed Size

The valve that Sea to Summit has come up with is super cool (this same valve will also be on their new sleeping pads). As an ex-Engineer I really appreciate the thought that went into the design. It’s a 3-in-1 type of thing. Pull the rubber plug open and blow to inflate. It’s a one-way valve so nothing comes back out as you take another breath. If it’s over-inflated for your personal taste, just press the little rubber adjuster button in the center of the valve and it will let a little air out. Pull the other tab and the entire valve pops open allowing the pillow to immediately deflate. The two pull tabs work in different directions – left to right to open for inflating, and top to bottom to open for deflating. This prevents inadvertently deflating the pillow when wanting to just blow a little more air in, or let a little out using the adjuster. What a nice design.

All in all a very comfortable and smartly designed pillow that leaves very little to be desired!

The Exped Air Pillow – In Depth

The Exped pillow has probably been de-throned as my favorite by the Aeros (above). Let’s talk about what the Exped gets right… it’s thick enough for side sleeping comfortably (4.5 inches), the contoured shape is great for back and side sleepers, the outer material has a decently soft feel to it and is not overly slippery, the valves are unobtrusive, it’s easy to inflate and deflate, very lightweight, and packs down to an extremely small size. It also has 2 tabs that can be used to secure it to a sleeping pad (using a piece of shock cord for example). This is a nice touch that not a lot of pillows have, and it can be very frustrating when a pillow doesn’t want to stay put.

Exped Air Pillow UL
Exped Air Pillow UL

The outer material is softer than some pillows, but the Aeros has it beat. One area where the two differ is the overall shape. They both have a contour to allow the pillow to fit around the shoulder of side sleepers, however the top of the Exped has 3 baffles, the center being the lowest which creates a sort of cradle. Comparing side by side it’s hard to say if the Exped or the Sea to Summit has the better shape – it could come down to personal preference. One note about the Exped which always struck me as a little odd is that the rear baffle is not as thick as the one closest to the neck and it can sometimes feel like my head is tipped slightly downward. I’m usually too tired to notice though.

Back of the Air Pillow UL
Back of the Air Pillow UL
Packed Size
Packed Size

Exped uses two valves on their pillow – one to inflate, and one to deflate. Not a bad design but fine tuning the pressure takes more skill and usually involves fussing around a little. The Aeros hands down has a nicer design on the valve, but that’s not to say Exped has a bad design, they just got one upped is all. It happens 🙂

The Exped is still a worthy pillow and I won’t be getting rid of mine just in case my neck decides that the old familiar pillow is its favorite.

Some Side By Side Comparison

 

Pillow Specs – Size MEDIUM All Models
Name/Brand Size (in) Weight (oz) Type MSRP
Sea to Summit Aeros 12×12×5 2.9 Inflatable $39
Exped Air Pillow 15×10.6×4.3 2.9 Inflatable $39
Klymit Pillow X 15×11×4 1.9 Inflatable $29
Big Agnes Air Core 16×12×2.5 4.5 Inflatable $29
Big Agnes Q-Core 16×12×3 3.0 Inflatable $34
Cocoon UL AirCore 19×15×4.5 5.8 Inflatable $29
Nemo Fillo 17×10.5×4 11.1 Inflatable + Foam $44
Sierra Designs DriDown 13×9×4 4.5 Inflatable + Down $39
Goosefeet Down Pillow 14×10×6 1.9 Down + Stuffable $32
Therm-a-Rest Compressible 14×18×6 9.0 Foam $19

 

In Summary…

Of course personal preference comes into play but, looking at this cross section, a few pillows definitely fall behind in terms of comfort or weight. While the Fillo is a great comfy pillow it’s rather heavy and not all that compact when compressed. Others, like the Cocoon, are fairly light and compressible but not all that durable or very comfortable. So there are trade off’s with some of these designs and others seem to come much closer to that perfect balance for backpacking trips. We don’t usually “recommend” products here but I guess my favorites are clear – and I think either of them would be a good place to start. Hike It. Like It.

Jacob D Written by:

Jacob is the head honcho, wearer of many hats, and modern day berserker here at Hike It. Like It. When he's not out hiking or running the trails you'll find him operating in full capacity as a Super Dad and chipping away at a degree in Kinesiology. This guy likes to stay busy. Follow on Strava

5 Comments

  1. […] too light) Sleeping Pad: Therm-a-Rest Neoair XLite Ground Pad: Evazote foam pad from eBay Pillow: Sea to Summit Aeros Stove: MSR Windburner Pot: See above Pan: Yup… brought an aluminum non-stick pan so I could […]

  2. October 5, 2014
    Reply

    Oh, and for the record, I didn’t realize that BPL posted a pillow article a couple days before we did… purely coincidence! I don’t spend too much time over there these days but noticed it while browsing the forum today 🙂

    I’m no longer a paid member, so can’t access the content but it looks like we agreed that the Cocoon is not very good… where we differ is the Big Agnes Air Core which got an “Above Average” rating apparently… can’t imagine how. That’s exactly the reason why we don’t “recommend” gear. What works for me, doesn’t necessarily work for you!

  3. Moosebump
    October 5, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for the round up. I didn’t know about a couple of these until now.

  4. Aubrey
    October 5, 2014
    Reply

    Thanks for this post, as I always enjoy a different perspective.
    Point of clarification: The Exped pillow in the images above appears to be their “Air Pillow”, not the “Air Pillow UL.” I have had both, and both are excellent. The golden-colored “UL” version has a single valve and does not have the softer fabric finish in order to save ~1 oz.

    • October 5, 2014
      Reply

      Thanks for the clarification, Aubrey! I’ve updated the article to reflect the correction… I never realized that the gold and red were actually 2 different pillows. I always thought it was just a color variation so I’m glad you pointed that out! I have to say that the soft (ish) material on the red “non-UL” pillow is pretty nice… I don’t know that I’d want to give that up to save an ounce 🙂

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