Best Backpacking Pillow – How to Choose

Sleeping Gear
Jake resting on the Cocoon inflatable pillow.

The best backpacking pillow is constructed with durable materials and designed to keep your head elevated and centered throughout the night. They are lightweight, pack down small and most are surprisingly expensive. Some utilize down for warmth and have different methods of preventing the pillow from sliding during the night.

Classification and Rating

Best Backpacking Gear
It is hard to imagine that this is what we have the potential of packing into our backpacks.

We classify the best backpacking pillow as an optional piece of camping gear. Most backpackers will deem a pillow necessary but there are some who can go without, choosing instead to rest their heads on their backpacks or clothing. Along with the optional label, we also provide a rating. Our A-F rating is to help newcomers to backpacking know where to best spend their budget. Check out our best backpacking gear post to see how we rank and rate all backpacking gear in one place.

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Best Backpacking Pillow

Cocoon Inflatable Pillow
The difference between the packed size and inflated size of our Cocoon Backpacking Pillows.
  • Classification: Optional Gear
  • C-Rating: Spend some money on a quality product if you can but if not you can save money now and plan on upgrading later.

I have yet to find a backpacking pillow I truly love. I know that isn’t the best way to start off a post that claims to know the best backpacking pillow. However, the trade-offs for comfort vs. weight in the pillow department are extreme. There are no camping pillows that can compete with my home memory foam pillow. That being said there are several types of backpacking pillows contending for the best. While some stand out above the others, don’t expect luxury.

Types of Backpacking Pillows

There are basically three types of backpacking pillows; the stuffed pillow, compressible pillow; and inflatable pillow. Stuffed pillows are essentially small pillowcases that rely on you stuffing the sleeve with backpacking clothes that are usually dirty (…nasty). They are ultra-light but they are lumpy and will probably smell really bad by the last night of a journey. The Therm-a-Rest Stuff Sack Pillow (Backcountry) is a good choice if you are looking for the lightest possible solution for a pillow when backpacking.

Compressible Pillows

Many people find compressible pack pillows to be the most comfortable but they are ultimately designed to compress which doesn’t make them great to sleep on… because they compress. They really do not compress enough to pack down well either. This, in my opinion, is actually the worst of both worlds. However, the Therm-a-Rest Compressible pillow ranks amongst the best in this category.

Inflatable Pillows

Collapsed Cocoon
The Cocoon backpacking pillow collapses and packs down very tightly and is extremely lightweight.

The inflatable pillow is what it sounds like. It is typically inflated via the lungs and usually has some type of thin padding on one side. The best inflatable pack pillows will also have an anti-slip material to keep them from sliding out in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, it typically doesn’t work all that well, and putting them inside the hood of your mummy bag is a better solution. Many inflatable pillows are engineered to cradle your head and neck in a variety of different designs.

Cocoon Ultralight Air-Core Pillow (REI)

The Cocoon Ultralight Air-Core pillow is the best backpacking pillow when comparing cost, weight, and useability. They pack down really small and at 3.5oz, they are very lightweight. We’ve also had these pillows for nearly a decade now and they have held up really well with no leaks, which is nearly unheard of in an inflatable pillow. Prior to purchasing these, we used Walmart inflatable pillows that were terrible in comparison and gave out after a few trips.

Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow (Backcountry, REI)

Another inflatable pillow option to consider is the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow (Backcountry, REI). Sea to Summit makes the best backpacking sleeping pads and they design the Aeros to literally attach to the pad. This keeps the pillow from sliding around in the middle of the night, a very common issue with inflatables. The Aeros even comes in a Down Model (Backcountry, REI) that has a layer of down on the head side of the casing to keep you warm on cold nights. I personally like a cool pillow so I would never own one of these but it might be right for those who get cold easily.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Pillow

Best Backpacking Pillow
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Choosing the best backpacking pillow isn’t an easy task. Comfort, cost, and reliability must be taken into account. With new integrated designs like the Sea to Summit Aeros now in the market, it makes choosing the best backpacking pillow even harder. There are cheaper options on Amazon that might be worth giving a try, but if you want to buy one backpacking pillow, and know you have got the best the industry has to offer, splurge on the Cocoon Ultralight Air-Core.

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