A good night’s sleep while camping is an essential ingredient to ensuring you enjoy yourself on the trail. There are lots of things that factor into sleeping well under the stars–the R-Value of your sleeping pad, warmth of your sleeping bag, and the clothes you sleep in, just to name a few – but one of the most overlooked contributing factors is whether or not you choose to use a camping pillow.
Camping pillows are a relatively recent development in the world of camping gear. Whether or not you choose to bring a camping pillow on your next outdoor adventure is totally up to you, but I’m here to let you in on a little secret: camping pillows are definitely worth the weight in your pack if you care about getting the best possible night’s sleep outdoors.
What is a Camping Pillow?
The biggest difference between at-home pillows and camping pillows is size. Camping pillows are almost always significantly smaller than traditional pillows, with the aim of being far lighter and more packable.
There are three main types of camping pillows to choose from:
- Air Pillows: Very small pillows with a baffled air chamber core. They can be inflated to the desired firmness level and once deflated, they pack down to the size of a deck of cards. They are comfortable, tiny and ultralight!
- Foam/Filled Pillows: Compact pillows stuffed with foam or down. Good for car camping, but can be heavy for backpacking depending on the nature of the trip. They are a very comfortable option.
- Stuff Sack Pillows: The classic stuff-your-clothes-in-a-stuff-sack-and-call-it-good pillow, but with stuff sacks intentionally designed for the job.
Inflatable Camping Pillows
The reason for the current rise in camping pillow popularity is the advent of ultralight air pillows. Just look at the Air Head™ Lite. It can be inflated to the desired level of support, and deflated to a fraction of it’s full size. So small is its packed size it can likely fit in the top of your sleeping bag in its stuff sack or occupy any nook or cranny of your pack.
The original Air Head™ Pillow utilizes a super soft, partially recycled brushed polyester cover with a synthetic fill topper to boost comfort. The Air Head™ Down is the same way, but you guessed it, has a down-filled topper for an even more luxurious next-to-skin feel. The covers are machine washable so they can be kept clean comfy for years.
Filled Camping Pillows
Many people prefer the more traditional Filled camping pillows, and it’s easy to see why. These pillows are very similar to the pillow you might use on your bed at home, just slightly smaller and easier to squish into a packable size.
The Compressible Pillow exemplifies this category with its foam filling being upcycled from Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad production leftovers. The pillow stuffs into its own brushed polyester cover for easy transport and expands to offer great support and blissful comfort. If you’re planning on car camping or going for a short weekend backpacking trip, then a compressible pillow may be a good option for you.
Stuff Sack Camping Pillows
The Trekker™ Pillow Case and Stuff Sack Pillow are great for those that get by just fine resting their heads on jackets and shirts when out on the trail. The brushed polyester Trekker Pillow case is ultralight and can fit in your shirt pocket, while the Stuff Sack Pillow is cross-functional and has a soft interior lining to make your pile of clothes into the perfect pillow. Stuff Sack Pillows are a classically reliable and ultralight alernative.
Why Should You Carry a Pillow While Camping?
Have you ever woken up with a crick in your neck from sleeping on an uncomfortable pillow? Or have you tried sleeping with no pillow only to wake up in the middle of the night or the next morning sore and regretful?
To put it simply, you should carry a camping pillow because they add more comfort to your sleep system then they detract from a packing philosophy. That is to say:
- They are lightweight and can be very small, so they won’t add very much weight or take up a lot of space in your pack.
- Your body will be better prepared to perform and enjoy the outdoors!
If you’ve ever struggled with neck pain after sleeping, then you know exactly how important it is to find the right pillow for your body, no matter where you sleep on any given night. Though many ultralight and dirtbag hikers may argue the point, the “good pillow equals good sleep” rule also applies to camping.
Some hardcore ultralight backpackers may claim camping pillows are superfluous, but most campers and overnight adventurers will agree that camping pillows are worth their weight, especially on extended trips in the backcountry or in situations that require a well-rested body to stay safe.
Before I had a proper camping pillow and I would simply stuff clothes into the hood of my mummy bag and do my best. I would wake up with a strained neck and tight shoulders, forcing a smile anytime someone asked me how I slept. I was making minimum wage and camping every weekend, sleeping pillowless in a tent at night while I belayed and climbed during the day, trying desperately to ignore the mounting pain in the back of my neck.
For a long time I blamed the discomfort in my upper body on “belayer’s neck.” It wasn’t until someone gifted me my first camping pillow that I realized it was both belayer’s neck and my incomplete sleep system that was causing me pain.
I couldn’t believe how easy it was to avoid those nagging aches and pains in my neck and shoulders just by using a miniature lightweight version of the pillow I slept on at home. I was shocked at the difference it made in my level of sleeping comfort and relief of neck strain while camping, even after a full day of climbing and belaying.
Don’t be like me. Don’t deny yourself the small luxury of sleeping with a pillow while camping, whether you’re car camping or backpacking. There are enough options out there that you should be able to complete your sleep system with a camping pillow that fits your needs and your budget so you can rest assured your body will wake up feeling ready for a day outside!
- Camping Pillows: Therm-a-Rest’s Complete Guide
- How It’s Made: Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillows
- The Ultimate Guide to Therm-a-Rest Sleeping Pads
Updated. Originally Published September 14, 2020.