Finding the Ultimate Ultralight Backpacking Pillow
[Updated to include Thermarest Compressible Pillow!]
There seems to be no shortage of options when it comes to ultralight pillows to improve your camping comfort. From the ultra-minimalist FlexAir Inflatable Pillow to the ultra-fancy Aeros Premium Deluxe and the various “make-do” options, there is something for everyone. And for as many choices as there are, there are as many opinions as to which is “best”. But only you can really determine what is best, based on your personal tolerance for (dis)comfort, sleeping styles, and budget.
In this review, we’ll dig into a few examples across the categories of pillow. I’ll really only fully discuss and ultimately recommend (or not) those that I personally own and have used enough to form an opinion. I may reference others that are notable for some feature not represented by the ones that I have used and so worth consideration. But, when I do that I will try to be clear that I may be presenting an untested opinion.
I’ll break these pillows down into three broad categories, “Standard“, “Premium“, and “Make-Do“. The Standard pillows are the baseline. These are the average pillows that represent a pretty decent starting point as you figure out what you like and don’t like. The Premium pillows then are a step up in terms of features, perhaps including a layer of down or memory foam to increase comfort. And finally, the Make-Do pillows are various options that are either truly minimalist or otherwise making do with something you may already have or can fashion into an approximation of a pillow.
What this review will not include: Pillows that are beyond what I might consider lightweight. The focus on this review are the ultralight and lightweight pillows. There are super-comfy 1lb+ pillows out there, but they’re a different class of pillow altogether. I also won’t include travel pillows. There are some good, even light, travel pillows that I’ve seen folks use. However, they tend to have geometry more suitable for propping your head up on an airplane or leaning your head against a window of a train.
Standard Ultralight Pillows
Most of the pillows you find in this category will be simple, inflatable pillows. Usually made of TPU or Thermoplastic Polyurethane bonded to a softer facing fabric. Being inflatable, you can adjust the the thickness / firmness of the pillow by simply adjusting the inflation level. They will all have a similar feel under the head, somewhat bouncy, and somewhat “firm” when comparing to your typical home pillow. They will vary mostly in terms of shape and choice of materials.
Trekology ALUFT 2.0 Ultralight
This is the “anchor” of the standard pillow. The baseline by which to compare others. With a nice ergonomic design, slightly convex, and slightly bean shaped, it comfortably cradles your head and supports your neck.
The welded internal baffles help define the shape, preventing the pillow from turning into a balloon, and are generally well placed to provide a natural shape. Overall dimensions are about 16″ x 12″ and about 4″ thick, though looking at the side profile you will notice that it is slightly egg shaped, thinner towards the head than the shoulder.
Highly inflated in these next two pictures to accentuate the shape.
The face fabric is a fairly comfortable brushed polyester. The underside is covered in a pattern of “microdots”, which according to the manufacturer provide additional grip and reduce friction noise. In my experience, the dots don’t really seem to do much. They are somewhat hard plastic and not particularly “grippy”. A software silicone perhaps would have been a better choice and so as a result you really just end up with a pillow that has one usable side. I’ve yet to try it, but compare to something like the Cocoon AIR Core with a two-sided design, one side a cooling nylon for warmer nights and the other a microfiber for cooler nights.
One really nice feature of this pillow is the included strap for attaching to a sleeping pad. For quilt sleepers, this can be a really nice feature as the pillow will move around pretty easily on your pad, despite the micro-dots. In a sleeping bag this is less important as you tend to put the pillow within the hood of the bag, which keeps it well in place.
The valve design is good, easy to inflate and designed to only deflate once you press a button housed within the valve itself. Easy to open and close.
Overall, the Trekology ALUFT 2.0 Ultralight is a well designed, comfortable pillow, and a good value at $16.00. At 3.7 oz (including bag) it is on par with most of the pillows in this class.
CampLife ALUFT 2.0 Ultralight
This pillow is extremely similar to the Trekology. The fabrics are identical, down to the patterned design on the face fabric. Both feature the micro-dots, both have straps to attach to your pad. I reached out to Trekology to inquire about the provenance of this pillow and the use of the ALUFT branding by another company. They only commented that they are the owner of the ALUFT brand, which I have confirmed is a trademark registered to Trekology. Not clear if this is a licensed and rebranded product, or an improper use of the trademark.
The overall dimensions are essentially the same at 16x12x4 and they have the same basic shape.
The differences are in the details.
The Trekology is perhaps just slight more curvy; a bit more convex, a bit more curve in the shoulder area. The microdots on the CampLife are closer together. The attachment strap on the CampLife is larger, easily accommodating a 25″ wide pad whereas on the Trekology it will pinch the pad more.
The valves are also considerably different. Whereas the Trekology features a button release valve, the CampLife has a two-stage dump valve. Opening the center valve allows you to inflate without the pillow deflating between breaths. However, open the outer valve and it quickly dumps all of the air. The advantage of the dump-valve is that it release air quickly and stays open allowing you to fully compress the pillow as you roll it up without trapping air. The button valve on the Trekology though allows you to much more easily fine tune the inflation, letting just a small amount of air out with a quick press. I’d give big points to the Trekology valve choice for this reason.
In terms of comfort, I’d say they are identical. So why might you want to consider the CampLife pillow? Cost. At the time I am writing this article, you can pick up the CampLife pillow for a mere $7. It’s hard to argue not at least trying it out at that cost and then deciding if the minor feature differences are worth spending a little more for the Trekology.
At 3.8 oz, this pillow is also about average within the range of ultralight pillows.
Outdoor Vitals Ultralight Stretch
Outdoor Vitals is making some great products, demonstrating some real innovation in the outdoors industry with several successful kickstart projects. They often use their pillow as an enticement reward and while you can buy it at the full retail price of about $25, they also commonly run those “free” pillow promotions where you just pay the cost of shipping and handling (about $10).
Like many pillows in this category, the OV Ultralight Stretch has an ergonomic kidney shape that cradles your head and nestles in around your shoulders. You’ll notice that the kidney shape is more pronounced with this pillow than the others. It more closely matches the shape of the hood of your sleeping bag, and probably also cuts some weight. As with the Trekology and CampLife pillows, the welded baffles help define the shape. Here there is only a single baffle though and I find this makes for a more comfortable rest when side sleeping. As with all inflatable pillows, once you put your head down on it, the air displaces and the pillow becomes firm under your head, resulting in a sore ear for the side sleepers. Under-inflating helps, but the shape and location of the baffle design in this pillow results in a nicely placed indent relieving pressure on the ear.
The fabric is a very soft stretch nylon that has a luxuriously nice feel against the skin. A quick look under magnification and you can see why, compared to the Trekology, the UV pillow has more tightly woven fabric.
The fabric is a very soft stretch nylon that has a luxuriously nice feel against the skin. A quick look under magnification and you can see why, compared to the Trekology, the UV pillow has more tightly woven fabric.
The fabric is also surprisingly not “slippery”, perhaps also owing to the texture. It stays put relatively well even when placed directly on the sleeping pad.
I don’t love the valve design though. While you can simply press in on the internal “flap” to release a bit of air to fine tune the inflation, the pressure from the evacuating air will often just keep the valve open allowing more air to escape than you intended. It’s also more difficult to open and close than other valve designs. I’d prefer to see a valve similar to that on the Trekology, which is also considerably smaller and I’d suspect just a bit lighter as well.
Overall, though, this is a very solid pillow and gets top marks in this category. It is the most comfortable of the lot, both in terms of comfort under head and comfort on the skin. At 3.1 oz, with bag, it is respectably light as well.
Premium Ultralight Pillows
The pillows I put in the Premium category usually just take a step or two beyond the standard pillows to increase the comfort levels. This typically comes with a cost, in dollars or in ounces, but often in both. But is it worth it? Do they really achieve enough comfort to justify the cost?
Big Agnes Sleeping Giant
I should start by saying this pillow is no longer manufactured. I’m including it because it is a good representation of what this category of pillow is all about. Trying to find that balance of comfort and weight for those of us that absolutely need a pillow to sleep well through the night.
It is relatively large at 16″ x 12″.
This pillow is comprised of a simple segmented air core with a 3/4″ think memory foam layer, inserted into a separate, machine washable pillow case.
One of the benefits of have a separate pillow case is that you can more highly customize the feel of your pillow. When I used this regularly, I would often remove the memory foam, fold it in half and then re-insert. I would then really under-inflate the pillow so that the entire thing could be folded in half. This resulted in a smaller pillow, but a much “plusher” pillow with the now much thicker memory foam layer. You can also stuff in a fleece or other clothing as well to refine the feel.
There is no doubt that this is a comfortable pillow with some nice features. But to be honest, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve taken it on the trail. So why did such a nice premium pillow succumb to disuse? First and foremost, it’s “fiddly”, meaning that you have to fiddle with it a bit to get it just right. The straight tubular air bladder design lacks structure and so the tubes move around a bit. Compared to something like the Outdoor Vitals pillow with it’s welded baffle system, it just doesn’t provide the same level of support. And the fabric is slick so it moves all over the place and slips right out from under your head. Add all of this adds up to a pillow that is super comfortable right up until you move around in your sleep and then you are waking up to re-adjust. And it’s heavy at 9.5oz. So while it served me well for nearly a decade, there are simply much better options now available.
But I still wanted to include it in the comparisons today because you will still find pillows out there with very similar designs, with all of the same flaws, including one of my least favorite valves:
This used to be the standard valve, found on every early self-inflating Thermarest sleeping pad. It’s OK on those pads, but on a straight air bladder it’s a really poor choice. The valve basic screws open and closed. To inflate you unscrew and blow. Straight forward. But to close it off you must continue to blow to maintain positive pressure while you also screw the cap closed. It’s great at slowly releasing a bit of air to fine tune your inflation, but that minor advantage doesn’t make it worth using.
Sea to Summit Aero Down
Sea to Summit has a fairly broad variation of pillows in the Aero line-up, including one that is really comparable to the Trekology and Camplife pillows (but 1 oz lighter!). The Aero Down series though stands out in a few ways. It does not have the same ergonomic shape of the other Aeros (again, really similar to the Trekology). But most notably, it does have a thin layer on top and wrapping around the side where your neck will be. The fabric over the down is extremely thin and soft, with an exceptionally tight weave. We all know that when it comes to bed linens, that high thread count is what gives them that feel of satin. The feel of this pillow on the skin is nice! The material is thin and translucent, as you can see in this close-up shot showing both the tightness of the weave as well as the down feathers beneath.
So, does the down actually make a noticeable difference? It does, but it isn’t huge. As I mentioned before, the Standard pillows, with your head directly on the air bladder all suffer from the fact that the weight of your head will displace the air and more or less result in a similar pressure pushing back against your head, regardless of inflation level. Those pillows try to address this with strategic locating of baffles. Here on the area, there is a soft layer of down. And I must say it does work, despite how seemingly compressed it is.
At 13″ x 9″ it is a bit smaller than many of the others, though it is nice and thick, which side sleepers will particularly appreciate. I find it to be about the perfect size and as a bonus, coupled with the lightweight materials this is actually the lightest pillow here!
The valve choice on this pillow is also decent. It is a two-stage valve, similar to the CampLife pillow. So you open the inner valve to inflate and the outer valve to dump all of the air quickly. The difference is that when the inner valve alone is still open, you can press in on the rubber stopper to release a small amount of air, fine tuning the inflation.
One other interesting feature is the Pillow Lock System. If you use this pillow along with a Sea to Summit sleeping pad, they pair with a very fine hook and loop attachment system. The pads come with self-adhesive patches for the “hook” side but the underside fabric of the pillow itself is the “loop” side. I have reached out to Sea to Summit to see if they can offer the patches separately for converting other pads.
If it isn’t obvious by now, this is my favorite pillow in this round-up. It is both the most comfortable and the lightest weight. The downside is the cost. At $60 it is also the most expensive.
While Thermarest is known today for some great air mattresses (e.g. NeoAir), they really made their name on the innovation of the “self inflating” mattresses. These were essentially just open cell foam pads wrapped in an airtight skin. And while there has been a move over the past few years towards simple and light air mattresses, many Thermarest pads are still made with the expanding “self inflating” foam material. What does this have to do with pillows? Well, when they cut and trim those pads, the offcut scraps find their way into the Thermarest Compressible line of pillows.
They come in several sizes and I recently picked up the small, which measures roughly 12×16 inches. Other available sizes include the medium at 14×18 and large at 16×23.
Weighing in at 7oz, it is about twice as heavy as some of the air-only pillows (medium=9 oz, large=12 oz). But is it more comfortable and is it worth the extra weight?
The fabric is definitely very nice with a really soft, velvety texture. It is really the nicest feeling fabric of all of the pillows I have tested. However, while the foam lofts up nicely to 4+ inches, in actual use it compresses a lot. The average human head weights about 10lbs, as you can see in the picture below with just a 5lb sack of flour, the pillow compresses to well less than 1″.
This is notable and I found over several nights of use that I woke up throughout the night to “fluff” the pillow, fold it in half to double it up, and despite that still end up waking each morning to a sore neck. Additionally, it doesn’t pack away nearly as small as the other pillows in this round-up.
ThermarestcompressedBottom line, while an initially comfortable pillow and a fantastic concept making use of scraps that would otherwise end up in a land fill, the Thermarest compressible pillow just isn’t comfortable enough and won’t be making it as a permanent addition to my kit.
This category covers those various attempts to seemingly create a pillow from almost nothing. These are solutions that barely pass for a pillow, but for many people it may be enough. If you find yourself nearly comfortable without a pillow at all, one of these solutions may just be the answer.
The Stuff Sack
You probably already have a stuff sack in your backpack. And you probably have spare closed, maybe already in the stuff sack. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a sack filled with clothes might make an acceptable pillow. This is what many a person does and there is something to be said about multi-use solutions for keeping the weight in your pack down. I’ve done this for many nights and in a pinch I supposed it would still be tolerable. But it does make for a lump pillow and requires a bit of fiddling to get the clothes situated just right. A sack that is nearly full works best.
The other down side to using a stuff sack is that the materials are usually just not that comfortable. They often feel like plastic and make you sweat. To address this, some clever sack maker decided it would be a good idea to line the inside of a sack with fleece. By day you have a normal sack, but come night time, you just flip the sack inside-out and you have a comfortable pillow. I’ll tell you, this makes a world of difference!
This particular picture is of an REI version, no longer offered, but Granite Gear makes something very similar. At about 2 oz. (for the Granite Gear version) it’s pretty lightweight, particularly if you were going to be carrying a stuff sack anyway.
And if you are handy, you may even make one for yourself. Here is an example of one I made for my daughter when she first starting joining me on backpacking adventures as young girl. It not only has soft fleece, but I inserted foam under the fleece for a true luxe experience!
FlexAir Medical Pillow
These are disposable pillows, more typically offered in the doctor’s office. They are of a pretty decent size, 13″ x 9″ and 4″ thick. Not too different than many of the backpacking pillows. They are a simple, plastic, inflatable bag though the surface material feels like a soft paper. They come with a straw that is inserted into the bag to inflate (or deflate). They can be deflated and re-used for as long as they last.
These are light duty, not intended for continued use, so expect a field failure and carry a back-up. At about .5 oz each, you can easily carry two and be ahead by comparison to any other pillow.
My personal experience is that they are horrible and not worth the $2. They feel exactly like you can imagine, placing your head on a balloon. With no internal baffling, you will find it challenging to keep your head from bouncing around and wanting to roll off the edge. But as a knee pillow for side sleepers? For only $2 it might be worth trying!
Summary Comparison Table
The following table summarizes the key data for each of the pillows described in this article. The weights are inclusive of stuff sacks and based on actual measures from my personal scale. Prices are approximations based on actual prices I found at the time of writing this article. The Comfort Rating is my personal, subjective, opinion.
|Manufacturer||Product Name||Price||Weight||Machine Washable?||Comfort Rating|
|Trekology||Aluft 2.0 Ultralight Pillow||16.99||3.7 oz||No||6|
|Camplife||Aluft 2.0 Ultralight Pillow||$6.96 – $13.90|
Depending Upon Color Selection
|Outdoor Vitals||Ultralight Stretch||$24.97||3.1 oz||No||7|
|Sea to Summit||Aeros Down, Regular||$59.95||2.4 oz||No||8|
|Big Agnes||Sleeping Giant||$40 (No Longer Manufactured)||9.5 oz||Yes||8|
|REI||Pillow Stuff Sack||$20 (No Longer Manufactured)|
Compares to Granite Gear PillowSack
|Homemade||Horse Pillow Stuff Sack||Priceless||1.9 oz||Yes||4|
|FlexAir||Medical Inflatable Pillow||$2||.56 oz||No||1|
The Bottom Line
It is possible to sleep comfortably in the back country, but it can take a little trial and error to find the system that works right for you. Like most ultralight gear, there are compromises to be made. It may be in comfort, or weight, or in expense. Only you can determine what which of those compromises make the most sense for you.
My recommendation if you are just considering a pillow for the first time is to start with any of the Standard pillows. The CampLife option is an inexpensive way to try out the general feel for an air pillow and Outdoor Vitals is a nice improvement over that, for not a lot more money. The Sea to Summit Aero Down is a really nice pillow and a small step up in comfort. But it’s a big step up in terms of cost.
What are your favorite pillows to use? What do you think of some of my choices? Let me know in the comments below!
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