People camp for many reasons. For some, camping is an opportunity to live more simply. Still others travel in style, bringing along elaborate kitchens, exquisite meals and all the comforts of home. But whether camping rough on the ground or with class in a tent, the trip is always better on a full night’s sleep. The easiest way to improve the experience is to sleep well, and a good camping pillow can be an inexpensive way to do just that.
Camping pillows exist in a space of contradictions. Viewed by some as a luxurious extra, they must be comfortable enough to be worth bringing along, while rugged enough to stand up to the elements. They should be easy to pack while providing enough padding and support for the head. Just as there is no perfect pillow, there is no perfect camping pillow for every set of needs. Here are just a few factors to consider before making a purchase.
First, identify the primary camping style in which the pillow will be used. The needs of a casual camper will differ drastically from those of a back country hiker. Picking the wrong pillow at this stage isn’t the end of the world by any means, but it may make the trip less enjoyable later on.
Casual car campers aren’t quite as concerned with space or ruggedness. Space constraints in a trunk or cargo area are generous. Also, gear can be stored if the weather turns bad. Car campers can opt for more comfortable, less ruggedly-made pillows that weigh more and take up lots of space. It may even make more sense to bring along household pillows to help determine what characteristics make for better outdoor sleep, then to purchase camping pillows at a later date.
In general, pillows can either be filled or inflated. Since car campers aren’t nearly as concerned with space, filled pillows offer the best comfort. Memory foam and polyester fibers are great choices for the casual camper looking for a good night’s sleep. Just as is true with many choices made by the car camper, comfort is king, and which filler material to choose is a matter of personal preference.
Back Country Hikers
By contrast, space and weight are crucial variables for backpackers and rough campers. Hikers spend time evaluating gear so minutely, that the choice to purchase one item over another might hinge on a few ounces of weight difference. Look for case materials that are rugged but light. Also, find something that compresses well, and realize that these factors will likely come at the expense of some degree of comfort.
Choosing a pillow filling is much like picking sleeping bag material. Broadly, fillers can either be synthetic or down. Down fills such as cotton and fleece compress better. They are also lighter and softer. By contrast, synthetic fills are a great choice for someone wanting a bulkier pillow. They fill out more, are firmer and cost less. Hybrids are the best of both worlds, using both synthetic and down fills to achieve the perfect mix of firmness and compression. No one filling is perfect, and while the above is a good guide, there can be no substitute for trying pillows in realistic conditions and evaluating them directly.
Inflatable pillows are also an option. While these do compress down nicely, they are often less comfortable. Additionally, their shape and texture may cause them to slide, and pressure differences throughout the night can further change how the pillow feels. Further, while inflatable pillows are the easiest to adjust with regard to firmness, this advantage is more present in temperature-controlled environments such as planes and other vehicles. Some pillow designs mitigate these drawbacks by combining inflation with filling. The result is both easy to adjust and firmer than an inflatable-only pillow.
Of course, the easiest and least expensive option is a stuff sack of clothing. On one hand, this eliminates the need to purchase additional gear, thus making it the ultimate way to save weight and space. On the other, if clothing is ever wet then it must be dried out as thoroughly as possible. As such, campers may find themselves enduring a sleepless night for dry clothes the next morning, wishing they’d packed an actual pillow rather than relying on dirty laundry.
Don’t take weight and space savings to the extreme. Neck pillows may seem like a backpacker’s best choice because their designs are smaller. Unfortunately, traditional U and J-shaped designs are meant for sleeping while sitting up. Also, a pillow with little filling isn’t much better than no pillow at all. The point at which a pillow stops providing benefit is different for each person, and should be evaluated in advance under extreme conditions before hitting the trail.
Another often unconsidered aspect of pillows is their case. It is easy to overlook pillowcases at home, where the environment is controlled to a high degree. But any camper caught out in a sudden storm knows the true degree to which they are at the environment’s mercy.
If sleeping rough, pillowcases should be made of durable material to both keep out moisture and protect from damage. Tent and hammock campers should determine if the case material might slip along the tent floor, thus causing the pillow to drift away in the middle of the night. Poor case material can often be mitigated by wrapping the pillow in a towel or dry clothing. Even so, ground conditions are rarely enough for an ideal sleep, and while case material may only be aesthetic at home, it can easily make a major difference in the back country.
With the above in mind, here are a few top camping pillows from which to choose.
The West Wolf Automatic Inflatable Pillow
No one likes the light-headed feeling and plastic taste that are associated with many inflatables. Fortunately, this pillow airs up automatically. Simply pull it out of its stuff sack and let it do its thing. Fully inflated, it measures 16 x 9 x 5 inches, and weighs a minuscule 0.35 pounds. West Wolf offers a no questions asked lifetime guarantee and refund for this pillow, making trying it out a no-brainer.
This pillow’s compact form and thicker exterior make it a great companion both on the trail and in the plane. For hikers, the bright orange color option makes the pillow easier to find and harder to abandon. Not only is it great for sleeping, but it offers superior lumbar support for longer trips. If looking for a compact travel pillow, this West Wolf model is a great, well-rounded choice.
Kohbi Sport Ultimate
Sometimes inflatable pillows are simply too flexible. In those cases, this Sport Ultimate pillow may be a better choice. The Loftness Elite foam ensures a more even filling distribution throughout the pillow, meaning it won’t bunch up and make the sleep surface unlevel. The microfiber exterior is comfortable against the skin. When ready to face the day, simply roll the pillow into its included pocket, compressing it down to a compact package less than half its expanded size. Like the West Wolf, Kohbi also offers a no-hassle lifetime guarantee and refund policy.
If purchasing this pillow, be sure to follow the directions and wash it before use! Like many foam pillows, it is shipped compressed and expands over time. But, if not washed, it won’t reach its full size and plushness.
Another interesting aspect of this pillow is its dual cover material. While one side is microfiber, the other is composed of more traditional cotton. This makes it an excellent choice for anyone uncertain of which material is best for their circumstances.
This highly-engineered pillow combines a cotton case and a synthetic microfiber fill. The shell is ruggedly constructed and waterproof, making it perfect for just about any outdoor adventure. The Quixote Classic is also made in the USA and is subject to strict quality control.
Camping pillows are often thought of as luxury items, and their minimalist design standards uphold this view. The Quixote Classic manages to surpass this standard, becoming many travelers’ go-to pillow whether on the trail or at the hotel. It can be difficult to find pillows that work consistently well regardless of the environment. The price may be a bit steep, but the benefit of sleeping well anywhere makes this a great purchase for any frequent traveler.
While the above may make choosing a camping pillow seem overwhelming, it actually is not. Cover and fill materials are important to be sure, but even the most expensive pillow is useless if it doesn’t result in a quality night of sleep. Try the pillow out in extreme circumstances. Test it in a back yard, or on an uncomfortable hardwood floor. If it moves about freely and doesn’t offer solid support, send it back. The outdoors already provides a healthy array of challenges. Getting a good night’s sleep should not become yet another, and one’s pillow should be a help, not a hindrance.