If you’re one of those backpackers that needs to have a pillow to get a good night’s sleep, you might be struggling to find a way to get some much-needed head and neck support as you snooze. Since bringing a full-size pillow into the mountains isn’t exactly practical, you have to find another way to get your comfort while sleeping under the stars.
Thankfully, backpackers are a resourceful and creative bunch, so they have come up with plenty of ways to ensure that they have a pillow in the backcountry. The most popular pillow options that backpackers use are listed below.
Top 4 methods backpackers use for a pillow:
1. Purpose-Built Camping Pillows
Arguably the simplest backpacking pillow is a purpose-built model that you can buy in a store. Camping pillows come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. You can get ultralightweight and inflatable models like the Exped Ultra Pillow or a foam option like the Thermarest Compressible Pillow Cinch.
Foam models tend to be more comfortable than inflatable ones, but they are almost always heavier and bulkier than their inflatable counterparts.
2. Folded-Up Clothes Method
If you don’t want to buy a camping pillow, you can always try to fashion one out of some of your extra clothes. Some people find that they can simply fold up a couple of their fleece jackets and use that as a pillow while they snooze. The method is great for saving weight and money, but the issue is that it’s not very useful if you have to wear all of your spare clothes to stay warm at night.
3. Stuff Sack Method
The stuff sack method is effectively a more formal version of the folded-up clothes method. With this method, you take an extra stuff sack and place some of your spare clothes inside. The stuff sack then doubles as your pillow at night. You can use any old stuff sack for this method, or you can buy a purpose-built one like the Thermarest Stuff Sack Pillow if you want one that has some fleece on it for added comfort.
But the same issue that we see with the folded-up clothes method also plagues the stuff sack method. If you have to use all your clothes to keep you warm, you won’t have any available for your pillow. Yikes!
4. No Pillow Method
Finally, you can choose to forgo a pillow altogether while you camp. This method isn’t particularly common as many of us are very accustomed to sleeping with a pillow. But some folks opt to prop their head up on a backpack or another piece of gear (it’s about as uncomfortable as it sounds) rather than bringing a pillow.
There are also people who just don’t need a pillow to get a good night’s sleep, which is a superpower that we honestly wish we had.
Is a Pillow Necessary For Backpacking?
Now that we understand the most popular methods backpackers use for pillows, it is important that we talk about whether pillows are even necessary for backpacking.
The short answer is maybe.
For many campers, a pillow is an absolute must because, without one, they simply can’t get a good night’s sleep. Meanwhile, other campers couldn’t care less whether or not they have a pillow because they can fall asleep as soon as they zip up their sleeping bag.
Does this mean that you have to use a pillow while backpacking?
Not necessarily. It’s up to you to decide whether using a pillow is going to be helpful for your camping experience. If you normally have difficulty sleeping outside, it might be worth trying one out on a backpacking trip, but there’s no guarantee that using one will solve all of your problems, either.
How Do You Keep a Pillow in Place While Camping?
We’ve all been there: You go to lay your head down at night on your super cozy camp pillow, only to find that it starts sliding around on your sleeping pad. So what are you to do? How do you keep your pillow in place while camping?
This is a time-honored struggle that many campers go through and there are a few ways to go about dealing with it.
One way is to place your pillow inside the hood of your sleeping bag instead of directly on top of your sleeping pad. The idea here is that the hood of your sleeping bag can “trap” your pillow and prevent it from sliding around. But using this method means that your head won’t be as insulated at night, so it’s not always a great option in cold climates.
Another option is to get a pillow that you can attach to your sleeping pad. Many commercially made camping pillows have loops on the side that you can use to attach a length of shock cord. You can then wrap this shock cord around the back of your sleeping pad.
Depending on how tight the shock cord is and how much you move around at night, this method is normally fairly effective. But keep in mind that this option typically only works with inflatable sleeping pads as the thin foam ones don’t have enough girth for you to effectively wrap a shock cord around them.
Backpacking Pillows: Essential Gear or Added Luxury?
If you were to take a poll of backpackers and see how many people use pillows during their adventures, you’d probably get a wide range of different answers. There are plenty of people out there who would never camp without a pillow but there are many others who wouldn’t ever think to bring one into the mountains.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether you view a backpacking pillow as essential gear or an added luxury. But we hope this article helped you learn more about the different pillow options that you have available to you for your outdoor adventures!
Going backpacking doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. But when you ask people how well they sleep while they’re out in the mountains, their answers are usually quite disappointing.
Many people struggle to get a good night’s sleep while backpacking simply because they don’t have a pillow on hand that can properly support their head and neck while they sleep. Although carrying a full-size pillow into the backcountry isn’t exactly practical, there are ways to ensure that you can still sleep well in the greater outdoors.
So, what do backpackers use for a pillow? Let’s recap:
Every backpacker is different, but most people either opt to bring a purpose-built backpacking pillow, fold up clothes to make their own pillow, or forgo one altogether. Many people find that purpose-built backpacking pillows are the most comfortable, but not everyone is willing to carry around the extra weight or spend money on another piece of gear.
There are many schools of thought out there about backpacking pillows, so there is no one answer out there that will work for everyone. Take the time to test out for yourself some of the different ways that campers get creative with their pillow choices in the backcountry so you can decide which option is best for your needs.
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David Parnell is the founder and lead editor at Trail and Summit, who enjoys writing on a wide range of topics from travel trailers to trail running. He’s an accomplished mountain endurance athlete who has completed over 25 ultra marathon races (follow on Strava). He is most proud of his finish at The Drift 100 – a high elevation, 100 mile winter foot race that zigzags along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. In the future he hopes to compete in the ITI 350 and ultimately the full 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Invitational that follows the same path as the historic dog sled race.