Years ago, had you asked me my opinion on camping pillows I probably would’ve replied merely, “they’re excess.” It wasn’t always my view though; when my experience in the outdoors first began to evolve, mostly with boat camping trips in the lakes of upstate New York and overnight forays into the backyard, full-size pillows were usually present. It made sense to attempt to transfer the comforts of the bed at home into adventures.

As I began to wander farther (and carry all of my own gear), I learned that maybe, just maybe, that bulky feather pillow wasn’t worth its volume or weight in added comfort. I don’t remember exactly when, or if it was a fully-conscious decision, but I quit bringing pillows into the woods cold turkey. My new system was flexible: some nights I amassed a small pile of spare clothing to raise my head off the sleeping bag and on others I skipped the idea of a pillow entirely, resting my head directly on the mat. The most thoughtful iteration of the method involved stuffing my sleeping bag’s compression sack with my softest jackets and fleeces for the night, a tactic I used and found quite sufficient for 77 nights in a row during an extended expedition in the backcountry of New Zealand.

Never again. A few years ago, I discovered the camp pillow: a miniature, lighter, sometimes inflatable, sometimes foam version of the cushion we all use at home. I brought it on a backpacking trip, and it was as if I had relieved stress that I wasn’t consciously aware that I carried. My sleep outdoors grew deeper and less interrupted. The change became markedly more noticeable on the nights that I forgot the pillow, tossing and turning during the night and cursing my alarm in the morning. I know that it’s a subject of debate amongst backpackers, but my personal view is that no night spent in the wilderness will be comfortable without a pillow; I’ll never camp without one again.

My Pick: Nemo Fillo Elite

Camp pillows need not be overly-plush. Nemo Equipment’s Fillo Elite is essentially an inflatable cushion with a soft casing, but it’s enough to provide that additional level of comfort that I dare not forgo if I want a solid night’s sleep in a tent. Plus, it packs down to be about as big as a lemon, and it’s a lot lighter than that too; I stash it permanently in my sleeping bag so that it’ll never go forgotten.

Therm-a-Rest Compressible Pillow

I actually have one of these as well. It’s available in multiple sizes — I have a medium, which is too big for backpacking but comes in handy on red eye flights and long drives — and is made of comfy foam, so there’s no inflation required.

Western Mountaineering Cloudrest Down Pillow

Western Mountaineering is known for its lightweight down products and that includes this pillow. It’s stuffed with 800-fill goose down, and scrunches down like a sleeping bag for easy packing.

Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Deluxe Pillow

This is Sea to Summit’s largest inflatable pillow, but it still packs down small enough to squeeze into a backpack. The air bladder is covered with a quilted polyester for comfort.

Sierra Designs DriDown Pillow

This down-filled pillow is a good budget option, and it comes with a washable case.

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