This post may contain affiliate links.

Backpacking Pillow Preferences – Survey Results

Over 90% of backpackers use a pillow of some sort on backpacking trips.
Over 90% of backpackers use a pillow of some sort on backpacking trips.

What do inflatable sleeping pads, backcountry bed-style sleeping bags,  mini-LED lanterns, and two-door backpacking tents have in common? If you step back and look at product and technology innovation in the backpacking and camping industry, a lot of it has been focused on making the nighttime camping experience as comfortable as sleeping at home. The growing adoption of backpacking pillows is just another example of this larger trend.

There’s nothing wrong with making the backpacking sleep “experience” more familiar and comfortable for people, especially since advances in fabric and materials’ sciences have made gear so lightweight and easy to carry. I know I enjoy a few of these modern-day conveniences myself. If using a pillow on a backpacking trip is important, by all means bring one along.

Rather than speculate about the rate of backpacking pillow adoption, we ran a survey to see how many backpackers bunch up their clothing to form a pillow, how many bring a commercial pillow, and how many don’t bring or need a pillow to sleep.

Backpack Pillow Survey Findings

Over 90% of the 746 backpackers we surveyed use a pillow of some sort to rest their head on when they go to sleep. Of these, 37.8% bring a commercial inflatable pillow with them, while 50.9% form a pillow by bunching up a puffy coat or stuffing clothing into a stuff sack. Just 8.6% of the backpackers we surveyed don’t use a pillow at all, because they don’t use one at home or because they sleep in a hammock and feel they don’t need a pillow. The remaining 2.7% use a variety of other objects as pillow ranging from pipe insulation to inflated hydration reservoirs.

What’s the significance of these numbers? It’s clear that most backpackers want some kind of head and neck support for sleeping outdoors that’s comparable to what they use at home. Respondents who use a commercial pillow were also quite positive about the quality of sleep they get by using an inflatable pillow and that the additional few ounces required to carry one was well worth the added pack weight.

The survey found that the most popular backpacking pillows are:

If I were a backpacking pillow manufacturer, I’d be pretty bullish about getting more “clothing bunchers” to switch over to inflatable pillows since they are now so lightweight.

About this Survey

This survey was run on the website which has over 300,000 unique readers per month, so a large pool of potential respondents. Readers were incented to participate in the survey in exchange for a chance to win a raffle for a piece of backpacking gear.

While we’re confident that the results are fairly representative of the general backpacking population based on the size of the survey results where n=746 people, we can’t claim that the results are statistically significant.

There are also a number of ways in which the results could be biased including: backpackers who read might not be representative of all backpackers, backpacker who read Internet content might not be representative of all backpackers, backpackers who respond to raffle incentives might not be representative of all backpackers, our methods for recording responses might have been unconsciously biased, and so on.

The author is an expert in statistical analysis, survey, and experimental design and is sensitive to these issues. However, given the size of the respondent pool and the very strong consensus among user responses, we believe that the survey results published here will be useful to backpackers who are interested in learning about backpacking pillows and what their peers use.

Written 2016.

SectionHiker is reader-supported. We only make money if you purchase a product through our affiliate links. Help us continue to test and write unsponsored and independent gear reviews, beginner FAQs, and free hiking guides.


  1. I’ve been on the hunt for the perfect backpacking pillow for years. For now, my wife and I are using Cocoon air pillows. The amount of inflation is key: too much and your head rolls to the sides; too little and it sinks in the middle. We tuck our pillows into the hood of our bags to keep them from moving around. This works even better if you turn the hood inside out, so the pillow is under the bag and you get a little extra cushioning from the bag, as well.

    • I have the same issue with inflatable pillows and it takes 2 or 3 adjustments during the night to get it some what comfortable. At this point I’m thinking of getting the zpacks stuff sack pillow to replace my inflatable.

      • Bought the z-packs pillow. Didn’t work for me, cuben fiber bottom was too “slick” so it kept squirting out from under my head.

  2. I made an envelope pillowcase from microfiber and stuff my fleece into it at night. It weighs less than an ounce empty, and a yard of microfiber costs about $5 and makes two pillowcases.

  3. I’d be in the “Other” category. I use large sleeping pads (for the width) and have extra length. I keep the extra length folded or rolled up. The only pillows I’ve ever really liked are the Thermarest ones. It made more sense to try incorporating the pad this way instead of trimming the pad to save four ounces and adding back eight with a pillow.

  4. I use the Therm-a-rest air head pillow, small and light for canoe trips and backpacking.

  5. I’ve been around for more than 6 decades and have tried innumerable methods and a slew of commercial pillows. I have finally settled on the Nemo Fillo Luxury pillow as a combination of the most comfortable and adjustable pillow out there. The memory foam combined with the air bladder makes for the absolute most comfortable pillow I have ever tried. In addition, the bungy cords on the bottom side hold clothing in place if you really need a night of increased elevation for the head. Letting a little air out of the pillow also gives the option of a more horizontal sleep position.
    The weight of the pillow is worth the incredible sleep I get. The microfiber covering the foam is incredibly sweet too. I have even used the pillow at home and I can honestly tell you, I will never need another backpacking pillow.

  6. I went to Midwest mountaineering in Minneapolis and tried them all. For me the Exped air pillow came out on top.

    One problem I have is that I’m a drool-er so I wrap the Exped in my flannel shirt. Everything seems to work better for me that way and the pillow feels nice and soft.

  7. I seem to be going through a few pillows myself. The problem is they leak. I have just been reading Amazon reviews on various models – and the single biggest problem seems to be leaking after 1 or 2 days in the bush. What use is that?

    What gets me is the reviewers say things like “excellent pillow, best ever, but then it leaked on Day 2”. In that case, it is no longer a pillow, so it is not an excellent pillow. In fact, it is a dead weight that you have to carry out.

    To me, NOT LEAKING is the Number 1 criteria for a pillow. Comfort, cost, etc are all secondary.

    • I just bunch up an insulated jacket. No leaking.

      • Yep, tried that. The clothes compress overnight, so any loft you might have had at the start is soon lost. I also do not take too many extra bits of clothing.

        My approach of late has been to buy cheap $10 pillows on ebay, so if they last a few trips then great. Once one leaks, I toss it out and then get the next one. But getting tired of that as well.

        My current thought is to get my wife to sew up a fleece pillowslip, or at least some soft material that is nice to touch. Then perhaps I can put in some memory foam or something. This will leave room to stuff in clothing. Perhaps this memory foam can also be used as a seat and a bit of extra padding on the backpack? Multi-use stuff is always great.

        I like the HLM stuffsack pillow idea, or the similar item from Zpacks. Dual use and all that. But since I am in Australia these items are simply too expensive to ship here.

        I am slightly surprised that more work has not gone into this. I had a similar problem trying to find camp shoes, and in the end I made my own.

  8. I used an inflatable for several years and it died at the NOC.

    Then I used clothes in my pump sack or wrapped up in my fleece.

    Then I bought another inflatable (for less than $10) that I lost at Rattle River.

    I just bought another one. For less than an ounce you can’t beat them.

  9. A Schnozzel pumpbag is the waterproof stuff sack for my clothing. My down puffy goes in there with my extra layers and it all fluffs into a really nice pillow. If I need more elevation, I put the toes of my hiking shoes under the head end of my sleeping pad and then the pillow on top.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *