Do I Need a Camping Pillow? Reasons, Types, and Alternatives


camping pillows on top of sleeping bags
Our Trusty Camping Pillows at Work

There are sticks (trek poles) made specifically for hiking, there are bags made specifically for sleeping in while camping, and there are pillows made for camping. All these specialized types of camping gear makes you wonder whether there’s something you’re missing out on? This post explores this question specifically for camping pillows.

Before we start, to define a camping pillow: A camping pillow is a pillow specifically made for camping, and is typically going to be more waterproof, more lightweight, and more compact than a traditional pillow.

Do I need a camping pillow? The main reason you need a pillow specifically made for camping is if you need a lightweight and compact pillow option, which is typically a requirement for backpackers. Otherwise, there are other options to support your head such as your clothes, your bags, and traditional pillows from home.

There are lots of types of camping pillows though to fit a range of needs, and there are other reasons why you might want to get a camping pillow even if you are just going to be car camping. Let’s discuss this in detail, and by the end, you’ll know if you want a camping pillow or not.

Reasons Why You Might Need a Camping Pillow

Even if you aren’t a backpacker, a camping pillow can be more convenient for several reasons. Some reasons may be a … dealmaker? Is that a word, yet? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Whatever, let’s dig in.

1. Camping Pillows Are Lightweight

Camping pillows, almost by definition, are smaller than regular pillows. Depending on their design, a camping pillow may be made up of materials very similar to an ordinary pillow you’d find on your bed, but just less of it. These pillows fall more under the category of Travel Pillows. Several pillows advertise themselves as both.

I decided to do a little bit of research for the average weight of camping pillows on Amazon–here’s what I turned up.

For the most popular top 12 results that advertised themselves as camping pillows, there was a mix of inflatable and non-inflatable pillows.

For non-inflatable camping pillows, I found the average weight was: 13.02 ounces (~368g)

For inflatable camping pillows have a much lighter weight, coming in with an average weight of: 2.82 ounces (~80g)

2. Camping Pillows Are Compact

I have an inexpensive camping pillow I’ve taken on many camping trips. It’s small, and it feel like it’s enough to buffer my head from the ground but it isn’t like sleeping on a cloud. We’re camping, after all!

It has two loops on the end, which allow you to compress and roll up the pillow, and then put the loops through the pillow to help it to retain shape.

This is one of the key benefits of camping pillows: They are intended to take as little space as possible, so they can fit easily on your person or in your backpack.

A small pillow is great for a backpacker, since they have a limited space to carry all they need, but this also is helpful for your camping gear box.

It can get tiresome to march around your house and scrounge everything you need for your camping trip every time you want to go camping–it’s much easier to have a camping gear box full of all the stuff you need so you can just get up and go.

This box has a finite space, therefore, you may even find yourself wanting to save space with your camping gear even if you are just planning on car camping.

How Small of a Pillow Are We Talking Here?

For the most popular top 12 camping pillows on Amazon, I did some research and found the average size.

For non-inflatable camping pillows:

  • Average Compacted Size: 8.78 inches x 5.21 inches
  • Average Unpacked/Inflated Size: 17.25 inches x 11.56 inches x 4.28 inches

For inflatable camping pillows:

  • Average Compacted Size: 4.75 inches x 3 inches
  • Average Unpacked/Inflated Size: 15.75 inches x 11.75 inches x 4.37 inches

3. Some Camping Pillows Are More Waterproof

No material is truly waterproof, but when you’re camping, especially if you are camping in wet and cold conditions, keeping your gear dry becomes extremely important. Camping pillows, by design, are smaller, so even if they do become wet, they will be easier to dry.

Other pillows have an outer-layer of a tent-like nylon fabric, making them decently water resistant.

Even if the pillow itself is not waterproof, sometimes they come in a small waterproof bag. This is also easily achievable by using a dry bag.

What does this buy you? Why does a waterproof pillow even matter?

Although generally it’s not a big deal if your pillow gets hit with a little condensation, sometimes you are sleeping in a tent that is a too small for you, meaning you are likely to be touching the edges of the tent throughout the night. This in itself isn’t a guaranteed problem depending on where you are camping, but this circumstance often leads to condensation.

Condensation or rain may lead to some pooling in the corners of your tent, and if you’re in a small tent, your pillow may be directly in water’s way. It’s definitely possible for your pillow to collect some water while you sleep.

4. Saving your Bedroom Pillows From Campfire Smoke

Sometimes when your tent is near the firepit, smoke can absorb into your sleeping gear. If you brought pillows from home, you may be smelling that charming campfire smell for a long time.

This is probably not what you want, though. Having a camping pillow just for camping can help you spare your regular pillows from that wonderful campfire aroma.

My wife is pregnant right now, and so we actually brought several pillows from our bed for our last camping trip. One trick we did to make sure we kept the pillows campfire smoke free was to keep the pillows in our car until we put the fire out and we were getting ready for bed.

It worked! Our pillows were safe.

Reasons Why You Might Want To Skip Buying a Camping Pillow

1. Comfort

No matter how nice a camping pillow is, it’s hard to compete with the pillows you sleep with every night on your bed. These pillows are impractical for backpacking because they are heavy and they don’t compress down to a packable size. But the pillows you have in your house will always win in comfort.

As I mentioned before, since my wife is pregnant as of writing this post, our last camping trip we pulled out all the stops and took almost all the pillows from our bed at home. Before this trip, we typically have only brought a small camping pillow. No question, we were far more comfortable with our pillows from home. We might continue to do this for future camping trips. 🙂

2. No-Pillow Sleeper

So, quick confession. The only reason I even have a camping pillow is because a friend bought one for me for my birthday one year. Before then, I slept with either my clothes as a pillow, or nothing at all. Additionally, sleeping bags sometimes come with a hood with some minimal padding, which can be just the right amount for someone who doesn’t have high pillow needs.

This means, for all the years that I was camping as a kid, I never had a pillow. Kids probably don’t need to have all the sleeping gear that an adult will need. My family didn’t have a bedtime routine as such, and I remember my mom would go through the house throwing blankets over the sleepy casualties that just fell asleep where they were in the middle of the room.

Not everybody needs a pillow! So if you are a no-pillow sleeper, you may try bringing one from home to experiment with before spending extra money on a camping pillow.

3. Improvised Pillows

There are lots of creative ways that people use to support their head and neck while they sleep. Here’s a few ideas.

  • If you brought a coat, a jacket, a shirt, or some pants you’re not using, just rumpling your spare clothes up into a pile can be big improvement from no pillow at all.
  • If you have a dry bag, or some other loose form bag (such as a drawstring bag), you can stuff your clothes into the bag and use that as a better formed pillow. A fleece jacket over a dry bag would make a decent pillow.
  • I haven’t tried this, personally, but some stuff leaves under their tent where they will be sleeping. This is a lumpy solution, but I definitely would take that over sleeping on plain gravel.

4. Relatively Expensive

Buying an ordinary pillow for the same price will yield you a more comfortable pillow by far than a camping pillow. For the most popular top 12 pillows on Amazon, the price ranges from $13.99 to $39.95 for a single camping pillow, with the average price being $21.73.

You can get a goose down pillow for a queen sized bed for less than $20, and that will most likely cream a camping pillow in a comfort contest for the same price range.

Summary

Car camping gear can be very different than backpacking camping gear. Sometimes we feel like we aren’t really camping if our gear looks like we nabbed it from the bedroom, but I’m all for using the right tool for the job and avoiding needless discomfort.

The goal of camping is ultimately to have fun and enjoy your time with your family, and so don’t worry about not doing it “right” by not using items technically made for camping. Camping pillows are geared towards being lightweight and compact, which is ideal for backpackers, but can be useful for car campers. Just try bringing one from home for your next car camping trip and assess your needs. 🙂

Types of Camping Pillows

So, we’ve talked a bit whether you need a camping pillow–let’s talk about the different types of camping pillows.

Compressible Foam Camping Pillow

Compressible foam is an option that is made up of small bits of foam that compress really well. They will come with a stuff stack or bands to wrap the pillow. They are moderately priced, but heavier than inflatable camping pillows, but will have a higher degree of softness and comfort (if you’re into foam pillows)

The surface of this pillow is typically going to be much softer and more pillowy than the inflatable camping pillows.

These are probably the most comfortable of pillows in the camping pillow category, but the biggest downside is the weight. Some of the really comfortable looking “camping pillows” are rated at 36 ounces! Which, by the way… is just really really heavy for a camping pillow. Most compressible foam camping pillows seem to be more in the 7-11 ounce range, though.

Inflatable Camping Pillow

This option is the lightest and is likely to be your least expensive option. It’s basically a tiny camping pad, where it’s essentially a bag of plastic that you blow up with your mouth.

The texture of the pillow will vary, but many camping pillows have a fuzzy, nonslip texture made usually from polyester. Although the surface isn’t necessarily going to be plasticky, you can always use an extra shirt or a fleece jacket to give the surface a softer feel.

You can expect support from these pillows, but you shouldn’t expect a high level of comfort without modifying the pillow with a fleece jacket or whatever you have with you.

Polyester/Cotton Fill Camping Pillow

These pillows will typically be inexpensive and have medium weight (in comparison to other camping pillows), and also be medium in comfort.

Camping pillows are not complicated, and some are stuffed as you would stuff any other cheap throw pillow, or a stuffed animal. Many camping pillows are stuffed with the same synthetic stuffing used for sleeping bags, which is often some form of polyester. Others are filled with cotton.

The difference between an ordinary pillow and a camping pillow of this type is that they are smaller, and sometimes will feature two elastic bands on the end of the pillow, so that the pillow can be rolled up and fed through the bands to maintain the rolled up shape, making it more compact and convenient to carry with you.

The surface of the pillow will vary. My camping pillow is actually in this category, and it’s just a soft synthetic shell, while others feature a softer flannel cover.

Inflatable with Foam/Cotton/Poly Fill Hybrid Camping Pillow

These pillows will be moderately priced (more expensive than a simple fill and inflatable pillow), and will be slightly heavier than their inflatable counterpart. These pillows are a balance between a poly/cotton filled pillow and an inflatable pillow to improve compactness and lighten pillow weight.

These pillows have an inflatable bladder so you can adjust the firmness of the pillow using a blow-up valve (similar to an inflatable sleeping pad), but they have another filling to give the pillow a sinking in feeling for higher comfort.

The texture of these pillows will vary, but will typically have a synthetic outer shell, such as nylon or polyester.

Related Questions

What do you sleep on while camping? Sleeping pads are generally used underneath your blankets or sleeping bags between you and the ground. Sleeping pads performance two very important functions, 1. Cushioning, and 2. Insulation. For a DIY sleeping solution for those who want to minimize discomfort, see our article here.

Do you need a pillow with a sleeping bag? Some sleeping bags, such as mummy styles, actually have a hood that your head rests on which gives a little bit of support and comfort for your head. I’ve slept without a pillow with just the sleeping bag hood, and although it works, it’s not a bad idea to have another option available.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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