October 7, 2014: Mont-Bell UL Comfort System Pillow and Klymit X-Pillow added to spec table and ratings section. Thanks to both John Klinepeter and Rick Sutton for contributing data and feedback about these two pillows.
Apriil 2, 2015: Big Sky DreamSleeper Deluxe Pillow added to spec table and ratings section. Thanks to Rex Sanders for contributing data and feedback about these two pillows.
This gear guide presents an introduction to the market of “ultralight inflatable pillows” for backpacking.
The criteria for a pillow’s inclusion into this gear guide is purely arbitrary: the weight of the pillow must be less than 4 ounces. This reveals a manufacturer’s intention to make a pillow that is light enough where its weight is a design feature, and not an afterthought.
Not included in this gear guide is a comprehensive assortment of the so-called disposable hospital-style inflatable pillows, like the FlexAir Pillow manufactured by Graham Medical. However, the latter has been included in the specifications table as a frame of reference.
Mechanism of Support
All pillows in this Gear Guide are inflatable – similar to an inflatable air mattress – and so their primary mechanism of support is, of course, air. It is worth noting that “support” (defined here as the ability to stabilize one’s head both vertically (i.e., hold the weight of the head) and laterally (i.e., keep the head in one spot rather than have it wobbling around across the surface of the pillow). This latter type of support is affected by the pillow’s thickness (thicker pillows make for a wobblier surface), size (larger pillows tend to be more stable), shape and contouring (pillows with internal beams, outer surface ridges/valleys, or other shaping are more stable), and the presence of fibrous fill material (enough fill will improve stability).
The conventional pillow shape is rectangular, of course. Many of the pillows in this Gear Guide are some shape other than rectangular. They may be oval, trapezoidal, or contoured in a way that cradles the head and neck more comfortably (or at least, this is what the manufacturer might be led to believe). Shape is not meant to be categorized in this gear guide. Instead, you can have a look at the photos and make your own judgments about what shape you think is best.
Smaller pillows are lighter, and tend to squirt out from under your head when you move around at night. Larger pillows are more stable, and are more likely to stay in place. There is a tipping point to pillow size, and it’s different for everyone, and is governed by their sleeping styles (stomach, back, or side), how much they move around at night, and their tolerance for keeping their big heads on small targets during the night!
Thin pillows are best for stomach sleepers. Thick pillows are best for some side sleepers (those who sleep with arms at their sides), but don’t work well for side sleepers who sleep with their head cradled in their lower arm. Back sleepers may find that something in between “thin” and “thick” is best.
Elevation Contouring / Cradling
If you welded two flat pieces of fabric together and inflated it, you’d end up with a pillow where two apexes existed – one on the bottom (where the pillow lays on your sleeping pad), and one on the top (where you lay your head). These types of pillows (like the FlexAir Pillows) are uncomfortable and wobbly. Pillows that offer some contouring that (a) allow the pillow to lay flat, and (b) allow your head to be cradled on the pillow without sliding around are beneficial.
The lightest pillows are small in size, thin, made with the lightest fabrics, and offer the least amount of contouring. As with any piece of gear, there’s always a tradeoff – small pillows may not be as stable or supportive; thin pillows may not be good for back or stomach sleepers; light fabrics may not be so durable; pillows without contouring make for a wobbly sleeping experience.
All pillows in this Gear Guide are inflatable – air is used as the primary “fill” for both warmth and support. Some inflatable pillows also contain fiber fill, include a fibrous fill material for additional warmth, and (perhaps) comfort.
In addition, fiber fill or down “pillow cases” are available to slide over an inflatable pillow to provide a comfortable “pillowtop” effect (e.g., Cascade Designs Down Pillow, Goosefeet Down Pillow).
Fabrics range from sticky nylons to brushed polyesters, but for the lightweight backpacker who is intentional about using every bit of gear to its maximum advantage, the discussion is almost irrelevant – just grab an extra shirt, fleece top, or even a neck gaiter and use it as a pillow case. On cold nights, you might be wearing a hat or balaclava anyways, so the pillow’s fabric may not be so noticeable.
Ultralight Inflatable Pillows. Row 1 (L to R): Cocoon Hyperlite, Graham Medical FlexAir, Big Agnes Clearview; Row 2 (L to R): Cascade Designs NeoAir, Sea to Summit Aeros Premium, Quechua Inflatable Pillow; Row 3 (L to R): Exped Air Pillow, Exped Air Pillow UL, REI Flash Air Pillow; Row 4 (L to R): Big Agnes Q-Core SL, Big Agnes Insulated Air Core, Big Agnes Camp Pillow.
The million dollar question regarding any inflatable, whether a pillow, a pad, or a packraft, is whether or not it will be resistant to leaks.
In my experience with inflatables, two things I know to be undeniably true.
First, everything will spring a leak at some point. The reason for a leaky “new product” resulting from a manufacturing defect is most often a poorly-welded seam. These leaks spring sooner rather than later in a product’s life cycle. I’ve experienced leaky pads and pillows from every manufacturer in this review, and I’ve done my best to research the experience of others. Frankly, leaks seem to be randomized, prevalent amongst all makers, and simply a part of the risk you accept by taking an ultralight inflatable into a hostile outdoor environment.
Second, learning to fix leaks goes much farther in fostering a positive backcountry experience than getting ticked off at the manufacturer that sold you a leaky product.
All this stuff is made in China. Learn to deal with the leaks and become a good patcher.
Gear Guide: Specification Table
|Brand||Model||Inflatable?||Other Fill?||Weight (oz)||Size (in)|
|Sea to Summit||Aeros Pillow Premium Size R||Yes||Yes||2.8||14 x 10 5|
|Sea to Summit||Aeros Pillow Premium Size L||Yes||Yes||3.7||16.5 x 11.5 x 5.5|
|Sea to Summit||Aeros Ultralight Pillow Size R||Yes||No||2.0||14 x 10 x 5|
|Sea to Summit||Aeros Ultralight Pillow Size L||Yes||No||2.5||16.5 x 11.5 x 5.5|
|Exped||Air Pillow Size XL||Yes||No||3.9||20.5 x 13.4 x 5.1|
|Exped||Air Pillow Size L||Yes||No||3.5||18.1 x 11.8 x 4.7|
|Exped||Air Pillow Size M||Yes||No||3.0||15 x 10.6 x 4.3|
|Exped||Air Pillow UL Size L||Yes||No||1.6||18.1 x 11.8 x 4.7|
|Exped||Air Pillow UL Size M||Yes||No||2.0||15 x 10.6 x 4.3|
|Cocoon||Hyperlite Pillow||Yes||Yes||2.4||13 x 17|
|REI||Flash Air Pillow||Yes||No||2.6||12 x 9|
|Big Agnes||Clearview Air Pillow||Yes||No||3.0||12 x 16 x 2|
|Big Agnes||Q-Core SL Pillow||Yes||No||3.0||12 x 16 x 3|
|Big Agnes||Insulated Air Core Pillow||Yes||Yes||4.0||12 x 16 x 3.5|
|Big Agnes||Camp Pillow||Yes||No||3.0||12 x 16 x 3.5|
|Cascade Designs||NeoAir Pillow Size S||Yes||No||1.9||11 x 9 x 2.5|
|Cascade Designs||NeoAir Pillow Size M||Yes||No||3.1||15 x 11 x 2.5|
|Quechua||Inflatable Pillow||Yes||No||2.9||14.5 x 10.6 x 3.9|
|Mont-Bell||UL Comfort System Pillow||Yes||No||2.4||10.6 x 18.5 x 3.9|
|Klymit||X-Pillow||Yes||No||2.1||15 x 11 x 4|
|Graham Medical||FlexAir Pillow Size L||Yes||No||0.9||19 x 12.5|
|Graham Medical||FlexAir Pillow Size S||Yes||No||0.6||14 x 10|
|Big Sky||DreamSleeper Deluxe||Yes||No||1.4||20 x 12 x 4|
See here to review our rating system.
Exped Air Pillow UL – Highly Recommended
The lighter-fabric version of the Exped Air Pillow. Highly Recommended rating is awarded for the size and functionality packed into its ultralight weight. Good choice for back and side sleepers.
Sea to Summit Aeros Premium – Highly Recommended
A brushed surface, polyester fill pillowtop, and contouring for a decent head cradle makes this one a winner. Highly Recommended rating is given for its feature:weight ratio. This is the luxury choice of the whole bunch. Enough thickness for most side sleepers.
Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight – Recommended
Simple, light, and contoured enough. Another decent choice for side sleepers.
Exped Air Pillow – Recommended
Heavier than it needs to be now that there’s an ultralight version, but well-respected for its long term durability (owing perhaps to an edge in manufacturing quality?). Seems to be comfortable for most, whether you sleep on your side or back.
Cascade Designs NeoAir Pillow – Recommended
Soft, simple, stable, and light in its smallest version. It’s a thin pillow, so may be a good choice for stomach sleepers and back sleepers who snore with thicker pillows, and side sleepers who like a little more padding when they lay across their lower arm. If you want a tiny pillow, this is a good one.
Mont-Bell UL Comfort System Pillow – Recommended
“Systems” integration allows the pillow to attach to a Mont-Bell pad, but subtle baffles don’t cradle the neck quite as well as the Exped UL Air Pillow. Impressive reports of long term durability from users of this one. Author, however, has no personal experience with it.
Klymit X-Pillow – Recommended
I finally had the chance to sleep with one of these. An interesting design pretends to be novel but doesn’t keep your head in place any more than the Exped UL Air Pillow or the Sea to Summit Aeros Premium – which cradle the head a little more comfortably (since the head isn’t lying in a single “point” of depression). Specs say the pillow is about 3.5 inches thick, which in theory should be OK for side sleeping, but I found other pillows with the same thickness spec, and thicker pillows, more comfortable when on my side. Light weight is this pillow’s greatest asset – and its X-Design perhaps its greatest flaw, for being a little wobbly and unstable.
Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Pillow – Above Average
Contouring design of top surface doesn’t cradle the head as well so isn’t as comfortable as Exped’s pillows, but polyester fill insulation increases its warmth noticeably over pillows filled only with air during cold winter nights. Just thick enough for some side sleepers.
REI Flash Air Pillow – Average
One of the smaller pillows in this Gear Guide – too small, in fact, not to have to fiddle with it a lot at night, and doesn’t cradle as well as larger and similarly contoured pillows from Exped.
Big Agnes Clearview – Average
A sticky, uncomfortable fabric that’s not so pleasing next to skin combined with pronounced “tube” contouring makes this one’s comfort a bit questionable for many who try it. Too thin for side sleepers, and stomach sleepers weren’t huge fans of their cheeks sticking to the pillow fabric.
Big Agnes Q-Core SL – Average
Contouring design of top surface doesn’t cradle the head as well so isn’t as comfortable as Exped’s pillows. Otherwise, there is little to distinguish this one in the market. Too thick for stomach sleepers, too thin for side sleepers.
Big Agnes Camp Pillow – Average
An entirely unremarkable version of the Q-Core SL. The only meaningful difference is that this one is a half inch thicker, so it’s an OK choice for some side sleepers.
Quechua Inflatable Pillow – Average
The contouring results in a square depression in the middle of the pillow’s top surface that’s just large enough for small heads to roll around on. Durability and construction quality don’t inspire the confidence of the NeoAir or Exped pillows, but you can get them for ten bucks on eBay, which is this pillows sole redeeming quality.
Cocoon Hyperlite – Below Average
Slippery fabric makes this one really squirty. Lack of contouring means a lot of head wobble. An antiquated design that served a purpose during its day, but it’s now obsolete.
Big Sky DreamSleeper Deluxe Pillow – Recommended
Rex Sanders: “I’m a rotisserie sleeper with big shoulders. Fully inflated, the DreamSleeper is perfect for me for both side sleeping and back sleeping, and easy to move out of the way for stomach sleeping. The pillow case is luxurious with slight padding that prevents that icky sleeping-on-plastic feeling. The brushed polyester-feeling cover is sticky enough to keep the pillow from sliding.”
I use an Exped Air Pillow UL (Size M). At 1.6 oz, only the small NeoAir pillow is as light, but the Exped is far more comfortable for me (I’m predominantly a side sleeper). I’ve owned two Exped pillows over the past several years. Neither has ever sprung a leak. I cover the top of mine with a down pillowcase from Goosefeet Gear (which has as its shell fabric Pertex Quantum), for a luxuriously soft pillow that’s plenty warm enough for a Montana winter.