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How Ultralight Pillows Stack Up

From top to Bottom: REI Flash Pillow, Exped UL, Sea to Summit Aeros

Back Country Sleep

After a couple years of backpacking, I decided it was time to get a pillow.  I have tried shoving extra clothes in a stuff sack, wadding up my down hoody, and using water bottles.  All of these approaches worked OK at best.  A lot of the time, I do overnight trips to bag 14ers, or just get a lot of miles in a couple days.  This means that I often won't bring anything extra in the way of clothes except a pair of socks.  Two socks do not a pillow make.  Now, part of this might be that I just don't have the "experience" or "fortitude" to sleep without a pillow.

Admittedly, I haven't spent nearly as much time sleeping on the ground as a lot of backpackers.  On the other hand, there aren't that many backpackers that have broken five vertebrae.  So hey, if I want to use a pillow and a full length sleeping pad, I will.

Another thing I took into consideration before jumping into the whole pillow search was the importance of sleep.  For me, time in the back country is about getting out, getting away, enjoying the sublime alpine, yadda yadda yadda.  Not only that, but it is about moving.  I work a desk job.  The most challenging part of my job is having to sit still for eight hours at work and another hour and a half in the car.  To be on the trail, letting my feet carry me up and out, is...well, it is the main reason I backpack, and hike in general.  

So what does that have to do with sleeping?  Well, if my goal is to hike, to move, then one of the best things I can do to achieve that goal is to sleep well.  If I wake up and have sore shoulders and hips (because I am side sleeper) and my back hurts so much that I can barely sit up, then I am less likely to enjoy the hiking.  If I only slept for 4 hours because I couldn't get comfortable, I won't be too keen on putting in back to back 18 mile days.  

So this is the balance that I was looking for in a pillow: something that makes sleeping in the back country comfortable enough to sleep well consistently, so I can hike longer, while still being light enough and packable enough to feel like nothing extra is in my pack (also helping me to hike longer).  This led me to pick up some pillows for a little review.

The Pillows

REI Flash Pillow (one size only):
This is the small pillow I looked at.  This little guy measures 12" wide, 9" long, and 1.5" thick. It is the lightest and least expensive as well, at 1.5oz and about $30, respectively.

Exped Air Pillow UL (size medium):
This pillow falls in the middle size wise at 15" wide, 10.5" long, and 4.3" thick.  This was the most expensive of the three pillows at $55.  This pillow weighs just a hair more than the REI Flash Pillow at 1.6 oz (without the stuff sack).

Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow (size large):
Last but not least - the big boy.  This pillow is a luxurious 16.5" wide, 11.5" long, and 5.5" thick.  It falls in the middle price wise at $40, and is the heaviest at a full 2.5oz (with the included stuff sack).


Here is top view of each pillow,  They are set on my NeoAir Xlite for some scale

As you can see in the photos, The Sea to Summit Aeros pillow is by far the largest.  This holds true for the depth of the pillow as well.  Again, pillows are placed on my Xlite pad (~2.5" thick)  for scale.  

This is a quick picture of the three pillows all packed up.  As you can see, they are all fairly similar in size.  The Exped and Sea to Summit pillows have stuff sacks, where the REI pillow has a simple elastic loop.

The Reviews

REI Flash Pillow

I really wanted to like this pillow.  It is the least expensive, the lightest, and packs down the smallest.  It is a cool green color.  Easy to inflate, quick to deflate. It fits great inside the hood of my mummy bag. Unfortunately, I didn't like it.  At all.  It was no where near thick enough to be comfortable when I laid on my side.  The material was slick and noisy.  This pillow would be no better than just using my down hoody.  This means I would still be uncomfortable in a lot of situations.  On to the next!

Exped Air Pillow UL (medium)

I liked this pillow pretty well. Mostly becuase it was thick enough to support my head lying on my side.  It inflated easily, with the one way valve.  Deflating was a bit of pain, as you have to manually press the diaphragm on the valve.  Not a huge issue, just a little tedious.  Similar to the flash pillow, it had the slick, noisy material that was not very comfortable on my face.  This pillow did have a feature that I liked quite a lot.
Tabs on each side of the Exped pillow make it easy to lash it to your pad
Exped puts these simple tabs on the sides of their pillows.  You can run a cord through these tabs and then around your pad to keep the pillow in place.

This system keeps your pillow from migrating off your pad in the middle of the night, which, I have experienced and found to be frustrating.  It adds very little weight on the pillow, and I always carry some extra cord for guylines, clotheslines, repairs etc.

This would allow me to use the pillow outside my sleeping bag hood when it is cold, allowing me to fully cinch things down and retain all the warmth I can.  

Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight Pillow (large)

Well, this pillow was by far the most comfortable I tried.  Firstly, it is deep enough that it is really comfortable when laying on my side.  Secondly, the fabric of the pillow was worlds above the other two.  It is a soft, micro-fiberish feeling material, that has a little stretch to it.  It did feel awkward against my face at all.  

This pillow was also the easiest to use.  It filled up easy with the one way valve, and had a simple dump valve for quick deflation.  It rolled up into the stuff sack relatively easily, but I kept thinking about how nice a simple elastic band would be for storing it. 

This pillow did not fit into my sleeping bag hood. At least, not with enough room to meaningfully cinch the hood.  A bit of a bummer. But, it did stick pretty well to the NeoAir's surface (unlike the other two) so it probably wouldn't wander as much.  What would be really nice is a couple of those tabs that Exped uses.  

The Results

Well, I ended up picking the Sea to Summit Aeros Ultralight pillow.  It fits the bill of making sleeping in the back country a lot more comfortable, while taking up little space and weighing very little. True, it is 1oz heavier than the other options, but I will just trim some straps and cut some tags to make up the difference.  I could leave the sack and save an imperceptible amount of weight, but I had the brilliant idea of using the stuff sack as my rock sack for bear bagging.  Multi-functional.  

After several uses in the field, I did decided that it slipped around too much for me.  I would rollover and find that the pillow had snuck off in one direction or another.  This problem was made much worse when I had my sleeping back fully zipped and cinched. Having to unzip, dig around in the dark, put the pillow back, lay down, adjust again and then re-zip, all in the dark and cold while groggy with no contacts in was enough of a pain that I decided to do something about it.
Stick-on Loop on my NeoAir Pad
I got this idea when I was just cruising around  They have these small patches with adhesive on the back and a simple loop sewn to it.  They even suggest using these loops to attach a pillow to a pad. So smart.  So I picked up four of them, two for the pad, two for the pillow.  I also purchased some of their smallest shock cord and some cord locks.  I made two short loops of shock cord, one for each side, each with its own cord lock.

I took the shock cord loops, and tied them to the pad loops.  Then, I could pull the cord lock through the corresponding loop on the pillow, and cinch it down.

So, this is my current set up.  I am quite happy with it.  I never loose my pillow any more.  I can use it with my sleeping bag tucked under the pillow, for warmer nights when I don't need the hood.  I can us it with my sleeping bag on top of it for cold nights when I really need to keep the drafts out.

Bet you never thought a person could spend so much time thinking about pillows for backpacking.

If you think there is anything that I left out, or if you have any questions, let me know in the comments.

Matt "Overly-Analytical" Kreider


  1. Replies
    1. Kels! I finally figured out the whole comments thing! Turns out I have to review all the comments before they get posted.

  2. I enjoyed reading your article :) PLease continue publishing helpful topics like this. Regards, from beddingstock.


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