Finding a pillow that’s tall enough, comfortable enough, light enough, and compressible enough for backpacking is tough. Most of the commercial backpacking pillows available are in the neighborhood of 5″ (13cm) thick. My normal at-home pillow is only 5-1/2″ (14cm), but for some reason, even 5-1/2″ doesn’t seem thick enough when I’m in the backcountry. I finally figured out the answer — when laying on your side your shoulder sinks a lot deeper into your mattress at home than it does your sleeping pad.
Try this. Stand straight with your shoulder against a wall and have someone measure the distance from the wall to the side of your head. It’s about 7″ (18cm). That 1-1/2″ (4cm) difference is a lot if it causes your neck to be cranked at a funny angle all night long. If you sleep on your back you probably don’t have these problems, but if you’re a side sleeper like me, it’s an all-night ordeal to get comfortable.
In my early years on I spent minutes focused on carefully folding up pieces of extra clothing until I had in a neat pile, then using my sleeping pad straps to lash them all together. As clothing technology advanced, I seemed to have fewer pieces that could provide the “loft” I was looking for. My first pillow experiment involved using a waterproof/airtight gear sack — the kind you’d buy for a kayak trip. This is where I learned about the “big bag of air” theory. When your head rolls to one end all the air transfers down to the other end and the pillow squirts out from under your head. Plus, these types of pillows make a lot of noise, meaning someone’s not getting much sleep — be it you or your partner.
I moved onto various inflatable pillows, like vinyl ones meant for the beach and the ultralight FlexAir pillow, which is essentially a one-time use, disposable air pillow typically found in ambulances. These were better than the waterproof gear sack, but still weren’t stable enough to keep from squirting out from under my head all night.
For about two years I used a Large Granite Gear Air Zippsack (which is essentially a zipped stuff sack about the size and shape of a shoebox) with a lightweight inflatable pillow and a few pieces of clothes stuck inside it. This gave me the height I was after and was pretty comfortable, but still had a mild tendency to “wander” all night.
I started thinking about what my dream pillow would look like and it was a large inflatable rectangular shape with vertical sides and vertical baffles giving me up to 7″ of height. This would give me the height I was after, but also prevent the air from simply rushing down to the other end of the pillow. The bottom would be made of non-slip material and would weigh about 3 oz. I’d bring an extra pack strap and attach a folded shirt for padding and stuff the whole contraption into my inside-out jacket. Height, stability and comfort, it’s the perfect trifecta.
But I never found it. Maybe someone will make one.
One of the best ideas I’ve seen is taking a whole bunch of zip lock baggies, partially inflating them and stuffing them in a stuff sack. It’s the stability of separate air cells that makes this work. The Exped pillow is a good example of having internal baffles to keep it “square,” but by itself it’s not tall enough for me. If the Exped (or others like it) had six cells instead of three, and was 7″ tall instead of 5-1/2″, we’d have a winner. However, the large Exped is a whopping 11″ x 17″ and that translates into stability.
But until someone invents one of these advanced pillows, I think I found a solution for we deprived side sleepers.
My wife handed me a cheap plastic zippered case she found in our linen closet — the kind a blanket or bedspread comes in when you buy it off the store shelves — and I stuffed some gear in it. I found it was comfy, but the plastic was too noisy and clammy. But it was a great starting place.
I copied the dimensions, ordered some silnylon and lucky for me, my wife can sew like no body’s business. (You can click on the sketch above to see it in full resolution.)
Here’s the result, the APEX pillow: (Click on the photos to zoom in)
When assembled, I take my softshell jacket, zip it up and turn it inside out and slide the assembled pillow into it. I keep the valve for the inflatable pillow down by the end of the zipper so it’s easy to add or let out air to adjust the height as needed. This pillow gives me a full 6-1/2″ to 8″ and doesn’t squirt out from under my head!
The reason this works is because of the layers. There isn’t one big bag of air that flops around every time you turn your head, but a couple of them. The second inflatable pillow is there only to add that extra 1″ of height I’m after. The outer bag is wide and so stabilizes the different layers. Until someone invents an Exped-like pillow in Super Extra Large, this seems like the best solution for me. Plus I found the APEX case is big enough to act as my sleeping bag stuff sack, so at least it’s performing some double duty.
The APEX case (1.8oz), the Exped pillow (3.5oz) and the Flexair inflatable pillow (0.8oz) weight 6.1oz (171gm). It’s a little heavier than I’d like, but until someone invents a better solution, I’m going for comfort over weight on this one.
Feel free to improve on my design and let me know where I can buy it!
[UPDATE:] I have since picked up a Klymit Cush inflatable pillow as my second pillow for this system. I haven’t had a chance to try it out in combination with the Exped, but I’ll post a report when I do.
[UPDATE UPDATE:] I’ve since bought the Exped in the Utralight version (2.0 oz on my scale) and the Klymit Pillow X (1.9 oz) and am pretty happy with this combination inside the APEX case.