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Gear talk: the search for a pillow for a restless side-sleeper

Three Points of the Compass moves around a great deal at night. I shift from side to side, sleep on my back until my snoring wakes me, return to side sleeping, occasionally move to three-quarter prone or stomach sleeper. This is what I have settled on as a pillow when backpacking, for now.

It is seven years since I last blogged on my search for a decent pillow for backpacking. I had settled then on a lovely part-stuffed down pillow cover from Goosefeet Gear used together with either an inflatable pillow or stuffed with spare clothes and gear.

That 77g pillow case option remains to this day really comfortable when camping but I persisted with occasional experimentation, despite accepting that my restlessness shall continue. I kept searching for that improved nights sleep and a recent change in my packing system offered up another solution that seems to be working, for now.

Down stuffed pillow case from Goosefeet Gear
77g down-stuffed pillow case from Goosefeet Gear
Down stuffed pillow xase from Goosefeet Gear stuffed with puffy jacket. Though soft and comfortable, this is too low for me as a side sleeper
Down stuffed pillow case from Goosefeet Gear additionally stuffed with a synthetic puffy jacket. Though soft and comfortable, if not really packed out this can be too low for me as a side sleeper. Note how I place a stuffsack or similar at the head of the sleeping mat to prevent the pillow from sliding up and off

For many years I tried carrying a dedicated inflatable pillow when backpacking. I have tried various makes, mostly from Exped and Sea to Summit. Some were better than others, some were terrible. Almost all suffered from the same issue. I have fairly wide shoulders and require a thick deep pillow when side sleeping. Despite many lightweight pillows intended for backpacking having an appreciated contoured profile, every inflatable pillow I have tried has not been deep enough and if fully inflated actually hurt the ear I was lying on. While my most successful was the Swiss designed, Taiwanese made, large size Air Pillow UL from Exped. Sadly, despite being advertised as “superbly comfortable”, it wasn’t. This measured 46cm x 30cm x 12cm (18.1″ x 11.8″ x 4.7″) but wasn’t sufficient. I tried carrying two pillows and using them together but as with one, could never find an inflated pressure that suited me. Additionally, I never really got on with the ‘feel’ and noise of inflatable pillows. Worse was the occasional delaminating of internal baffles in an inflatable pillow. It turns into a rounded balloon type pillow that is impossible to sleep on. Some of those pillows I have tried over the years have been expensive purchases, but not all. One little Chinese made inflatable pillow cost me a grand total of 74 pence off AliExpress. Sadly, it was ultimately unsuccessful as it was too thin for a side sleeper, though it would be fine for a back sleeper.

Two pillows from Exped. The red one has delaminted inside and 'blown'. This can be issue with the baffles in this type of inflatable pillow following extended use
Two pillows from Exped. The yellow one is a large Air Pillow UL weighing 58g, the red one is a medium Airpillow weighing 80g. Despite a beefier construction, the red pillow has delaminated inside and ‘blown’. This also happened to a 91g large size Exped Airpillow I had and, coupled with occasional leaking valves, can be a general issue with inflatable pillows following extended use on trail

A potential solution to the lack of decently thick dedicated pillows are the 6lt and 12lt Osprey Ultralite Drysacks. These drybags have a rectangular shape that fills the internal space of a pack better than conventional oval shaped drybags, particularly if not fully filled. Typically, their weight on my digital scales is quite a bit different to that quoted by the manufacturer. The 6lt weighs 32g rather than 25g, and the 12lt 45g rather than 35g. The rectangular(ish) profile of the Osprey Ultralight Dry Sack means they can also be used as a pillow. Made from silnylon they are slippery and slip in and out of a pack easily, but unfortunately they are quite small as a pillow and also slip out from beneath my head with equal ease. I tried each size on a couple of hikes but I wasn’t happy with constantly having to retrieve them during the night. My search continued.

Osprey drybags
Osprey drybags
Osprey Ultralite Drysacks have a rounded rectangular profile that packs better and lends itself to double duty as a pillow

I used a Pillow Dry Bag from ZPacks on some hikes. This expensive drybag is made of a Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF, formerly known as Cuben Fiber) with soft microfleece sewn to one side of the inside. Emptied, turned inside out and refilled this made a sizable comfy pillow. Mine measures 480 x 260mm(19″ x 10 1/4″) before rolling the top and weighs 48g, specifications that do not seem to equate to any they list now. However it suffered from the same problem as other stuffsacks and drybags. Sufficiently stuffed to give thickness, almost all become rounded in shape and constantly want to slide or pop out from under my head. Again, suits a back sleeper, but not a side sleeper with wide shoulders.

ZPacks pillow drybag
48g Pillow Dry Bag from ZPacks

There was also a large Thermarest camping pillow filled with off-cuts of foam that I tried, but not only was it really bulky to pack, but it lost structure and thickness during the night. I even tried a large carwash sponge, but that was too bulky to pack and again, not deep enough.

For any pillow option, if I want to improve comfort and depth just a little and am prepared to pack along something dedicated, then a small block of 1″ memory foam adds a little more luxury. But again, this is more added weight and particularly bulk when packing.

As to the feel of a pillow against my face, I have tried a number of solutions to increase comfort and cut down the noise of my face moving against it. Wrapping a pillow in my shirt or a fleece top worked to a degree, but that would normally come off during the night. A merino Buff slipped over the pillow seems to work best for me.

A rolled sitpad from my Gossamer Gear pack rolled inside my inflatable mattress stuffsack gives a little support, but is only comfortable if sleeping on my back
A rolled sitpad from my Gossamer Gear pack rolled inside my inflatable mattress stuffsack gives a little head support, but is only comfortable if sleeping on my back

My most successful pillow, over a decade ago, was a soft microfibre pillow case from Thermarest that I stuffed with clothes. On occasion it was the closest I have ever got on trail to what I use at home. But at 350mm x 500mmn (14″ x 19 1/2″) it is very large and requires a lot of bulking out. Even my shoes had to be stuffed inside if I didn’t have much clothing which didn’t work well if they stank, but was also frustrating if wet and caked with mud, then requiring wrapping in a waterproof to protect whatever else was stuffed in next to them. Also, at 94g, it is fairly heavy for what it was. It was very comfortable against the face though, provided I had sufficiently padded the edges of any footwear inside. If I hadn’t, it was a lumpy frustrating pillow akin to resting my face on a sack of spuds. Not so similar to what I have at home.

Thermarest pillow case
94g Thermarest pillow case

So what is Three Points of the Compass now using as a pillow while backpacking?

As previously mentioned, Three Points of the Compass prefers to use stuffsacks and drybags for organising gear in the pack though appreciates that not everyone does. Understandable, as the weight of these various containers can add up. Nor do over-stuffed ‘sausage’ shape drybags conform to the interior shape of a pack at all well. I decided to finally bite the bullet, splash the cash and improve on this, while also cutting the weight of the various drybags and stuffsacks I use.

For a couple of years now, I have been using the expensive Pods made by Hyperlite Mountain Gear. These are made from DCF and provide the compartmentalisation and organisation in my pack that I prefer. DCF is a strong material but doesn’t handle abrasion well. Though an expensive option, using the material for drybags and stuffsacks is an ideal way to capitalise on its pros- which are light weight and waterproofness. DCF is also less slippery than siliconised nylon. HMG Pods have a three-dimensional D-shaped profile with flat top and bottom so fit the internal shape and dimensions of my Gossamer Gear Mariposa and Gossamer Gear G4-20 packs well with little wasted space.

Large sized HMG Pod containing quilt
Large sized HMG Pod containing quilt

While DCF is a waterproof material and the Pods have both taped seams and water resistant zips, the Pods are not 100% waterproof so simply provide a very high degree of added protection should rain permeate my lined pack. I pack my quilt in one of the larger Pods. This top zippered clamshell drybag measures 165mm x 328 x 165mm (6.5″ x 12.9″ x 6.5″ ) and comforms to the internal shape of my pack well. Above this will sit my spare clothes etc. in one of the smaller 165mm x 328mm x 114mm (6.5″ x 12.9″ x 4.5″) Pods. I occasionally include a third (small) Pod packed with maps electronics, ditty bag etc., or with any insulated clothing additionally carried in colder months.

A final check of my gear in my hotel room prior to setting off on the Great Glen Way. Expecting rain, everything is double protected. Expecting cold conditions, I included a set of insulated clothing stuffed into an additional 'Pod' from Hyperlite Mountain Gear. November 2021
A final check of my gear prior to a winter backpacking trip. Three HMG Pods contain my quilt, insulated clothing and spare clothes

Two of these Pods become my pillow overnight. My method is simple. The emptied large Pod has a filled small Pod placed inside and my puffy coat fills the space above it. I can sleep on this as it is, but for added comfort will slip my merino Buff over it. The D shape profile of the Pod and the extra height over conventional backpacking pillows means this fits under my head well. This gives me a pillow that is anything from 140mm to 165mm ( 5 1/2″ to 6 1/2″) deep, depending on how much I have stuffed it. A puffy jacket, either down or synthetic, is carried on just about every backpacking trip so there is now no added weight of a dedicated pillow in my gear list. Unlike the silnylon drybags, the DCF Pods have a defined flat base so stay in place under my head better.

Emptied large Pod with two smaller ones to be used as required
Small Pod placed inside emptied large Pod. This give structure and some depth
Small Pod placed inside emptied large Pod. This gives structure and some depth
Down puffy jacket loosely stuffed in to the top of the smaller Pod to give added height and increased comfort
Filled Pod becomes my pillow for the night
Filled Pod becomes my pillow for the night

There are issues remaining with this system. It is not fixed in place and could still slide from beneath my head and off my inflated sleeping pad, usually off the top. To stop this becoming troublesome I normally place my food bag or a stuffsack at the head of my pad to prevent the pillow sliding up and off. HMG Pods do have a small tag loop of cordage on each side so I can use an additional short length of cordage (I carry some in my ditty bag as a spare guy or washing line) tied to one loop, passed under the sleeping pad, and then tied to the other side of the Pod with a slip knot. In practice however, I have seldom bothered. I shift around so much and so often during the night that I simply reorientate the pillow under my head each time without thinking about it. The Buff can also slip off the ‘pillow’ during the night but this doesn’t often happen, certainly not enough to worry about as yet. An image below shows how much it might typically slide off.

Merino Buff neck tube slipped over the pillow makes it more comfortable against the face
Pillow is six to six and a half inches high
Pillow is between 5 1/2″ and 6 1/2″ high. It looks huge and too thick here but is freshly formed and not yet compressed beneath my head

A large size Pod weighs 37g and the smaller 34g. These US made HMG Pods are not a cheap solution, especially for a UK based backpacker as shipping fees and associated import taxes really sting. There are cheaper Sil/Nylon alternatives from Six Moon Designs, but the largest from that company are only 4″ thick, so are no better than the various inflatable pillows as regards thickness and we are back to a slippery material. Hopefully one of the UK based cottage manufacturers will start producing something similar from DCF. It is an expensive material, but at what cost a decent nights sleep?

One inch thick and roughly shaped block of memory foam increases comfort but is a 50g bulky addition. Not included on hikes now, primarily due to the increased bulk
One inch thick and roughly shaped block of memory foam increases comfort but is a 50g addition. Not included on hikes now, primarily due to the increased bulk in the pack

This is no recommendation, simply what seems to be working for Three Points of the Compass at present. Instead of packing along additional weighty dedicated pillows, I am instead relying on gear I already have with me, that also provides an effective solution. While everyone’s needs and preferences are different, I would recommend taking a little time to find what may improve your all important sleep on trail.

The morning after a decent nights sleep on trail. Note that my Buff is begining to slip off my Pod pillow. Great Glen Way, November 2021
The morning after a decent nights sleep on trail. Note that my Buff is beginning to slip off my Pod pillow. Great Glen Way, November 2021

8 replies »

  1. I am a restless side-sleeper, and I share in the struggle to find a decent pillow. I have done okay with a Klymit Pillow X, which weighs next to nothing and I’ve made it softer and fixed it in place by wrapping a fleece around both the pillow and my sleeping pad. It’s not bad but it still needs some improvement! Thank you for sharing your experiments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did consider trying the 71g Klymit pillow, or more likely the 91g large size, but at that point had given up on inflatables entirely having spent too much money experimenting with them! I read good things about how the Klymit pillows cradle the head in the centre

      Liked by 2 people

      • It’s fairly good – although not perfect. Like you, I’m in search of the best solution. I find I like that the inflatable does add some volume but it bounces around too much (hence wrapping my fleece around both the pillow and the sleeping pad) and is a lot less pliable than my stuff-able camp pillow from BassPro, which is too big to pack. I’m hoping to hit on the right combination of tricks! Seems like my best bet for a comfortable night’s sleep is a fifteen-mile day and lots of carbs at dinner, haha

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I haven’t done any ultralight myself (I’m more into ultracheap) but again ( read an Ultralight page (part of what brought me here) that recommend a car washing sponge as as an alternative to a pillow. That seemed very clever. The page I saw is an imgur link but it has a lot of text and images: https://imgur.com/a/pMg2yo9
    There are lots of other ideas there as well. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of not bringing a knife at all, and instead just having a tiny (5 gram) scissors, for cutting cord and blister tape etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting Paul, I did mention my own experiments with a large car sponge, which I found both too bulky to pack and not deep enough

      Liked by 1 person

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