Reviews You Can Rely On

How We Tested Camping Pillows

Thursday September 30, 2021

Where We Tested


To test the camping pillows in this review, we slept on them every night for months. We packed them along with us and used them on car camping trips in Montana and to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We took them trekking in Alaska and canoeing and camping for five days in the remote Boundary Water Canoeing Area wilderness. We used them backpacking in the High Sierras of California and Nevada, the backwoods of Alabama, and in the thick pine forests of Mount Rainier National Park. We even took a few to Nepal as we trekked through the Himalayan Mountains. When not in tents, these pillows were still under our heads, in hammocks on lazy afternoons and in our beds at night. Throughout our testing period, the nightly temperatures ranged from 35°F to 75°F.

The Sierra Designs DriDown (far left) and the Sea to Summit Aeros...
The Sierra Designs DriDown (far left) and the Sea to Summit Aeros (far right) bookend two sleeping bags on a canoeing camping trip in Minnesota.
Photo: Jenna Rae Ammerman

Performance Metrics


Most of our metric scores were taken from the experiences we gathered through the extensive use of these products by several reviewers. This gear category is more subjective than most, so we wanted to gauge their performance with a wide perspective. In all, we scored each pillow in five areas: Comfort, Weight, Ease of Use, and Packed Size. Whether at home in our beds or out on the trail, we feel the most import feature of any pillow is comfort, so we calculated our comfort scores more heavily. Additionally, the weight of each pillow is an important feature for most outdoor adventures, so we also made these scores more crucial to each pillow's overall score. Here's how our scoring breaks down:
  • Comfort - 25 percent of overall score
  • Weight - 20 percent of overall score
  • Ease of Use - 15 percent of overall score
  • Packed Size - 20 percent of overall score
  • Support - 20 percent of overall score

Comfort


For many nights, we examined every pillow for comfort. In the end, it was our number one priority to find a camping pillow that provides a perfect soft place for our heads to nestle each night. Face fabrics, cushioning, and noisy-ness were all considered. We scored each pillow on subjective experiences, namely each pillow's AHHHH factor. Then we divvied up them up and scored them according to how they performed for side-sleepers, back-sleepers, and stomach-sleepers. We scored each of these areas on a 1 to 10 scale and then averaged out their overall scores.

Comfort was our top concern with each pillow we studied. From the...
Comfort was our top concern with each pillow we studied. From the moment we removed it from its shipping package, we began scrutinizing every pillow to find out what may make it more comfortable than its competition.
Photo: Jason Wanlass

Weight


"Ounces in the morning become pounds by the evening." When your adventure involves carrying everything on your back, and excess of weighty items can really take their toll over time. There's a reason why the majority of outdoor recreationists choose not to bring their pillow from home into the great outdoors — it's just too big, and more importantly, too heavy. The testing for this metric was basic. We packed each pillow into its stuff sack and placed it on a scale and measured it in ounces. We then listed each pillow from heaviest to lightest and scored each pillow accordingly. The lightest pillows received the highest scores.

Packing up as small as a billfold, the Big Agnes AXL Air Pillow is a...
Packing up as small as a billfold, the Big Agnes AXL Air Pillow is a perfect example of lightweight. Tipping the scales at just 1.8 ounces, inflatables like this one are the lightest of all camping pillows, but not always the most comfortable.
Photo: Jason Wanlass

Ease of Use


Our Ease of Use metric was more broadly based. We looked at several factors:
  • How easily does the pillow pack and unpack? (we timed this with a stopwatch)
  • How easy is the pillow to clean and dry?
  • Does the pillow fit inside a mummy bag hood?
  • Does the pillow have other uses, such as a travel pillow or seat cushion?
  • Does the pillow stay put during the night, or does it slide around?

We asked these questions, and a few more scored each question on a 1 to 10 scale and then averaged the scores to come up with each pillow's overall score.

Pillows, like the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Down, should be easy to...
Pillows, like the Therm-a-Rest Air Head Down, should be easy to deploy, pack up, repair, wash, and should stay in place during the night.
Photo: Jason Wanlass

Packed Size


Very closely related to the weight of any outdoor product is its travel size. Whether your car camping or two days into a week-long backpacking trip, the items you take with you need to be as compact as possible. For this metric, our testing was simple. We packed each pillow up and then used a ruler to measure its overall packed volume (size) in liters. When then listed each pillow from largest to smallest and scored them accordingly on a scale of 1 to 10. The pillows with the smallest packed size received the highest scores.

Inflatable pillows categorically have the smallest packed sizes...
Inflatable pillows categorically have the smallest packed sizes. Often, however, the trade off is comfort.
Photo: Jason Wanlass

Support


We found this metric a little challenging to score, namely because support can be measured, but it's also subjective to each sleeper. For this metric, we allowed each tester to score each pillow on a 1 to 10 scale according to their overall opinion and sleeping experience. We then studied each pillow for specific support features that were included by the manufacturer. We also deployed each pillow and measured the compression when we placed our heads on them. We combined all of the scores for each pillow and averaged them for an overall score.

Inflatables like the Sea to Summit Aeros Down often score well for...
Inflatables like the Sea to Summit Aeros Down often score well for support; however, their support often lacks a certain level of comfortable and accommodating support. The Aeros Down's extra layer of down goes a long way at increasing this pillow's level of enjoyable support.
Photo: Jason Wanlass