The ground is hard and unforgiving, even to seasoned backpackers. All it takes is a deflated air mattress or a drafty quilt to ruin the night, leaving you wide-eyed and disheveled the next day.
And, over the course of time, for example during a thru-hike, it’s the simple things that wear on you the most. If you fail to sleep consistently, your body begins to break down.
Yet most backpackers carry a ‘stuff sack pillow’ to cut down on pack weight for extended trips. The common ‘stuff sack pillow’ quite literally involves stuffing a sack with your clothing and other personal belongings, and then using it as your pillow. The result is usually a semi-hard loaf-sized pillow that provides little support and comfort.
I carried a stuff sack pillow for 2,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail. It proved problematic for me in a variety of ways. The stuff sack texture was synthetic, creating a weird sensation. It wasn’t supportive to my neck, which meant that I often woke up with knots or tension in my shoulders. And I tend to sleep cold. So, most of the time, I’d have very few spare clothing items to stuff into my makeshift pillow, which left me with a pathetic lump of a pillow every night.
But when I hit the Colorado Trail nearly two years later, I had an inflatable backpacking pillow in hand, and I’ve never looked back. Here’s why my luxury backpacking item is a pillow!
What is a Luxury Item?
A luxury item is anything that’s not-essential to backpacking. It’s considered a luxury because it adds “unnecessary weight” to your base. Most backpackers carry some kind of a luxury item to bring themselves comfort or entertainment throughout their journey.
I reached a point towards the end of the Appalachian Trail where ounces didn’t matter to me anymore. I was willing to carry a pie or extra water if it meant that I got to enjoy myself a little bit more while I was on trail.
While luxury items vary in type and size between backpackers, common luxury items include: a lightweight chair, camp sandals, mugs, Kindles or similar electronics, and … a pillow!
3 Reasons Why I Carry a Backpacking Pillow
1. Sleep Quality is Extremely Important
I’ve never functioned well without sleep. If I wake up after a restless night, I often struggle with nausea and a grumpy temperament. At home, most people wouldn’t be surprised to see the 6 pillows on my bed. But my backpacking friends still tease me for carrying an inflatable pillow.
If you’re on trail or in the backcountry, sleep and sleep quality are especially important because they support the recovery process. Rest allows your heart to relax. It also gives your body the chance to repair damaged tissue and cells, and even boost the immune system. Quality sleep also supports better cognitive and mental health since it allows you to retain and consolidate memories, solidifying new skills in your mind.
Sleep also enhances athletic performance! Research found that athletes that slept for 10 hours per night experienced improved reaction times and accuracy. Whereas those who suffered from poor-quality sleep were quicker to become exhausted, sick, and even injured.
For me, getting enough sleep while on trail directly correlates with my comfort levels and sense of well-being.
2. The Weight to Comfort Ratio
Despite pillows getting a bad reputation for being an unnecessary comfort item on trail, most inflatable options only weigh 2-3 ounces, making the extra pack weight barely noticeable to the standard hiker. They also usually collapse down to the size of a dollar bill, which means that they don’t take very much space up either. Since I’ve already dialed my hiking kit into an uber ultralight one (with a base weight of 6 to 7 pounds), adding a few ounces for better quality sleep seems like a no-brainer to me.
Pro tip: backpacking pillows also fit well in travel situations.
3. A Good Backpacking Pillow Reduces Knots
There’s nothing worse than waking up with a stiff neck. I’m supposed to be refreshed and ready to hit the trail when the sun rises, but without proper neck support at night, I tend to develop knots that can make shouldering a pack uncomfortable. The stuff sack pillow works for some backpackers as a knot-deterrent. But I prefer having extra support for the parts of my body that literally bear the weight of hiking. That way, I can perform at my best level when it’s time to go.
The Bottom Line!
If you’re someone who isn’t fully committed to backpacking, the cost to purchase an inflatable pillow might not make sense. Similarly, if you sleep like a rock, your sleep quality might remain unimpacted if you use a stuff sack pillow. If, however, you’re a light sleeper who struggles to get comfortable, it might just be life changing to add a pillow to your backpacking setup.
Continue hiking with Mary Beth: @h1kertrash