Going Soft: Adding A Pillow To Our Bike Touring Gear

thermarestpillowWe’ve taken another step towards the ‘pampered’ end of bike touring.

After 3 years of sleeping on a “pillow” of scrunched up clothes, we’ve finally splurged on the real thing: a Thermarest Compressible Pillow ($34.95 from REI).

The catalyst came from a recent restless night in our tent. We packed lightly for a weekend trip but then didn’t have enough clothes to shove under our heads to make a good enough pillow.

It got us thinking about how nice a pillow would be, so when we received a gift certificate for the local camping store, we headed straight for the pillow section.

Here’s how we picked out the Thermarest Pillow over other options:

  • Compressible, Not Inflatable – We didn’t want a pillow that required inflating every night or that was prone to leaks and punctures. Also, we didn’t like the feel of the inflatable pillows. They were too hard and not like our pillows at home.
  • Washable – Everything gets dirty on a bike tour. We wanted a pillow we could throw in the washing machine once in a while to get out the road grime.
  • Lightweight – Although we certainly aren’t ultralight cyclists, we don’t like things to be any heavier than necessary if we can help it.
  • Reasonably Priced – There are some beautiful down-filled pillows available but they cost over $50 and that was too much for our tastes.

After laying our heads on several pillows in the shop, the Thermarest Pillow passed the test better than the other options so we picked out a medium sized one and took it home. Here are the specs:

Weight: 9 ounces (about 255 grams)
Expanded Size: 18 x 14 inches
Packed Size: About 1/5 of its open size
Machine Washable: Yes
Filling: Left-over foam from making Thermarest sleeping mats

Like most purchases, as soon as we got it home we wondered if we’d made the right choice. The pillow didn’t seem to inflate as much as the store demo version we tried and it had a funny smell.

Happily, after a few minutes we could see the pillow had visibly expanded to the size we expected and it was very comfortable. It still had a slightly odd smell though, so we threw it in the wash. The cleaning did the trick. After hanging to dry for a few hours, it was smell-free and ready for a trial run.

With no camping trips planned for another few weeks, we decided the ultimate test would be to try it at home. Would it be as comfortable as our normal pillows? We both agree that the answer is definitely yes. In fact, it was so good that for several days we only slept on the Thermarest pillow!

We were also pleased to discover that it stuffs into its built-in pocket easily and quickly, making it relatively compact to carry. This may be a luxury, and a few extra grams compared to arranging clothes under our heads at night, but we think it’s a luxury we’re going to really appreciate on future bike tours.

*A month after buying our first Thermarest pillow, we loved it so much that we had to get a second one for Andrew, who prefers it even at home!

This review is based on Thermarest pillows that we bought with our own money. We were not paid or bribed to give this review and it reflects our honest opinion of the products concerned.


  1. Alan
    12th March 2010 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks for the review. I’ve been looking for a more comfortable pillow. My current lightweight pillow is an empty bladder from a box of wine. I partially inflate it and put it in my sleeping bag stuff sack with some clothes to soften it up a little. Your new pillows sound a bit more comfortable though.

    • friedel
      12th March 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      We’ve heard of people using wine bladders for pillows but when we tried it we ended up smelling wine all evening and being annoyed by the rustling. Obviously you’ve perfected the technique better than we did!

  2. James
    13th March 2010 at 8:46 am #

    I use an inflatable pillow from NZ outdoors company Kathmandu. I experience neck pain, and a long day on a bike exacerbates that, so I require a pillow that’s a specific height. An inflatable pillow has the benefit that you can inflate it to the height that suits you.

    It has a layer of foam in it, but I must say that you’re right: it isn’t particularly comfortable. But it is definitely better for me than the roll-of-clothes option. It rolls up to about the size of a tube of Pringles, which isn’t too bad.

    • Amaya
      26th March 2010 at 3:36 pm #

      I won´t travel without a pillow. The best one I´ve found is from a small company called quixote design.
      They make compact travel pillows out of down–haven´t slept better since I got one.


  3. Bryan
    31st March 2010 at 4:01 am #

    I’ve used that Thermarest pillow for the past year (backpacking and bike touring) and give it two thumbs up. Same as you, I just got tired of a ball of spare clothes as a pillow and didn’t sleep as well without one.

  4. Colleen Welch
    19th April 2010 at 4:57 pm #

    The directions for the Thermarest pillow say to launder before use. It can be dried in the dryer as well and this really adds to the loft. Make sure to hang it up open for awhile after the dryer as it may not be completely dry. I have an LL Bean Camp pillow that I like abit better, but my Thermarest pillow compresses to a smaller package so I use it more.

  5. Andrew
    20th April 2010 at 6:24 am #

    Thanks Colleen! We must have missed the ‘launder before use’ in the Dutch directions, though we did it anyway. We just got a second Thermarest pillow so we don’t have to fight over it…. They are very comfortable.

  6. eddie
    8th June 2010 at 8:44 am #

    I have the same pillow. I have a really sensitive neck due to a weight lifting injury in high school. Nothing beats a real pillow. My only beef with the thermarest is that it gets really hot compared to my pillow at home. I am a side, stomach sleeper and I wake up with noticeable more sweat on my face and hair when I use the thermarest. I do not use a down pillow at home, just a normal one. If I ever get the money I would like to try a down camping pillow but worry about its washability.

  7. woollypigs
    2nd September 2010 at 1:14 pm #

    It is a sign of old age that you need a soft pillow, what happened to the simple rock or bit of wood 🙂

    We can’t travel without a pillow, we tried the stuffing your clothing into a fleece but doing the night it fell apart.

    We settled for the Ajugilak air pillow and have only suffered great night sleeps since.

  8. Fratercula
    22nd June 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    The Thermarest pillow is wonderful, even if very loud. I have one that is Lime green with blue splodges, I may be halucinating but the splodges seem to glow in the dark. I have used it for over three years, I try to allow it to expand when not in use and regularly tumble dry it – this gives the filling a lease of life and improves the loft

  9. Budakon
    28th November 2011 at 11:42 pm #

    For the last year I have been using an Exped Air Pillow with a fleece or merino wool layer wrapped around it for softness.

    It only weighs 85g, packs to nothing and is super comfy.
    Normally inflatable pillows feel a bit unstable and your head feels like it wants to roll off. The Exped though has an indented central area that your head lies in which makes a huge difference.
    No going back to bags filled with clothes now!

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