True confession: when I was in my early 20s, I purposely slept without a pillow to make myself tough for backpacking. It was part of a well-intentioned (and, in retrospect, ill-conceived) plan to prepare myself to pack light, sleep well, and move efficiently in the backcountry. I was obsessed. I kept a nalgene bottle in my book bag or near my desk in my dorm room to “stay hydrated,” wore my boots around campus to “break them in,” and maintained a rigorous exercise regime in the name of being in better shape for next season. As a wilderness trail builder during my college summers, this behavior was enabled by other similarly motivated zealots. Around steaming bowls of reconstituted red beans and rice or oatmeal, we talked strategies for tackling giant endurance hikes—through hiking the Pacific Crest, Appalachian, or Continental Divide trails—completing timed challenges like a rim-to-rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon and other ambitious adventures. We debated the advantages and disadvantages of packing light—everything was on the table. Pack a tent, sleep in a bivy sack, or tough it out with neither; toilet paper versus au natural; pack a stove or cook on sterno cans; water purifier or “tablets”; eat meat or go without? We argued the ethics of going light or being a “blue blazer” (one who hikes the Applachian Trail with the modest comforts of a thermarest, stove, and possibly a change of underwear). These questions ravaged my mind back at school during the “off season.”
A dozen years and thousands of miles later, I have relaxed a bit. I still strive to move efficiently but also be as comfortable in the backcountry as possible. My mantra: keep it simple by taking fewer, better things. Luckily, modern technology has made it possible to reduce weight and maximize comfort. Oh, and my point? There are just some comforts no one should go without. Mine? A pack pillow. Nothing ruins a great backpacking trip than a shoddy night’s rest and resting my head on clothing packed in a stuff sach just doesn’t cut it anymore. Plus, ever wake up with an imprint of a zipper on your cheek? Not even acceptable appearance for the trail! Comfy, inflatable to your liking of firmness, and just plain necessary. My pick is the Cocoon Hood Camp Pillow. $27, fits in the palm of your hand when in its storage bag, comes in two cool colors and only weighs 3/5 ounces.