Here at OutdoorGearLab, we believe that enjoying the outdoors is as much about adventure as it is about sitting back and taking in the view. That said, some of us were a little skeptical at the idea of a "backpacking" chair. When you already have to schlep a heavy pack for miles on end, do you really want to carry an additional luxury item? However, after this review, we're sold — and we think you will be too.
Do You Need a Backpacking Chair?
For years, we've felt pretty content using rocks, logs, and trees as backcountry resting sites. For car camping, we've found cheap folding chairs, bouldering pads, and coolers do the job just fine… right? But like rolling up your puffy jacket to use as a pillow, nothing replaces the comfort of the real thing. It'll be up to you to decide if you can justify the weight or price of another "luxury" item. Still, after weeks of testing we now happily tote along an extra pound or two for a significantly more comfortable trip, whether we're heading out for a few hours or a few days.
After weeks of testing, we were able to pick four metrics to measure each product by: comfort, size, stability, and versatility. We've assigned all four parameters varying degrees of importance, but depending on what you're looking for, these may not exactly match your priorities. If you're reading this review because you're looking for a portable camp chair, weight may be less critical than versatility. If you're heading out on a months-long thru-hike, however, we bet you'll be compromising comfort for ounces. We tested each chair on a variety of surfaces to bring you comprehensive test results, but if you plan on sitting mostly on your patio, the chair's ability to balance on uneven surfaces might be less critical. As always, we've attempted to bring you the most objective data, but every user is different.
If you don't need something overly small and light, it may be worthwhile to look at our regular camping chair review, which includes full-size chairs perfect for tailgating and car camping. But if you're counting ounces and still think this is the right review, keep reading as we explain the two different categories of chairs we included in our testing.
Types of Chairs
For this review, we included chairs of two different categories: "taco-style" and "tent-style." The four taco-style chairs in this review are perhaps easily recognized as variations of the classic Crazy Creek Original Chair. These products have a straightforward design: a folding, L-shaped piece of fabric with internal support beams in which you lean back and use the oppositional force of your legs and back to create a seat. Taco-style chairs sit directly on the ground and are generally light, require no setup, and are especially great for concerts where seats off the ground are not allowed. These chairs require some level of muscle engagement to use.
The tent-style chairs in this review are named so because they use folding, tent-like poles to hold them up. A fabric seat lets your bottom hang suspended between the poles. Of the nine products we included in this category, they generally sit around 10 inches above the ground and are, generally, lightyears more comfortable than taco-style chairs. They are, however, significantly more expensive and, in some cases, (though not always) heavier. We were excited to use these chairs anywhere and everywhere, from car camping cookouts to the beach and the crag. If you're still wondering why on earth you'd bring a chair backpacking, none of the chairs in this review may be for you. But if you value comfort, a chair in this category may be well worth your investment.
Uses and Versatility
Even though this review is geared toward options for backpacking, we recognize that chairs can bring an elevated level of comfort to just about any activity. We evaluate a few of these activities below, explaining which scoring metrics are most important for that given activity, and, subsequently, which chairs will suit you best.
Up first, of course, is backpacking. Weight is paramount here, so we'd recommend looking first to the "size" and "stability" metrics, as you'll likely be carrying your chair for miles and setting it up on uneven ground.
We'd recommend the Helinox Chair Zero and REI Co-op Flexlite Air to our backpackers. They are, believe it or not, lighter than any taco-style chair we tested, and they have added comfort and a smaller packed size. If you're looking to shave ounces, however, the Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 PowerLounger can serve as both your sleeping pad and your chair.
If you're staying in the front-country, you may want to consider one of the larger chairs in our camping chairs review. If you have a small car, however, some of the chairs in this review could serve as a great middle ground. Weight is much less important when traveling by vehicle, so we'd urge car campers to look more closely at the "comfort" and "versatility" sections in each review.
At the top of the charts here is the TravelChair Joey, one of the heavier chairs we tested but also one of the most comfortable. We also love the Helinox Swivel for car camping. It's much too heavy to bring on a backcountry mission, but its comfort and stability are nearly unmatched.
Outdoor concerts are one of the best parts of summer, and one way to make them even better is with a lightweight chair! Because outdoor venues often ban chairs with legs, any of the taco-style chairs in this review are perfect. Weight is less important for this type of event, so we'd recommend the most comfortable chair you can find.
The Kelty Camp Chair is an affordable, comfortable taco-style chair that is an easy addition for an outdoor concert or play. However, we also tested the Therm-a-Rest Uno, a tent-style chair that sits low enough to the ground to be acceptable for most outdoor venues.
The beach, whether by the side of the river or the ocean, provides unique challenges for chairs. Most chairs sink into the sand, leaving you practically on the ground. If you're planning on using your chair predominantly on soft sand, we'd highly recommend looking at the legs above all else.
All taco-style chairs perform similarly on sand. They work, but your butt will likely get covered in sand. As far as tent-style chairs go, the wider the feet, the better. The TravelChair Joey has wider feet than its competitors, making it an excellent choice.
There are at least a dozen reasons to purchase a lightweight, portable camp chair. For each, different factors become more important. Here, we'll describe the four scoring metrics we used to evaluate each chair so that you can better focus in on the ones that are most valuable to your decision-making process. These are also great categories to consider when out and about shopping on your own.
The first and most highly rated category in our review is comfort. With some gear, comfort comes secondary to performance, but as far as chairs are concerned, it's paramount. To evaluate each contender, we measured its height off the ground, the width of its seat, and the height of its back. We also looked at the materials and breathability of each and how that affected the feel on our bottoms, backs, arms, and necks.
If weight isn't an issue, this will probably be your number one criteria when deciding what to buy. If, on the other hand, you need to be mindful of every ounce, you'll want to find something that strikes that perfect balance between how it feels and the extra weight you'll be strapping on your back. Overall, we found tent-style chairs to be more comfortable than taco-style chairs because you sit elevated off the ground. The highest-scoring chair in this category is the TravelChair Joey.
If you know that you're taking your chair far into the backcountry, you'll want to carry as little weight as possible. This is likely the most important metric if you're shopping specifically for backpacking, bikepacking, or any long-distance travel.
Does this sound like you? If so, you'll be glad to know that we put each chair on a scale to get its exact travel weight. There are two chairs in this review that come in well under twenty ounces: the REI Flexlite Air and the Helinox Chair Zero. Either of these are a great pick for adventures where weight is crucial.
Depending on where you're headed, stability may be of more or less importance. Some of the seats we tested are firm and secure, while others feel like they're barely standing upright on teeny tiny legs that could tip at any moment. For tent-style chairs, a lighter weight almost always means smaller, less stable legs.
Conversely, taco-style chairs are all relatively stable since they involve sitting on the ground with the full width of your bum providing the base. They adjust so that you can choose your angle of recline, and stay upright with the oppositional force of the user's legs and torso — very different than the poles and tiny feet of tent-style models. One exception to this, however, is the wide-based Therm-a-Rest Uno which can also double as a table!
If space and money are limited, the more uses you can find for a single product the happier your wallet and closet (or car, or garage) will be. While, at its core, a chair is just a chair, it's nice to consider features that will allow your seat to be used in more places and with more accessories. Tent-style chairs with horizontal bars instead of small feet will often provide more stability on uneven terrain, and pockets and cup holders make lounging a more user-friendly experience overall.