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How to Choose a Backpacking Chair

When we rolled out of our sleeping bag, and set up for a sunrise read ...
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus
Wednesday May 6, 2020
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Here at GearLab, we believe adventure is as much about sitting back and enjoying the view as it is about logging miles and ticking off classic routes. Some of us were a little hesitant to pack the extra weight of a backpacking chair in our already loaded packs, but after some comfy evenings at camp, we aren't sure we could go back to sitting on the ground!

Even though you are still basically on the ground in a foam chair...
Even though you are still basically on the ground in a foam chair, the comfort level added makes taking breaks a whole new experience.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Do You Need a Backpacking Chair?


Just because there is a new shiny piece of equipment doesn't mean you necessarily need to have it. There's nothing wrong with a log or nicely shaped rock, or even sitting on our packs in the backcountry. 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.

For some, a chair might be a bonus item, but for others, sitting on the ground is just not going to happen. If you have tight hips or lower back, you may not be able to get even a little bit comfortable on the ground to cook a meal or relax at camp. If this is you, a real seat could be the difference between tolerating camping and thoroughly enjoying it.

Another scenario in which we found backpacking chairs to be more than a luxury was at wet campsites. Have you heard of "Vermud"? Certain trails just never seem to dry out; other times, you are heading out on a trip during the spring snowmelt, and time at camp either consists of standing, laying in the tent, or dealing with a perpetually damp bum.

Sometimes there is one very obvious reason to sit off the ground.
Sometimes there is one very obvious reason to sit off the ground.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Or maybe you prefer the style of travel where you take breaks at every beautiful view and aren't interested in covering big miles. An extra pound or two likely matters less to you than having the equipment to get comfortable and take it all in.

Conversely, someone who is counting every ounce is unlikely to want to add even another 17 ounces, the weight of the lightest model we tested. If you are putting in big miles, hiking from sun up to sun down daily, camp time is likely going to consist of wolfing down some calories before crashing in the tent, and there isn't even much opportunity to spend time in a seat.

There are many styles of lightweight, packable chairs on the market right now, and we put 11 of the top models to the test. Read on to learn more about what styles are out there and how you might go about narrowing down the diverse selection on the market.

If you don't need something overly small and light, take a look at our regular camping chair review, which includes full-size chairs perfect for tailgating and car camping.

We love that the Flexlite Air is small enought to stash in virtually...
We love that the Flexlite Air is small enought to stash in virtually any pack's side pocket.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Types of Chairs


Taco-Style


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 closed-cell foam and support beams. 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, virtually indestructible, and are great for quickly grabbing off your pack and plopping down as they require no setup.

Don't get too relaxed though, these chairs require some level of muscle engagement to use and aren't the easiest things to get out of! They are usually on the lower end of the price spectrum for backpacking chairs and can be a good option if you're newer to camping and not sure whether you'll want to have a chair with you or not. They are also great for concerts where seats off the ground are not allowed.

Taco chairs from left to right: Crazy Creek PowerLounger, Kelty Camp...
Taco chairs from left to right: Crazy Creek PowerLounger, Kelty Camp Chair, ALPS Mountaineering Weekender, Crazy Creek Original Chair.
Photo: Lauren DeLaunay

Tent-Style


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 seven models of this style we tested, they sit your bum between 7 and 10.5 inches above the ground and are, generally, lightyears more comfortable than taco-style chairs. They are, however, significantly more expensive and, in some cases, heavier. We were excited to use these chairs anywhere and everywhere, from backcountry excursions to car camping cookouts and days at the crag.

The line-up of tent style chairs is an impressive array of expertly...
The line-up of tent style chairs is an impressive array of expertly balanced forces that allow you to put your body weight onto narrow aluminum poles with lightweight fabrics stretched over.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

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. When investing in any new toy, it's nice when you can get use from it in many aspects of your life.

Backpacking


Up first, of course, is backpacking. Weight is paramount here, so we'd recommend looking first to the "size & weight" metric, as you'll likely be carrying your chair for miles. If it isn't under 2 pounds, most would be hard-pressed to want to keep it on their pack.

We'd recommend the Helinox Chair Zero to our backpackers. It is, believe it or not, lighter than any taco-style chair we tested and offers added comfort and a smaller packed size. And even though it's 11 ounces heavier at 29 ounces, the Big Agnes Skyline UL is one of our favorites for its superior comfort while still keeping the weight relatively low. If you're into depriving yourself of creature comforts and want to save weight while still bringing a chair, the Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 PowerLounger can serve as both your (not so comfortable) sleeping pad and your chair.

There's no problem stashing the Chair Zero to bring along on long...
There's no problem stashing the Chair Zero to bring along on long backpacking trips or even just a day at the crag.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Car Camping


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 backpacking chairs 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 "ease of use" sections in each review.

At the top of the charts here is the Big Agnes Big Six, one of the heaviest chairs we tested but also one of the largest and 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.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

Concerts


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 PowerLounger is the most comfortable taco-style chair we tested, and the ALPS Weekender is a budget-friendly model that is only slightly less comfortable with a lower back. Both are an easy addition for an outdoor concert or play.

Not only is a tall back more comfortable, but it also gives your...
Not only is a tall back more comfortable, but it also gives your body more leverage to help you balance.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Beach-Going


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 feet above all else.

All taco-style chairs perform similarly on sand. They work, but your butt will likely get covered. As far as tent-style chairs go, the wider the feet, the better. The TravelChair Joey is the only model we tested with trekking pole basket style feet, making it the only tent-style chair in our review that won't sink into loose sand and tip you out.

These feet look like snow baskets on a trekking pole and perform the...
These feet look like snow baskets on a trekking pole and perform the same function; keeping you afloat on soft surfaces.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Purchasing Considerations


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 on the ones that are most valuable to your decision-making process.

Comfort


The first and the most heavily weighted metric in our review, at 30%, is comfort. With some gear, comfort comes secondary to performance, but as far as chairs are concerned, it's paramount. Why lug an extra pound or two of chair around, whose sole purpose is to provide comfort, if it isn't actually comfortable? To evaluate each contender, we measured its height off the ground and the width of its seat. We also looked at and felt the shape of the seat pocket and evaluated how that affected the feel on our bottoms, backs, arms, and necks.

If weight isn't an issue, comfort 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. Typically, the higher you sit off the ground, the more comfortable and easier to get out of the chair — but with added height comes added weight as well. The shape and depth of the seat pocket also play a role in comfort. Some seat pockets, like that of the REI Flexlite Air, are very shallow and feel as if you might slide out of the chair. Others, like the two Big Agnes models we tested, are deep and well curved to support your back and legs.

The deep bum-pocket and sturdy legs give you the freedom to move...
The deep bum-pocket and sturdy legs give you the freedom to move about without fear of falling over like in some ultralight chairs.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Size & Weight


If you know that you're taking your chair far into the backcountry, you'll want to carry as little weight as possible and be able to easily strap the chair to the outside of your pack. This is likely the most important metric if you're shopping specifically for backpacking, bikepacking, or any long-distance travel.

Even some of the bulkier chairs in our test were able to be packed...
Even some of the bulkier chairs in our test were able to be packed on out backpacks without too much issue.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

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 and took measurements of the packed size. 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 fit the bill where weight and compact size are crucial, but we strongly prefer the Chair Zero for its comfort and stability.

If you are looking into backpacking chairs as a more compact alternative to regular camp chairs, the larger options in this category such as the Helinox Swivel and Big Agnes Big Six will give you great middle-ground options that are tall and comfortable but lighter and more compact than traditional camp chairs.

Not to say that you should, but you can fit the chair into the side...
Not to say that you should, but you can fit the chair into the side pocket on packs with extra-large side capacity.
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Stability


When setting your chair up outdoors, you will inevitably encounter uneven ground. Our stability ratings are relative as most of these compact seats are decidedly less stable than their large counterparts designed for car-camping. Some of the chairs 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. Think about your personal stability when getting into and out of a squat. If you are perfectly comfortable doing this, a slightly less stable chair could allow you to save some weight. But if you struggle with balance in crouched positions, select a more stable chair that sits higher to keep you confident with your entry and exit.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

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. You do have to use some muscle tension to stay balanced in this style, though, so full relaxation isn't possible.

We look relaxed, but do we look fully relaxed?
We look relaxed, but do we look fully relaxed?
Photo: Adam Paashaus

Ease of Use


We found a noticeable difference in the ease of use between the models we tested. As we mentioned, the taco-style chairs require no setup and so excel in that arena, however they are a bit awkward to get in and out of since they rest on the ground and tend to fall closed when not occupied.

The most common design for the tent-style seats is the use of a hub that the poles are inserted into. Just like with tent poles, the poles for these chairs are connected with shock cord to make it quick and easy to pop each pole into place. The Big Agnes models we tested use an innovative pole design where instead of inserting the poles into a plastic hub, the notched pole ends are inserted into notched holes in the crossing poles. This makes the chair very compact to carry but is a bit more time consuming to line up the notches during set up.

Another factor in ease of use is how much force is required to put the seat material onto the pole tips. Most require some force but loosen up with use while others use more densely woven fabrics that don't seem to stretch and are always tight to get on.

Insert the poles into the top section of the fabric first, then lay the seat on its back to brace it while you stretch the seat onto the other two poles.

Attach the backrest section of the fabric, then, leaning the chair...
Attach the backrest section of the fabric, then, leaning the chair on its back, hook the other two corners onto their poles.
Photo: Adam Paashaus

And then there is the matter of instructions. Some models we tested have color-coded poles and sleeves, so there is no question which end is up. Others have instructions printed on the seat or bag, and one notable chair, the Travel Chair Joey, has none of these, so we weren't even sure if we had it upside down or right side up except that it felt slightly more comfortable one way than the other.

Thanks for the help Helinox!
Thanks for the help Helinox!
Photo: Elizabeth Paashaus

Conclusion


A small and light chair, whether you take it on every trip into the backcountry or just use it as a compact option to keep stashed in your car for tailgating, can be a handy and comfortable addition to your gear collection. But before buying one just because it's comfy and light, think about how you will use it to determine which one is right for you and if you really need it at all.

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