Like clockwork, once I hit 40 years old a couple years back I started having back pain issues from all the backpacking I do. To relieve and prevent the pain, I’ve invested a lot of money into ultralight gear to lighten my backpack load, as well as doing rolfing treatments and pilates classes. All these things have certainly helped, but I recently discovered a simple piece of equipment that seems to help more than anything: a chair.
Yes, that’s right, it turns out that perhaps the number one way to relieve back pain is to sit down. In a chair. Who would have thought? But actually when you do think about it, think of all the hours spent on a backpacking trip sitting awkwardly on a rock or a log, with no back support, probably in a slightly tweaked position, inevitably slouching with bad posture. I didn’t fully realize this until I recently started bringing a backpacking chair with me, then the difference was clear as day. Now I can’t believe it took me over two decades of backpacking to understand this!
Us backpackers are typically pretty obsessed with lightening our backpack loads, so bringing a chair along seems like an unnecessary luxury. But I’ve found a good lightweight option that is totally worth the weight: the Sea to Summit Air Chair. Weighing a mere 8 oz., this chair combines with your sleeping pad to create a comfortable and sturdy chair.
While the Air Chair is designed to fit an air mattress, personally I wouldn’t trust using an air mattress for a chair on a backpacking trip, sitting around on sharp rocks and pine needles. Not to mention the possibility of plopping down too hard and popping it! I realized, though, that the Air Chair (size Small/Regular) also perfectly fits the Exped FlexMat Plus closed-cell foam sleeping pad (size Medium). The FlexMat is not your normal foam pad; it has an extra deep egg-crate texture that creates a whopping 1.5″ of padding! While arguably not quite as comfortable as an air mattress, it is far more comfortable than a standard foam pad. I’ve found that compared to air mattresses, while it’s less comfortable on my hips for side sleeping, I think it’s actually more comfortable for sleeping on my back. Plus, foam mattresses have the distinct advantages of guaranteed durability (no chances of popping or leaks) and there’s no fussing around with inflation/deflation every evening and morning.
The Air Chair – FlexMat chair combo probably isn’t quite as comfortable as it would be with an air mattress, but it still works well and is comfortable. And, like I said, by using a foam mattress you can bash it around without any worries about popping it. Using the chair’s side compression straps you can dial in how much back support you want, whether you want to lounge with your legs out or sit more upright.
I can’t stress enough how great of a luxury it is to be able to lounge comfortably in a chair at camp after a long day of hiking. So far I’ve used the Air Chair on four overnight backpack trips and so far I’ve had zero back pain after each trip. It’s been a game changer, and I plan on taking it on every backpack trip from now on, even the long treks. Especially the long treks! At just 8 oz., why not?
UPDATE JULY 2020: After 10 backpack trips using this setup, we finally realized that the FlexMat foam sleeping pads just aren’t comfortable enough for a good night’s sleep (at least in our opinions), and have reverted back to taking our Exped Synmat Hyperlight HL Duo air mattress. The difference is profound; the air mattress is so much more comfortable that I realize now my comments above about the foam pad comfort were way too optimistic. But at the same time, we still LOVE the Air Chairs and can’t imagine backpacking without them now. Our solution was to take one of the FlexMats and cut it in half – it turns out that the Air Chairs still work fine with only half the FlexMat (as a single layer instead of a whole pad doubled over). This solution is a bit heavier now, since the foam pads are only used for the chairs and aren’t doubling as sleeping pads, bringing the total for the chairs to about a pound each. But this weight is totally worth it for the comfort and support of a chair in the backcountry.
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