My New Favorite Thing: A Lightweight Backpacking Chair

Colorado, La Sal Mountains, Utah, Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area, camping

Relaxing and savoring the view of La Sal Mountains above the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area in western Colorado.

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 . 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 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 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 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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Canyons Close to Home

Colorado, Dolores River, Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area, Bedrock
Dolores Light : Prints Available

Sunrise light above the Dolores River, within the Dolores River Canyon Wilderness Study Area, southwest Colorado.

Yearning for some closer-to-home adventure this spring, we ventured out for a few quick overnight backpack trips to explore some canyon and desert areas along the Dolores and Gunnison Rivers, both major river drainages of the San Juan Mountains where we live in southwest Colorado. See more photos here >>

Seek Outside Podcast

Yesterday I was interviewed on Seek Outside’s podcast; you can listen to it above, or look it up in your favorite podcast app. Based here locally on the western slope of Colorado, Seek Outside is an outdoor gear company who builds the best backpacks on the market (in my opinion) as well as a complete line of tents and titanium tent stoves. For the last couple of years I’ve been a Seek Outside ambassador and have done extensive prototype testing to help refine their Exposure and Flight series of backpacks.

On the podcast we discussed a variety of topics including my backpacking photography strategies, scouting and planning trips, backpacking and camera gear I use, how I got started in my photography business, my favorite mountain ranges, photo location sharing, and my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic and how it is currently affecting our outdoor adventures (or lack thereof). I hope you enjoy the talk and if you use a podcast app like Overcast you might want to speed it up to 1.5x speed so that I don’t sound like such a stoner, haha!

From the Vault: Mount Sneffels Dusk Panorama

Colorado, Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Sneffels Range, panorama
Mount Sneffels Dusk Panorama : Prints Available

Mount Sneffels (14,150 ft.) towering over its surroundings at dusk in early June. San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

Like many other landscape photographers grounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions, I have resorted to browsing through my photo archives as I dream of outdoor adventures. During one such hard drive foray I found some old unstitched panorama images and thought I’d work on putting them together finally. This photo was from a 2015 photo mission when I stayed up here well into the night to photograph the Milky Way over Mount Sneffels.

I wish you health, safety, and sanity during these uncertain times.

Planet B

Planet B

Planet B, an ice-laden bonfire sculpture by Jeff Skoloda in Ouray, Colorado.

Colorado, Ouray
Planet B #2

Planet B, a melting globe. Sculpture by Jeff Skoloda

Behold the most amazing bonfire I’ve ever seen – a giant sculpture of metal and the elements of fire and ice, titled “Planet B” by Jeff Skoloda in Ouray, Colorado. The sculpture consists of an outer globe shrouded in ice (handiwork of the Ouray Ice Park ice farmers), with a smaller inner sphere filled with firewood set ablaze. Despite the intense heat of the fire, the ice clung on for hours as we watched it slowly melt and fall off in chunks.

Only in Ouray.

(I composited the stars into the second photo for a more cosmic effect).

Courthouse on Fire

Cimarrons, Colorado, Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, sunset
Courthouse Blues : Prints Available

Evening light creeps up towards Courthouse Mountain, shrouded in a winter snowstorm.

Tonight’s sunset was a stunner in Ridgway, Colorado. It was so good I actually motivated to put a jacket on and step out to my porch with my telephoto lens. We see a lot of fine sunsets from our east-facing house, so I tend to get a bit jaded about photographing them unless there’s an exceptional light show like this evening’s!

Cimarrons, Colorado, Chimney Rock, San Juan Mountains, sunset
Chimney Rock Light : Prints Available

Sunset light on the Cimarrons and Chimney Rock, February.

Cimarrons, Colorado, Courthouse Mountain, San Juan Mountains, sunset
Courthouse on Fire : Prints Available

Brilliant sunset light on Courthouse Mountain in the Cimarrons, as seen from the town of Ridgway, Colorado.

A Hair-Raising New Years in Ouray

Colorado, Ouray, San Juan Mountains, fireworks, new years
Ouray New Years Fireworks : Prints Available

New Years 2020 fireworks celebration over the town of Ouray, Colorado, with Mount Abrams and the San Juan Mountains towering behind.

My last hours of 2019 ended with quite a hair-raising experience, and I have a crazy story to tell you from my outings last night to photograph the New Years fireworks.

I had an idea last night to snowshoe up to a cliff overlooking town to gain a unique perspective of the fireworks over the valley, so at 10:30pm I bundled up, strapped on my snowshoes and headlamp, and started trudging up through knee deep powder towards my destination. When I was only about ten minutes up from the road, I was alarmed when I saw three or four pairs of orange eyes reflecting at me from behind some bushes up ahead. My first thought was that they were probably just deer. But I was a bit concerned that the eyes were orange; typically I remember all the deer I’ve seen at night having greenish colored eyes in light of my headlamp. Even more alarming, though, was the fact that the eyes had a certain calm and confidence to them – the animals clearly were not afraid of me and had no intention of fleeing like deer normally would.

About 20-30 feet from the “eyes”, I could see that one of the animals was standing up while the other two or three were sitting or laying down. I took a few more steps closer to get a closer look when I got a clear view of the one that was standing. It was a massive mountain lion staring right at me! Along with two or three of his buddies* (I was too focussed on the big guy to count the others). Holy shit. I quietly turned around and retreated back down through the snow, trying not to seem panicked or rushed like prey, but constantly glancing over my shoulder while trying not to trip over my snowshoes. I got back to my truck without incident, got in as fast as I could, and got the hell out of there, with a bit of adrenaline pumping through my veins!

So, although I was scared away from my intended photo destination, at least I got a story to tell! I had enough time to drive to an old standby vantage point and take the photo above as a consolation shot.

Happy New Year! I hope 2020 is full of more excitement and adventure, though preferrably not involving close encounters with mountains lion gangs!

* P.S. – It’s possible it was a momma lion with her teenage cubs; I didn’t get a good look at the others, just the big one standing in front.