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.

This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you make a purchase after clicking one of the links, I will earn a small commission and you won’t pay anything more.

Timmermade Wren False Bottom Sleeping Bag Review

Timmermade Wren Sleeping Bag Top
Timmermade Wren False Bottom sleeping bag custom printed with my Stars Over Wetterhorn photo.

Several years ago my wife and I replaced our two-zippered-together-mummy-bags sleeping bag setup with a Feathered Friends Spoonbill double bag. This was a game changer for our frequent backpacking trips, reducing our sleeping bag weight from over 4 pounds down to an incredible 2.5 lbs with the same or even better warmth. How was this possible? The secret is the false bottom. Since down insulation is mostly compressed (and thus useless) when you’re laying on top of it, you might as well just get rid of it altogether on the bottom! This is what Feathered Friends did with the Spoonbill – the top and sides are full of high loft 950-fill down, while the bottom is simply a thin fabric sheet. The result is a massive weight savings without hardly any warmth penalty (assuming you have a decently warm mattress).

Recently while rethinking my solo backpacking setup, I wondered if I could cut some significant weight with a similar false bottom solo bag, instead of the normal standard mummy bag design I’ve been using for years. After extensive research I stumbled upon the Timmermade Wren false bottom sleeping bag. The specs boasted a 19oz weight for a 20º rated bag – impressive considering my 15º bag weighs 33oz! Plus the pricing was competitive with comparable high end sleeping bag brands – also impressive considering that the Timmermades are custom tailored bags. After discussing some questions and options with the owner/maker Dan Timmerman we got the order rolling. What you see here are the results: the Timmermade Wren False Bottom sleeping bag, 20º rated, 950 fill down, 19oz (1lb 3oz), $420, with custom printed fabric.

Read on for my full review and impressions of this unique ultralight sleeping bag. Continue reading “Timmermade Wren False Bottom Sleeping Bag Review”

My Backpacking Gear (Updated: June 2020)

Originally published October 2012. Last updated in June 2020 with the addition of the LighterPack spreadsheet. Many of the product links are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something after clicking one of my gear links, I will get a small cut of the payment and it won’t cost you anything more.

Mountain goats, Weminuche Wilderness, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, tent

Mountains goats check out our campsite in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado.

Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have the gear to do it.

As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.

Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.

Continue reading “My Backpacking Gear (Updated: June 2020)”

Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers

Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack up by Mt. Sneffels, San Juan Mountains, Colorado.

I have a knack for spotting good backpacks. Just by looking at pictures I can usually tell if a backpack is going to be a good heavy hauler or not. So when I stumbled upon Seek Outside’s website and studied the pictures of their backpacks, I was practically salivating — they just looked good. Really good. And they’re based in western Colorado, an extra bonus.

So I emailed them asking if they’d consider custom making a panel loader for me. I’ve written about panel loader backpacks before and why they are the best type of backpacks for hiking photographers. Panel loader backpacks have a big zipper that wraps around the backpack, enabling easy access to the main compartment. A photographer can place his or her padded camera case inside and have quick access to it, rather than having to dig down through the top like most backpacking backpacks. And unlike most photography-specific backpacks which fail miserably for serious hikers in the ergonomics department, a backpack from a real outdoors company will almost always perform much better on long hikes and backpack treks.

Well, I heard back from Seek Outside and was delighted to discover that not only are they based in Ouray, the same town I live in, but I also already knew the owner Kevin Timm! Why I didn’t realize all this before I cannot say; I must have been hiding under a rock (which is kind what living in Ouray is like, come to think about it!) I was also delighted to hear that Kevin had already been thinking about producing a panel loader and was eager to hear some of my input. The end result is the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, a lightweight heavy-hauler and quite possibly the ultimate backpack for the backpacking photographer! Read on to find out why I am so enamored with this backpack. Continue reading “Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers”

Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S

bonfire, Cedar Mesa, Utah, stars

Bonfire Under the Stars : Prints Available

This last weekend we drove out to Cedar Mesa, Utah for one last desert camping trip for the season. We arrived a few hours prior to sunset, found a nice spot to car camp, and eventually lit a little fire to enjoy. After being glued to the computer the last few weeks, the fire, stars, and open space were balm for my soul! The next morning we would wake up early and embark on a three-day backpacking loop through Fish Creek and Owl Creek Canyons.

For this trip I decided to leave my workhorse Canon camera and lenses at home, instead opting to travel light with only my new little Fujifilm X100S large sensor compact camera. These three days in the canyons provided a good opportunity to get to know the X100S. Since it’s a popular new camera I will write a “mini review” of my first impressions below, and this post will be more of a camera report than a trip report. All these photos were taken with the X100S, but please note that some are stitched panos and most of them are adjusted in photoshop to some degree.

The photo above is a two-shot stitch taken with the X100 28mm wide-angle conversion lens (the X100S has a fixed 35mm equivalent lens, and the 28mm conversion lens screws on top of that). Continue reading “Cedar Mesa with Fujifilm X100S”

Books for Backpacking

On backpacking trips longer than about three days, especially on solo trips, I like to bring a book along. I hardly ever get bored just relaxing and soaking in the views, but still it’s nice to have some extra brain food.

Because of the demands of backpacking, any good backcountry book needs to meet certain physical criteria. It must be compact and lightweight – so it must be a paperback, ideally with small condensed print. I had a brilliant idea once of publishing little “backpacker” editions of books, on thin Bible paper with really small print and perhaps a little companion dry bag. But for now, regular thin paperbacks will do.

Subject matter is also important to consider. Novels can be a poor choice because of the danger of ripping through the story too fast. You don’t want to haul around a book for five days if you’ll only get to enjoy it for one or two. Some novels can also seem like a petty distraction compared to the magnificence of nature around you. If I wanted petty distractions, I’d stay at home and browse YouTube.

I also try to avoid bringing books that have a singular disturbing topic; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer is good example of this. Interesting book for sure, but the last thing I want to do for five days in the mountains is immerse myself in the world of fundamentalist Mormonism.

In my opinion, the best backpacking books are non-fiction, in particular philosophy or spirituality related books. The subject matter can be every bit as profound as your surroundings, perhaps even leading to a deeper connection with the surrounding landscapes. Philosophical books demand closer concentration and slower, more deliberate reading than novels. One chapter can often provide enough food-for-thought to digest all day long, and being out in the wilderness provides the time and focus to do so. These books can also withstand multiple reads; sometimes you can even get more out of it the second time through.

Continue reading “Books for Backpacking”