Dispatches from life on the road

Modern Nomad

The Search for the Ultimate Camp Chair

We spent the summer testing all kinds of recliners, stools, and seats. In the end, we settled on these six favorites.

An outdoor office is hard to resist. (JJAG Media)
Adventure Bike

We spent the summer testing all kinds of recliners, stools, and seats. In the end, we settled on these six favorites.

I always thought taking off in an Airstream would mean sitting less—no fixed office, desk be damned—but even on the road you still have to sit down and crank out work daily. 

Truth is, Jen and I do spend less time at the desk than before. Without the distraction and interruptions of phone calls, emails, social media, meetings, and co-workers popping by for a chat, it’s easier to stay focused and blast through tasks. But I still spend hours behind the screen each day, and while the table in Artemis, our Airstream, is fine, an outdoor office is hard to resist. One of the biggest challenges in setting one up has been finding the right chair. Sure, there are tons of them, but it’s not as easy as you'd think to find the right one, especially given that this one chair—perhaps the only piece of furniture you’ll own on the road—must function as office ware, dining chair, and recliner all in one.

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I chose—Jen would say in classic, square “Aaron fashion”—function over comfort from the get-go, starting with the REI Kingdom ($64.50). It’s a director-style job, with a pretty rugged canvas-polyester back and seat stretched over a steel frame, though I almost opted against it because I nearly couldn’t figure out how to fold it up. Stowing it is actually pretty easy, which I realized after I finally deciphered the break-down process. And for a while I loved the flat angles that made me sit strong while I typed. The Kingdom is sturdy and well-built, and I like its stolid, simple lines. It’s a good one to pull up to a table, too. But, just as Jen warned, it proved a little stiff over a few months, and after listlessly watching her relax in more kicked-back seats over cocktails, I realized that I needed something a little less office and a little more Airstream.

So I turned to a couple of smaller, slacker camp chairs: the Alite Mayfly ($75) and Eureka Campelona ($50). Though the two erect differently—the Alite accordions from a compact tube, while the Campelona simply opens and closes like a mousetrap—they have a similar feel. Both are low-slung and surprisingly comfy. The Campelona’s mesh back and bottom provided a lot of give and never got sweaty, even on hot days in the Sonoran Desert. The Mayfly’s rip-stop nylon form cradles you and allows you to easily lean back rocking chair-style. (Beware the mischievous wife that might mess with your balance and deposit you on your back.) These were both great options, the Alite for its trim pack size and easy setup that would work great at concerts and the Campelona for its beach-style solidity. But I don’t live on the shore or at an amphitheater, so alas, comfy as they were, neither was a long-term keeper for work and play.

The TravelChair Wallaby ($135) looked like it would be the perfect middle ground between the Kingdom and the Alite. And it might just be— if I ever perfect the process of putting it up. But solving the setup is almost as convoluted as mastering a Rubik’s Cube. I once watched a friend, who was itching to sit and have a beer, futz for about 10 minutes with it before he eventually got so fed up that he returned it, still in a pile because he couldn’t force it back into its carrying case, to the stack of chairs on offer. (He chose another and was swilling a cold one in seconds.) Also, there’s two parts to Wallaby, the tubular metal frame, which is on a web of shock-cords akin to a tent and permanently connected to the arms, and the nylon seat. We found out that it’s easy to forget (or lose?) the latter, in which case the former is about as comfy for lounging as a trapeze. 

Truth be told, the Wallaby, once assembled, is surprisingly luxurious for such a complicated device. And it does pack very small and light for its relative comfort. But since a chair wrestling cage fight each morning before work might send me to the trails prematurely, it still wasn’t quite right.

After the aggravation of the Wallaby, I needed to relax. Jen plied me with the Chillbo Baggins ($55), naturally. These blow-up recliners, which are basically a long tube folded at the middle that you fill with air to create a mobile lounger, come in myriad brands, colors, and quality levels. But the name here—which is what I consider pure, existential marketing genius—was the deciding factor.

To inflate the Chillbo, you need a gusty wind—or someone at your camp has to sprint around with the equivalent of a six-foot-long sail before stopping abruptly and trying to roll-up the dry-bag style seal, all while not letting the air escape and avoiding passing out from the exertion. The entertainment factor is so good that you almost don’t want them to ever succeed. We even had a German friend try backing his rental car up at high speed while simultaneously dangling the nylon tube out the window, which ended in a full Chillbo but also very nearly a massive insurance claim. Once this thing is full, though, it’s like a cross between a bean bag, a hammock, and a chaise lounge. Jen and I can both recline in it, which is great for happy hour, but not so much productive work time.

So back to REI I went for the Hang Time Chair ($55), which has the same burly canvas-steel construction as the Kingdom, but with slacker angles. It’s an optimal middle ground between the kid-size Campelona and Mayfly and the too-adult Kingdom. I like how sturdy it is, as well as how stable—Jen will never flip me on my head in this one. And though the weight and lack of packability means it wouldn’t be my choice if I had to hike, I can’t imagine a better car camping compromise. I can work a good portion of the day in it and still comfortably kick back with a bourbon after hours. The price isn’t shocking, either.

I’ve realized that the optimal scenario is a chair-share. Since Jen favors the Hang Time, I’ve fallen back to the Kingdom, a pair that basically ensures pretty much all my sitting needs. Well, those two plus the Chillbo, which rolls up as small as climbing rope, is comfier than a Barcalounger, and more entertaining than TV, especially when you take it out on the lake.

I didn’t mention the Chillbo floats? Again: so many good reasons to get work done quickly.

Filed To: Travel / Camping / Gear
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