History of Camping Chair
What is a camping chair?
The best explanation we could come up with is a collapsible, foldable or inflatible seat with backrest which you can use in various outdoor settings. There are many kinds of chairs which are named 'camping chair' but they largely differ in size and style. The only common characteristic to all camping chairs is that they can be made smaller for the purpose of transportation. These chairs are generally meant to be used outdoors, in gardens, parks, countryside, beaches or in tents. In North America there is a distinction between backpacking chairs and camping chairs. In the UK 'backpacking chair' is not as frequently used term therefore we will cover all foldable or packable outdoor chairs.
Have you ever wondered what are the humble origins of the camping chair you are sitting on?
This article mentions some ancient sitting furniture, as well as many modern camping chair designs that are based on designs of ancient stools.
There are plenty of short histories of the camping chairs online. We will have a longer look at this kind of outdoor furniture, its main designs, trends, uses and materials.
Until late 19th century none of the chair designs we will be looking at were developed for camping as such. Most of them were made for use during military campaigns. They were also used as garden chairs or inside homes for sedentary tasks.
The oldest known folding stool was created in Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Iraq, some 4500 years ago.
Soon after (some 500 years only) this stool was found to have been used by the Egyptians. A few fold up stools were discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb by archaeologists.
They were made from two square-shaped wood structures that were connected in the middle forming an X structure. Tutankhamun’s ceremonial throne, which was also found in the tomb, is the oldest ancient folding chair with backrest we found when researching this article. Egyptian folding stools contained stretcher fabric or leather one could sit on. Foldable aluminium stool with polyester fabric stretchers is essentially the same design using modern day materials. Folding stools, similar to the Egyptian one, were also used in territories of modern Germany and Denmark 3000 years ago.
Ancient Greeks borrowed many furniture designs from the Egyptians, including the folding stools. The Greeks, who had more timber available to experiment, redesigned the Egyptian stool. They named them Diphros (stool) Okladias (Oikos meant home and family in ancient Greek). This suggests that the stool was often used at home for sedentary tasks or as general mobile furniture. Most surviving Diphros Okladias are ornamental. The stool legs often resembled animal legs, like the one in this picture.
The Greeks are also known to be the first to create a three-legged stool. Although the Greeks had highly sophisticated back chair designs for use indoors, we could not find any evidence which would suggest that Diphros Okladias were updated to a chair with back support.
Oh, those Romans... What have they ever done to us? Well, apart from viaducts, concrete, sanitation, and other unimportant things, they were the first known nation to create foldable metal stools.
Advancement in metal technology meant that the metal fold-up chairs could take up less space and could be used in wet conditions for longer periods of time compared to the wooden options. These chairs are thought to have been used by the officers of the Roman army in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.
What happened next? A few hundred years later Vikings created a bog chair (8th to 9th century). It is also known as a Viking chair or a Stargazer chair. This chair consists of two planks of wool put together in an X form.
These folding chairs had a reclined angle that was more suitable for relaxation and was less for use during sedentary tasks, such as craftwork or knitting. These chairs were likely taken by the Vikings on their sea voyages.
During the medieval period, scissors chair gained popularity. This chair was a more elaborated version of the folding stool with back support which was positioned in the lower back area and armrests.
The seating area could be made out of wood, fabric, or a leather stretcher. Sheepskin or a pillow was placed on top of the wood only version to make it softer. This chair was often used during military campaigns, churches, and sedentary craftsmen, such as weavers. It gained popularity as a garden chair in the 18th-19th century. It was one of the predecessors of the modern camping chairs as it was foldable and had back support and armrests.
Joseph Beverley Fenby was a British inventor who, among other things, invented a foldable chair that goes by the names of Fenby chair. He designed in 1855 and patented only in 1881. The Fenby Chair became widely known in Europe as an officer’s chair or “Campaign Chair”. It was also manufactured by an Italian company in Tripoli, Libya what gave it another name Tripolina. This design utilizes hinge mechanisms to create a chair that can be folded in seconds. The fabric part is attached to the wooden structure in four of its corners. Nigor Flycatcher is a slightly modified version of the Fenby Chair.
Theodore Roosevelt in Safari camp in Tanzania sitting on a Fenby chair
Have you ever been to an event that has a zillion unfolded chairs? The folding chair which is so widely used today was first patented in the USA by John Cram in the year 1855. There have been many updated designs since but its main principles have remained the same. In some, chair parts only change their angle when the chairs are folded, in other parts slide when the chair is folded or unfolded.
Many modern camping chair designs have been based on the same principle. If we look at the Outwell Kenai chair, for example; it has armrests but unfolds and folds using the same mechanical principles as John Cram's original design.
In Western societies camping as a pastime only became popular among large parts of society in the late 19th century. Dwellers of increasingly industrialized towns begun visiting the seaside and countryside during weekends. Such exploits were made possible by an increasing train infrastructure. New designs of camping furniture had to satisfy the increasing demand. Garden chairs travel chairs, military chairs were all used as camping furniture.
The deckchair design is often attributed to Cram's 1855 patent. These chairs were used during the American Civil War. Initially in Britain, they were marketed as Yankee Hammock Chairs. In 1886 the design was improved by John Thomas Moore. This resulted in the deckchair design we know today. Nowadays it is a popular choice as a garden chair. You can also rent a deckchair in a park or a beach.
Deck chairs were used during tent camping in the late Victorian era
In the late19th century, Anderson's Safari Chairs gained popularity. It is a design of the Egyptian/ Etruscan folding stool with an added backrest. These chairs were used in expeditions and various military campaigns. Nowadays this design is often used in the film industry and known as the director's chair. They are also made for general garden/ camping chairs.
During WW1 and WW2 British troops, among other designs, were using foldable chairs made out of canvas, wood, and metal. They were easy to erect and had a more upright angle compared to the reclined Fenby chairs which meant that these chairs were a better choice for performing tasks, such as writing.
During the WW2 plywood folding chairs were used in US Air Force's briefing rooms. They are based on John Cram's design.
After WWW2 use of aluminum consumer goods gradually grew. Most chairs that were designed for camping were made of polyester canvas and connected aluminum or steel tubes which are connected by plastic joint parts and rivets. When you fold it, some parts slide upwards. It is very easy to use. It takes a few seconds to pull the opposite corners away and the chair is ready to use. This British army folding chair is the same design that can be purchased in camping shops.
British Army Camping chair
Such chairs are still the most popular camping/garden chair design and they are available in almost all outdoor shops. Usually, they are made out of relatively inexpensive parts in high numbers which makes them the cheapest option available. You can buy one for a price as low as £8 or $10. These chairs are not easy to carry around, however, as their size is 0.8-1m high when packed. Now there are many models available. Many traditional-style camping chairs now come with bottle holder pocket or footrest, like this fold-up chair from Relaxdays.co.uk.
The company that created the first modern lightweight camping chair is DAC, a South Korean company known for its high-end tent poles. They sell their outdoor furniture and walking poles under the Helinox brand. In 2012 Helinox Chair One was introduced. It was made out of the high strength 7000series alloy tubes, 6.6 nylon, and 600D polyester. In 2013 Helinox Chair One won ISPO and Red Dot awards.
The first version weighed around 0.95 kilograms (2.09lbs) and its packed size was only 0.35m (1.1ft). It was a big leap from the available camping chairs which weighed and had a size 2-3 times as heavy and as big. Instead of a heavy thing, you would carry on your shoulder the camping chair became something you could put into your daysack when you are heading to the park, hills, or a beach.
Chair One was created using a combination of principles of greek Diphros stool and the Fenby chairs and adopted to be used with contemporary materials. Like in the Diphros stool, there is a central X shaped core to which the legs are attached. The fabric, like in the Fenby chair, is attached to the four corners. Helinox uses plastic connector hubs in their chairs.
Chair One is the most important outdoor chair design in many decades not only because of its lightweight but also because of great lower back support. By making the lower back area narrower Helinox designers created a chair that lets you sit with your back straight without effort. The sitting posture of the most camping chairs before Chair One was not very ergonomic. Most traditional camping chairs' fabrics have a rounded shape. That means if the sitter relaxes when sitting he or she is slouching.
After Chair One many outdoor brands soon joined the lightweight chair trend based on the concept of tent-poles. Alite designs, Nigor, REI, Robens, Leki, Big Agnes, MEC, and other companies developed their own versions of the chairs. Most of them were based on Chair One but each brand adapted the designs to suit create their own unique versions. Therm-a-rest stands out as the creator of the most unique outdoor chair designs. They used to make chairs that had solid carry cases that could be converted into the chair legs.
Alite Designs used to create some very reclined chairs as well as chairs which could be used as rocking chairs (if you have a good sense of balance). Instead of plastic hubs Big Agnes and Nigor chairs have wider diameter central studs with holes through which legs and back support rods are connected. REI and Leki have created chairs with the central strut part perpendicular to the seater.
The chair legs in this design are positioned close sideways what can result in more tilting sideways on soft ground, particularly for chairs with shorter legs, such as Flexlite Camp Chair.
These new types of camping chairs have pointy feet that cause them sinking into soft ground. It is not an issue if you are camping on hard ground but if you are fishing on a sandy river bank or spending a day on a beach you might find that your chair is not stable enough. Removable Helinox Ball feet only fit a few Helinox chair models. Another accessory crated by Helinox and copied by many other brands is Chair Groundsheet.
It helps to minimise sinking inventory soft ground, like sand but is limited to the distance between the chair legs. Chair groundsheets work well on sand and snow but, since the pressure points in the corners still remain, they are less suitable for use on lawns or tents.
Our camping chair accessory Chair Buddies can be used as lightweight removable chair feet that packs very small and is compatible with many chair brands. This accessory has a flat profile that makes it perfect for use on lawns or inside the tents.
There is a high market share of lightweight chairs of less known brands that can be purchased in online marketplaces. Some of them have increased size chair feet straight out of the box. Some of them, like this Sportneer chair, have adjustable leg height. Such a feature increases the chair's weight but it makes the chair more functional. If you want to use it at a different angle or height you only need to change the leg length.
Currently, the lightweight chairs have a shoulder height range and a high back range. The shoulder height range, which is lighter, constitutes the biggest market share of this kind of camping chairs. The shoulder height chairs do not offer head support. If you like a good afternoon snooze you might want to consider a high back chair, like Robens Observer Chair. These chairs are still light, with most weighing 1.3-1.5kgs (2.8-3.3lbs).
Helinox is the market leader in manufacturing of the lightweight camping chairs. It has created Chair Zero that weighs only 488 grams(1.1lb)!
Since Helinox created its first chair in 2012 the company has been busy coming up with many other designs. Its Swivel chair imitates freedom of sideways movement characteristic to the office chair. Now you can turn left to right and back with impunity.
Helinox Ground Chair does not have any central core part and is designed to be close to the ground. Advantage of such a design is a low weight due to lesser number of parts.
Other inventions by Helinox are the Rocking Feet. You can attach these feet to most designs of a camping chair and it becomes a... rocking chair.What are the benefits of rocking? It helps you to fall asleep faster and reduces stress. Using rocking cradles has been centuries old method to help those noisy infants to fall asleep.
A couple of years ago Nemo Equipment, outdoor gear manufacturer known for its innovative designs, created a Stargazer Recliner Luxury Chair. This swinging chair has a sturdy frame with two upside poles. The fabric part is attached to the pole ends. This is designed for ultimate relaxation. At the weight of 3.2kgs (7lb 2oz) it is a chair designed for car camping or stress-free afternoons in your back yard.
American outdoor retail giant REI stocks GCI Outdoor Road Trip Rocker Chair that uses spring action to create a rocking motion and REI Kingdom Rocker Chair has rounded leg shape which enables a rocking action. The Kingdom Rocker is equipped with stoppers if you want to use it in a static position.
Hammock chairs or tree chairs have become more popular in the last decade. Although they look very different from rocking camping chairs which are placed on the ground, the main principle: the user's ability to make relaxing back and forth movement, is the same. Such chairs can be hanged from tree branches and ceilings. Here is an example of Ivan Hanging Chair sold by Wayfar.co.uk. Most hanging chairs have a footrest. If you like hanging chairs but the place you want to use them does not have trees or ceilings you can purchase a hammock chair tripod.
Camping chairs with fabric roofs that provide shade or protection from the sun and rain have been in the market for some years. Currently one of the most popular brands which offer such chairs is Kelsyus. Their Canopy Chair is very easy to erect and it has a built-in shade with an adjustable angle. Canopy Chair weights 5.4kgs (11.9lbs). Unless weather conditions are extremely windy, a chair of such weight is not going be affected.
Early 2020 Helinox released Personal Shade that fits most of their camping chairs. This shade has very flat-top profile which is designed to have very low wind resistance. Lightweight low back chairs, on average, weight 800-1200 grams. For such light objects, a fabric shade above can act as a sail. If you leave your chair even in a moderate wind, the whole construction can fly away. This shade does not offer much protection from the afternoon sun, however.
Did we mention inflatable furniture? Now we do. Inflatable beds, sofas, and chairs have been available in camping shops for some years. Vango and Outwell/Easycamp are the two best-known manufacturers of inflatable chairs. This is furniture that is designed for car camping and use in the back yard. The inflatable chairs are lower than most metal/ fabric chairs and, because of even weight distribution and softness will not damage tent floors. These seats are cheap, prices start from £10-£15($13-18).
Legless camping chairs are mostly foldable seats with back support. As the name suggests, the legs are absent. Outwell and REI are two best-known manufacturers. Outwell Cardiel is a cheap and easy to use fold-up chair designed for use in campsites, parks and festivals.
More technical legless chairs are Mountainsmith Slingback Chair and Therm-a-rest Trekker chair. Minimalist Slingback Chair weighs only 140grams or 5oz. It consists of a piece of Cordura fabric with two pockets for tent poles. It is often used by minimalist hikers and backpackers. Don't forget your walking poles at home!
Therm-a-rest Trekker Chair weighs only 290grams (10.2oz). It is a conversion kit that allows us to use the inflatable mattress as a chair. This is an option specifically designed for the backpackers. If you have a few evening hours left during your trek you can enjoy the luxury of using a chair.
Comparing the two, Trekker is more comfortable than Slingback, you can change the angle of the seat and it will keep you on slightly higher ground. This is especially important during colder months. Slingback chair, however, is much lighter, easier to put together and you are more likely to use it during the day.
The newest camping seat design is the Cliq chair. You can put this chair up in approximately half a minute. It has a spring-loaded mechanism that ensures that all legs pop out when you are opening the packed chair. All top arms are extendable and are secured by spring-loaded buttons.
The result is that, although the Cliq Chair is not heavy (it weighs 1.66kgs or 3.65lbs) it still is slightly heavier than 3 Helinox Zero chairs put together. But the weight is not Cliq Chair's main selling point, its small pack size and ease of use are. If you like camping equipment which has very low maintenance requirements and takes little space in your car this might be the right chair for you. Since Cliq has bigger feet than most chairs it is less likely to sink into the soft ground.
Campster chair by Sitpack has the same build principles as the CLIQ Chair. They both have the core central part where all Campster has three legs and it is much higher than Cliq Chair.
Weighing 0.95kgs Campster is 40% lighter but it has shorter back support. This chair will be a great option for use in outdoor events and general camping. Because of its high profile and average feet size, this chair will not be as stable on soft ground, like sand. This chair is available to buy starting from autumn 2020.
In the last decade camping chair design range has greatly diversified. Three notable trends are increase of ultralight chairs models, all sorts of rocking chairs and new models of chair shades. Lighter and stronger materials have enabled the creation of very lightweight, functional, and comfortable camping furniture.
What is next for the camping chairs? Like with other industries, change is the only constant we can predict. Humans are restless creatures. Companies compete and keep innovating. Our willingness to use functional, comfortable and lightweight chairs is not going to go away. The camping oracle predicts that there will be more easy-to-pack chair and sunshade designs in the following years. Let's wait and sit (now and then).
Is there more to history of camping chairs? What is your favourite design? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below.