Most of the camping we do in our household is of the “car camping” variety. This means we can pack more, and larger, items for our outdoor excursions. But just because we have the space doesn’t mean we need or want to use it. We’ve camped for a decade using those big chairs that collapse into four-foot-long tubes. They’re easy to carry with shoulder straps, but they’re a total pain to pack. It was time for something smaller. It was time to test the REI Flex Lite chair.
I thought walking into my local REI would make for an easy chair-selecting experience. I was wrong. The number of varieties, even of collapsible chairs, is staggering. Where to begin? I needed the chair to pack down small. I needed it to be lightweight for hiking and kayaking. And I needed it comfortable. Those three criteria whittled down the options pretty quickly, but there were still a half-dozen from which to choose.
The REI Flex Lite chair jumped out from four similarly shaped models. The Helinox looked awesome, but it cost considerably more than I was willing to spend at the time. The Thermarest option was infinitely packable, but sitting in its three-legged configuration felt less than stable. I didn’t have a chance to test TravelChair’s Joey, and the REI Flex Lite chair didn’t seem to carry much of a price premium. So, that’s what I walked out with.
It’s not entirely fair to say the REI Flex Lite chair won by default, but in a sense it did. Yet after testing it on six different outings (camping, hiking and one kayak trip), it has certainly begun to win on its merits. For starters, the Flex Lite packs down very small, just 4.5 inches wide by about 15 inches long. It’s also pretty light, weighing just 26 ounces. I appreciated these aspects even when car camping, because packing for four of us can be a challenge even with small-ish items in tow. Between the cooler, sleeping bags, sleeping pads and tent, that space in the back of the SUV fills up pretty fast. If there’s a chance to pare down, I’m all for it. And “pare down” is exactly what the REI Flex Lite chair let me do.
Assembly is a breeze too. All the pipes are connected by an internal bungee, so you never have to worry about figuring out which peg goes in which hole. They all just kind of “find their way.” The hardest part is stretching the material so the pegs go into the small peg sleeves at each corner. My 10-year-old son had trouble with this, in fact, though I think he was just afraid of stretching the material too much and breaking daddy’s chair. Gotta love that, right? Once I showed him that stretching was OK, he struggled but managed to assemble it himself.
The Flex Lite had a deeper seat than several other chairs I briefly tested in the store. In my field tests, I can say this depth made it quite comfortable to sit in by the fire. My wife has a sensitive back and found it comfortable as well, perhaps even more so than the big chairs we’d been using for most of a decade. It doesn’t have arms, but I really only missed them when reading.
The only two downfalls I’ve encountered with the REI Flex Lite chair are its pointy legs and the seat material. While the legs provide almost total stability on clay or packed dirt, they act like pins if the ground is sandy or slightly wet. This means they sink down into the ground — not always at an even clip — which causes imbalance and a loss of stability.
As for the material, it stretches nicely during assembly and seems quite durable when you’re sitting in it. But if even the slightest ember from a campfire touches the seat or back, it will bore an immediate and irreparable hole. Any camping chair is susceptible to heat-based holes. Heck, just about every piece of camping gear is susceptible to it. But the material on the REI Flex Lite chair is so thin that a hole appears almost instantaneously. If your posterior fills the seat, you may not encounter this issue. (Note: the Flex Lite has a weight limit of 250 pounds.) Likewise, if you don’t plan to bend over to stoke the fire, the seat material may never encounter an ember. But I did, so it’s worth pointing out here.
But really, if those are the biggest complaints, then the Flex Lite isn’t just winning by default. I am curious to try a few other chairs over time, just to see if they perform any better or worse. But if you’re in your local outdoor store and see an REI Flex Lite chair calling your name, don’t be afraid to answer by picking one up.
REI Flex Lite chair
- Collapses down really small
- Lightweight for easy transport
- Feels much more stable than its three-legged competitors
- Setup is a breeze
- Pointy leg ends cause quick imbalance in sandy settings
- If sand gets in the connections, it stays there for good
- Even the slightest ember melts a hole in the seat material