One Foot in the Grave? Never!
Sitting Pretty in the Backcountry, or
How to Keep Your Bum Happy in a World Without Upholstered Chairs
By Tamia Nelson
October 25, 2011
Somebody (I think it was the late Colin Fletcher) once lamented that one of the few downsides to backcountry travel was the scarcity of upholstered seats. And if a former Royal Marine like Fletcher, inured to wartime hardships and privation, thought this lack of home comforts worthy of note, what about the rest of us, who are accustomed to a much softer life? Well, speaking for myself, I spend too much time sitting as it is. But when I have to sit — and it's hard to paddle a canoe or ride a bike while standing — I miss having a comfortable seat. Of course, one person's idea of comfort is likely to differ from another's. When my uncle saw the impossibly narrow (and implacably adamantine) saddle on Farwell's "amphibious" bike, he prodded it gingerly, then observed that if he were ever forced to sit on "that thing" he'd have to have it surgically removed. So it's obvious that notions of comfort vary wildly.
Still, there's no denying that wood‑framed cane seats and granite rocks aren't conducive to comfort. Not over the long haul, at any rate. And as I've just said, I spend a lot of time sitting down, both at work and at play. Moreover, I don't share Farwell's taste for the hard life, at least not in fundamental matters. I like my seats to be well upholstered. In short, I find myself keeping company with the spirits of Nessmuk and Colin Fletcher. I go to the woods to smooth it, not to rough it.
This mindset is reflected in my choice of bedding, among other things. And for quite some time I'd followed Fletcher's lead in using my sleeping pad, suitably folded and trussed, as a lounge chair while in camp. But this was hard on the pad, and it didn't lend itself to short lunch stops, let alone brief breathers along the portage trail. I needed something handier. And after a little looking around, I found it.
In Search of the Perfect Seat
I had plenty to choose from. Outfitters and boat builders seem to be as keen on comfort as I am, and aftermarket canoe seats have proliferated in recent years, some of them almost as elaborate as a La‑Z‑Boy, with adjustable backs and even cup‑holders. That's more than I wanted, however. A backrest of some sort is essential in a kayak, with its limited range of paddling positions and the need to blunt the impact of the hard cockpit coaming on your spine, but one of the signal virtues of the canoe is its flexibility. You can paddle it sitting down, kneeling, or (with care, and despite my earlier dismissive remarks) standing up. You can also shift your bum from one side of the seat to the other easily, and you'll often want to — in order to lift a gunwale to meet a breaking wave, for instance, or to make it easier to reach the water when paddling solo. And in either case, a backrest just gets in the way.
The upshot? My primary concern while paddling is padding, not support. Some canoe seats are relatively comfortable as is. My DIY nylon‑cord improvisation, originally intended as a temporary replacement in my Pack canoe, has proven surprisingly so. But the ash seat frame still cuts off the circulation to my legs as the hours go by. Plastic slab seats present other problems. Their edges are frequently radiused, and that's good, since it lessens the likelihood that the blood flow to your legs will be impaired. Unless the seat incorporates drain holes of some sort, however, water will invariably puddle under your bum as you paddle. At best, this is merely uncomfortable, but in chilly‑going‑on‑cold weather it rises to the level of a serious shortcoming. The free‑draining properties of woven cane seats are therefore among their greatest virtues.
In any event, I've gotten by for many years with no concessions to comfort beyond (occasionally) tucking one of my closed‑cell foam knee pads under my bum when the tochus tingles became too insistent to ignore. And those same knee pads did duty ashore, serving to cushion the hard ground whenever it was too much trouble for me to improvise a seat from my sleeping pad (or when the ground was too littered with broken bottles and pop‑tops to warrant putting my costly mattress at risk). But the closed‑cell foam pad's cushioning, while indeed welcome, wasn't exactly sumptuous. I wanted …
These were the features I was looking for:
- Comfort (You're not surprised, are you?)
- Light weight
- Compact packed size
- Reasonable cost (Cheap is good. But cheaper is better.)
And by a process of minimally conscious elimination — during which time I experimented with a variety of DIY alternatives, including box‑wine bladders — I hit on something I was pretty sure would fit the bill: the Therm‑a‑Rest Trail Seat.
If you think it looks a lot like a truncated Therm‑a‑Rest self‑inflating mattress, you're right. That's exactly what it is. But it ticks all the boxes:
- Comfort? It's 1½ inches thick, and you can adjust the firmness by adding or releasing air. That'll do me fine.
- Weight? At 5 ounces it doesn't add much to my load.
- Stowed size? With a little effort I can get it down to the size of a water bottle. That's small enough.
- Simple? Open the valve to inflate. Close the valve to sit. Then open the valve again and roll up to deflate. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
- Reliability? An open question. I've only had it for six months. But I'm still using a couple of Therm‑a‑Rest mattresses I bought 15 years ago, so the portents are promising.
- Cost? Around USD20. More than the bladder from a wine box, but less than a paddling La‑Z‑Boy. (There's no cup‑holder, though. Damn!)
I even like the subdued khaki color. And the size of the inflated pad (it measures 12 inches by 16) is just right for lounging in camp. Best of all, it's easy to strap it to almost any canoe seat except a molded tractor seat or pedestal. Why bother to strap it in place? Because it's so light that a stiff breeze will carry it off the first time you drop to your knees to tackle a tricky bit of whitewater. That's why.
The subject of stowed size deserves another look, by the way. The ad copy suggests the Trail Seat can be rolled up into a 3‑inch by 17‑inch bundle, and that's certainly true.