A few weeks back, I wrote a blog on buying vs. renting a wheelchair as I was considering purchasing a sturdy model for our upcoming trip to Yellowstone. It was actually much harder than I thought as there are so many options out there. I reached out to TWAP follower (and personal friend) John Berkey as he’s used a wheelchair for the past 7 years. He offered so many great suggestions that I wanted to share with everyone.


buying a wheelchair

“My kids keep me honest with my message.” says John Berkey.

Guest blogger John Berkey is a retired banking executive who suffered a spinal cord injury over seven years ago. Most of his time is spent counseling others with injuries that hamper mobility – building spirits and lessening fears (read more about the organization John founded, Able Challengers). With two teenage kids at home, they help him stay honest to his message “to keep pushing the limits of his mobility every day.”

General recommendations when buying a wheelchair for travel

  • If you’re only planning on using the chair occasionally, you may want to look on Ebay for used chairs – to buy retail will likely cost $1,500+ (vs the couple hundred I initially budgeted). You can go to your doctor and get a prescription which will help alleviate costs (as Medicare will cover most of the cost) but it can take up to several months and they also may not pay for an all-terrain type you need. It is a lot of work for only occasional usage.
  • If you are looking only for occasional use, then Karman is probably the ideal or Ki Mobility. I think you will find better prices with Karman but more optional builds from Ki. Invacare is generally the VW of wheelchairs – they just keeps chugging along and easy to repair and acquire parts as needed.
  • Weight wise standard chairs run about 35 lbs and make sure the width is at least 18” and a depth 16” (for comfort particularly over long distances).
  • GRIT introduced the Freedom Chair, a groundbreaking (albeit expensive) new design last year  which just went into production. Notice the wider wheels and large front caster. This design went with a freewheel design but the essential difference between this design and a traditional rugged off road chair is the leverage drive system.

Wheelchair comfort considerations

Fit is critical for comfort. The real key to dealing with comfort is to have someone measure your Mom then look for wheelchair options that fit her requirements.

Invest in a good seat cushion. It doesn’t have to be expensive for example the medical supply firm that set me up with my new wheelchair found me this cushion which only cost $39 (and it’s really comfortable). I really stress this so that your Mom can ride in relative comfort put also so you don’t cause pressure sores from the rocking and rolling. Roho cushions in the $300 plus range are an option if your Mom has serious issues with pressure sores.

Navigating rough terrain in wheelchair

Once you know fit sizes, I find two things help with navigation on cobblestones, bricks, etc.

  • Have a drop in seat 1-1.5″ from knees built in when seated. This helps keep the COG near the rear wheels.
  • Ask for 6-8″ front casters.

The combination of the two makes it easier on the passenger and anyone who may be pushing from behind to navigate over tough terrain. The largest detriment to navigating uneven surfaces is the fact that the front casters are able to free spin and will often try to turn to fit in cracks. When this happens the front wheels act as a fulcrum point and want to pitch the chair forward. Large caster wheels prevent it from twisting into smaller cracks. The COG being the rear wheels keeps the fulcrum point towards those wheels.

Collapsible wheelchairs

buying a wheelchair

John checking out Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental US, located in St. Augustine, Florida.

For ease of traveling you probably want a wheelchair that folds up or collapses. However, when you unfold it, rig up some easy solutions to make it a “rigid” chair. Collapseable chairs by design have a lot of give because they have no fixed axle between the edges of the frame to displace the twisting. You can combat this by taking some zip ties and after opening, quickly afix the seat rails to the frame rails in both front and back. It will make it easier to push and give your Mom a greater sense of stability and comfort while pushing her. When your done just cut the ties and it can collapse again.

Buying a wheelchair for your own personal use

John also offered a couple suggestions on if someone is going to power themselves:

  • Bear in mind, the needs of every wheelchair users really depends on whether they will be pushing or be pushed.
  • I would also suggest wider rear wheels (about the width) of a BMX bike tire.
  • They should also consider a free wheel upfront – it is designed to push the casters off the ground entirely and lengthen the wheelbase. It essentially turns the wheelchair into a trike.
  • Finally stress camber in rear wheels to promote stability.
  • If you’re considering a powerchair, the primary concern is ground clearance.

Thanks John! Appreciate all this great information. I’m sure our readers will find this most helpful.

Anyone else have some recommendations or suggestions? Would love to hear them!