It’s a familiar scenario: A patient is discharged from the hospital or rehab facility after treatment for a serious injury or disease and is in need of a wheelchair. Neither the patient nor the family knows anything about wheelchairs, other than the one Grandpa Wilson had after he fell and broke his hip. It had oatmeal stains on the arm rest, one of the screws on the back was missing and the brake on the left wheel didn’t hold very well. That’s all they remember.
So, in selecting one for their use, it’s either grab one from the medical appliance dispensary, flip through a dog-eared catalog or maybe even drive through various neighborhoods on Saturday morning, hoping to spy one at a yard sale or estate sale.
Selecting the Best Wheelchair
Quality seems to not be a top priority. As long as it has round wheels and a seat, it’s good to go, or so people think.
Patients over 65 with Medicare Part B, qualifying veterans or those with gold standard insurance policies may get a free wheelchair. Whoopee! But who gets to chose which one? Usually the one paying the invoice. It’s a safe bet that most patients never check into the options. If it doesn’t cost them anything, they just nod their head and roll along. You know – never look a gift wheelchair in the spokes.
Whether the purchase of a wheelchair is to be covered by Medicare, insurance, philanthropic agencies or private pay, it is well worth your time to investigate the different types, brand names and rankings of various wheel chairs. Your options may be limited if you’re not the one paying the bill, but even in most of those cases, you do get to have some input into what you end up with.
Factors to Consider When Buying a Wheelchair
You might think there’s not a whole lot of factors to consider, but get stuck with a clunker and you’ll wish you had put more thought into the purchase of a wheelchair.
There are two essentially questions to answer here. One, how well will the wheelchair transport you, and two, how well can you transport the wheelchair?
Certainly, there are many other factors whose importance depend on the user’s size, weight, abilities and future needs, but the main thing is the wheels in motion – getting the user from point A to point B.
Why You Should Choose a Lightweight Wheelchair
Many people are getting great results from lightweight wheelchairs, which weigh from 27 to 40 pounds (ish). Improvements in frame design and construction materials make today’s lightweight wheelchairs as useful as the bulky, heavy units of the past. This is good news for the rider as well as the “pusher,” and to those who are charged with the task of lifting, folding, storing, packing and transporting the wheelchair.
Listed below are some excellent lightweight wheelchairs, and they all have weight capacities in excess of 250 pounds. But if you go over the weight capacity, you’re asking for trouble. The frame and wheels will, over time, begin to sag inward, the seat could rip and the tires compress to the point where the wheelchair is nearly impossible to push from a dead stop. So be honest with yourself and those who you have helping you and get a wheelchair that can support your weight.
Seat width is very important. Seat width affects overall width, which in turn affects the handling of the wheelchair. For slender adults, a 16-inch seat is comfortable, This applies to petite women and a few very thin men, but for the average person, it’s too narrow. The next step up is 18 inches. This is in the normal range for men and women. For large riders, a 20-inch seat is the best option.
It stands to reason that a narrower wheelchair would be easier to maneuver around the house, and it is, but don’t compromise on seat width just to gain the maneuverability. Squeezing your backside into a too-narrow seat may feel OK initially, but consider the fact that you will be in this chair for many hours a day.
Look Around Your House
Prior to purchasing a wheelchair, take a walk through your home and look for potential trouble spots. Narrow hallways and tight intersections are everywhere in most homes, particularly in quirky older homes.
Think through the process of rolling a wheelchair from one place to the other. Is this a place where you will need to be frequently? For instance, if you’re still able to do laundry, could you get to the laundry room in a wheelchair? Where will you consume your meals? Can you maneuver a wheelchair to that place?
Consideration must also be given to getting in the house and out of it. What if the smoke alarm goes off? Can the wheelchair easily be guided to get you out of the house quickly?
If there are problem areas, what compromises could be done – safely – to override the problem or at least make the issue more manageable?
The height of the wheelchair is also important, especially the height of the armrests. Too tall, and the wheelchair won’t slide under a desk or table. The higher quality wheelchairs have options regarding armrests that allow the wheelchair to roll under a table. In most cases, seat height is also adjustable.
Transport Wheelchair or Standard Wheelchair?
When perusing lightweight wheelchairs for purchase or lease, you need to be aware that there are two types of wheelchairs – a transport wheel chair and a standard wheelchair. The basic difference is transport wheelchairs are strictly for riding while someone else pushes. They have smaller wheels and are designed to be responsive when pushed by someone standing behind the rider.
Standard wheelchairs have the large wheels that the rider can operate with his or her hands, but also have the grips in the back for a helper.
8 Best Lightweight Wheelchairs Actually Worth Buying
Best Transport WheelChairs:
While the ideal purpose for a transport chair is merely to transport the patient short distances, like from the doctor’s office to the parking lot, this classy chair from Medline is adept at longer distances. Even at a feather-light 23 pounds, it’s durable, easy to push and really easy to fold and store. Your helper will thank you if you buy this unit.
The front wheels are 8 inches in diameter, while the back wheels are 12 inches. The tires are soft rubber solid, meaning they don’t hold air and therefore cannot go flat, and they won’t leave skid marks on the kitchen tile floor.
While the weight capacity is 300 pounds, the seat is only nineteen inches across. So, even though the likely range of the wheelchair is better than average (depending, of course, on the fitness of the assistant doing the pushing) the comfort level for a large rider might be compromised a bit as the day wears on.
The framework is powder-coated aluminum. (During the powder coat process, the frame is electrically charged to the polar opposite of the paint in powder form, resulting in greater adhesion.) The wheelchair comes in scuff-resistant red or blue.
The footrests are adjustable and can be removed. While not recommended for frequent use, this allows users to “walk” the wheelchair forward and back without having someone push them.
Medline has established a niche in the lightweight transport wheel chair category, with two other models making the best-of list (see below).
So how light is ultralight?
Fourteen pounds and change. Yeah. A couple of wet bath towels might weigh more than that.
Still, the weight-handling capacity on this transport chair is a hefty 300 pounds. But as with the other Medline transport chairs, the seat width is just 19 inches. That’s good for maneuverability, but maybe not so good if the user requires a wider seat.
The product description lists the armrests on this chair as “restaurant style.” While there is some ambiguity on what that means, the important thing is the wheelchair can slide very close to or even under most restaurant tables, so call the armrests whatever you want; just don’t call them late for supper.
The footrests can be removed, yet attached to the frame via stow-and-go clips. The wheels are the same as on the other Medline models – 12-inch and eight-inch – and the frame is high grade aluminum in red, blue, silver or black. The high-quality vinyl upholstery is both strong and comfortable.
Unpacking Tip: When you order and receive your lightweight wheelchair, regardless of the manufacturer, check carefully for proper assembly and packing. A few users who left reviews noted problems with things like loose or missing screws and bolts, brackets that were turned the wrong way and hand brakes that didn’t come in contact with the tires (meaning they had no chance of working).
Don’t overlook this step. These are safety issues. Also, do not allow anyone to sit in the chair until it has been deemed safe and in proper working order.
This is essentially the same transport wheelchair as the first example, except that it features Microban® antimicrobial technology. Now that’s some fancy words that simply means the nylon upholstery resists stains and odors from bacteria, mold and mildew.
Anything that is in frequent or even constant contact with humans is apt to develop colonies of bacteria. Wheelchair cleaning is often neglected, because the user sits in it all day long, so having material that resists the development of bacteria is a real benefit.
It is important to note, however, that this does not protect the user from bacteria, mold, viruses, etc. It protects the product. It prevents stains and odor associated with microbes. Frequent use of anti-bacterial soaps and hand sanitizers is recommended 24-7 anyway, and it offers the best protection for humans against a host of of microscopic invaders.
Elsewhere, you’ll find quality workmanship in this transport wheelchair, which weighs 23 pounds, and supports 300 pounds.
Last but no least among the lightweight transports is this sporty chair from Drive Medical. The first thing you’ll notice about it is the spiffy, blue plaid fabric seat, adding a bit of chic to an otherwise droll existence among wheelchairs. But if you don’t like blue, then you’re out of luck – for now, anyway.
The seat is the widest on this list, but only by half an inch (16.5 vs 16.0). Is that enough to make a difference in user comfort? At the end of a long day, quite possibly so.
At 17 pounds, it definitely will make a difference to the person who has to fold it, pack it and push it. It is rated at 300 pounds max capacity.
The wheels are small – six inches in the front, eight inches at the rear – so with additional revolutions versus larger wheels, tire wear might come into play after a couple of years.
The footrests are not removable, but swing away when the user wants to scoot the chair without a helper to push.
Best Standard Lightweight Wheelchairs:
Drive Medical dominates the wheelchair market in general. Wheelchairs in use at hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and retirement homes are very often Drive Medical devices. Same for rental units at many medical appliance dispensaries.
There is a reason for that though. Drive Medical offers great value. User reviews are overwhelmingly positive, and sales are brisk, year after year. Not that they’re the only game in town, however. There are other brands offering similar value, and there are competing units on this list that are worthy of consideration.
So let’s start with this one – the Drive Cruiser III. You may have already used the earlier versions of this model. The Cruiser is one of the most popular lightweight wheelchairs sold by Drive Medical.
While it’s listed as a lightweight wheelchair, the Cruiser III is a bit hefty as compared to others in the category, due to its construction with carbon steel (which is a good thing). It weighs 38 pounds. Not an unmanageable burden, especially when it’s handled in a balanced manner, but it does require a bit of effort getting it in and out of car trunks. Fortunately, it folds up quite nicely and neatly, so it’s not a space hog.
Seat width is adjustable from 16 inches to 20 inches, and the overall width of the wheelchair with the seat at max is 28 inches. That should earn it a gold star or two right there. The footrests are height adjustable and removable, and the arm rests flip back for easy transfers.
High quality vinyl in the seat and armrests is easy to maintain.
The Cruiser III has eight-inch wheels up front, fitted with flat-free, non-marking tires, while the large drive wheels are magnesium alloy and solidly built to ensure trouble free operation for years. Both sets of wheels are ball bearing mounted.
So, we’re going to throw in the word “sport” in the product name, are we? Alrighty, then. Let’s find out why.
The shiny black powder coated frame is very impressive looking and stylish, and should continue to look nice for years to come, so there’s that. Plus, the whole unit is only 24 inches wide, which would make cornering around hallways and maneuvering on those impossibly narrow ramp and sidewalk intersections much easier. And if you’re unfortunate enough to get stuck next to a bozo who’s parked in the null zone next to a handicapped spot, you might still be able to squeeze by with this wheelchair.
The drawback is, the seat is narrow – 18 inches max. Larger users may not be comfortable, or might not even fit at all. Max weight is listed at 250 pounds, so this chair isn’t for everyone.
The wheels have solid polyurethane tires and sturdy construction. This sporty unit folds up in a flash and weighs only 37 pounds, unless you have a few books stuffed into the back pocket (which is another nice feature).
Flip-away arms and removable footrests make getting in and out of the chair as easy as it can be made.
The Silver Sport 1 is a great choice for petite women and average-weight men, less so for larger folks.
It’s not hard to see why this chair is called the blue streak. The stunning blue frame is powder-coated, high-quality steel and really stands out.
It comes in three widths – 16, 18 and 20 inches and is rated for 250 pounds. The chair by itself weighs 41 pounds, which adds stability under load.
Footrests are detachable and the armrests swing up and out of the way for easier transfer. The unit folds flat and stores easily in a car trunk, but based on a few user reviews, the fold points sometimes bind, making it difficult to fold. A little lubricant like WD-40 in the gaps goes a long way in keeping things in order, says a technician who commented.
The chair is very easy for users to self-operate, which is a big plus.
This user-friendly wheelchair has the best unit maximum load weight/unit weight ratio of any wheelchair on our list, being able to carry 300 pounds on a 33-pound frame (with footrests removed). That’s amazing.
So while Drive Medical dominates the category, Medline has something to say about that with this nifty entry into the market.
The mag wheels are easy to roll, even on thick carpet, and with adjustable seat height, self-transport is about as easy as they can make it. The seat is constructed with breathable nylon material that resists odor build-up and the armrests fit under most tables.
Like several of the other wheelchairs on the list, it comes in three widths, 16, 18 and 20 inches. At its widest seat configuration, the unit is 26.5 inches wide, so you’re not apt to get stuck in a hallway with a narrow right angle turn.
The best advice is to think as far in advance as you can. Certainly, life sometimes puts you in a crisis situation where lengthy research is a luxury, but do what you can.
The price range on lightweight wheelchairs is not all that wide, so concentrate more on what you need and what will serve your purposes rather than saving a few dollars here and there. This list is merely a sampling of wheelchairs that have proven to be good values. There are others out there that might work as well for you as one of these.
In any case, check the reviews from people who’ve already bought the unit you’re considering. Social media has elevated product awareness to unprecedented levels because of the online review forum, and it can be your best friend when having to make a fast choice.