Let’s talk about wheelchair bags. Typical options kind of suck. Style? Lacking. Features? Meh. Quality? Variable tending toward poor. They’re rarely great and usually make you look like you just got out of rehab.
But as a wheelchair user, I need to carry stuff, sometimes lots of stuff. An under-chair bag for daily use and a good backpack for travel and taking my laptop to a coffee shop are things that I need on the regular. Over the years, after going through a lot of different bags, I’ve found a setup that works perfectly for me, and without breaking the bank. My personal preference is for bags made by outdoors companies. I like the style, durability and features of these types of bags. But whatever your personal style, you can follow some simple guidelines to make all sorts of bags function well with a wheelchair.
Chop the Extras
With any bag that you’re going to use on a wheelchair, you need to be merciless with strap chopping. You’re setting the bag up for you, not someone who walks. Things like shoulder, hip, and sternum straps don’t apply. With a backpack, shoulder straps just get in the way. Chop ’em off. The same with hip straps. It’s a constant annoyance to have to fiddle to get straps tucked just the right way so they’re not making the baseball-card-in-the-spokes sound and getting stuck. Both backpacks and under-chair bags are going to be hanging off a metal frame, not your body, so many of the ergonomic comfort benefits of modern bag straps don’t apply, and the form and padding just get in the way.
Basic requirements are that it has multiple pockets and will hang under the seat of my everyday chair without clanking around or having parts that want to feather my spokes. The it fashion accessory of the ’80s, the fanny pack, tends to fit the bill here. Fortunately, fanny packs (“lumbar packs” in today’s marketing terms) have come a long way in the past 30 years. I bought a Mountain Smith Drift lumbar pack made of durable, Cordura nylon for $50 that has two good-sized compartments with internal organization pockets and zipper pulls already attached. Also, a lifetime warranty. Try finding that on a wheelchair bag.
Attaching it to my chair proved even simpler than I expected. While the pack is designed to be worn around the hips, it also comes with a detachable shoulder strap. I removed a small pad from the strap and looped the nylon around the outer bars of my everyday chair so the ends of the strap hang just below the frame. If the length of the strap is funky for your chair style and width, it can be cut and looped and tied separately on the outer bars. The bag has quick release clips to attach and detach, an added bonus if you are a frequent flyer.
Mountain Smith has multiple lumbar bags of different sizes that all could attach the same way. If you’re not into the outdoorsy look, just about any bag with a detachable shoulder strap can connect the same way. If you’re looking for bags online, you want something that’s a minimum of 4 inches narrower than the outer seat width of your chair.
For those who don’t need to regularly break their chair down to pull it into a car, an open top, under-chair bag can be a versatile and practical option. Reader Lou Mortelli, of Massachusetts, offers a cool hack for custom making an open-topped bag.
She bends a length of ½-inch metal tubing (any machine shop should be able to do this quickly and cheaply if you don’t have a pipe bender) to create a simple frame that slides into her wheelchair’s anti-tip bar brackets. She then finds canvas and mesh material from a store like Joann Fabrics or Hobby Lobby and takes it into a leather repair shop to have them sew up a simple fabric sling that will slide over the tubing and attach via Velcro loop to her back axle. What she ends up with is a stable carrying pouch that’s custom fitted to her chair and can be easily removed for washing.
If you have enough trunk function to wear a backpack, you can use just about any bag you like. If not, you need something that can easily hang from your backrest and not get in the way of your wheels. I spent long years trying to hang backpacks on my backrest by the shoulder straps and it was always a pain. Then I found a simple solution: miniature carabiners ($3.95 and up at REI).
I found a nice laptop bag made by Mountain Hardware — The Memo — designed not as a backpack but as a shoulder bag. I took off the shoulder strap, clipped the miniature carabiners to the shoulder strap attachment rings and attached loops of nylon webbing to the carabiners. To put the bag on my backrest, I simply grab one of the webbing loops (climbing slings work great, sold for $4.95 each at REI) and use that to slip the carabiner over my backrest post, then repeat on the other side. The nice thing about using carabiners as the attachment to the backrest instead of straps is that the bag sits high and tight. There is very little swing when you’re pushing. None of the thump, thump, thump that comes when pushing up a hill with a heavy bag hung by straps from your backrest.
Not every bag happens to have attachment rings for a shoulder strap on the side. But many bags these days have straps and loops along the sides, either for hanging things from, or cinching the bag tight when there’s not much in it. A mini-carabiner/webbing loop setup can clip to just about anything along the side of a bag to provide a functional backrest attachment.
As with under-chair bags, once you develop a system for easy attachment to your chair, which bag you choose is dependent on your personal style and preferences, not on a limited and often woeful selection of “wheelchair bags.”