I’m willing to bet you don’t have much experience buying a wheelchair, right? Don’t feel bad. Most people don’t.
My purpose for this guide is to teach you everything you need to know to choose a manual wheelchair with confidence.
Plus, I am going to show you some of the best wheelchairs out there based on my experience as a custom wheelchair specialist at a home medical company. I’ll also try to answer the common questions I get about wheelchairs.
Ready? Let’s go!
Who Should Use a Manual Wheelchair?
Anyone with mobility issues can benefit from using a manual wheelchair. But, the usual wheelchair user is unable to walk (or walk very far) and also has the arm strength to push themselves in the wheelchair.
There are other options for people who need help pushing the chair for them because they are unable to do so.
You should choose a manual wheelchair if you:
- are having difficulty walking,
- can’t get around the home to take care of yourself,
- have the strength to move yourself (or a caregiver to help),
- need a mobility aid that you can easily take with you.
What Are the Benefits of a Manual Wheelchair?
The benefits of a manual wheelchair are:
- you can propel them by yourself or a caregiver can help,
- they fold up so they are very portable,
- you can get lightweight models that are easy to lift,
- you can easily add accessories to make them more comfortable,
- and, they are relatively inexpensive compared to power chairs or scooters.
How Do I Choose and Buy a Manual Wheelchair?
Chances are you have never bought a wheelchair before! If you or your doctor has decided it’s time for one, here are the steps to take to choose and buy a manual wheelchair.
First, Take Some Basic Measurements:
Follow these steps to determine the wheelchair size you need:
- Get your accurate height and weight.
- While seated on a firm surface, have someone measure your hip width. This tells you how wide (aka the seat width) the seat of your chair should be.
- Next. measure from the back of your bottom to the inside of your knee. This tells you long (aka the seat depth) the seat of your chair should be.
- Finally, measure from the back of your knee, down to the bottom of the foot. This tells you how high (aka the seat height) your seat should be.
It is very important that the wheelchair fits you properly. The most common seat sizes are 16″, 18″, or 20″. These sizes are readily available and fit about 75% of the population. Heavy Duty chairs come in 22″ and 24″ seat widths.
Quick Note on Wheelchair Sizes
There is a specific way that wheelchair seat sizes are stated:
- The first number is the seat width
- The second number is the seat depth
Next, Answer a Few Questions:
- How long will you be in the chair each day? If you will be in the chair for short periods of time, nearly any wheelchair will do as long as it fits. But, if you will use the wheelchair most of the day, you want a chair that fits and is very comfortable.
- Do you need to take the chair with you? If not, standard manual chairs are heavier but cheaper. But, if you or a caregiver need to lift and load the chair, choose a lightweight manual chair to save your back.
- Can you move the chair by yourself or do you need help? If can push yourself in the wheelchair, get a standard chair with the larger wheels in the back. But, if a caregiver will be pushing you, a transport chair is a better option especially if you are just using the chair for short periods of time.
- What is your overall medical condition? Think about your strength, endurance, and posture. If you have good upper body strength and endurance, an ultra-lightweight manual wheelchair is the usual choice and worth the additional cost. Weaker people with some upper body strength need a lighter-weight wheelchair to make them much easier to push.
- Do you need to travel with your wheelchair? If so, you will want a durable wheelchair that is also easy to manage.
Important Features and Options of Manual Wheelchairs
Here is a quick rundown of the features and options you’ll see when researching and purchasing manual wheelchairs.
- Frame – the frame is the metal part of the wheelchair that supports the seat and back and where the wheels attach. Most wheelchairs have an X frame that folds easily for transportation. Most frames are steel (which is stronger but heavier) and aluminum (which is strong but lighter).
- Armrests – Armrests come in two sizes. Full-length armrests are 14″ and offer more support. Desk-length armrests are 10″ and fit better under desks and tables. Adjustable height armrests that raise and lower are also an option to make the wheelchair more comfortable and fit better overall.
- Footrests – Wheelchair footrests usually swing out of the way or come off completely to make it easier to get in and out of the chair. Look for footrests that also adjust in length for the best fit. If you have swelling in your legs, look for wheelchairs with leg lifts, called elevating leg rests, so that you can raise your feet.
- Upholstery – There are two basic choices here: vinyl and nylon. Vinyl is super easy to clean and is fluid-proof. But, it is hot and sweaty against the skin. It also tends to sag with time. Nylon though is more durable and can be cleaned and machine washed if needed. It lets the skin breathe too and isn’t as hot.
What Are the Different Types of Manual Wheelchairs?
There are different types of manual wheelchairs to meet the varying needs of wheelchair users. Here are the most common types:
Standard Manual Wheelchair
When you think of a wheelchair, this is probably the type you see in your head. These wheelchairs have large wheels in the back with smaller front wheels and footrests on the front.
They can be propelled by the user using the large wheels in the back or pushed by a caregiver from the back with the push handles. Because they have more parts, they are heavier than transport wheelchairs but there are specially designed lightweight wheelchair options available too.
Transport chairs are smaller than standard wheelchairs and have smaller wheels in the back and front. They are designed to be pushed by someone other than the user.
Because they have fewer parts and are smaller overall, the best transport wheelchairs in weight than most other chairs. They are much easier to lift and load into a car too.
Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs
These chairs use lighter-weight materials to reduce their overall weight. This makes them easier for the user to propel themselves. Plus they are easier to transport because they weigh less. Generally, I recommend getting the lightest chair you can that does the job.
Ultra Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs
To qualify as an ultra-lightweight chair, the chair must weigh less than 30 lbs. Many of these chairs are 20 lbs or less.
There are a handful of manual wheelchairs in this group now that are available to the public and don’t need to be custom made. I have a few in my recommendations below.
The Best Wheelchairs: An Expert’s Opinion
I work at a home medical equipment company as a custom wheelchair specialist and eat, sleep, and breathe wheelchairs! So, based on my daily experience with them, here are my top recommendations.
LIGHTEST WHEELCHAIR IN THE WORLD
- One of the most portable wheelchairs on the planet
- Quick-release wheels pop-off to make it easier to lift
- Back folds down so that the chair is easier to load
- Includes 1″ back and seat cushion for comfort
- Lifetime frame warranty
- Sizing is limited so it won’t fit everyone
Key Stats: Seat Width: 18″ | Seat Depth: 16″ | Weight: 13.5 lbs (without wheels) | Weight Capacity: 220 lbs
- Nearly anyone can lift and load it into the trunk of the car
- Fold down backrest makes it easy to transport
- Wheels have a quick release pop off function
- Integrated hand brakes on the back for caregivers
- Includes seat and back cushions
- Because of the lighter weight construction, the weight cap is limited to 220 lbs
While researching this guide, I got excited when I found the Featherweight Wheelchair from 1-800-Wheeelchair.
I believe the perfect wheelchair is one that is comfortable enough to sit in for long periods of time, is easy to lift and load for portability, and is quality built with the user in mind. Oh! It should look good too, right?
The Featherweight checks off all these boxes. This chair was designed from the bottom up with wheelchair users – and their caregivers – in mind. Usability, comfort, quality, and portability were all forefront in the designer’s mind.
I got a few minutes to talk to Joseph, the owner on 1-800-Wheelchair and the designer of the chair, personally about it. He shared with me his desire to make a chair that both wheelchair users and their caregivers would be happy to use.
Here’s a quick video of him detailing the chair:
The only problem really with this chair is the limited sizing. While it’s designed to fit average people if you are larger, taller, or weigh more than 220 lbs, this isn’t the wheelchair for you.
But, don’t be upset. A heavier-duty version of this chair is coming out at the end of May. Learn more about it or pre-order it by clicking here.
What Else Should You Know About the Featherweight Wheelchair?
- Strength/Durability: Made of lightweight but durable materials
- Size Options: Limited – designed to fit average-sized people
- Armrests: Full-length padded armrests with built-on clothing guards
- Legrests: Comes with swing-away leg rests that are removable and some adjustment in length
- Upholstery: Includes 1″ thick back and seat cushions in several color choices
- Weight: One of the lightest weight wheelchairs on the planet – 13.5 lbs without the wheels and 19 lbs with
- Transportation: Collapses into a very small, extremely easy-to-load package with an optional carry bag
- Usability: Best used on flat indoor and outdoor surfaces
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Drive Medical Poly Fly Transforming Transport Chair
- Seat Width: 16″ | Overall Width: 22-3/8″
- Seat Width: 18″ | Overall Width: 23-5/8″
- Seat Width: 20″ | Overall Width: 26-1/4″
Seat Widths: 16″,18″,20″ | Seat Depth: 18″ | Product Weight (with 24″ wheels): 33 to 36 lbs | Weight (without 24″ wheels): 22-24 lbs | Weight Capacity: 250 lbs
- All-in-one manual wheelchair and transport wheelchair
- Lightweight and easy to transport
- Great chair for indoor use
- Well-built and dependable with a reliable record
- Not a great choice for taller people due to size and adjustment limitations
- Weight capacity is lower than some other
I really like the Drive Medical Poly Fly for people who aren’t sure what’s the best wheelchair for their needs. Why is that? Because it has the best features of both standard wheelchairs and transport wheelchairs.
Here’s how it works.
The large wheels on the back of the chair pop on and off via a quick release lever. So, you can push yourself with the bigger rear wheels when you need to.
But, if you need to lighten the chair for transportation, pop them right off and you are left with a lightweight transport chair! These options give you lots of flexibility!
What Else Should You Know About the Poly Fly?
- Strength/Durability: High-strength lightweight aluminum frame
- Size Options: Fits most adults well with a variety of seat widths. Taller and larger users may find it too short.
- Armrests: Only available in desk-length arms that are nicely padded
- Legrests: Comes with swing-away leg rests that are removable but not adjustable in length
- Upholstery: Black nylon
- Weight: Very light and easy to manage
- Transportation: Easy to fold mechanism and back folds down to collapse into a small package for easy loading even in small cars.
- Usability: Best used on flat indoor and outdoor surfaces
Super Lightweight Standard Manual Wheelchair
Karman LT-980 Ultralight K4 Wheelchair
- Seat Width: 18″
- Seat Depth: 16″
- Product Weight (without leg rests): 24 lbs
- Weight Capacity: 250 lbs
- Extremely lightweight – only 24 lbs
- Wide, ergonomic armrests are comfortable
- Designed for wheelchair users on the go
- Only available in size 18″x16″ although it is the most popular size
- Smaller weight capacity of 250 lbs
This standard-sized manual wheelchair is the best choice for people who need to propel the chair by themselves but also want a chair that is easy to transport.
Many seniors could even load this chair in their car by themselves! There are few standard chairs on the market anywhere near a total weight of 24 lbs.
But, this reduced weight does come with a few trade-offs. First, the chair only comes in one seat size. Also, to reduce the overall weight, the rear wheels are only 22″ while most wheelchairs have 24″ wheels.
So, what does all that mean? If you are smaller or average sized, say up to 5’9″ tall or so, this chair will work just fine. But if you are taller than that, have wider hips, or are heavier overall, this chair probably won’t fit too well.
Here’s a quick video demonstration of the LT-980.
What You Need to Know About the LT-980?
- Strength/Durability: All-aluminum high-strength frame
- Size Options: Single seat size option (18″x16″) while popular won’t fit taller or heavier people very well
- Armrests: Full-length armrests with upgraded ergonomic arm pads
- Legrests: Swing-away, removable footrests that are adjustable in length to fit a wider range of leg lengths
- Upholstery: Low-maintenance black nylon upholstery
- Weight: One of the lightest standard wheelchairs on the market (only 24 lbs)
- Transportation: Some seniors can lift and load this one by themselves because of the light weight
- Usability: Smooth ride on both indoor and outdoor surfaces with treaded rear wheels for better traction
Ergonomic and Comfortable Wheelchair
Karman S-115 Ergonomic Wheelchair
- Seat Widths: 16″, 18″ & 20″
- Seat Depth: 17″
- Product Weight (without leg rests): 25 lbs
- Weight Capacity: 250 lbs
- Anti-microbial coated back and seat upholstery
- Ergonomic curves improve posture
- Most comfortable wheelchair on the list
- Extremely lightweight
- Lacks some adjustments
- More expensive that some other options
If you use your wheelchair a lot and comfort is your main concern, there aren’t many wheelchairs more comfortable than the Ergo series from Karman Healthcare.
Karman’s “out of the box” designs have made improvements to wheelchairs that have been largely the same for 40 years.
The main improvement is their S-Shape Seating System. You see, most wheelchair seat frames are straight metal tubes. But, your seating surface is curved! So, Karma designesd a curved seating rail that matches the natural curves of wheelchair users.
The result? Better pressure distribution, better posture, and less sliding forward while seated. How does this help? It makes the wheelchair much more comfortable to sit in for long periods of time.
An additional feature about Ergo 115 that I love is the AEIGIS anti-microbial coated seating system. What’s so great about it?
- It’s attached with hook and loop fasteners and can be removed easily
- It’s machine washable
- It’s cushioned with a labor of microfiber foam
- It’s breathable and allows better air flow
- Finally, it is treated with an anti-microbial coating for fewer stains and less odor
All of this mean more comfort for you.
What Else Do You Need to Know About the S-ERGO 115?
- Strength/Durability: High-strength aluminum frame
- Size Options: A variety of seat sizes all come in a 17″ seat depth which will fit everyone but the shortest seniors well
- Armrests: Armrests are fixed but have extremely comfortable arm pads that are wider with an ergonomic curve at the wrist
- Legrests: Swing away and removable footrests with flip-up footplates that do adjust in length
- Upholstery: Washable and anti-microbial fabric will keep the chair looking good (and smelling better) for a long time
- Weight: One of the lightest wheelchairs on my review list
- Transportation: Extremely lightweight makes it easy to transport for most people and/or their caregivers and travel companions
- Usability: Best used indoors or on level surfaces like sidewalks or parking lots
Best Wheelchair for People Who Want Options
Drive Medical Cruiser III Wheelchair
- Seat Widths: 16″, 18″, 20″
- Seat Depth: 16″, 18″, 20″
- Product Weight: 35 – 38 lbs
- Weight Capacity: 300 – 350 pounds
- Lots of options to choose from
- High weight capacity
- Extendable seat depth
- Durable carbon steel frame
- Bit heavier than some other options
Do you like having choices? Love to get exactly what you want? If you like to choose from a menu of options, then the Drive Medical Crusier III is the best wheelchair for you. All my recommendations can be met in this wheelchair.
First, you can choose from various styles and sizes of armrests. Want longer arms for better support? Or do you prefer shorter arms to get under a table easier? All of these are options on this chair.
Arms in the way? You can get arms that flip back out of the way and come off the chair completely by pushing a button. Plus, adjustable height arms are available too so you can set them right where you want them – without needing any tools!
Second, choose the leg rest style you need or prefer. Both swing away foot rests and elevating leg rests are options. Plus, both styles are adjustable in length to better fit the user’s leg length which improves comfort and reduces pain. Again, no tools needed!
Finally, there is a wide range of seat size options so that you can get the best fit possible. Seat widths are available in the standard range of 16″, 18″, and 20″.
But the seat depth is easily adjusted too. If the 16″ seat depth is too short, the chair has built-in extenders. You just pull those out, lock them in place, and readjust the upholstery which is held in place with velcro.
This video show you that feature plus some others:
What Else Do You Need to Know About The Cruiser III?
- Strength/Durability: Powder coated carbon steel frame
- Size Options: Wide range of seat size option to fit most people. Seat depth is easily adjusted. 20″ wide model has 350 lb weight capacity
- Armrests: Tons of armrest options detailed above for comfort and support
- Legrests: Both swing away and elevating are options and both styles are adjustable without needing tools.
- Upholstery: Low-maintenance padded, adjustable nylon upholstery
- Weight: Considered a lightweight wheelchair but it is a bit heavier than some of the others here.
- Transportation: Easy to fold wheelchair but weaker caregivers may have some trouble lifting it into a trunk.
- Usability: Most suitable for use in homes or flat paved or concrete surfaces
Best Full Featured Wheelchair for Heavy Use
Medline Excel K4 Lightweight Wheelchair
- Seat Width: 16″ | Overall Width: 23.5″
- Seat Width: 18″ | Overall Width: 25.5″
- Seat Width: 20″ | Overall Width: 27.5″
- Seat Width: 22″ | Overall Width: 29.5″
Seat Widths: 16″, 18″ & 20″ | Seat Depth: 16″, 18″ (20″ width only) | Product Weight (without legrests): 33.5 lbs | Weight Capacity: 300 pounds
- Comes with features that are optional on other products
- Armrests flip back out of the way
- Durable carbon steel frame
- Rear wheels are removable
- High weight capacity
- Bit heavier than some of the others
This full featured wheelchair from Medline is a great choice for full-time wheelchair user who spend a lot of time in their wheelchair. Many of the features were added to make the wheelchair more comfortable and more functional too.
Here are a few of these features:
- Flip Back Armrests – with the flip of a latch, the arms on this chair will flip backward towards the backrest. This moves them out of the way completely so that you can get up to a desk or transfer off the chair sideways if necessary.
- Elevating Leg Rests – the legs on this chair lift and lock in place so that you can raise your legs up to reduce swelling pressure and pain. This adds to the support and comfort of a chair because it gives you a change in leg position.
- Durable Carbon Steel Frame – the frame is solid and durable with strong welds that will provide years of use yet it is lightweight too.
- Quick Release Rear Wheels – the wheels pop off and on quickly and easily. How does this help? The ability to remove the wheels makes the chair easier to load into your vehicle.
What Else Do You Need to Know About The Medline K4 Wheelchair?
- Size Options: Lots of size options with heavier weight capacity to fit more people
- Armrests: Desk length and flip back out of the way. Pads are ok but not great
- Legrests: Comes standard with elevating legrests
- Upholstery: Durable black nylon
- Weight: The heavier weight is a trade-off for the additional features
- Transportation: Easy to use and lift because the leg rests and rear wheels come off
- Usability: Casters are larger but chair is best used indoors or on level surfaces like sidewalks or parking lots
Best Lightweight Transport Chair for Outdoor Use
Medline Excel Aluminum Transport Chair with 12 inch Wheels
- Seat Width: 19″ | Overall Width: 24.5″
- Larger wheels improve performance outdoors
- Will fit in all kinds of vehicles
- Fold down back for simple storage
- Slips through doorways easily
- Brake levers are difficult at first
- Footrests can be tricky to install
Seat Width: 18 inches | Seat Depth: 16 inches | Product Weight: 23.5 lbs | Weight Capacity: 300 pounds
- Larger real wheels give a smoother ride outdoors
- Brakes are easier for caregivers to use
- The back folds down for easier transportation
- Includes a seat belt
- Only one seat size option
If you need a wheelchair that does better outdoors on rougher terrain like gravel driveways, I recommend this one from Medline.
Why does it give a smoother ride on varied terrain?
Take a look at the rear wheels and you’ll notice that they are larger than the front. As a matter of fact, they are larger than many of the competing chairs.
Larger wheels won’t get stuck as easily and they help spread out the bumping and shifting of rougher travel over gravel and sidewalk cracks. (Learn more about the best wheelchairs for travel here.)
This chair also has several features to make life easier for the caregiver too.
- Rear-Mounted Hand Brakes – the chair is always in full control of the caregiver because they can quickly apply the hand brakes while pushing. No need to stop and bend over to apply the brakes at the bottom. This improves safety for the user and makes the chair easy to use for the caregiver.
- Easy to Fold and Transport – The footrests are removable plus the seat and back fold up too which leaves a light and easy-to-manage package for loading and unloading in the car. This help save strains on their back!
- A seat belt is included for safer rides and less worry.
What Else Do You Need to Know About The Medline Lightweight Transport Chair?
- Strength/Durability: Powder-coated ultralight aluminum frame
- Size Options: Single seat width option of 18 inches will fit average-sized people only
- Armrests: Armrests are fixed with just basic arm pads
- Legrests: Removable footrests with flip-up footplates but not adjustable
- Upholstery: Low-maintenance padded nylon upholstery
- Weight: Lightweight, easy to load, and easy to use
- Transportation: Small and light enough so that most any caregiver can handle it
- Usability: Smooth ride on varied terrain including yards or gravel
Best Heavy Duty Bariatric Wheelchair
Medline Excel Extra Wide Manual Wheelchair
- Seat Widths: 22″ & 24″
- Seat Depth: 18″
- Product Weight (without leg rests): 60 lbs
- Weight Capacity: 500 pounds
- Wider seats for larger people
- Heavy-duty weight capacity
- Much heavier than others on my list
- The chair won’t fit through narrow doorways
For larger or heavier users, I recommend the Medline Excel Extra -Wide wheelchairs. Their chrome-plated solid carbon steel frames safely support users weighing up to 500 lbs.
This chair has many of the usual wheelchair features I have described above: adjustable, swing-away footrests, solid flat-free tires, large casters, and swing-away adjustable length footrests.
It even folds up for transportation. A storage pocket on the back is standard also. Plus, it is adjustable height to fit a range of user heights.
But, there are trade-offs for these heavy-duty features:
- The chair is heavy – about 60 lbs – due to the double steel frame.
- Upholstery is vinyl because it is stronger but it is hotter against the skin too.
- The chair is wide – nearly 34″ – because the seat width is greater.
These drawbacks cannot be helped really if you need a wider wheelchair width and heavier weight capacity.
Frequently Asked Questions FAQ
What is a manual wheelchair?
A manual wheelchair is a wheelchair that must be pushed by the user or a caregiver manually. There are no motors or mechanics that move the chair for you.
Who uses manual wheelchairs?
Manual wheelchairs are used by people who have difficulty walking or standing. They usually cannot use a cane or a walker safely and need to stay seated when mobile.
How long does a manual wheelchair last?
Most wheelchairs are designed to last about 5 years. Several manufacturers offer lifetime warranties on their frame components though. With proper care and maintenance, manual chairs will last much longer.
How do I use a manual wheelchair?
To use a manual wheelchair, you push on the back wheels to make it move. From a seated position, extend your arms out and down and hold onto the hand rim.
Then using the entire arm, push forward to move the chair. Here is a great video that demonstrates how to properly use a manual wheelchair.
How much do manual wheelchairs weigh?
Wheelchair weights vary from as little as 13 pounds to 60 pounds or more. Here are some weight ranges for several types of manual wheelchairs:
- Heavy Duty Wheelchairs – 50 to 100 lbs
- Standard Manual Wheelchairs – 40 to 55 lbs
- Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs – 34 to 40 lbs
- Ultra Lightweight Manual Wheelchairs –25 to 30 lbs
- Transport Wheelchairs – 14 to 25lbs
Does Medicare cover manual wheelchairs?
Yes, Medicare, Medicaid, and many insurance plans do cover manual wheelchairs if you meet medical necessity. Each plan has its own definition of medical necessity.
But, generally, you must have a mobility deficit that affects your ability to care for yourself at home, cannot use a walker or cane safely, can safely use a wheelchair, the wheelchair must fit in your home, have had a face-to-face appointment with your physician.
Note that most insurances won’t pay for a manual chair for outdoor or community use only. You must need the chair for use in your home primarily. Call your doctor to schedule a face-to-face appointment to start this process.
Which wheelchairs does Medicare cover?
Medicare uses a classification system to determine which wheelchairs they cover. It is important to note though that when your insurance purchases a wheelchair for you, you may not have a choice.
Most medical equipment companies have certain brands and models that they work with. They are limited by Medicare coding and, quite honestly, the cost of products vs. insurance reimbursements.
Summary and Final Recommendations
I hope this list of the best wheelchairs for elderly seniors was helpful. My goal was to both educate you on the features of wheelchairs as well as show you some of my favorites. Hopefully, this will give you confidence when buying a wheelchair online.
Here is how to easily get the best wheelchair for you or a senior you love:
- Find your size. Use my measurement guide above to help.
- Read about the options. Us the feature guide above to decide what’s important.
- Read reviews of wheelchairs. I have reviewed and detailed my favorites above.
- Choose your favorite and order with confidence.
So, if you pinned me down and asked to name which I thought was the very best wheelchair in general? I would have to choose the Featherweight Wheelchair from 1800wheelchair.com – simply because it was designed with wheelchair users in mind!