Our DIY travel wheelchair

On our extensive travel prep lists, one of the two most challenging and important tasks was to acquire a travel wheelchair for Sparky that can go hiking, sit in restaurants, fold small, with a removable seat that can go in cars and planes and on the back of elephants. It needs to be waterproof, unbreakable, reparable from easily available materials, attractive (except to thieves) and cheap.

After two years of reading travel blogs and forums we found no precedent. How do people do it? Surely someone had figured this one out.

This post is the  story of what we did.  Everyone’s needs are different, but  we hope the following is useful to someone!

Firstly, we looked at commercially available wheelchairs (wheeled bases and inner seats)

Here is a great chair for off-roading.


We like the wheelbarrow tow along idea, and the comfort provided by the large tyre.

No motorised wheelchair would be useful, as they weigh too much, but this cool chair can stand up and climb stairs.


There are a lot of cool chairs that can do one cool thing; raise the user to standing height, climb stairs, allow for wriggle room and back stretching, fold small or whatever, but we wanted one that would do lots of things.   If Sparky already used a motorised chair which gave her independent mobility, we would have to think hard about denying her that freedom in order to travel with a manual chair.  But that has not been an issue for us.

We also checked out a couple of “disability” specific  three wheeler pusher chair / adventure buggy type things. Here’s is the wheeled base, and the inner seat for one option.

Total price $8000!! A non-disability chair that is almost the same would be maybe $400. Herein lies one of the most annoying issues Australian families face.  Many products in Australia are from overseas, and there is only one supplier. Products cost four times the cost in the USA or the UK, where many of them come from. For example, we once bought a chair online from the USA for $412. In Australia it was only available in one shop and cost $2119.   People with disabilities in Australia and their families are crying out for  a fairer market with more competition for basic products like wheelchairs and communication devices.

Needless to say we did not consider paying the $8000 for this model. It was also clumsy and too big, over-engineered even. In hindsight, it would not have fitted in a lot of elevators we’ve used.

So we decided it was time to do it ourselves.

This was our initial drawing.

The wheeled base would have comfort-giving suspension arising from the large pneumatic tyre. And from the elastic strap suspending the inner seat. The seat would be detachable and able to be sat in a variety of locations. The wheeled base would be able to fold up and fit into the rear boot of a taxi or the storage compartment under buses.

The chair needed to be able to go up stairs easily, be stable, with a good breaking system. It needed to be able to handle the average jungle/bush walk, but more importantly all the dodgy, dippy, slippery Asian footpaths and massive curbs.  We wanted it to be easy to push for Tintin and Meena, as well as ourselves.

Here’s the chair we took on our 9 months caravanning adventure around Australia

It was heavy and unstable. We spend 6 hrs in emergency in Canberra when the chair tipped over on the roof of parliament house  and Sparky hit her head on the concrete. Woops.

We also wanted a chair that looks cool. Its never going to be inconspicuous, so cool is the next best thing. We didn’t want it to look expensive, however, and planned to always chain it up if ever if the chair is unattended.

So, how to do it?

We made an appointment to talk with dream fit, the brainchild of a young engineer; who has a brother with a disability. These guys are amazing. They made boats, seats, canoes, surfboards and all sort of sports equipment to make adventure activities possible for people with disabilities.  They also offer internship places for engineering students.  How fantastic for young students to step out of the corporate world and apply their problems solving skills to making equipment that facilitates accessibility. Unfortunate for us, all projects had been allocated for the semester. However, we had an inspiring visit to their workshop.  We like dreamfit because of its great problem-solving approach, and the fact that the guys had great ideas first, made them work in their own back shed and got funding and accreditation second.

We also explored options for the inner seat to be used separately. Could it have straps and a waist band attached and work as a child carrying back pack?

A service provider we have used in the past also offered to make the seat for us.  This very quickly went belly up. As the staff consistently failed to grasp that they were helping us  with a few minor things we lacked the tools for. They kept thinking they were in charge and were supposed to be telling us what to do.  And suddenly there were all sorts of rules we had to comply with.  The seat they finally came up with weighed more that the one we made ourselves. Numerous visits to the workshop were a total waste of time. The whole experience confirmed what we already knew. Just do it ourselves. Save stress, time and money.


The Seat

Here is the seat we ended up with. It is in fact an old seat base made of stainless steel. We really wanted a lighter weight framework but found nothing strong enough to bear the enormous force Sparky puts on her chair when she arches her back.  We’d still like to try a reinforced fiberglass option … next time maybe. The seat weighed 5.5 kg.   This was 3 kg heavier that our goal. My brother drilled bits out of the seat for us, which lightened it a bit.

We minimized the foam back and base as much as we could without compromising Sparky’s comfort. Here is the foam base, it has high density foam, and a layer of memory foam on top, cut to size with an electric bread knife.  Our plan is that she shouldn’t  sit for longer that 2 hours without a position change or hopping out for a wriggle, but sometimes longer stints will be unavoidable.  We bought a second hand harness and headrest bracket for $200. We used the head rest from Sparky’s old heavy wheelchair.  We got a new neck support collar made based on our old homemade one, which had come to the end of its long and effective life.


We took the heavy duty click strap off Sparky’s shower chair to use as a universal attachment strap to secure her chair in taxis and on buses and trains.


None of this stuff meets Australian Standards. The chair  is not transport approved, and the straps are not either. The seat is not an approved car seat restraint. It’s a good thing we’re not traveling in Australia!! We believe we’ve made the safest possible option for what we are planning to do, in countries where there are no rules about wheelchair transport or child car seat safety.  We saw hundreds of children in highly unsafe positions, sitting on the dashboard on a car, perched in a cane high chair atop a scooter, standing on the tray of trucks or hanging off the back of songtheows. We’re not letting this lower our standards of safety, however.   If we felt Sparky was unsafe, we would find a different transport method, so far we’ve been happy with the transport safety for her and her equipment.  In fact, she’s always belted on, and therefore safer than the rest of us.


The Chariot

We toyed around with building our own wheeled base. I found a few wheels off street verges, and asked around our welding capable friends. At the same time we explored commercially available products. Chris and Sparky visited our local bike shop and found the Chariot; a Canadian product. These chairs are amazing. They come in single or double. And have a whole lot of attachments including  a hiking kit, three wheel and four wheel options, a bike towing kit and even skis (maybe one day)!! The great features of the Chariot are it has really good suspension, low centre of gravity, looks extremely cool, has removable wheels, and is light and collapsible. What a great chair! We paid about $1200 for the Chariot Cabriolet, and got the hiking kit, travel bag, and small storage bag options with it.

Putting seat and Chariot together

The chariot comes with a large bag for airplane transport. If you fold it just the right way, it functions as a platform for the seat to sit on. We then secure it with the click strap.

And so, there we have it.


In our next Travel Wheelchair post we’ll tell you how it works, the shortfalls, and we’ll include  very cool footage of the chair in action . Most importantly, we’ll interview Sparky about what its like to travel SE Asia in a wheelchair.


Would you believe it, after all this we found another family who built a travel wheelchair for their daughter who has Cerebral Palsy.  Their solution is very different from ours, but very cool. Have a look here! ( its all in French, but the video is cool)

So, what’s the verdict? Is it a good solution? Chris is keen to build an improved and lighter seat on our return.  Any ideas?


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24 Responses to Our DIY travel wheelchair

  1. Vicky Mackey June 1, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

    Gill & Chris,

    You guys are awesome ! backpacking SE Asia with 5 kids let alone a wheelchair !

    Love the wheelchair design, I had adjusted a 3 wheeled jogger style stroller for Courtney when we moved to the farm in 2005, unfortunately she just grew out of it last year before the fabric gave up on us.

    Thought I was adventurous moving to a 5,300 acre farm over an hours drive to a town and needing an all terrain wheelchair. That’s nothing compared to what you are tackling !

    I have just sourced a new wheelchair for Courtney that does all terrain as well as suitable for transport seat in our van. It comes from mobility plus in Melbourne and Danny the owner is himself in a wheelchair and has been fantastic putting a custom product together for us. It has big BMX wheels on the back and big 7″ wheels on the front plus storage underneath etc. Now to just get it funded !

    Really impressed with what you are doing and look forward to seeing some pics and hearing how the trip is going. Thanks so much for sharing … you made my day !

    • Genia Stephen October 13, 2012 at 2:38 am #

      Do you have a link or contact info for the chair you have sourced? Sounds interesting!

  2. Deb @ Bright and Precious June 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm #

    Jill, I loved reading the history of Sparky’s travel chair. What effort you have gone too. I come here and I am constantly blown away with your capacity to overcome anything. You inspire me. x
    Deb @ Bright and Precious recently posted..Do You Exist?My Profile

  3. Louise June 1, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    What a GREAT post. I’m a quiet reader of your travels and am in awe. I live in Singapore and have a 5 y.o. daughter Georgia with severe CP. You are travelling through parts of Asia I had just thought we would never be able to get to despite living in the middle of it. Quite amazing.
    Would LOVE to know what you do on flights with Sparky. I think we are getting close to the end of the airlines allowing us to hold her for our journeys back to Oz and around Asia. She is not a lover of car seats for any great length of time.
    Absolutely love the chair you have designed, and the back pack. So clever. You are in incredible family.

  4. Susan, Mum to Molly June 1, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    The chair, your adventure and your family are all completely awesome!

    Looking forward to seeing more of it in action.

    Happy trails,

    Susan x

  5. Mel June 1, 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    WOW, that wheelchair looks amazing. I love hearing all about your adventures, your family is just awesome!


    Mel recently posted..Adaptive Bike, Adaptive skating oh and the School Buses with no Seatbelts Take IIMy Profile

  6. Paul Elms June 2, 2012 at 11:53 am #

    Mate awesome inovations and well done.
    Keep exploring Chris.
    Keep in touch.

  7. Next in Line June 3, 2012 at 5:54 am #

    I have just found your blog and I love it! Thanks for sharing your families adventures and your thoughtful posts.

    That Chariot chair looks perfect to get over all that rough ground. What an invention. Have you told the company and showed them your ingenuity? I live in Canada and have one as a bike trailer. They really are great. The company has always emailed me parts when I needed them too so if you lose anything don’t hesitate to email them.

    We are planning to travel to SE Asia in two years.

  8. Maria June 3, 2012 at 11:39 pm #

    This is so fascinating, Jill. I mean, I’ve seen it, moved it, even seen the concept pictures before this post, but this is a really, really great behind-the-scenes look at how anything can be put together with a little time, ingenuity, and determination.

    Thank you for taking the time to put this post together and educate all of us!
    Maria recently posted..Bali, Bruises, New Jobs, the Middle Ages, Sprite, Rumpelstiltskin, and Oh, By the Way, Lydia is Awesome.My Profile

  9. Jennifer Pearce June 4, 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Ingenious. I am excited to see what kinds of improvements can be made to your future models as well. :)

  10. with2kidsintow June 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Wow–you guys are inspirational! As a Canadian now living in Australia, I definitely empathize with disabled people in Australia. The lack of universal access of entry and egress is appalling and to hear of the inflated costs of wheelchairs and equipment is no surprise yet saddening.
    with2kidsintow recently posted..I’m A Travel Writer!My Profile

  11. Ronald @ Hospital Medical Equipment August 15, 2012 at 1:32 am #

    I’ve seen the 3rd picture before. It’s really an awesomely cool wheelchair that can work on stairs. The chair you made looks nice. I think it’s actually the journey or the process of making the chair that’s truly admirable and inspiring. Good work on your DIY wheelchair.

    • Jill August 21, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

      Thanks Ronald, it needs some tweeking, but so far, we are pretty pleased!

  12. vida October 22, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    You guys are inspirational! I could not get my husband to go to the local shops with our disabled daughter let alone travel the world. He is long gone now and it’s my turn to travel the world with my daughters. It’s time to live the dream. You guys are my guiding light. Thank you. Vida

  13. ALin S November 20, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

    WOW. I found this from a link that someone was referred to my blog

    DANG you guys are inventive here and the sub occipital positioning is to die for.

    that is my kind of chair work you got there! im just like you guys, ready to rip into stuff and make things.

    Thanks for sharing this cool story with the world!

    • Jill November 25, 2012 at 11:44 am #

      Hi Alin
      thanks for visiting, I just read your story….amazing and well done for not putting up with all the crap

  14. Sparcs September 14, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    I posted over in the other post as well… But, if you can fibreglass you can carbon fibre. Maybe using expanding foam or carve polystyrene … Or heat and bend impact resistant polycarbonate (tufpak) you could buy a sheet and dyi or rough it cardboard and take it to a place that does it…

    • Jill September 14, 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Hi sounds like you know what you are talking about! we will certainly be re modelling before out next trip! Do you have a chariot?

      • Sparcs September 15, 2013 at 7:58 pm #

        We HAD a double to put our son (cp) and daughter in. But the double was too big to use as a chair for moving around the burbs or city. I had thought of modding it similar to yours mut as it wasn’t ideal it seemed to be an ineffective mod.

        I only know lots of bits and pieces of stuff… :)

  15. Christina October 25, 2016 at 1:37 am #

    Your intention to provide for the needs of your family by creating your own wheelchair is amazing. Your experience is probably very helpful for your readers.

  16. Christina February 9, 2017 at 6:22 am #

    Your Australian woes will illicit much sympathy. It’s unfortunate that a demand for overseas products has combined with a monopoly by one supplier and driven prices up so high as a result.


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