I grew up between Canada and Spain in a family that loved the outdoors. Most of my favorite childhood memories were made on mountainsides or pine-covered trails exploring nature. Luckily, I married a fellow nature enthusiast. Our early-marriage photo albums are brimming with selfies taken on hiking trails together.
So it’s no surprise that, when I first became sick several years ago, making hiking accessible became a frequent topic of conversation. My husband and I spent countless evenings together on the couch brainstorming increasingly elaborate contraptions and work-arounds to make sure we could keep this hobby we love so much. While we haven’t yet invented the backpack that will allow him to carry me over mountains or the affordable all-terrain wheelchair we’ve dreamed about, here are some easy ways to make hiking a little more accessible to us all.
One of the first gifts I received after my symptoms began was a thoughtful gift from my in-laws: walking sticks. They knew how important hiking had been to me, and they suspected that a mobility device might just be the means to making it possible. They were absolutely right!
Walking sticks like these can be a great solution for a number of reasons: they are usually fully adjustable, meaning you can set them to exactly the right height to support your needs at the time. They’re usually lightweight, so there’s no extra energy expenditure to carry them around. On uneven terrain or hills, they save some of the work of your legs, helping you gain your footing and traction. They also provide some stability as you walk along.
There are many options available, so you can choose what works best for you. If most of your hiking is on level terrain, you might prefer crutches or a walking cane. If you tend to hike in uneven or elevated areas, then consider true walking sticks like mine. If hand strength and gripping can be difficult, look for poles with straps to make it easier to hang on. If you have pain, consider something with a comfortable grip, such as cork or foam handles. And, of course, there is always the consideration of style. I often call red my “happy color,” because it never fails to make me smile. My mother-in-law teared up when she relayed the story of purchasing my poles. She approached a salesperson and told them she needed walking sticks for me, describing my particular challenges and limitations. Then she said, “And you won’t understand this, but they have to be red.” When I am struggling to keep my footing or feeling fatigued on a trail, the beautiful red of those poles always makes me smile.
It always pays to do a little homework before hitting the trails. Many state and provincial parks, as well as national parks, have great information about their trails available online. It’s a good idea to look at the challenge level of the trail. In the US, a “rugged” trail typically has uneven ground, elevation, or challenging terrain to navigate. Most park maps include the mileage of all trails, so that you can plan according to your energy level or ability. Be sure to look ahead to ensure there are no stairs to navigate if this is difficult for you.
Some parks have trails designated specifically as wheelchair accessible. The Canadian national parks, in particular, have great information about accessible hiking options, as I mentioned in my post about Eastern Canada. In the US, the National Parks website offers information about accessibility for each of its parks, including interpretive tours for people with hearing impairment and wheelchair accessible trails. Many parks also offer specialized wheelchair rentals that allow visitors to explore the beaches and water in spite of impaired mobility.
There are also great organizations working to make hiking trails more accessible, and to collect information about those trails. One such organization is Trail Access Project. Their growing list of trails is categorized by state, to help you find a nearby accessible place to hike.
If you are unable to find trails listed specifically as accessible, try looking for bike trails. Many bike trails are wide, level, and paved, and away from busy roads; this makes them ideal for wheelchair users as well. Make sure you read ahead about the distance, materials of the trail, and level of challenge. Some bike trails may be rugged or have steeper elevation than an accessible trail. Likewise, boardwalk trails are often navigable by wheelchair or with mobility devices. Again, be sure to read ahead to ensure there are no stretches of uneven terrain or sandy stretches that would be difficult to manage on wheels.
As with all things related to chronic illness, pacing is important. Make sure you plan ahead so that you can break longer hikes into shorter segments. Stop often along the trail for rest. Many trails, both in state and national parks, have benches along the route. Take advantage of these as often as needed!
For trails without benches, or if you need to rest more frequently, you might consider carrying a seat. There are some great lightweight portable seats out there, such as this one. Folding down to just 10×20 cm (4″x8″) and weighing 0.3 kg (just over 0.5 lb), this stool gives you a place to rest without adding to your effort as you carry it.
If you are hiking alone, consider carrying a camelback. While this increases the weight you are toting, the backpack leaves your hands free for balance and mobility devices. The weight of the drink is distributed across your shoulders and back (and eliminates the need to carry and open a heavy water bottle, if this is difficult for you).
It’s also a good idea to bring snacks for the trek. Hiking on uneven terrain uses more energy, depleting your stores more quickly. To reduce the amount of weight you are carrying, consider bringing goo packets or small protein bars that can fit easily in a pocket.
The US National Park system offers a free annual park pass for individuals with disabilities. This is a great opportunity to explore all that the parks have to offer!
Many states also offer discounted or free park admission to people with disabilities. The Center for Disabilities Studies has a great summary of options by state.
In Canada, the Access2 card, through Easter Seals of Canada, helps provide access to parks and other recreational areas for individuals with disabilities.
Be sure to check your local area for other discounts, offers, and free resources to help you enjoy the great outdoors with a disability. And let the adventures begin!