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Wheelchair User’s Guide to Getting Outdoors This Summer

May 25, 2022
Source: Conde Nast Traveler

Writer Cory Lee shares what to pack, where to go, and the communities worth tapping into.

‘The great outdoors’ and ‘wheelchair accessible’ may not typically coexist within the same sentence, but they absolutely should. Outdoor adventures are for everyone, regardless of someone’s abilities. And thanks to improved accessibility at national and state parks, public beaches, and more, much of what used to be off-limits for wheelchair users is now within reach.

The changes seem to be everywhere. At John Dillon Park, a fully accessible campground and wilderness area in Adirondack State Park, wheelchair accessible trails and lean-tos are now on offer; and just a few years ago, accessibility improvements were made to the elevator at Carlsbad Caverns State Park, making caving a safe option for visitors of all abilities.

If you are a wheelchair user who dreams of enjoying the outdoors, but doesn’t know how to actually make it happen, this beginner’s guide is for you. Below, we cover what to pack for an upcoming adventure—whether you’re hoping to hit the trails or just spend a day in the sun—destinations to start with, and communities that will give you yet another reason to get outside this summer.

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Pack the right gear

Before you venture outside, it’s important to think about what you’ll need to make your time in the outdoors as seamless and stress-free as possible. Aside from basics like a flashlight, a compass, sunscreen, a rain poncho, and a bottle of water (or two), there are some items that can enable wheelchair users specifically to have a better time.

Whether you use a manual or powered wheelchair, rolling on outdoor trails can get bumpy. Uneven terrain may even loosen parts of your wheelchair and knock them out of place, so it’s important to always have a set of Allen wrenches with you in case on-the-spot maintenance is needed. If you have limited upper body control, consider using velcro straps around your chest or your feet for added stability.

If you are headed somewhere where accessible restrooms may be nonexistent or difficult to find, a TravelJohn or TravelJane disposable urinal is easy to take with you and can be a good option for many wheelchair users. If you’ll be transferring from one wheelchair into a beach or all-terrain wheelchair, an ableSling can help with the transfers.

Lastly, think about any products that make your life easier on a daily basis—then, think about how you can meet those needs while you’re outdoors. There are often smaller, easier-to-pack options of the same accessories you use at home.

Consider investing in an outdoor wheelchair

While many beaches offer their own beach wheelchairs and some parks have all-terrain wheelchairs that you can borrow, it’s crucially important to consider how you’re going to navigate the outdoors before leaving home. Research your destination ahead of time to understand if your current set of wheels are adequate.

If you plan on enjoying the outdoors on a regular basis, consider investing in an all-terrain wheelchair you can take with you. There are a ton of all-terrain wheelchairs on the market and they vary in price, but the GRIT Freedom Chair is a great option for manual wheelchair users with more upper body strength; if you need a motorized option, consider the Magic Mobility Extreme X8 or an Action Trackchair.

Research your destination

There are a lot of ways to spend time outdoors, but if the pandemic tells us anything, it’s that public open-air spaces—like national and state parks, and beaches—are more popular than ever.

Luckily, most national parks have accessibility measures in place, from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone. The National Park Service website has accessibility information for all parks, including accessible trails, and lodging details. U.S. citizens and residents with a permanent disability can get a National Parks Access Pass, which provides admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites across the United States, including all of the national parks. You can apply for an Access Pass online for $10 or in-person at a national park for free.

TrailLink makes it easy to find wheelchair accessible trails around the country, with a handy “find a trail near me” feature. National Park Capable and Disabled Hikers are two other communities that share information about accessible hiking destinations—plus, they both host group hikes and events.

If you’re looking for sun and sand, keep in mind that beaches can be very hit-or-miss when it comes to accessibility. There are some states, such as Florida and California, that have a plethora of accessible beaches, but wherever you’re headed, contact the lifeguard station in advance of your visit for information on what they offer. (You should be able to find their contact information easily online.)

Some features that make a beach truly accessible include beach wheelchairs, which have special tires that can easily roll in the sand, accessible changing rooms, and Mobi-Mats (a long, rubberized mat that allows wheelchair users to remain in their own chair, great for those who might face difficulties transferring into a beach wheelchair).

There are a few types of beach wheelchairs—from standard manual options, to amphibious beach chairs that can go in the water, and even motorized options that can be driven with a joystick, just like a powered wheelchair. Depending on your disability, certain beach wheelchairs may work better for you than others, so try to get as much information as you can about exactly what kind of beach wheelchairs are on offer before leaving your house.

Join organized activities

If you’re new to exploring the outdoors in a wheelchair, local parks and beaches are a wonderful place to start. However, if you want to take your outdoor adventures up a notch—and meet a few new people along the way—you can also try sporting activities like cycling, snowboarding, and waterskiing through organized groups.

Move United has chapters all over the United States that plan organized activities for people with disabilities. On select dates, you can enjoy adaptive sports and recreation in just about any part of the country.

Alternatively, if you don’t mind traveling to enjoy the great outdoors with new people, the No Barriers Summit and Waypoint Adventure are community-oriented options. Not only are you sure to make friends, but having the encouragement of others in a group setting can make new adventures less intimidating. The No Barriers Summit is held annually, in a different destination nearly every year, and features workshops and keynotes alongside activities like adaptive rock climbing, canoeing, and more. Waypoint Adventure offers multi-day expeditions, based in the New England area.

You may have to enjoy the outdoors a bit differently than other people, but you can experience all the joys that come with being in nature. Now that you know where to begin, the only thing left to do is start planning—and get yourself out there.

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Related article:
The Most Accessible National Parks in the U.S.
Source: Conde Nast Traveler