Unlocking Nature: Outdoor Accessibility and Activities for The Mobility Challenged

Have you ever been told that you can’t do an activity that everyone else enjoys because you use a wheelchair or walker to get around? Even if you’ve tried to get out, you may have encountered barriers to your mobility. According to Wheelchairtraveling.com, approximately 560,000 people with disabilities don’t leave home because of transportation challenges.
Outdoor activities for disabled individuals are possible with a little creative thinking, preparation and knowledge. We’ll go over different types of outdoor activities that are available for disabled people. We’ll also give you some suggestions for purchasing or enhancing mobility devices so that they’re better suited for the great outdoors.

Wheelchair Hiking

Many parks have created wheelchair accessible trails. These usually have smoother grades and wider paths. Many novice trails don’t require special equipment.
One obstacle to getting outdoors is the fear of the unknown. Doing your research before you head out can prevent you from getting anxious about an excursion. Ask friends or do research online to find out what’s available. You can find wheelchair accessible hiking trails in your state at TrailLink.

The National Parks Service offers a free Access Pass that provides lifetime entrance to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. It covers entrance fees at national wildlife refuges and national parks. It also pays for day use fees at grasslands, national forests and properties managed by the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
This pass is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who have a permanent disability. Users must show proof of permanent disability and citizenship or residency to obtain the pass.


Paddle sports are becoming increasingly popular for people of all abilities. Getting out on the water gives people who depend on wheelchairs for mobility a newfound independence that they might not otherwise have.

This activity can be done in a lake, river, stream or ocean. Calm waters make paddling ideal for people who use wheelchairs.

Kayaks are fairly stable in calm waters and can be adapted for people with disabilities. Creating Ability explains that paddle sports can make people feel as though their disability has vanished. The company makes adaptive paddling gear to help users feel more comfortable out on the water. Both kayaks and canoes can be outfitted with outriggers to give them more stability and prevent them from capsizing.

Creating Ability also makes paddles that are designed for people with reduced hand and wrist function. The company even makes equipment for amputees.

In 2014, Today reported on surfer Kawika Watt, who made it his mission to make paddleboarding accessible for individuals with disabilities. He developed the Onit Ability Board. This paddleboard features a special wheelchair that can stand up to a beach environment. It’s fixed to a standup board that can support the weight and balance requirements.


Accessible camping is remarkably feasible. Most campgrounds have accessible sites and allow you to reserve them in advance. Calling in advance is a good idea for any camper. You don’t want to get stuck with a rocky campsite that sits on a slope because you didn’t plan ahead.

Many campground websites have maps and pictures of their properties and amenities. This can help you scope out the terrain before you go. Don’t be afraid to call and ask questions about a particular campsite.

Most of the time, the camp managers are happy to accommodate your requests. You should also find out whether the restrooms have accessible toilet and shower stalls.

It’s important to note that the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, doesn’t have any guidelines for accessible camping. Therefore, the standards are up to the campground. Sometimes, an accessible site is simply closer to the bathroom than the other sites.

The best accessible campsites have level ground, a clear path to the restrooms and a picnic table with an overhang that lets you pull up a wheelchair. There should be enough room for you to park a car and use a wheelchair lift. The fire pit should have high sides.

Wheelchairtraveling.com offers many great suggestions for campsites for people with wheelchairs.

Local Parks and Beaches

You don’t have to plan an adventurous trip to go outside. Heading to the local park can give you the sunlight and fresh air that you need for the day.

Many cities are building accessible playgrounds, which are ideal for children with disabilities. Accessibleplayground.net has a searchable directory of all-inclusive and accessible playgrounds here. If you are a thrill seeker, you can visit one of these extraordinarily accessible theme parks.

People who live on the coast may find it hard to visit the beach. Sand and surf are not a wheelchair’s friend. Some locations are providing beach-going wheelchair rentals for people who need them. They are fitted with balloon tires and safety belts. Some of them even float in the water.

Shepherd Center reports that many beaches are starting to make this amenity available. You may have to call ahead of time to reserve the chair. Some may only be available at specific beach access points.

Before you use a floating wheelchair, make sure that you check with a lifeguard to ensure that weather and surf conditions are safe. You’ll also need assistance. No one should ever swim alone.

If you don’t live near the beach, you can use a floating wheelchair at a local pool. If you have one at home, you can use it whenever you’d like.

Adapting Your Mobility Device for The Outdoors

We discussed floating wheelchairs above. If you have a regular wheelchair or walker, you might wonder whether you can safely use it outdoors. That depends on the activity and terrain.

A chair with regular wheels may be perfect for sidewalks and floors, but it might not roll over roots or wet leaves while you’re hiking. Likewise, a walker can sink into wet ground, making it hard for you to walk across the grass at a park, much less hit the trails.

So many different options for mobility devices exist that it’s possible to find a device for your needs. However, complications arise when you realize that some areas, like local parks, prevent the use of motorized vehicles on their property. Therefore, you must make sure that your device qualifies to be used in that environment if it has a motor.

The ADA states that mobility devices are allowed anywhere if they fit the following criteria:

  • They must be created only for mobility impaired people to get around.
  • They must be appropriate for use in an indoor pedestrian space.

You might think that you wouldn’t be able to use a Segway or golf cart in a location where motorized vehicles were prohibited. However, the rules are largely determined by the park or land owner.

According to the ADA, some people use Segways instead of wheelchairs to take advantage of the health benefits of standing. If there’s no legitimate safety reason why you shouldn’t use the device, you might be able to get around with it outdoors.

Keep in mind that anything that is allowed on public lands is permitted on private property. However, the inverse is not true. The best way to find out is to call the manager of the property before embarking on your adventure. If possible, get the answer in writing and bring it with you so that you aren’t held liable for breaking any regulations if someone reports you.

Cyber-Sierra reports that, unfortunately, some medical providers don’t cover mobility devices for outdoor use. Therefore, you might have to save up for special equipment that can help you access the outdoors.

Rolling Walkers

Also called “rollators,” these mobility devices are lightweight and foldable for easy portability. Some of them have seats that give you a place to sit and rest when you get tired. Most of the lighter weight options are better suited for firm surfaces, such as asphalt and packed dirt.

All-terrain rollators have larger wheels. They tend to be heavier, and they may not be as portable as other types of rolling walkers. These are ideal for taking on outdoor excursions because they move more easily over rough terrain.

However, to get to your destination, you might have to use a private form of transportation that accommodates their size. These might not fit well on a bus, train or taxi. Another down side is that these walkers are more expensive than their everyday counterparts.

If you’re looking for a rolling walker for outdoor activities, you might get a better value from a design that transforms into a wheelchair. The two-in-one option gives you more bang for your buck.

All-Terrain Wheelchairs

You can avoid the concerns that come with using a motorized wheelchair by using an all-terrain manual wheelchair. Some people prefer to use these because they can exercise their upper body as they move around. However, these aren’t practical for everyone.

Switching to a wheelchair with a higher weight limit may help you get around outside no matter your size. A heftier wheelchair may have a more powerful motor, which will help you get up hills and over obstacles. Bariatric wheelchairs have weight capacities up to 700 pounds.

One thing to look for in an all-terrain wheelchair is larger front wheels. These will help you navigate over stones, cracks and bumps in the road.

A mountain trike is like a mountain bike for disabled people. The levers are attached to the wheels with a chain, using a similar mechanism as a bicycle. The hydraulic brakes provide extra safety when you’re going down hills. Steering is also streamlined with a joystick-like lever.

Wheelchair Adapters

If you already have a manual wheelchair, you may be able to purchase accessories to adapt it for outdoor use. FreeWheel is an add-on that attaches to a folding or rigid wheelchair. It simultaneously turns your wheelchair into a three-wheeler while lifting the casters off the ground. This simple adjustment gives you the freedom to roll over any obstacle without slowing down.

The Rough Roller is a similar accessory that gives you more stability and mobility. Instead of a wheel, the attachment is constructed of a rolling ball. It floats over softer surfaces, like sand and snow, without making a deep groove. It adapts to any electric wheelchair in seconds using quick-release technology.

New Mobility describes other products that you can add to your wheelchair. FlexRims have a rubber surface that gives you a better grip when pushing the wheels. A lever drive system can be added to your manual chair to give it propulsion. Power assist gives you extra momentum using a lithium-ion battery.


All-terrain scooters are simple to find. These come in many varieties. You should know that they’re not very portable and require quite a bit of space to transport. However, they can be extremely convenient for moving around outdoors.

If you’re using a scooter on public lands, it must be classified for indoor use. In that case, an ATV-style device might not be the best option.

Three-wheeled scooters tend to be lighter than four-wheeled scooters. They may be less stable, though. Two options for outdoor scooters include the QuietKat All-Terrain Trikes and the Titan Hummer XL.

Some features that will help you get outside in a scooter are:

  • High load capacity
  • Durable suspension
  • Ability to climb steep grades
  • Battery life alerts and displays
  • Deeply treaded tires
  • Headlights (if you’ll be using it at night)

If you’re traveling with your scooter, you’ll need a ramp for your car. Some, like the Tilt-N-Tote Wheelchair and Scooter Carrier, work like a ramp as well as a storage rack for your vehicle. These are easily installed into the hitch mechanism of a van, SUV or truck.

Outdoor Tips and Life Hacks For Disabled People

Once you’re armed with the appropriate equipment and knowledge, you’re ready to go. Here are some tips for making the most of your time outdoors.

Start Small

Don’t plan a sailing trip around the world if you’re not used to getting outdoors. One of the best ways to ease into going out more is to sit in front of an open window in your home. The fresh air might inspire you.

Start spending time in your own backyard. This can help you navigate the very first obstacles that you might encounter, which may include entering and exiting your residence. You can begin to get more comfortable in the privacy of your property before going out in public.

Do What You Enjoy

It’s always fun to try new things. However, doing something that you really don’t like isn’t going to boost your mood. Find activities that you enjoy, and do those as often as you can.
On the flip side, remember that doing something for the first time can feel really hard. Don’t knock it until you’ve given it a few chances.

Brainstorming ways to go outside more can help you find motivation when you need it most. Make a list of the activities that you prefer to do. Ensure that you have simple as well as challenging activities on the list. Even getting some sun in your backyard can allow you to get some fresh air and improve your mood.

If you don’t feel like exerting yourself too much, consider bringing one of your hobbies outdoors. Knitting, drawing, reading, DIY Projects and listening to music can be done anywhere. Doing these activities in the warm sunshine can give you a pick-me-up and encourage you to get outside more.

The More, The Merrier

People of all abilities tend to be more confident when they have support while doing a new activity. If you’ve never been hiking or sailing or paddleboarding, you may feel safer and more self-assured when you go with a group. You’ll also be able to work together if you come across an obstacle. Ensure that you choose friends with whom you feel comfortable to make it a positive experience.

Getting friends together can also keep you motivated. It’s a lot easier to follow through on your plans when others are relying on you. Make your outing a social activity to boost your mood and get in some laughter.

Look for gatherings that get together regularly to keep yourself inspired. Meetup.com and Facebook.com are great places to look for groups of people who participate in outdoor activities. You may also learn about new places to go and novel tips to make getting outside easier.

Even just meeting your family at the neighborhood park can give you a great excuse to head out. It will also hold you accountable so that you don’t make excuses to stay home.

Bring Food and Water

No matter where you’re going, it’s a good idea to bring along snacks and stay hydrated. You’ll be expending more energy than you do when you stay indoors, and your body will need the nourishment. Hydrating before you begin exercising will prepare your body for an intense workout.

Set Some Goals

Give yourself something to work toward. Setting goals can keep you motivated to continue to get outside. Maybe you want to get faster at hiking or visit all of the National Parks in the country.
Nothing is too big or too small. However, you might want to split up your goals into smaller chunks to make them attainable. You want to be able to check off your achievements so that you’re driven to keep going.

Make your goals visible. Post photos of places that you’d like to visit on your refrigerator, or make notes of your performance if your goals are based on execution. Record the goals that you achieve. Seeing your progress, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal, can be surprisingly rewarding.

Stay Flexible

Although outdoor activities for disabled people require some advanced planning, flexibility is important too. You might find that a place that you researched is nothing like the description. Weather and unexpected obstacles can make an activity unsafe. Don’t get down on yourself if you have to try again another day.

When you can’t get outdoors, bring nature inside. You could create an indoor garden with plants that are easy to care for. Establishing a sunroom with screens instead of paned glass windows can help you get the same feeling that you get from going outdoors without the hassle. Even just keeping the shades open during the day can help sunlight filter into your home and boost your mood.

Know Your Rights

If you’re using public transportation to get where you’re going, try to find out about accessible train stations or buses before you begin your journey. Also, maintain good communication with the operator. Let him or her know as soon as possible if you’ll need to use a lift or ramp, for example.

The ADA requires that public transportation offer comparable paratransit services for people with disabilities. If the service isn’t as accessible as it purports to be, file a complaint.
The law can’t help you when you’re trapped in a sticky situation, like when you come to a crossing that doesn’t have a curb cut. You can make a community more accessible by voicing a complaint after the fact, though.

The Bottom Line

Physical mobility and age shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the majesty of nature. Going outside offers substantial physical, mental and emotional benefits. Don’t limit yourself just because you have a disability.

If you’re nervous about going out alone or don’t want to buy expensive equipment to do so, look for a nonprofit group that organizes outings for disabled people. Thousands of non-profit groups across the company offer excursions, day trips and local gatherings to help people get outside. Many of them provide adaptive equipment so that you don’t have to foot the bill.

You shouldn’t have to give up a love of the outdoors just because your mobility is limited. Use the tips and tricks that are described here to help you get moving and explore life, your neighborhood and nature to the fullest.

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