Last updated January 14, 2023
Hiking should be for everyone. But it’s not. Especially when you have mobility and health concerns. Don’t be discouraged. You can get the most out of the great outdoors. It just requires a little extra planning and preparation. Below we share 10 accessibility tips for hikers with limited mobility.
So you want to go on a trip that involves getting outdoors in nature. Maybe you want to get out on a trail? See some stunning scenery? The choices are endless. But the challenges for those with mobility and other health concerns are significant.
These accessibility tips are intended for those who have balance issues or paralysis, have been recently injured, are older, or parents (grandparents?) who want to get outside with young ones who need strollers when they grow tired.
Ten Accessibility Tips for Hikers
I have limited mobility, (paralysis in my right leg), have traveled and hiked extensively in the U.S., and have enjoyed exploring trails in Canada and Ireland. Learning the right questions to ask has made a big difference for me by helping people understand what I needed to know to better enjoy my time in the outdoors.
Questions I ask before setting out include: Where can I find places to walk that are not rooty or rocky, are relatively level with firm footing, and have something of interest along the way? Are dogs allowed? Are there bathrooms? Is there a fee to visit? Are trails well marked? What can you tell me about parking?
With practice you will find your best questions to ask that will help you make an educated choice about how and where you want to go. Here are my tried and true accessibility tips that can help you get the most out of an outdoor hike (or walk).
You know your own situation best, so these are suggestions, not guarantees that they will work you.
1. Be Prepared
Probably the biggest reason we are disappointed when we find an outdoor path or trail that does not feel safe is that we did not (or could not) obtain enough information about where we were headed.
It’s not always easy to learn about trail surfaces, how to find a destination, what transportation options exist or parking availability. Discovering the best time to visit, how crowded the area is, and other concerns are all part of the equation that will help you say “No” or “Go!”
Do your research. Guide books, travel websites, Facebook or Meetup groups, land steward websites and conservation groups are among the many options readily available to help you better plan a visit. Ask for suggestions from friends, or those who live near where you are headed.
2. Have a Plan B
Travel offers surprises—that’s what makes it exciting. It’s the unknowns that can thwart your best-made plans when you discover that your desired destination is not appropriate for your abilities.
Gates may block parking areas or trail entrances. Trail surfaces may be rockier or have more roots than you had been told. Paths may be steeper than you are comfortable with. An area with drop offs may not be safe to traverse if you have compromised balance. Have that “Plan B” in reserve so you are not disappointed.
How do you do that? Look at your Plan A and do your research. Study maps to narrow down options that are relatively near your original hoped-for destination. Ask questions to help you make alternate arrangements if you discover your first plan is not workable. Learning to be flexible and adapt to changes of plans is what travel is all about.
3. Wear Appropriate Clothing
You may need to purchase specific clothing items, depending on what you already own. Here’s a very basic list of what to bring: windbreaker or waterproof raincoat, clothing layers (short and long sleeves), comfortable pants, hiking boots and hiking socks, weather-appropriate jacket or coat, and hat and gloves (or mittens for colder weather).
Closed toe, Vibram sole boots reduce your risk of injury (think rocks, thorns, poison ivy, poison oak or stinging insects). Wear thick hiking socks—wool (if you are not allergic to it) or blends will help prevent blisters and keep your feet warm.
Pro tip: Avoid washing hiking socks unless they are soiled. Never place socks in the dryer. Line dry. Heat will wear out the elastic in your socks so they will slide down into your boots—not nice!
4. Carry a Backpack
Be sure your pack has comfortable shoulder straps and zippers that work. A kid’s backpack will do for day trips, by the way. Stash the following items in your pack: a water bottle with well-sealed lid (not reusable water bottle), a snack, sunscreen, extra clothing layers and band-aids.
Stowing everything safely allows you to keep your hands free. The exception to keeping your hands free is in the next tip.
5. Use Hiking Poles
These adjustable, collapsible poles (to fit into luggage for travel) allow many of us with mobility challenges to say “yes” to outings that are otherwise off-limits. It can feel scary to use two poles when on a trail but in fact it is much safer than using just one (or none).
It’s like walking on all fours, but still staying upright. Search “using hiking poles” to get specific accessibility tips about how to put them to best use, reduce strain and help maintain your balance.
I like using poles with smooth, somewhat cushioned handles since I lean on my poles often for balance. Test out various types of poles at your local sporting goods store before purchasing. I use extra thick mittens for cold weather outings so I do not wear through the mitten fabric.
6. Share Your Schedule
When you tell a person (hotel clerk or other responsible party) where you are headed and your time schedule, it can help avoid delay in emergency responders finding you in the unlikely event you need assistance on the trail.
Better yet, travel with a walking partner. Alone or with others, it’s still a good idea to alert someone else about your plans.
7. Do Not Keep Life-Saving Medications a Secret
Asthma inhalers, epipens, insulin or other medications specific to your health condition may need to be available in an emergency. Place your medication in an accessible (but zippered) pocket of your backpack and make sure your walking partner or group leader knows where these medications are and how to use them.
8. Carry a Fully Charged Cell Phone
Cell reception can be spotty, for the most part in hilly or mountainous terrain. Even so, having a cell phone is an option for calling for help in the event of any emergency. A cell phone that has lost its charge is no use despite the best cell reception.
You can also use your phone to take pictures, and snap a picture of that map at the trailhead kiosk. Cell phone apps can help you keep track of where you have been, an aid in getting back to the trailhead.
9. Build Rest Into Your Day
Stopping to take photos can offer opportunities for you to rest along the way. When returning to the trailhead after a walk, I try to find a comfortable place to sit near the trail head.
My walking partners often want to go farther than I am able so I make plans to spend time alone while they head off for additional exploring. If this sounds familiar, bring along a folding stool or lawn chair so you can sit outside comfortably and rest. Enjoy the outdoors and bring a book to read.
10. Ask for Help
We all need help at some time in our lives. Some of us need more help than others, especially when living with limited mobility. By being prepared and learning what your capabilities and limits are you will be able to say “yes” to activities you may have once thought were off limits.
Starting small, committing to short distances and turning back before you are exhausted are helpful practices. Getting out in nature and finding what works best when you have mobility concerns can widen your options.
Experimenting with which weather conditions work best for you can help you make better choices about what you should say “yes” to. It’s great to be prepared, know the questions to ask, enlist help as needed, have the right clothing and other equipment, make a plan, and have alternate plans.
But first you have to get there, wherever “there” is for you. And once you have arrived, where will you stay?
Other Accessibility Tips for Hikers
Bus, train, plane, boat or car? Every option has challenges. Do you need early boarding? Check procedures for the company offering transport and speak up so you have the time and space to get settled before heedless travelers push past, putting you at risk of injury.
Are restroom facilities available? What are they like? How firm are the travel schedules? If travel is delayed, what provisions are available to keep you safe, have a place to rest and make sure you have time to get wherever you need to go? If you need help carrying luggage, what assistance is available?
Do you need wheelchair access? Be sure to call ahead. For specific information on a wide range of travel concerns when using a wheelchair, whether by plane, train, bus or on a cruise, the Wheelchair Travel website is quite comprehensive.
When booking a hotel room, learn to ask questions that can help keep you safe while traveling. Bathrooms, unless specifically ADA compliant, are often treacherous for those with balance challenges. Ask about walk-in showers. Some hotels have these in all rooms. Are there grab bars in the bathroom?
Wall-to-wall carpeting can be difficult to maneuver on when using a wheelchair. How wide are the doorways? Do doors have levers, rather than knobs? Is the room jammed with furniture, increasing your fall risk?
Many of us have limited stamina. Travel by its nature is tiring. Ask how far your room is from an elevator. Do you need to be on the ground floor? What is the distance from your room to the entrance of the hotel and dining options? Are there comfortable places to rest when you are at the hotel (besides our bed), on the trail or in other locations?
Whatever your challenges, learning to ask the right questions can give you a head start in obtaining the help you need. I hope these accessibility tips can open doors you may have thought are sealed shut.
Being prepared and understanding ways you can minimize risk when spending time outdoors can increase your comfort level when faced with unfamiliar surroundings.
No one can do everything, but sometimes trying just one new thing can change your outlook on life, and that’s a very good thing. Happy trails!
About the author: Marjorie Turner Hollman is a freelance writer who loves the outdoors, and has completed four books in the Easy Walks guide book series. My Liturgy of Easy Walks is her memoir, learning to live with a changed life. Media appearances include: ABC news, CBS Channel 4 and the Boston Globe.