Outdoors GenerationsOutdoors Generations

Outdoor Activities for Adults With Disabilities

Last Updated: November 16, 2022
Close-up on intermediate climber tying her shoelace

From physical fitness to social enrichment, outdoor activities have immense potential for supporting the health and general quality of life for adults with disabilities

Exercise in general improves everyone’s health, and pursuing it in the great outdoors—whether a city greenway or a remote wildland—adds the soul-nourishing effects of a natural or semi-natural environment to the payoff.

More active outdoor pursuits such as hiking can result in a host of physical-health benefits, including reducing the likelihood of, or helping treat, such conditions as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes that adults with disabilities experience higher rates of. 

And just about any activity in the outdoor environment can provide a rewarding opportunity for social interaction as well as developing leadership skills and a greater sense of self-sufficiency.

For adults with mobility limitations, vision impairment, and other conditions that may lead to feelings of physical or social isolation, getting outside with others can foster welcome feelings of liberation, adventure, and engagement.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) suggests that “less than half of U.S. adults with serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs (mobility disability) report engaging in aerobic physical activity.” The CDC also notes that “adults with disabilities report more environmental barriers for walking than those without disabilities.”

When it comes to outdoor recreation specifically, those environmental barriers have, historically, been widespread for individuals with disabilities.

Aside from logistical challenges—physical obstacles at destinations, recreational equipment that is difficult or impossible to use for certain people—people with disabilities may not always be aware of opportunities for outdoor activities, or, at least historically, felt terribly encouraged and supported when trying to pursue them.

Fortunately, possibilities for accessible outdoor recreation have never been so rich and widespread, and there’s an increasing number of organizations, agencies, outfitters, facility managers, and manufacturers helping facilitate them. 

From subtle but important design changes to campgrounds, trails, parking lots, boating docks, and other outdoor access points to modified recreational gear and expanded location-specific information on accessibility, infrastructural, equipment, and community barriers to adaptive outdoor activities are increasingly being addressed.

“The best way to integrate accessibility is to use the principles of universal design,” the U.S. Forest Service explains in its Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation & Trails

“Universal design is simply designing programs and facilities to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without separate or segregated access for people with disabilities.”

In this article, we’ll run through a few examples of outdoor activities and how they can be made more accessible to participants with physical disabilities.

We’ll also sprinkle as many helpful resources throughout as we can.

And a necessary caveat at the start: While the following is intended as a general guide for persons with disabilities, individuals should always consult with their doctor—and, potentially, with occupational or physical therapists—before commencing any new regimen of outdoor activities.

Key Takeaways
  • General nature appreciation can yield deep and meaningful benefits for people with disabilities.
  • Activities that involve less rigorous activity or even trips away from home can be just as enjoyable.
  • Outdoor environments facilitate direct engagement with non-human elements which improves mental and emotional health.
  • Activities that may seem passive, such as birdwatching in the backyard or driving through a national park, can be just as magical as wilderness hikes or whitewater adventures.

Wheelchair Hiking

While many hiking trails are, effectively, off-limits for those with disabilities, more and more routes are accessible, whether because of modification of existing trails or development of brand-new ones. 

The wheelchair-hiking experiences they offer can range from short jaunts on paved interpretive paths to rugged backcountry traverses aided by pushing-and/or-pulling helpers.

What Are the Benefits of Wheelchair Hiking for Adults With Disabilities?

Wheelchair hiking offers people with mobility disabilities or physical limitations the chance to immerse themselves in undeveloped ecosystems, soak up natural scenery, and otherwise reap the benefits of fresh air, hearty exercise, and exposure to wild places and processes. 

It can also be a wonderful opportunity for socializing, communal problem-solving and decision-making, and indulging one’s inner explorer and wayfinder.

Wheelchair-Accessible Trails & Best Tips for Wheelchair Hiking

Many national parks and other outdoor destinations maintain at least a few wheelchair-accessible trails, including partial sections of otherwise non-accessible routes. 

Such trails must offer an adequately firm and stable surface, which may take the form of such materials as concrete or asphalt pavement, crushed gravel, or the wooden or plastic planks of a boardwalk. Special soil stabilizers are also used to increase a dirt path’s firmness and durability.

Other considerations include the trail width: wide enough not only to safely accommodate a wheelchair (usually 36 inches or more), but also to allow two wheelchair hikers going in opposite directions to pass one another, which (according to U.S. Forest Service guidelines) means a clear width of at least 60 inches. But on narrower trails, wheelchair-passing can be achieved with regular broadened spots.

The grade (or running slope) of the trail generally shouldn’t exceed 5 percent except for short sections. Its cross slope—the widthwise slope of the trail, perpendicular to the direction of travel and necessary to allow for adequate drainage—shouldn’t be greater than 2 percent, although trails built from natural materials or gravel can have somewhat steeper cross slopes of up to 5 percent.

Naturally, environmental factors or particular site qualities may make constructing an accessible trail, or modifying an existing trail for accessibility, unfeasible.

The U.S. Forest Service’s aforementioned Accessibility Guidebook notes the following criteria, defined by the U.S. Access Board, as exempting a trail from technical accessibility requirements:

  • “A combination of running slope and cross slope exceeds 1:2.5 (40%) for more than 20 feet (6m).
  • An obstacle 30 inches (760mm) high or more crosses the full tread width of the trail.
  • The surface of the trail is neither firm nor stable for a distance of 45 feet (14m) or more.
  • The tread width of the trail is 12 inches (305mm) or less for a distance of 20 feet (6m) or more.
  • 15% or more of the trail does not fully comply with the technical requirements.”

Decommissioned roads that have been closed to vehicles but remain open to foot travel are often blocked off to motorized use by gates or berms. Where universal accessibility has been taken into account, passageways of at least 36 inches wide allow wheelchairs to travel such tracks.

A given land-management agency should be able to provide you with information as to accessible trails at a particular destination. 

Many resources exist on this front, including official online registries of accessible trails such as for Canadian national parks , U.S. national parks and national forests/grasslands, National Trust lands in the U.K., and various Australian national parks, to provide only a few examples. 

And a wealth of information on wheelchair hiking can be found on other websites focused on outdoor recreation in general as well as accessibility specifically: from organizations such as Disability Information Scotland and local land trusts and conservancies to personal sites and blogs such as I Wheel Travel and Trail Hiking Australia

Ideally, trailheads should also provide detailed information on pertinent trail characteristics—such as tread surface, the average and minimum width, the average and maximum grade and cross slope, obstacle heights, and the like—which influence its level of accessibility.

We should note that hiking trails can be distinguished from outdoor-recreation access routes, which are utilitarian pedestrian paths linking to parking lots and other entry points to particular features such as picnic areas, trailheads, or viewpoints. 

Even at places with a dearth of wheelchair-accessible hiking trails, you’ll often find such accessible pathways. 

Whether a trail or an outdoor-recreation access route, some form of elevated edging may be required to ensure safe and comfortable walking environments.

Nowadays, a variety of all-terrain or off-road wheelchairs give people with certain disabilities the means of traversing more rugged trails. Examples include the Joëlette, the Cimgo, the GRIT Freedom Chair, the Trailrider, and the AdvenChair

These encompass a variety of different mechanisms and designs, and a number function with the help of hiking partners who can pedal, push, or pull the chair. 

These kinds of all-terrain models open up a wealth of hiking possibilities, including surmounting rocky slopes, steep embankments, and deadfall, and traversing simply narrow trails being potentially surmountable.

Adaptive Camping

What is Adaptive Camping?

Overnighting it in a campsite has all-ages appeal, and more and more campground managers—from public land agencies to commercial outfits—are implementing design modifications to expand camping opportunities for adults with mobility disabilities. 

The nuts-and-bolts of adaptive camping encompass everything from wheelchair-friendly tents to campground layouts, facilities, and equipment meant to be easily usable by all visitors.

What Facilities Do Accessible Campsites/Campgrounds Provide

Such design modifications and built-environment features can include:

  • Tent pads or platforms of firm, durable surfaces with adequate clear space
  • Picnic tables with at least one overhanging end providing adequate knee and toe clearance, or sections or sides without bench seating, and adequate approach space around them
  • At least 48 inches of clear space around fire rings and grills; fire rings edged with high sides and grills lowered so as to be easy to use by a wheelchair-bound person
  • Restrooms with such features as paved, level access paths, the availability of ramps, accessible stalls with sinks, and roll-in showers
  • Charging stations for power wheelchairs
  • Accessible handpumps or solar-powered water pumps
  • Accessible parking lots and parking spaces

Besides tent campsites, campgrounds may also provide any number of sheltered wheelchair-friendly accommodations, including yurts, cabins, wall tents, and various hybrid structures (such as the oTENTik, bridging the gap between cabin and tent and available in numerous national parks in Canada)

Such “glamping” setups, complete with ramp access, are increasingly popular and widespread, and provide a great alternative if tent-camping isn’t feasible—or if you’re dealing with miserably wet or cold weather.

Organizations & Resources for Adaptive Camping

In addition to contacting campgrounds and land agencies to inquire whether wheelchair-accessible campsites are available, there’s a wealth of online resources for adaptive camping

As with trails, these resources aren’t limited to the websites of official park authorities. For example, the website Adaptive Camping has developed a grading system ranking the accessibility of campsites (as well as trails and other outdoor resources) in Australia.

It’s worth noting here that, in addition to an increasing number of accessible campsites and campground facilities, you’ll find a variety of adaptive-camping equipment for sale these days, from tents specially designed for wheelchair users to a whole range of campsite accessories.

Nordic Walking

What is Nordic Walking?

Nordic walking is a type of walking that utilizes trekking poles for support and for boosting the activity’s overall physical benefit. 

For more in-depth coverage of this activity, be sure to check out our separate guide to Nordic walking.

What Are the Benefits of Nordic Walking for Adults With Disabilities?

Nordic walking can provide a better workout for people with physical disabilities: As the Arthritis Foundation notes, it burns roughly 20 percent more calories than “regular” walking. The poles used also help to reduce the strain and impact associated with walking and boost a user’s stability and balance.

There’s been research on the potential health effects of Nordic walking: a study focused on people with Down syndrome, for example, and another study looking at those with fibromylagia.

An excellent neighborhood-based physical activity for adults, Nordic walking also has the advantage of being easily pursued even in cities and towns, given it’s well suited to sidewalks, multiuse greenspace paths, running tracks, and other urban corridors.

Nordic Walking Equipment

Nordic walking poles typically have rubber tips ideal for use on pavement and hard-packed surfaces; these can often be removed to reveal metal spikes used for improved traction on softer trail treads. These poles also include ergonomic grips and wrist straps.

Adaptive Paddling

Adaptive paddling refers to kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddleboarding, or any other paddlesports modified for those with disabilities or reduced strength or mobility. 

It can be another fantastic outdoor activity for people with certain physical limitations.

What Are the Benefits

Adaptive paddling allows people with disabilities to get out on the water, enjoying exercise, adventure, sightseeing, and social fun. From lakes and flatwater rivers to bays and other coastal waterways, the recreational joys of cruising along in a paddle-powered watercraft run deep. 

It can be a wonderful workout, including for those paddlers limited in strength or range of motion and aided by various adaptive equipment.

Adaptive Paddling Equipment

Said equipment when it comes to adaptive paddling has diversified wonderfully. An adaptive paddler’s individual needs will determine what sort of specialized or modified gear is needed.

As far as paddles are concerned, they may be fitted with special hand grips, mounted to the craft, or angled downward so that paddlers who can’t lift their arms can still propel themselves along. Specialized seats, cushions, and/or foam supports ensure a comfortable, secure, and well-supported perch. 

Outriggers can be attached to kayaks to boost their stability. Adaptive paddlers can enter and exit their boats using such aids as portable transfer benches, slings, and lifts. Some facilities offer accessible kayak/canoe launches, but, if not, carts can be used to convey paddler and boat together into the water.

Organizations/Resources for Adaptive Paddling

From local paddling groups to commercial outfitters and national organizations, options for learning and experiencing adaptive paddling continue to expand. 

The American Canoe Association (ACA)—which, by the way, concerns itself not only with canoeing but paddlesports in general—has offered adaptive paddling workshops for more than 30 years. 

The company Angle Oar, which sells adaptive-paddling equipment, also runs a blog packed with tips and inspiration.

The Benefits of General Nature Appreciation for Adults With Mobility Limitations & Other Disabilities

It’s worth noting here at the close that pursuing more passive activities in outdoor environments can still yield deep and meaningful benefits for people with disabilities.

The concept of biophilia contends that human beings, as products of Nature and reliant on an unfathomable network of ecological connections and processes to survive, have an inherent affinity for natural environments and our fellow organisms. 

Firsthand exposure with outdoor settings facilitating direct engagement with non-human elements—from open sky and running water to trees, shrubs, rock formations, and other animals—likely improves mental and emotional health, fires creativity, and fosters a sense of connectedness with (and belonging to) the biosphere as a whole.

“Nature appreciation” is, admittedly, a rather flimsy and nebulous term—and an activity that obviously overlaps with all of the above forms of recreation—but for lack of a better one it’s what we’ll use to encompass a whole spectrum of outdoor experiences that may not involve rigorous activity or even trips away from home. 

After all, birdwatching in the backyard, readily enjoyed by a wheelchair user, can be a stirring exposure to wild Nature. A blind or vision-impaired person can identify—and commune with—birds by their song.

A drive through a national park, perhaps enlivened by roadside wildlife-viewing and stops at scenic overlook, can be as magical as a wilderness hike or whitewater adventure.

Never underestimate the value of simply seeing, hearing, and smelling the natural environment.

Ethan Shaw
Ethan Shaw is an independent Naturalist, Researcher, and Freelance Writer with over ten years of experience in outdoor safety, landscape/historical ecology, geomorphology, ecosystem classification, and wildlife movement. Inspiring others to explore wild landscapes respectfully, with Leave-No-Trace principles, is something he thrives on.
About Outdoors Generations
We are a family-run site with a team of outdoor experts who strives to inspire and motivate people of all ages to venture outside with confidence.
A little more about us.
Logo Outdoors Generations
We want to make Hiking, Camping, and Backpacking more enjoyable for people of all ages, inspiring and motivating others to venture outside with confidence.
As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
© 2024 Outdoors Generations
Privacy Policy