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Beginner Skills

Learning to Hike With a Disability

The trail is for everyone. Experience it your way by learning your limits and planning ahead.

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Pain shot through my back as we approached the top of the hill: This was going to be a victory with a price.

We had spent an hour climbing a rocky, wildflower-bordered slope on the outskirts of Sowerby Bridge in the UK. I was determined to get to the end. But now, even with my friends’ support, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it back down.

I was born limb-different: I’ve worn a prosthetic leg most of my life. As a Paralympic swimmer, I spent most of my adulthood pushing my body to extremes. But nothing prepared me for the challenge of hiking as a person with a physical disability.

Most people—even many amputees—don’t understand the stress that hiking with an artificial limb puts on the body. Repeated studies have found that below-knee prosthetic users use approximately 30% more energy to walk than non-prosthetic users do; for above-knee amputees, that number jumps to approximately 90%. For me to walk the same distance as a person with no lower-limb disabilities uses a significant amount more energy. While this doesn’t keep me from wanting to challenge myself on the trail, the fact is that it dictates how I hike, where I hike, and how long I hike for.

We all appreciate the physical and mental health benefits of exercising in nature. Reaching new heights or walking the furthest you have ever walked is a glorious feeling, no matter how many times you do it. For people with disabilities, their families, and their friends, going on outdoor adventures is possible; it just takes a little bit of extra planning and a clear-eyed understanding of our limitations and needs.

Cerebral Palsy Guidance gives some good hiking advice for people with mobility issues. To begin, look at the websites of parks and reserves to check their accessibility. Exploring paved trails, while not as challenging as going into the true depths of the wild, is an experience in nature that everyone can enjoy together.

Carmel, a hiker from the US who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease and Tegmen Tympani Defect, recommends being patient and building your strength up to longer hikes. I started out with 1- to 2-mile walks, eventually reaching my goal of traveling 4 miles in one go. This is where finding accessible trails may be helpful, as they are often shorter and easier to navigate while you build up your strength.

As you build up your physical condition, you’ll develop your mental game too. Years of hiking have taught me the tactics I need to feel safe and empowered on a hike. Before I head to an area, I check out its trail guide to find paths suitable for my skill and fitness level. Working with my own limitations is paramount: I know that I struggle to get over gates and stiles, so I avoid trails that have these.

If walking isn’t an option for you or your hiking companions, be open to experiencing the trails in a new way. After a baseball accident left Loren Worthington paraplegic, he found that using a handbike let him recapture his freedom on the trail and stay active. Some parks have programs in place that cater to hikers who use wheelchairs: Staunton State Park in Colorado maintains a fleet of track chairs—power wheelchairs fitted with tank-like treads—that can handle ascents up graded footpaths, no pavement necessary.

Back on the trail, my backache was making me grimace. One of my friends, Tara, asked me if I was okay.

“I don’t know if I can make it back down the hill, guys,” I responded. Another friend, Walt, assured me that he could piggyback me the last few miles if he had to; I laughed and told him that I wanted to at least try to make it by myself.

I did complete my 4-mile hike, though not quite the way I imagined it. The final hill back into the village was so steep that I could barely put any weight on my hiking stick for the last few hundred yards; instead, I leaned heavily on Walt. It was a relief to finally sit down at the pub that was conveniently at the end of our hike. But as hard as the day had been, I was satisfied: With the right goals and some forethought, the wilderness was still open to me in all its beauty. 

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