Making the Outdoors More Accessible Takes All of Us

From non-profits to trail builders, organizations around the outdoors are working to make the simple pleasure of a day in the woods available to everyone. And they need your help.

Photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank

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Many of us head out for a day in the mountains with a trail in mind—the more challenging, the better. But for people with a disability, whether intellectual or physical, enjoying an adventure in the great outdoors often takes a lot more planning.

Considerations like trail width, grade, terrain, crowds—and the assistive equipment needed to navigate these aspects—are all factors that a person with a mobility issue must address before even arriving at a trailhead.

Organizations like Outdoors for All are changing the narrative when it comes to outdoor accessibility. Founded in 1979 and based in Seattle, Outdoors for All works to make adaptive and assistive therapeutic recreation more available for adults and children.

“Outdoors for All started as offering solely adaptive winter sports,” said Programs Director Alecia McConnell. “Now we offer adaptive hiking, kayaking, climbing, and biking to more than 3,300 individuals yearly—anyone from kids over the age of five to adults potentially recovering from combat injuries, spinal cord injuries. Anyone with any type of disability.” 

Jess Thomson and her 12-year-old son Graham spent many winters skiing Washington’s mountains with Outdoors for All. Graham, who was born with spastic diplegic cerebral palsy but is neurotypical, was born into a skiing family (both Thomson and Graham’s father are avid skiers). The question was: how? Spastic diplegic cerebral palsy means that the lower half of Graham’s body is prone to muscles firing involuntarily but not always releasing. This makes traditional stand-up skiing difficult.

When Graham was little, Thomson  would strap his feet to stand-up skis and watch as her husband supported Graham’s body between his legs, allowing the young skier to cruise down a slope with his dad. As Graham got older, the Thomsons started looking for ways to ensure Graham would have access to the slopes their family called home.

“We first interacted with Outdoors for All when our family was at Stevens Pass,” said Jess. “The first event we did with them was ski lessons, where Graham got to use an adaptive sit ski that enabled him to ski more comfortably.”

Later, the Thomsons also got involved with Outdoors for All by attending events such as open gym time at climbing walls, renting bikes from their fleet of 275 adaptive bikes, and joining in at other Seattle-area events. 

Outdoors for All is not the only group looking to make adaptive recreating feasible. Randy Conner is a professional trail builder in Knoxville, Tennessee. He recently completed a project with the Legacy Parks Foundation, crafting a nearly mile stretch of trail with considerations for those using mobility assistance, such as a wheelchair. 

“I worked with adaptive athlete Carly Pearson to ensure the terrain, grade, and turning radii of the trail’s corners were accessible to those who use mobility assistance,” said Randy.

The trail, which is aptly named the Independence Trail, is located about three miles north of downtown Knoxville and features a shuttle service to bring users from the bottom of the trail back to the trailhead.

Beyond local initiatives, many national parks now offer trails that are compatible with mobility assistance devices. Furthermore, parks like Rocky Mountain National Park even offer accessible backcountry spaces for those who use a wheelchair. With a little advance notice, many parks are more than happy to offer a wide range of services such as sign language and personal guides. 

While nonprofits like Outdoors for All and the Legacy Parks Foundation are excellent examples of outdoor accessibility, hikers can take independent action to improve accessibility in their own communities by joining their local Parks and Recreation Committee, working with a local trail maintenance group to keep paths clear of branches and brush, and attending meetups of smaller groups like the Boulder-based Lockwood Foundation.

“It’s okay to educate your kids and friends about what is going on when you see someone with a disability recreating,” said Jess. “We get a lot of stares when we go skiing, and I wish more people were educated about people with disabilities recreating outdoors so that what we’re doing didn’t seem so unusual.” 

To find accessible trails near you, check out AllTrails’ adaptive trails feature here.

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