Could you do it in a wheelchair?

A condensed version of this article appeared in the 2003 September Sierra Club Yodeler

If a trail, or an outing on that trail, is potentially accessible for some wheelchair users, it should be so labeled, with details available on request.Having covered a lot of unlikely terrain in several different (but all standard-issue) chairs over more than 20 years, I should be qualified to tell you what a really inaccessible trail looks like. But what with paraplegic Mark Wellman climbing El Capitan, and the IBot, a wheelchair that can climb stairs, now available for the merest $30,000, somebody will probably prove me wrong. Still, judging whether a trail is potentially navigable by wheelchair is not rocket science. Most trails don't qualify, usually for obvious reasons.

  • Narrowness: Almost all wheelchairs are at least 24 inches wide, and need extra space for turns. This rules out footpaths that run in a deep groove or are cut into a steep hillside, as well as ones closely overhung by trees or rocks.

  • Obstacles: usually rocks, deep ruts, roots and logs. Often these are just about continuous, and almost no wheelchair user is interested in struggling with them. And big ones, like a stream to ford, or a locked gate are deal busters. But it may be possible to get past a few more modest obstacles, depending on the disabled person's desires, the chair s/he has, and the assistance available.

  • Steepness: Wheelchairs can't handle grades an ordinary car won't take, and this includes transverse (side to side) slope. On pavement, strong manual chair users may be defeated by loss of traction well before reaching the limits of their strength, where a power chair weighing over 200 lbs has no trouble. My chair is in no danger of tipping either forward or backward on the slope pictured, but skids uncontrollably unless I keep my weight over its drive wheels by backing down. And the combination of poor traction and steepness is difficult for everyone, especially if able-bodied assistants can't get good footing. As with obstacles, if a steep stretch is short, it may be possible to get past it, but if most of the trail is very steep, we can call it inaccessible.

  • Surfacing: something that might not be self evident is that wheelchairs do extremely badly in soft sand, even worse than cars. Soft dirt or gravel can be just as bad, and even a few feet of it can be very difficult. Many trails, and virtually all beaches, are inaccessible for this reason alone. Uneven surfaces give an uncomfortable ride and are very hard work for manual chair users and/or their assistants, as is soft going such as grass. A power chair handles labor intensive trails much better, but may overheat (many will stop running without warning), and will get a lot fewer miles on a battery charge.

Distance is not necessarily a problem, and a trail should not be disqualified on that count. Most power chairs sold today are rated to travel "up to" 35 miles, whatever that means, on a single battery charge, and if the trail is well graded and not too steep, many can do it at six or more miles an hour. As for manual chair users, think of Mark Wellman. Some are amazing athletes (and some travel with willing, very fit assistants).

A trail judged potentially accessible by the above standards may not be useable and/or appealing for most wheelchair users, but this should be their decision. Information should be available so that they can decide for themselves. --Ann Sieck