Getting Outdoors When You’re Disabled
People are disabled in countless different ways, so there are few practical tips that will apply to everyone. Yet a few key things can improve your experience.
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In 2015, I developed multiple tickborne illnesses after a day hike on Minnesota’s north shore. I remember pulling a tick from my sleeve, marveling that it was, quite literally, the size of a poppy seed. Two weeks later, I had a fever of 104. My body has never quite been the same since; more than that, my mind, my understanding of life, has changed. How can anything in the world be predictable when your own body isn’t? In the months and years it took to return to anything resembling my previous health, any period of time without symptoms felt like a winning streak at a casino—destined, with each good day, to come to a more crashing end.
It may not be easy to get outdoors when you’re working with new—or long-term—limitations, but it can still be meaningful. When Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails, was 20, he broke his back while mountain biking. “The thing that occurred to me in the hospital,” he told me, “was that I wasn’t bummed because I couldn’t walk anymore, or that I needed to go to the bathroom differently. I was bummed because I couldn’t mountain bike anymore.” The epiphany he had—that people define themselves by recreation; that it is, in fact, an act of self-creation—has shaped the course of his career as a trails advocate. “I think maybe people don’t realize how important that recreation is.”
When I was sickest, I sat outside. That alone was hard. The sky was too bright; the air too cold, or else too hot. And though at other times in my life I’d had grand outdoor adventures–a thru-hike, arctic expeditions–it was some of those simple moments, teeth chattering on the porch in 65 degrees, that felt both hardest and most important. It’s one of the reasons I care so much now about breaking down conceptions of outdoor achievement, that false, hierarchical value system that says climbing mountains is more important, more admirable than enjoying the warm sunlight, or watching a caterpillar in the grass. Because even when I felt my worst, I could still get a little bit outside myself by, well, getting outside. My thoughts and worries were human, and nature was where I could go to escape them.
People are disabled in countless different ways, so there are few practical tips that will apply to everyone. But some things can help: breaking down preconceptions, being gentle with yourself, and keeping your expectations fluid. It’s about finding the place of overlap between what your body and your spirit both need.
Try Just Being
If hiking or moving through nature isn’t in the cards for you right now, try going outside and just being. Bring things that will keep you comfortable—snacks, water, blankets—and go to a place where you’ll be undisturbed, or ask a friend to drop you off and pick you up again a bit later. While you’re there, you can journal, make art, watch birds, meditate, read, play on your phone—whatever you’re drawn to do. There’s a lot of research to show that just being in nature has psychological benefits, but in this case, you’re doing your own research: figuring out what feels right for you.
The fact that every disabled person’s needs are different means there’s no universal standard for what makes a trail or outdoor space “accessible.” Instead, activists for accessible outdoors often focus on information. “Instead of saying a trail is accessible,” Passo explains, “you say, well, this trail has 30 percent grades for 60 feet, and it gets narrow, down to 28 inches wide for 20 feet… So you can decide for yourself if you can navigate that steep grade or that narrow section.”
Last year, he and other activists testified before congress about adding in-depth trail descriptions to recreation.gov, a federal website that lists access points on public land. A project is underway to update the site with more information. Until then, there are other ways to look up info about where you’re going—although they’re still too limited. Naturefortheblind.com offers a directory of international braille trails, including context about trail distance, surface, guide ropes, and whether they’re wheelchair accessible. And regional resources, like Wisconsin’s Open Outdoors, might help you to learn more about possibilities in your area.
Explore a Water Trail
Passo loves water trails: routes through nature (often gentle rivers) that you can canoe or kayak instead of traveling on land, if that works better for you. You can search for local options through the National Water Trails System.
Be Open to Changing Plans
Try to build in a few options for what you’ll do on a given day outside. For instance, you might choose a trail that has shortcuts back, or different loops, so you can decide at multiple points whether you want to keep going or not. Or you might choose an activity, like fishing, stargazing, or foraging in a small area, that gives you flexibility to leave—or stay—at any time. If you have the idea that “success” means going a certain distance or reaching a certain point, try to reframe that mindset; a successful outing isn’t one that looks a certain way on paper, but one that leaves you happier for having done it.
Find a Community
You may find that the outdoors community you resonate with most is largely able-bodied—maybe a group of local mycologists, for instance, if you love identifying mushrooms. But the internet can help you connect with a disabled outdoors community, too—people who cheer each other on, share resources, and organize for change. Check out Syren Nagakyrie’s Disabled Hikers on Instagram; their first book, The Disabled Hiker’s Guide to Western Washington and Oregon, will be available in summer 2022 (and is available for pre-order now). Other inclusive outdoors groups, like Jenny Bruso’s Unlikely Hikers, can offer inspiration, encouragement, and support.
Figure Out What the Outdoors Means to You
If you’ll allow me a tangent: when people take hunter safety classes, at some point—in between learning about game laws, field dressing, and wildlife identification—they learn the five stages of hunter development. These start with the Shooting Stage, when fledgling hunters just want to shoot things, and progress to the Trophy Stage—which seems like it might be the peak. But no, there’s a twist: after that, the hunting itself becomes less important. Stage four is about technique. And the highest level, stage five—the “Sportsman’s Stage”—is about simply being there for the experience. Whatever your feelings on hunting (perhaps your level is vegetarian), the wisdom in this hierarchy runs deep. The highest level of “achievement” isn’t the one with the greatest deliverables. The real triumph is about having the perspective to be present, to let go of expectations and encounter something as it really is.
I’ve often thought the same principle applies to the outdoors in general. A parallel list for general outdoors-people might start with beginners—say, someone going on their first hike—and “progress” to the level of extreme athletes: people climbing the tallest walls, skiing the toughest slopes. But what’s the equivalent of the “Sportsman’s Stage”? It would be knowing your environment and yourself; coming to nature with respect, curiosity, and humility. It’s less sexy in photos; it sells fewer products. And of course, it breaks down the ableist assumption that the pinnacle of outdoor achievement is about a certain kind of physical performance.
What does level five mean to you? What is it you’re looking for? Is it adventure? A chance to explore? A feeling of connection with your environment? A reminder to be kinder to yourself? It might take some time to figure this out, but there’s no rush. Nature is endless, and frankly, it doesn’t give a damn. Whatever you do is yours.