Identifying Trails for Hikers with Disabilities
Updated: Jul 5, 2021
February 4th, 2021
Identifying trails that are appropriate for the hiker with a disability is easier said than done, right? Finding easy, flat, paved, or accessible trails using some of the more popular trail info apps and sites can be complicated and may lead to more questions, such as: What does the site mean by accessibility? How do I search for trails that meet my hiking needs? Who is providing trail information? How do I know that this information is accurate and up-to-date?
On top of that, trail guides and the outdoor recreation industry in general do not always recognize the diversity implied when talking about people with disabilities. The ADA, for it’s purposes, defines disability as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.” This is a good catch-all statement, since my disability may be wildly different from someone else's.
I have a disability by way of my autoimmune (or immune-mediated) disease Ankylosing Spondylitis. My illness impairs my ability to walk long distances (sometimes one mile is a long distance, sometimes that distance can be extended to three, four or five miles) without considerable pain, fatigue, and loss of range of motion. It also hinders my ability to sit for considerable lengths of time, stand in one place for more than 30 minutes, and affects my ability to sleep most nights. So what I look for in a trail is one without a steep grade, intense elevation gain, or other barriers that may affect my ability to trek it. But my requirements for a hiking trail may be slightly or completely different from another’s.
Therefore, I find the best approach to get accurate trail information is to use multiple sources, understanding that different services may define or understand the terms ‘disability’ and ‘accessibility’ differently. While I understand this is not the most convenient approach, checking multiple trail descriptions helps me compare information and arrive at more accurate trail information.
I rely heavily on AllTrails, an app and website where trail information is added and updated by users. AllTrails does allow users to tag trails with certain designations such as ‘paved’, ‘partially paved’, ‘rails trail’, ‘wheelchair friendly’, etc. When searching trails, you can filter results by these tags to narrow down potentially accessible trails.
One of the other features I appreciate about AllTrails is the elevation graph that appears below the trail map once you click into a trail. The elevation graph allows you to assess the elevation gain/loss and grade of the trail at any point along the way (in relation to the trailhead). I use this graph as a way to rule in or out trails that AllTrails mark as ‘moderate’ or ‘difficult.’
For my purposes, the difficulty rating here or on most other trail guides doesn’t tell the entire story of the trail, especially since it considers the difficulty of the entire trail from start to finish. Some trails are just too long for me to complete, but if the first 2-3 miles of a trail marked ‘difficult’ appear relatively flat on the elevation graph, I know I can still attempt that portion of the trail.
2. The National Forest Service
All things considered, I think the National Forest Service’s Interactive Visitor’s Map is pretty cool because it highlights the country’s national forests on one convenient map, labels trailheads, campgrounds, and other recreation sites, provides brief information on each of these recreation sites and includes links to websites for each. While there’s still big improvements to be made in terms of accessibility and trail information, the National Forest Service’s Interactive Visitor’s Map does allow you to filter for trails, campgrounds, etc. with accessibility information.
While you will not find detailed accessibility information on this site, it does highlight trailheads, campgrounds, picnic areas, and observation points that include accessibility information when filtered. Be aware that just because a trail or picnic area is highlighted when you select ‘Accessibility Info’ does not mean it’s accessible, only that accessibility information has been entered for that particular recreation spot. It’s also worth noting that ‘accessibility’ may also refer to the accessibility of a road or entrance to different types of vehicles.
To figure out if a particular trail highlighted is in fact accessible, you’ll need to click into the actual ‘TH’ icon.
3. The National Park Service
A document released by the National Park Service in 2014 begins by saying “in the more than 400 national park units across the country, there are visitor centers without accessible restrooms, water fountains, and entrances. Paths between parking lots, sidewalks, buildings, and interpretive programs are not accessible for some visitors who are mobility impaired.” In this publication, the NPS announces and outlines it’s five-year accessibility strategy to move toward “a more accessible, inclusive future.” Whether the NPS met those goals is unclear to me.
Regardless of the outcome of that five-year plan, I do know that there are many parks managed by the NPS that offer accessible features for people with disabilities. The NPS is also one of the better land management agencies when it comes to providing information on accessibility features of their parks, which makes sense when considering their mission. Their accessibility page is a great display of those resources.
In my experience, National Parks and Monuments, especially well-established ones, typically offer wider paved or gravel trails, restrooms or accessible buildings in main access areas, and even some tools available to check-out for visitors with disabilities. For example, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve offers a limited number of sand wheelchairs available to loan out so that people who utilize wheelchairs are able to enjoy time on the sand dunes along with everyone else.
4. TrailLink by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is a non-profit organization dedicated to converting former railroad corridors into trails for outdoor recreation users. I think this type of repurposing is brilliant. This country experienced a massive boom in the railroad industry in the 19th and early 20th century, with major corporations like BNSF laying tracks every which way across the U.S., yet many of the rail systems in this country are abandoned.
What better use of these abandoned railways is there than for outdoor recreation? And what makes these trails by the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy of interest to hikers with disabilities is precisely that they’re developed out of old railroad beds. This means the trails are relatively flat in grade and wide.
Additionally, the TrailLink site has some of the best range of filters to use when searching certain types of trails. TrailLink allows you to search by 16 different activity types, 14 different surface types, and 5 different trail length ranges. There’s a wealth of information on the site for current trails along with information on upcoming trail projects.
5. Personal Websites and Blogs
It’s hard to discount smaller-scale websites and blogs (not simply because BackCountry Chronic falls in that category). I find accounts written first-hand by hikers with disabilities are some of the most useful because they’re written by experienced users with a specific audience in mind: people like them.
Without a doubt there are an endless number of websites out there managed by individuals with information about hiking trails for people with disabilities. It’s not my intention to offer an exhaustive list here, or to exclude certain sites with valuable information. Instead, I’ll list two of the resources that I’m aware of and that are worth checking out.
First is the site Disabled Hikers, a fairly new site dedicated to creating trail guides for hikers with disabilities across the country. This organization has roots in the Pacific Northwest and therefore has developed more resources for that area first and foremost, but the goal of Disabled Hikers is to include trail descriptions and reports for trails across the country.
Second is the site accessiblenature.info. This site is a compendium of what the creator calls resources “for the only slightly impaired as well as for those looking for ADA-compliant trails.” Here you’ll find some detailed information on trails by state and region, along with information on other accessibility-friendly outdoor recreation opportunities. Above all, this site has a wealth of links to other resources to help you find recreation opportunities to meet your needs.
Do you know of other resources on this topic? Feel free to share in the comments!