Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Adaptive Hiking Equipment and Techniques

“Within a couple of minutes of starting the hike, I started to notice a change in myself. I became more relaxed and more centered. There is something about walking in the woods surrounded by ferns and wildflowers under the shade of all the trees that I find very calming.” -David Whitenett, quadriplegic hiker
DCR’s Universal Access Program has been offering adaptive outings around Massachusetts for 15 years, providing opportunities statewide for individuals with disabilities to hit the trail and discover their park system. The programs are facilitated by Brenda Davies of Stavros Outdoor Access, a program of the Center for Independent Living. Brenda’s warm personality and the use of a variety of equipment and techniques have given many people wonderful outdoor experiences they might not have had otherwise, from Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor to Pittsfield State Forest in the Berkshires.

We based our program on the hiking techniques developed by Northeast Passage of Durham, NH in which the use of a modified all-terrain wheelchair allows seated hikers to move off accessible trails onto more rugged terrain. While this can be an independent endeavor for athletic individuals, most often this is accomplished with teamwork, a process that works well for individuals, families and groups in a program structure.

“We didn’t think that everyone could participate but your mountain wheelchair and staff helped make it possible for a memorable hike for us.” -Neal Drew, teacher

The brand of chair we use is the Terra Trek chair by Motion Concepts. The current versions of this wheelchair do not offer the high clearance that chairs purchased 15 years ago did so we are always on the lookout for newer or better designs – some of which are noted at the end of this post.

The Terra Trek chair has held up well over time and continues to be the primary adaptive equipment in use at our programs. It features angled seating, mountain bike tires, and large front casters. We’ve added handles on the back of the chair, clothing guards, and most importantly, removable rickshaw poles that allow for one or two hikers to assist the chair user on the trail. The chair can be used for an entire hike or brought along to provide relief to anyone who can’t walk the entire distance.

“I would come even in the rain.  Hiking with this program gets me out in the world instead of home depressed.” - Sheila Collins, blind hiker

Our program welcomes ambulatory hikers as well. Staff is trained to be sighted guides for people with visual impairments. Those with balance issues benefit from the use of a gait belt which allows a second person to easily stabilize wearers of the belt by holding onto one of its many handles. Some faster or more energetic hikers may take a longer guided hike separate from the slower pace set by hikers with more severe disabilities. Everyone meets up again at the end of the outing to share experiences.
We rely on personal care attendants or family members to work 1:1 with individuals who need communication or behavioral assistance.  Often the programs are enriched by park interpreters who join the group and provide information and activities related to the location. Games are incorporated to engage participants who are waiting for others to be transferred into hiking wheelchairs and get ready. The program takes place May through October with dates scheduled around Massachusetts.

Wheelchair Options

For those wheelchair users who want to get out on the trail on their own there are some other chair options in New England. The Renegade Wheelchair from Maine allows for self propulsion using handles and can travel over the forest floor as well as rugged trails and snow conditions provided your are strong enough or willing to use the chair to develop your upper body strength. The Renegade can be used for hunting and even as a snowplow. Click here to read about the importance of field testing adaptive recreation equipment like the Renegade Wheelchair and the FreeWheel and SideStix mentioned below.

We recently checked out the new GRIT Freedom chair being built in Massachusetts. It features a modest, practical design incorporating a longer wheelbase and levers for self-propulsion. The Freedom Chair was developed for use and well-tested in third world countries - it is an economical choice and is probably most useful in semi-urban environments. Not being a wheelchair user, I always find the single-speed lever system a bit limiting, but the GRIT design allows for varying gears by the choice of where you put your hands on the long handles. Another feature I really like is the ability for the wheels to self lock if you are working your way up a hill so that you can rest without worrying about going backwards.

A still more economical choice is to use a FreeWheel to convert your own manual wheelchair into a more effective off pavement vehicle. The FreeWheel attaches to the footrest and lengthens the wheelbase which offers greater ease of use of rough lawn, curbs, and moderate trails in the familiar comfort of your own wheelchair.

While the above mentioned choices are all manual, the ultimate choice for an all-terrain chair for some users may be a power wheelchair. The Action Trackchair delivers on this count using a tank-like track system and even offers a standup option.

Ambulatory Aids

I hear from some participants who use rollators (rolling walkers with a fold down seat) that an all-terrain version would help them access more of the outdoors than the standard models designed primarily for indoor use. This has inspired me to look online, where I found the Veloped, the Soprano, and the Trionic - so there are options out there and I hope to try some out soon.

Otherwise, SideStix all terrain crutches work incredibly well to provide stability, traction and less strain on joints for Canadian crutch users. Good old-fashioned walking sticks or trekking poles can be wonderful support for anyone who needs a stabilizing aid on trails.

If you use other devices for hiking and find them effective, please share!

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