By: Cory Lee

Hiking is a great outdoor activity that many wheelchair users can enjoy. Many national parks have wide, paved paths that give everyone the opportunity to be submerged in nature, enjoying the view from the trail and visiting waterfalls as well as wildlife. Unfortunately, there is a chance that something can go wrong on your hike, especially if you’re doing more natural trail-based hikes that are isolated and secluded.

These potential hiking problems focus on wheelchair users specifically, offering unique situations that may arise and options to help you overcome them to be able to continue hiking. Note: Many hikers found that having a trail buddy with them made many of the tough situations less disastrous.

Looking for accessible hiking trails that are safe and fun? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Accessible Hikes in America.

Potential Hiking Problems

Problem: The hiking trail is blocked, so you cannot continue or get back to base.

While you’re hiking, you may find that the path to your next campsite or back to your base is blocked. Potential blockages may include a fallen tree or a change in weather that creates a blockage like snow or a washed-out trail. This is a disaster because it can be difficult for wheelchair users to navigate the terrain beyond the marked trail, depending on the trail type and location.

The best way to overcome this disaster is to stay calm and assess the situation. Look at how the obstacle is blocking the path and think about how you can remove it. If it’s not possible, consider alternate paths around the blockage, as some trails have low vegetation or smooth ground on either side of the designated path. Another alternative is going back down the trail and using the trail map to take a different route. Sometimes trails connect within their network, which may give you another way to get to your next stop or back home.

Adult uses GRIT Freedom Chair hiking wheelchair on trail surrounded by greenery and with dog on leash

Problem: The weather changes rapidly and you’re caught in a storm. 

Depending on the hiking trail, especially if the trail increases in elevation, you may find that the weather at the base or beginning of the trail is drastically different than the weather down the trail. If the weather changes and you’re caught in a storm, the best option is to look for shelter. This may mean getting off the trail and finding a natural shelter or getting to the next stopping point on the trail if possible.

It’s always a good idea to hike with extra clothing to accommodate weather changes. If you’re caught in a storm, you may be able to continue hiking if you have rain gear or gear for the cold weather. You’ll want to keep moving if possible, as the longer the storm continues, the more it can impact the trail. Try to stay warm and dry, move along the trail, and look for potential shelter points while you hike.

Problem: You come across dangerous wildlife, such as a bear.

When spending any time outdoors, there’s a chance you’ll come across wildlife. Some people may even hike specifically to see the wildlife, as is the case during birding, foliage exploring, and foraging. But, if you’re out on the trail, you may encounter dangerous wildlife, such as a bear, moose, or snake.

The best way to overcome this disaster is to stay calm and stay put. Sometimes wildlife will continue on their way and may not even notice you on the trail if you don’t move suddenly and don’t try to get away as fast as possible. Staying calm, alert, and quiet while observing the situation can be enough. If you feel threatened by something larger than you, like a bear or moose, your reaction should depend on the animal. Make sure to research the kinds of predators in the area before hiking.

Person in GRIT Freedom Chair outdoor wheelchair smiles with camera and binoculars next to reflective water

Problem: You find yourself lost on the trail.

It’s best to carry a physical copy of the trail map when hiking, no matter the length of the hike or your familiarity with the trail. But if you find yourself lost on the trail, one of the only options may be to call for help.

Using a cell phone is the most likely method here, but some remote locations don’t have great cell reception. A good backup for this would be to have portable WiFi. Using a device like Skyroam will provide your own personal hotspot, so you can use your phone to call for help. This may be a daypack essential to offer peace of mind and provide a way to call for help while on the trail.

Problem: You hiked too long and are exhausted, so can’t get back to base.

A hiking disaster you may encounter is that you plan a hike, but it takes longer than you were expecting and you find yourself exhausted, unable to get back to base. The best way to overcome this is to try to stay calm and remember to rest. If you’re feeling depleted, taking a few deep breaths and stopping along the trail can help you recover.

Consider Car Camping! Car camping is a great way to get the most out of the outdoors while making sure you have all of the supplies you need. Click here to see the New York Times’ article on car camping necessities for wheelchair users.

During your hike, you should remember to stay hydrated by taking breaks and drinking water as well as having a snack if your hike has lasted a few hours. Taking breaks along the trail to enjoy the view as well as give yourself a break and have a drink can help increase your endurance and ensure you’ll make it to your destination with enough energy to finish the hike.

Wheelchair hiker smiles holding tops of levers of GRIT Freedom Chair on tree needle-covered hiking path

In Summary

As a wheelchair hiker, it’s important to be aware of and prepare for potential accessible hiking disasters and know how to overcome them. Heading out to the trail with a good knowledge base and some basic supplies will ensure your next hike is safer and more enjoyable.

To be prepared in order to avoid hiking disasters, remember to hike with a daypack that includes clothing, food, and survival supplies like a flashlight, whistle, and maybe even a WiFi hotspot. Hiking with a friend or two is always a good idea so you can work together and can quickly remove obstacles, navigate the map, and have a successful hike. These precautions, paired with researching the trail before you leave, and you’re well on your way to a safe excursion.

Originally posted September 23, 2020; edited October 25, 2021

Looking for accessible hiking trails that are safe and fun? Check out The Ultimate Guide to Accessible Hikes in America.

About the Author: Cory Lee

Cory Lee is the award-winning accessible travel blogger behind Curb Free with Cory Lee. He hopes to inspire others to roll out of their comfort zone and see all of the beauty our world has to offer.

Author Cory Lee smiles with rooftop view of city and water behind him in his wheelchair