Guide to Accessible Outdoor Recreation

Guide to Accessible Outdoor Recreation

Posted on: August 14th, 2020

Outdoor activities provide an abundance of benefits to a person’s physical and mental health. Spending time outdoors alone can be thought of as a “prescription for better health,” fostering increased concentration, more exercise, and higher vitamin D levels. Many activities enjoyed outdoors, however, may present obstacles to individuals with disabilities or impairments. Without the appropriate equipment or accessibility features, these individuals may have trouble sharing in the fun — and the health benefits.

The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 was Congress’s first step towards combating barriers to accessibility and expanding the reach of U.S. public land and facilities to individuals with disabilities. Since then, further standards have been established by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure that hiking trails, campgrounds, beaches, and more areas are open to people of all abilities. Specialized equipment and devices have been made to further aid accessibility, and online resources have been created to answer accessibility concerns. The regulations, adaptive equipment, and resources will be discussed in more detail below.

#1Accessible Camping and Hiking

Hiking and camping are two great ways of exploring nature and reaping all its benefits. Fully immersing yourself in the woods, whether for a day or for a night, is an experience no one should miss out on, regardless of ability. With ADA regulations and adaptive gear, nature is now more accessible than ever.

According to the ADA’s Equal Access to Parks and Recreation passage, new or altered parks and recreation facilities “must comply with the ADA Standards for Accessible Design (ADA Standards), which require the inclusion of features such as accessible parking spaces, routes, toilet facilities, public telephones, and spectator seating areas.” Parks and recreation facilities are now routinely surveyed and modified to include those features.

Below are a few accessibility features to look out for:

  • Adequate parking spaces - Handicap-friendly parking spaces are located at the shortest distance from a facility or site’s point of entry. They feature an accessible route that never has stairs or curbs. According to an ADA Compliance Brief, these routes must be at least 3 feet wide with a slip-resistant surface.
  • Widened, flattened trails - Hiking areas can be made accessible with widened, flattened trails. Such trails provide a smooth surface for wheelchair users.
  • Large, flattened campsites - Large, flattened campsites provide accessibility in the same manner as trails mentioned above.
  • Accessible picnic areas - New or altered picnic tables must have mobility features that allow wheelchairs and other devices at the table.
  • Beach or shore access - Beaches and shores need to be fitted with ramps and railings to provide accessibility. Some public beaches also offer “beach wheelchairs” free of charge, albeit on a first-come, first-serve basis. These wheelchairs are designed with larger wheels, allowing them to move around on sand more easily.
  • Fishing piers and dock access - Similarly, fishing piers and platforms must be ADA compliant, featuring accessible routes and maneuvering space.

Always do your research before heading out, and don’t be afraid to call a campground ahead of time — you may be able to make a reservation. Parks and recreation employees may also be able to provide more information regarding any lingering accessibility concerns.

ADA Accessible Hiking Trails

All new or altered pedestrian trails are required to be ADA compliant, whether they are public or private. According to ADA regulations, a trail is defined as “a route that is designed, designated, or constructed for recreational pedestrian use or provided as a pedestrian alternative to vehicular routes within a transportation system.” Pedestrian trails must be a specific tread width in respect to the amount of land available for the trail. There must also be a designated trailhead, or point of access, with information kiosks, restrooms, parking spaces, and so forth.

Resources for accessible hiking trails are included below:

  • TrailLink - TrailLink helps you find wheelchair-friendly trails across the U.S, and provides descriptions, photos, and other pertinent information regarding your excursion.
  • Federal and State Websites - Many federal and state websites, such as the U.S. Forest Service, list accessible trails throughout different regions of the country or state.
  • U.S. National Parks Access Pass - The U.S. National Parks offers a free, lifetime Access Pass for individuals who have been “medically determined to have a permanent disability.” The pass grants entry into more than 2000 recreation sites across the U.S.

Accessible Campsites

In the same vein, new or altered camping facilities are required to have a certain number of accessible units in accordance with ADA regulations. Accessible campsites ideally feature level terrain, handicapped parking spaces, and accessible restrooms and picnic tables. Some accessible campsites may also offer electrical outlets for individuals with medical devices.

Below are a few ways to find accessible campsites:

  • Federal or State Websites - Many federal and state websites, such as, list accessible campsites through different regions.’s website, for instance, allows you to apply an “accessibility” filter to locate suitable campsites.
  • AmeriDisability - AmeriDisability lists 7 of the most accessible campsites in the U.S. These campsites are located in California, Oregon, Virginia, Florida, and Maine.

#2Accessible Outdoor Activities and Sports

In addition to hiking and camping, there are several adaptive outdoor sports and activities to enjoy. Using a wheelchair does not have to mean you cannot participate in these outdoor sports or activities. With the right equipment and a little creative thinking, modifications and accommodations can be made.

Adaptive Paddle Sports

Adaptive paddle sports are an excellent outdoor activity for people who use wheelchairs. Being out on the water can provide a newfound sense of independence and control. Paddle sports include kayaking, canoeing, and rafting, just to name a few.

A few modifications that can be made to increase accessibility include:

  • Outriggers for watersports - Outriggers for watersports are designed to increase stability and decrease the chances of capsizing. These devices can be used on kayaks and canoes, among other vessels. They consist of two floats, one on each side of the vessel, that act as stabilizers.
  • Modified paddles - Companies, such as Creating Ability, make paddles with disabilities in mind. Individuals with reduced hand or wrist mobility may need paddles modified to their abilities and this company does just that.
Adaptive paddling
Modified paddling at a lake with friends

Resources for those interested in adaptive paddle sports include:

Assisted Horseback Riding

Assisted horseback riding is suggested to have therapeutic benefits based on research performed in 2017. The research showed positive mental and physical effects on individuals with disabilities, including those with physical disabilities. Similar to adaptive paddle sports, assisted horseback riding can mimic the sensation of walking, thereby building confidence and providing some independence.

Like any sport, safety precautions must be made and the proper equipment used. Helmets, safety or breakaway stirrups, mounting platforms and ramps, and saddles made specifically for riders with disabilities with shock absorption, soft padding, and back support are common pieces of equipment needed.

Resources for those interested in assisted horseback riding include:

  • Move United - Move United finds assisted equestrian programs near you, as well as provides information on adaptive equipment.
  • TrailLink - TrailLink can be used to find horseback riding trails.

Adaptive Bicycling

Adaptive bicycles are designed to fit the needs of the individual rider. With a variety of bicycles to choose from, riders of all abilities can find the one that best suits them.

Types of adaptive bikes include:

  • Recumbent bikes - Recumbent bikes (or trikes) seat riders in a reclining position. Types of recumbent bikes include the delta and the tadpole. The delta bike has two wheels in the back and one in the front. They are easy to get on and off of, easy to maneuver, and often capable of attaching to another delta bike — for those unable to or uncomfortable with riding alone. The tadpole bike has two wheels in the front and one in the back, providing enhanced stability when turning at faster speeds. These bikes may be more difficult to get on and off of than delta bikes.
  • Tandem bikes - Tandem bikes are built for two, allowing a person with a disability to be accompanied. These are ideal for people with visual impairments. Moreover, upright tandem bikes are designed for smaller riders to sit in the stoker (front) seat.
  • Kids trikes - Similar to other adaptive bikes, kids trikes are designed with three wheels to ensure stability. Many kids trikes come with adjustable handlebars and pedals to be modified as they grow.
  • Handcycles -As the name implies, handcycles rely on your hands and arms to gain speed rather than your feet and legs. These bikes are ideal for individuals with lower body disabilities or impairments.
  • Hybrid bikes - Lastly, hybrid bikes combine two or more elements of the bikes mentioned above.

Riders should always remember to use the proper safety gear, such as helmets, knee pads, gloves, and so forth, and go at their own speed and comfort.

Adaptive Skiing and Snowboarding

Adaptive skiing and snowboarding uses specialized equipment, opening up winter sports to people with a range of abilities.

Types of adaptive skiing, boarding, and snow equipment are:

  • Outriggers for skiing - Outriggers for skiing are essentially ski poles, but with little skis attached to the end of them. These outriggers provide extra points of contact, offering more balance.
  • Mono-ski - As the name implies, a mono-skis is a single, wide ski. These can be used with outriggers.
  • Bi-ski - A bi-ski is a sit-down ski with two ski blades. These can also be used with outriggers.
  • Tethers - Tethers are attached to the tips of both skis and used by a skiing instructor or companion to assist riders with stopping and turning.

Resources for those interested in adaptive skiing or boarding include:

  • - showcases the latest adaptive ski gear, resorts with adaptive ski programs, and teams or clubs to join.
  • Special Needs Travel Mom - “Special Needs Travel Mom” is a blog providing adaptive skiing locations, advice, and other mother-approved recommendations.
  • Local Organizations - If you live near the mountains, a quick google search should help find adaptive skiing organizations in your area. Oregon Adaptive Sports, for instance, accommodates skiers of all abilities in the northwestern U.S.

Vehicles for Outdoor Recreation

Motorized vehicles can be used to expand access to outdoor recreation. These vehicles can range from motorized wheelchairs and mobility devices to ATVs, UTVs (Utility Terrain Vehicles), and OHVs (Off-Highway Vehicles). Each of these vehicles needs the appropriate equipment to move in and out of trucks. Loading ramps and carriers are easy ways to move and transport motorized vehicles.

According to ADA regulations, state and local governments, businesses, and nonprofits that serve the public are required to be accessible to individuals using power-driven wheelchairs or other mobility aids. This generally includes outdoor recreation areas, such as parks and other public lands. Restrictions are made only when there are legitimate safety concerns (such as terrain, facility size, etc.) or when the use of a motorized vehicle risks serious harm to environmental, natural, or cultural reserves.

Resources for those interested in using motorized vehicles for outdoor recreation include:

Accessible Hunting

There are plenty of accessible opportunities to connect with the outdoors and participate in hunting sports.

Resources for those interested in hunting include: