Hiking and Disability
I took Chewie, my dog, on an adventure. We ventured up a mildly climbing trail to the top of a mountain. The hike was only about a mile round trip. I scouted locations for future family and engagement shoots. While I walked, I felt incredible gratitude that I could manage the walk. And also a few moments where I considered my options when it comes to hiking and disability.
After all, I could almost hear the curious questions. How can you need Accessible Parking when you can hike a trail through the woods? How can you claim that you need a closer parking space when you are obviously capable of reaching the top of a mountain (a small, easy-going mountain)?
I could feel the weight of potential judgements.
So, in the spirit of sharing stories, here is exactly how I can hike with a disability. See, having a disability doesn’t mean that life ends. It doesn't mean locking myself in the house and throwing away the key. It means making constant decisions that find a new balance, one that can honor limits while still feeding my sense of adventure.
Having a disability is about limits, not about being unable to go anywhere. Yes, hiking is possible.
But how can I talk about limits when I can walk trails?
Because the nature of my disability challenges change often. I have days where the trails are laughable. Days where the fatigue is massive. I wake up knowing that I’m going to binge-watch TV and read books. Days where the trails are definitely totally completely out of reach.
Then, other days, I see the possibility. But I need certain conditions, and I have modifications, before going on any adventure. I consider:
- The trail itself- trails that are well maintained are my favorites. I need ground that is fairly smooth. Uneven ground or rough gravel exhausts me. Because I need to measure and plan each step, and because I tend to ‘balance check’ if I don’t land how I expected. The combination of my brain trying to manage all of the choices as far as where my feet land, then all the moments where I need to physically hold my center of gravity, quickly makes a hike tedious and exhausting. I can manage short patches, but winding trails over uneven ground are miserable for me.
- The length- I’m tapped out at about a mile. Which isn’t actually that far according to many trail guides.
- The climb- gradually sloping ground is way more attainable than steep climbs. Which makes sense on the uphill. What’s hard for people to understand at first is that downhill is just as hard for me. It’s all about the balance-checks, the mental planning, and holding a center of gravity.
- Rest stops- I need to take breaks. Often. Photography gives me a good excuse to stand and admire a view or a tree or a boulder. Or a wild rope swing that launches over a steep mountainside. I had zero desire to try the swing. And I wondered, who would ever try that swing?
- Going Slow- Or, from my perspective, how do you go so fast? I may seem like I’m walking slower, but in fact I am usually walking as fast as I can. If the ground is uneven, I need to calculate each step, and probably balance-check. What may seem like an ambling pace to you can be a demanding pace for me. I have learned to be ok with that. What is amusing to me is when people rest to wait for me, then hop up and start walking when they see me arrive, which gives me no chance to chill out at all… I’ve gotten better at taking my own rest breaks, but it gets tricky when they get too far ahead and I feel myself fading (especially when we don't have cell service, as often happens on our trails). I check in before we start in order to make sure that we don’t get too separated during the walk.
- Seeing the Ground- I am visually dependent on navigating my environment. My sensory feedback is slower or unreliable, so I look before stepping. When in a group, I often let people go ahead of me, then wait a bit so I can see what’s ahead by at least a few feet. Again, trails that are well maintained are my favorite. Trails that scramble over rough patches, or have crazy drop offs that require nimble footing are not my friends.
- Pacing- believe it or not, this has nothing to do with the trail. This has everything to do with my schedule for the day, the day before and the day after. I schedule my days. And if I have an activity or event at other times, I cannot go on a hike. I need to be sure that I can rest afterwards. That I can take the next day to recover if my system goes into a flare. I can never predict how an activity will trigger responses. Sometimes the cold weather aggravates symptoms, or stress, or an arriving storm. I have to look beyond the actual hike and be sure that I can give myself the room to feel successful and not overwhelmed.
- Fallout- Some hikes get done exactly once. Because the hurting afterwards is not worth the adventure. I have a short list of favorite hikes. Sometimes I learn the hard way that a trail is no longer accessible for me. Each time, my heart breaks a little. But I also look for new places to explore and discover that may be more suited to my limitations.
And that is how I go for a hike with a disability. Yes, I can walk farther than those close parking places (whenever I feel up to it, I park farther away). Disability is being Limited. So, while I can hike, my hikes are limited in meaningful ways.
I used to walk every single day. I walked to the river and the ocean. I got in messes sometimes, going too far or trying a challenging trail, but mostly it was about the time on the trail. Now, I have to consider a lot more before going for a hike. That won’t stop me from enjoying the chance to explore.
It’s worth the effort. On this hike, rain spattered on the trees. I forgot how rain makes a forest sing. Cool wind ruffled through branches. The time, the energy, and the recovery was worth it.
I need closer parking some days, I need support in areas for Disability Services, but I also need to get out in nature, find new horizons, explore and discover and live. Having one story (disability) doesn’t meant losing the other (adventuring).
Helping myself: I am also careful to hydrate, bring protein, eat protein before and afterwards, and (try to remember) a hiking stick, which makes a big difference.
Art print by Social Proper
Let's go adventures, disabilities and all...