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Parks and (inclusive) recreation

Why hiking is the new hot trend in accessible tourism. 

If you are hiking around in Tenerife, chances are you’ll catch sight of groups of hikers of the local non profit organisation Montaña para todos. Some walking, some on what is called a Joëlette chair, carried by two people – some also running with them. You might also catch sight of a group of friends or a family, where one person is climbing up a hilly spot on a rather rugged and muddy looking wheelchair, with two long handles on the sides that allow the rider to propel themselves forward and climb up on some tough terrains.

If hiking in the muddy outdoors and people with a mobility disability does not sound like an obvious association, this is just one of the thousand examples of how people can surprise one another, in particular when it comes to the topic of “abilities”. 

But what has been driving the increasing popularity of hiking among people with reduced mobility?

The right wheels make the road

Two different sets of wheels have literally “paved the road” to make the most of the outdoors for wheelchair users: joelettes for carrying people, and all-terrain chairs for independent users that allow them to climb ostacles.

A “chaise” from France, the Joëlette has now been going strong for over 30 years. Created in just two days in 1987 by Joël Claudel, a mountain guide whose nephew had muscular distrophy, it has ever since been produced by Joëlette&Co, part of a company called Ferriol-Matrat, based near Lyon, whose main activity is actually industrial subcontracting in tube processing. Different models exist, with one or two wheels, one for kids, and one with electric assistance. Imitated around the world, one interesting variation is the Becasine chair, made of wood, produced by a Belgian family in the town of Virton (update August 2023: the family of the inventor of the Becasine, David Enthoven, who died two years ago, is currently creating a non-profit association to continue the production of the trekking chair, and keep alive their father’s beautiful project).

a hike with a joelette: two  people, a man and a woman, carry a woman on the chair on some hills.
© Association Nataph

Joëlette chairs are a great option to take people of all ages to explore the outdoors, and can be packed in a car boot, which makes it a really nice solution for families too.

To organise a hike, you usually need to have 4 people for each person in a joëlette, as 2 carriers are needed (one at the front and one at the back) and after an interval they need to swap to get some rest.

For this reason, the offer of outdoors hikes of this type is either via a private company (rather expensive option) or a local volunteers organisation (non profit and either for free or a small fee). Sometimes these associations can be difficult to find, because their websites are mostly in the local languages, but there are more opportunities out there than would seem. A good online search will do wonders if you are looking for an outdoors escape or for some inspiration for your next holiday. (at the end of this article you will find two).

The other types of chairs that have really pushed the agenda of hiking for people with reduced mobility are the Grit chair and the Mountain Trike. Both types of all-terrain wheelchairs allow the hiker to use the front handles to propel themselves forward and upwards, and can come with electrical assistance as well.

One of the best things about the Grit chairs is their super enthusiastic community: both the adult users and the parents of younger Grit climbers are a delightful bunch, and you can meet them in the Facebook group Beyond the pavement – by GRIT. Join this massive group, which now counts almost 3000 members, for some fun pictures and great tips on beautiful hiking spots around the world. 

A young man showing how a Grit wheelchair works and all the technical details of the chair like frame and wheels size and material
Anatomy of a GRIT chair

The Mountain Trike also has a lot of enthusiastic users, like those who appear in the video below, and who discuss the pros and cons and show in practice how they use their wheelchair off roads, in some serious muddy paths by the way.

Hiking & advocacy: Disabled Hikers

Another very interesting initiative is Disabled Hikers, a movement created 5 years ago by nature lover from the US Syren Nagakyrie, who describe themselves as “writer, activitist, spoonie”. Their initiative has been quickly growing and it’s not just about the exchange of tips on places to hike. At the time this article was initially published, in January 2023, Nike, the popular sports apparel brand, launched a campaign on their Social Media channels featuring Syren and some of the participants of the Disabled Hikers movement, who were filmed and interviewed during a hike in the woods.

“Disabled Hikers creates a sense of belonging that society tries to refuse us in a lot of ways”.

Syren Nagakyrie

Founder of Disabled Hikers

With the slogan “Building Disability Community and Justice in the Outdoors”, Disabled Hikers has become an effective instrument to advocate for improving the accessibility of natural parks, giving detailed descriptions of trails for people with mobility disabilities – and educating people to respect hikers who have a disability, sometimes hidden ones, and enjoy nature together. 
Syren published the first hiking guide for all in 2022. The Disabled Hikers Guidebook to Western Washington and Oregon is their first and hopefully the first of a long list (please come to Europe too, Syren!).
Find more information on the website of the Disabled Hikers movement, follow the Instagram channel of Disabled Hikers and join the thousands of members of the Disabled Hikers Facebook group.

Useful contacts if you want to hike

Both the associations listed below offer outings for families, individuals and groups, and trainings on how to organise an outing with people with reduced mobility in joëlettes.

Association Nataph
Carrer de l’escola
6655 Nohèdes

Montaña Para Todos

beautiful landscape of Gran Canaria with deep blue sky and the brown and green mountains

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Parks and (inclusive) recreation