More than 38 million households camped at least once in 2017, most of them, families with children. According to the 2018 North American Camping Report, participation grows almost 20 percent per year as people recognize the important physical and emotional benefits of getting outdoors.
If you have a child with a disability or special need, however, the idea of camping or outdoor recreation can offer unique challenges. “When I first started in my wheelchair, I wasn’t out looking for accessible camping spots. Often times the ground was really uneven and, in addition to being tough to roll around, it was also tough to find a flat spot to sit,” remembers Craig Kennedy, founder of AccessAnything.net, and an avid outdoorsman who was disabled in a skiing accident.
At the time Kennedy began using a wheelchair, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had only been in existence for five years, so “access back then still needed a lot of work,” adds Kennedy. Now, after nearly 30 years, things have changed, and getting out into Colorado’s beautiful wilderness is achievable and accessible.
Having a disability can be isolating, but camping can bring family members of all abilities together. “Kids don’t want to be left out of anything, and oftentimes children with disabilities get left out of activities or don’t get invites to other kids’ parties,” explains Kennedy. “So, this isolates the child but also isolates the parents that can’t socialize without a babysitter.” But, he says, “even if you’re in a wheelchair, you can gaze at the stars, roast marshmallows by the fire, and sleep in a tent. There’s tremendous self-esteem in being independent and having the ability to participate in activities without limitations.”
In addition, getting outdoors also offers a wealth of basic physical benefits no matter your ability levels. New research from the University of East Anglia in England confirms an association between access to natural green spaces and significant health benefits, including better sleep duration and reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels.
Also, The Outdoor Foundation shows that adults who were introduced to the outdoors as children are more likely to keep it up into adulthood.
Kennedy believes the state has made progress in making the outdoors more accessible over the last 20 years, as the ADA has been revised and improved over time. Also, he says, “more and more people are disabled each year due to wars and extreme sports. And when these people get hurt, they get back on the horse and keep looking for that adrenaline rush.”
“People with disabilities have become more and more active over the past couple of decades, and trends show that they are traveling more, too,” Kennedy says.
In Colorado alone, there are nearly 300 campsites that are ADA accessible and include features like level tent sites, extended picnic tables that are easy to roll under, accessible restrooms, and paved or crushed gravel paths from car lot to campsite.
One of Colorado’s resources for accessible camping is Wilderness on Wheels (WOW) located on highway 285 near Grant, just two miles from Kenosha Pass. Amenities include level campsites (public restrooms nearby but no showers), easy access from parking lot to campsite on gravel paths, and wheelchair accessible huts. The campground supplies wood for free, for all campers with disabilities.
WOW offers individuals with disabilities easy access to fishing and camping, and a mile-long eight-foot-wide boardwalk that gently climbs up to 9,000 feet. The boardwalk follows a trout stream and takes visitors to a stocked and accessible spring-fed pond. Fishing equipment is available, free of charge, on a first-come first-served basis.
For families that want to make it an overnight excursion, camping options include 13 tent sites and five level-entry huts, free to visitors, as well as one rustic cabin and a more modern cabin with plumbing, for a modest nightly donation. Reservations are always recommended.
The National Sports Center for the Disabled (NSCD) in Winter Park offers hosted camping at Jim Creek, a fully accessible campground at the foot of James Peak. The campground is easily reached via a short boardwalk and wood chip trail. While NSCD asks that participants be independent in self-care or have a personal care provider join them, staff will rent participants’ equipment, set up camp, and prepare meals. Families can also reserve a spot at Jim Creek and camp independently.
Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports (STARS) will be introducing an Outdoor Explorers program this summer for teens in sixth grade and up. The four-week program will help participants build the skills and confidence needed to camp and participate in outdoor activities independently.
“These programs offer a great way for a disabled individual to build confidence and a level of comfort with outdoor recreation,” explains Kennedy. “Once you know what you are capable of doing, you open yourself up to more opportunities.”
What to Bring
In addition to basic camping gear, Kennedy offers a few recommendations:
- A cot, for individuals that are not self-transferring
- Square-shaped sleeping bags or backcountry quilts
- Headlamps for hands-free lighting
- Mountain bike wheels on the wheelchair, or an all-terrain chair. Practice rolling over uneven surfaces before you go.
- Family or “glamping” tents with a generous opening (the CRUA Outdoors Crua Tri, for example)
- Extra warm clothing for any camper who can’t regulate temperature well
“Camping can be a great equalizer for anyone with a disability,” concludes Kennedy. “As a kid, you can share an experience with your peers or feel a sense of belonging. As a parent, you are helping your child build a lifelong confidence in and love for the great outdoors.”
Get the Most Out of the Accessible Outdoors
- National Park Service Information on the best places to hike, fish, and camp.
- Colorado Parks & Wildlife Up-to-date information on ADA compliant campsites, trails, and accessible resources across the state.
- Columbine Pass A discounted annual pass that grants Colorado residents with permanent disabilities access to any Colorado state parks.
- National Park Service Access Pass A free lifetime pass to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges, for individuals with permanent disabilities. May include a 50 percent discount on fees charged for activities and services, such as camping, swimming, and interpretive services.
- TrailLink Find the state’s top-rated wheelchair accessible trails and share reviews and photos.
- Accessible Nature Insights on accessible camping and hiking in Colorado and across the United States.
- AllTrails Locate “wheelchair friendly” trails nearby, pull up trail maps, and find driving directions, reviews and photos from other nature lovers.
- Outdoor Buddies An organization that pairs mobility-disabled individuals with a partner to assist them while hunting and fishing.