By Lisa Jhung • September 16, 2022
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is being talked about across industries, and that’s a very, very good thing. (And it’s about time.) But when we think of DEI, specifically in the realm of trails and trail users, do we think about adaptive trail users: recreationalists who use a hand cycle, wheelchair, or other mobility aid, carbon blade or other prosthetic, or those who are visually or hearing-impaired?
If we don’t, we should.
“Accessibility, from a legal stance, does mean something consistent,” says Quinn Brett, a consultant on adaptive trails and handcycle athlete. “It means that there are laws to get into a doorway, a bathroom. Trails on federal lands for outdoor developed areas have a minimum width of 36 inches, exceptions do exist.”
Brett explains how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for cities and local governments and Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) for federal lands cross-reference each other, and how builders or all sorts, including trail builders, should be cross-referencing both.
While certain standards, like a trail being at least 36 inches wide and having passing zones, are part of earning a trail a “little blue wheelchair” on its signage, says Brett, the matter of what makes a trail adaptive-user accessible is far from a simple matter.
“Many trails are never going to meet those standards, which is okay,” says Brett, “but my work is to get trail managers, with all the new technology we have in trail building, to not throw in the towel because it’s too hard, or because of fear, in making trails accessible. It shouldn’t be always or never.”
International Mountain Bicycling’s Executive Director and Trails Are Common Ground’s organizer David Wiens agrees. “I had someone open my eyes to the fact that it’s not just making the trails wide for handcycles and other mobility-assist bikes. It’s that the range of disabilities is huge. Capabilities are different. Beyond differences in trail users utilizing carbon blades, or visually impaired users, even two athletes in handcycles who have different experiences—or, needs—on the same trails.”
Adds Brett, ”There’s a giant spectrum.” For instance, Brett and others who like to ride challenging trails want more than a paved one-mile trail near a visitors’ center.
Brett explains how she knows the trails around Rocky Mountain National Park like the back of her hand from exploring them as a professional climber before her accident in 2017. Because of her past experiences, she knows that some of the trails, though not designated “Adaptive,” can be used in her handcycle. For that reason, she wishes there was more information out there about the following: Maximum cross slope, maximum running slope, minimum width, service type, and length.
“We are updating our signage in the National Parks System, however slowly,” she says. “That type of information would be useful across the board.”
The Need for More Information
The lack of trail descriptions applicable to adaptive trail users is “the big crux,” says Brett. She, and many adaptive trail users, scour websites like MTB Project, AllTrails, and Strava, and say that photos are really the most helpful.
Knowing the cross-slope angles, for instance, would help a handcyclist or wheelchair user decide if the trail is too tippy for them, or having information like a super-tight switchback that wouldn’t allow a handcycle to pass through. Quinn says she wishes a website or app existed that was dedicated to this kind of information. Still, the information wouldn’t be uniform for all adaptive trail users.
“At the end of the day, the goal is that adaptive users, just like able-bodied users, can go to a trail and get the experience they’re looking for.”Dave Wiens, Executive Director, IMBA
Quinn and Trails are Common Ground member Joe Stone have been working with trail system managers nationwide to help develop trails, and to increase information available. Other consultants, like Jeremy McGee, are working with apps/websites like TrailForks to give trails a rating system for adaptive users. The challenge, however, is that what’s considered a “green” run to one adaptive trail user might be considered a “black” run to another, based on mode of recreation. Still, some information is better than none.
“Our voices are getting louder,” says Brett, who points to progress on the adaptive trail and information front happening in places like Bend, Oregon, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Teton Mountain Resort, Wyoming.
Both Brett and Wiens acknowledge that today’s machinery—with wide bench cuts—easily allows for making adaptive trails. ”You could check two boxes by making sure, especially for beginner trails, that they meet the adaptive specs,” says Wiens. “Then it’s a beginner trail and it’s adaptive-friendly. Then you learn how to do that with a blue trail, then a black trail.”
It’s all about progress. “The trail building industry has an important role to play,” says Wiens. “The adaptive trail isn’t asking for every trail. But if we can increase the amount of trails that are, then we’re getting somewhere.
“At the end of the day,” adds Wiens, “the goal is that adaptive users, just like able-bodied users, can go to a trail and get the experience they’re looking for.”
Progressive Trail Networks
The following trail networks and organizations are at the cutting edge of building and expanding their offering of adaptive trails, encouraging more adaptive trail users in general.
Catalyst Sports, nationwide
Adaptive Sports Center, Crested Butte, Colorado
Challenged Athletes Foundation, San Diego, California
Kelly Brush Foundation, Burlington, Vermont
Oregon Adaptive Sports, Bend, Oregon
Walden Ridge Park, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Teton Adaptive Sports, Jackson, Wyoming
Lisa Jhung is a writer, editor and author who thrives on bringing to life the sports that she loves. Lisa has written two books: “Running That Doesn’t Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)” (Running Press, 2019), and “Trailhead: The Dirt on All Things Trail Running,” (VeloPress, 2015). Learn more at lisajhung.com.