Adapting Trail Trips for a Hiker With a Disability: A Family’s Advice

Posted 04/15/21 by Dan Brownstein in Trail Use, America's Trails

Dan, Michaela and Saul Brownstein, with their dog Rufus, on the Elephant Swamp Trail in New Jersey | Photo courtesy Dan Brownsteins

This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and-true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media.

My family and I have been members of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC) for a couple years now—and we have enjoyed exploring the many rail-trails in New Jersey where we live (and also trails in New York and Pennsylvania).  

During the COVID-19 pandemic, trails have been a lifeline for our entertainment and adventure in the tri-state area. My son, Saul, and I hike a trail or bikeway—or even an exciting walkway over a bridge (a few recently opened near us, including the Mario Cuomo Bridge, Bayonne Bridge and Goethals Bridge)—almost every weekend.

Brownstein family | Courtesy Dan Brownstein
Brownstein family | Courtesy Dan Brownstein

We have never met a trail we did not like. When you are on a community trail, you get to experience the local area. There is always so much to see, whether it is nature, residential, industrial … or the diverse people on the trail biking, running, walking or rollerblading (there are still a few out there!).

Saul is 22 and has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He has needed to use a power wheelchair full time since about age 14, but that has not stopped him from exploring the outdoors. Saul has traveled to 42 states and several foreign countries. He has skied, surfed and skated using adapted equipment for his disability. To that end, we’ve put together a few tips for those who may have a disability or a mobility challenge, and want to get out on the trail.

Accessibility and Rail-Trails

Saul Brownstein hiking on the Mario Cuomo Bridge (over the Hudson River) in New York | Photo by Dan Brownstein
Saul Brownstein hiking on the Mario Cuomo Bridge (over the Hudson River) in New York | Photo by Dan Brownstein

Rail-trails are great because they are usually ADA accessible. We’ve actually found RTC’s guidebooks, Rail-Trails: New Jersey & New York—and Rail-Trails: Pennsylvania—really useful; the “roughness index” and “surface type” listings in the books are extremely helpful to us—with trails marked with a 1 or 2 usually appropriate for a power wheelchair. If it’s been rainy, we only go on trails where the surface is asphalt (also marked in the book); you don’t want to be stuck in the mud in a 300-pound power wheelchair. 

Multiple Departure Times

Michaela Brownstein on the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail in New Jersey | Photo courtesy Dan Brownstein
Michaela Brownstein on the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park Trail in New Jersey | Photo courtesy Dan Brownstein

On any typical trail day, Saul and I will park at a trail endpoint, and I’ll depart first—biking the route. Saul will then start walking. I will then bike back to our van (passing Saul on my way back, who will have done almost half the trail) and then drive the van to meet Saul at a designated endpoint. This works well because I am covering the whole trail first, and I get to see if it will be wheelchair accessible for the entire length of his trip, or if there might be a problem, e.g., water in the trail, a hill that is too steep, a tree down, etc.

When there are issues, I can alert Saul and have him take a different route, if possible. If we go with my wife Michaela, then one of us will walk with Saul while the other drives to the other end.

Plan Ahead

Saul Brownstein on the Bayonne Bridge connecting New Jersey and Staten Island, New York City | Photo by Dan Brownstein
Saul Brownstein on the Bayonne Bridge connecting New Jersey and Staten Island, New York City | Photo by Dan Brownstein

Since Saul was very young, he’s never wanted to turn back or go home the same way. So Saul rarely comes back to the car—making the logistics a little more complicated, especially since most of the trails are in areas that we are not familiar with, but it works out. That said, be sure to plan ahead, checking map and weather reports before you depart from home. Also determine meeting points and alternate meeting points.

The RTC books have the trail’s mileage, so we can estimate the amount of time a trail will take to walk or bike for meet-up purposes. Saul’s wheelchair—with a relatively new battery—can go for at least 12 miles on an asphalt trail, but less on a dirt trail, so that has to be taken into account.

Technology

Saul Brownstein and Rufus at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in New Jersey | Courtesy Dan Brownstein
Saul Brownstein and Rufus at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park in New Jersey | Courtesy Dan Brownstein

Utilizing some type of tracking device gives us great comfort if, for whatever reason, we need to change plans. Cell phones with apps such as Find My Friends or Find My Iphone are great.

If you or one of your group are utilizing a wheelchair, bring a battery charger to charge the wheelchair battery, should it run low. We have a car charger and have also charged Saul’s wheelchair at restaurants.

Take pictures—it’s great to relive your trips through photos!

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After enjoying a day in the great outdoors, it’s off to Saul’s second favorite thing—eating out! We find a local restaurant and have a late lunch or early dinner.

RTC’s New Jersey guidebook lists 19 trails. Saul has walked on 18 of the 19 trails and plans to walk the last trail—in Cape May about three hours from our home—this spring! Saul loves to go for car rides and, unlike his Dad, doesn’t think a three-hour drive (one way) is a long drive (per Saul, ‘Oh, it’s not far’). Saul wants to eventually complete all 39 trails in the New York book, and all 70 in the Pennsylvania book! So far, he’s completed 12 in New York and 12 in Pennsylvania.

Saul Brownstein and Rufus hiking on the Monroe Township Bike Path in New Jersey | Courtesy Dan Brownstein
Saul Brownstein and Rufus hiking on the Monroe Township Bike Path in New Jersey | Courtesy Dan Brownstein

We hope this story will inspire others who have a disability or mobility challenge to utilize trails where they live and explore the great outdoors.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to email me at Brownstein@optonline.net.

Happy Trails!


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