We have kids and a mobility impairment. Here’s how we make hiking part of our family outings.
For as long as we’ve been parents, we’ve taken our kids hiking, starting when Connor was just a couple of months old. Besides being a mother, Jodie is an above-the-knee amputee who uses a prosthetic leg. Here are some things we’ve learned about hiking with limited mobility, and with children, along for the trail.
Mobility, health, and safety considerations
Disabilities, limited mobility, accessibility, and mobility conditions all mean different things and take different forms for different people. We’re offering only observations from our lived experience. Jodie is an above-the-knee, or ATK, amputee who uses a prosthetic leg with a microprocessor-controlled knee. Some things are more challenging for her than they might be for others, and some things are easier. Our kids are little mountain goats, but they still have shorter legs than we do (for now).
However you want to explore hiking with your children, limited mobility, or a combination, we trust you can figure out the right conditions and boundaries for your and your family’s circumstances. We’d also encourage you to talk with, say, a trusted medical professional before hitting the trail, especially if disability is a consideration.
Why you should trust us
Over the years, we’ve hiked with babies in carriers, toddlers on little legs, and kids old enough to explore more independently. That said, neither of us parents are going to be mistaken for Paralympic or Olympic athletes.
Our hikes don’t include all-day uphill and downhill battles. We aren’t tackling ice, or multi-month trails such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail.
Why in the world then, should you trust us for hiking advice?
We are simply parents who like to get outside with our kids. Living in Western Oregon means ample hiking and other nature opportunities abound within an hour of our front door.
Our hiking repertoire focuses on trails that need to be a good fit for our children and for Jodie. We’ve hiked trails throughout the American West, focusing on shorter hikes that work for our entire family.
Not only do we come back in one piece, we come back glad for the experience and ready for the next opportunity. We hope our trail-tested, parent-approved tips and experience help you do the same.
Short hikes are still hikes
Our hikes probably look pretty small to many people. A trail that’s only a half-mile, a mile, or maybe a couple of miles is a great sweet spot for us. The prep, drive, and hiking time typically work well with our day, and we can finish up tired and ready to be done, but not fatigued or sore for days.
Are the short trails we hike going to open out on some backcountry wonder that takes us to pristine lands hardly ever perceived by humans? Nope. And it doesn’t need to be. We’d much rather take a short hike to a waterfall that gives us the right amount of exertion, than do some long-distance trek that leaves Jodie sore and the kids exhausted.
Short hikes are still hikes. Outside time is still outside time. Going for a short hike is better than going for no hike. We embrace the short, easy hike. It gets us outside, together, and we experience beautiful, restorative nature with every step.
In our experience
The drive to Yakso Falls, east of Roseburg, Oregon, took longer than the hike itself. However, the drive wound through hills and forests in southern Oregon. The parking area was inside a pond-side campground, and western hemlocks covered the trail with thin branches full of short green needles.
The hike was not arduous, and we stopped here and there along the way for a rest or for the kids to clamber around on tree trunks or rocks. And the waterfall itself? A lush, wide, and tumbling beauty. It was amazing to think that a short hike led to such a gorgeous waterfall.
What we pack for a family hike
Much of what we take on our hikes is the same as anyone else would take, such as the six essentials:
- A hat for each person
- Trail map
- Small first aid kit (ours came in a wee metal tin and is about the size of a deck of cards)
- Head lamp
We also take various cameras: at the least, our phones, usually a GoPro, and sometimes our Canon M50. On our family hikes, Anthony carries a small backpack with supplies for all of us. Inside, we’ll have:
- Hydration bladder with drinking tube
- Extra water, depending on the hike and conditions
- Various healthy snacks, and (such as energy bars, nuts, jerky, and/or fresh or dried fruit)
- Trail treats—such as our hiking candy, usually chewy Starburst candies (we find the tart-sweet combo really refreshing on a hike)
If need be, we’ll carry or pack light jackets, and maybe a warm layer such as a fleece. We aim to be pretty mindful about what we pack, especially since one person carries most of the gear.
What we pack for Jodie as an amputee
When you have a mobility condition, it’s useful to think ahead of tools, medications, or other supplies that you might need when you’re out on the trail.
Or, if there are things you can do beforehand that help you have peace of mind or a smoother experience, you can think through those tasks. For example, Jodie fully charges her leg the night before, so we know it has plenty of power for before, during, and after our hike.
Jodie hikes with her choice of one or two trekking poles. We sometimes carry a few simple tools and supplies for her prosthesis, such as a hex wrench, but typically we don’t need to pack anything particular to her prosthetic leg.
Start small and work toward the right distance and difficulty for you and your family
When we think about hiking, it’s easy to think about multi-day hikes involving expansive, panoramic views from mountaintops, or maybe some up-before-dawn adventure where you are out on the trail until late in the afternoon. That’s usually the sort of image we get from outdoor gear ads or travel stories. Sure, those sorts of hikes are their own valid experience, but they’re not for everyone.
Hiking looks very different for our family. For us, going on a hike typically means a couple of miles or less. While Jodie can handle some elevation changes, the flatter the trail, the better she can hike it. We hike for enjoyment, not for exertion or an expedition. Hiking gets us outside, gets us moving, and helps us take a break from our day-to-day work and school tasks.
We try to start small with hikes and try for longer hikes as we can. We rarely look to vary elevation difficulty much. If we stick to overall flatter trails, we typically can hike longer. For Jodie, hiking with limited mobility means that the more up and down there is a on a trail, the harder the exertion gets as the hike goes on.
In our experience
The same day of our Yakso Falls hike was going to include three other waterfalls, which were near each other on the same stretch of highway. The first three—Yakso Falls, Toketee Falls, and Watson Falls—would require short hikes; the fourth was right off the side of a road.
Watson Falls was going to be the most difficult, with the steepest sections and the most change in elevation. Some of the hike almost felt like walking up flights of stairs. In spots the creek was practically vertical, as if the entire section of hike was a jumbled-up waterfall.
Yet Jodie had been working toward exactly this sort of a hike for a while. She’d been walking more and doing some workouts at home. Going up the Watson Falls trail was challenging, and we were glad it was our waterfall hiking finale for the day. But we also handled the trail well, and while we were ready for a break (and a pizza) after, our hiking prep work had paid off for a really fun day where we got to take in four different waterfalls.
Is the trail described in terms such as stroller friendly, kid friendly, wheelchair, or ADA accessible?
Terms such as these can be useful indicators that the trail is worth a go when you are hiking with limited mobility, or you’re simply trying to set things up for success with your kids.
However, that doesn’t mean the entire trail will match up to that description. Sometimes trails are only partially paved, and then later become less-accessible material (we’re looking at you, pea gravel—Jodie finds that stuff hard to walk through). A trail might start out wide and flat, then become narrow, steep, and bumpy. Sometimes trail descriptions discuss how much of a trail is accessible, or give an indication of the length that is wheelchair friendly. Not always, though.
In our experience
The trail through the redwoods grove in Hendy Woods State Park, California, was wide, mostly fairly flat, and curvy. We enjoyed the long sightlines of the trees, and felt like we were in an enclosed, private world. With the help of her hiking poles, Jodie could easily move along the trail, while the kids scrambled up and down behemoth redwood trunks.
Had Jodie been using a wheelchair, it may have been a different experience. Some of the trail was accessible, and informational signs at the trailhead did a pretty good job of describing trail conditions. However, some areas of the trail had dips, or were softer on the surface than others, which could have made traversing the trail in a wheelchair more challenging.
What one person considers kid friendly or accessible might not match up with your parameters
Trail descriptions, if they exist at all, do not come down from on high, from some all-knowing authority on every hiking condition or consideration. Descriptions are always going to be subjective, and rarely written with kids or mobility in mind.
Hiking with limited mobility takes different forms for different people. What is accessible for one person might not work at all for Jodie, and vice versa. When taking trail descriptions under consideration, we try to go through various descriptions or reviews on sites such as All Trails or Oregon Hiking. If we can sum up enough perspectives, we figure the trail is worth trying out. If need be, we can always turn back—and we don’t hesitate to do so.
Again, a short hike is still a hike. It can be disappointing if a trail doesn’t work out the way we hoped, but typically we still are glad to have gotten outside and made the attempt.
Trails can change as we go along. When we hike, we know we may need to turn back. For example, we’ve encountered trails that go through running water. While tromping through a creek is a wonderful experience, water and prosthetics are typically best kept separate. When we’ve encountered trails like these, we usually turn them into a stopping point. The kids splash around for a while (well, time of year permitting). We have a snack and a break, and when we’re ready, we turn back toward the trailhead.
In our experience
A hiking expert had described the trails to Oregon’s Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls as kid friendly. Once we got out there with our own two small children (and one elderly dog) though, we might add an “ish” to that description.
Much of the trail was indeed child friendly. However, it was not uncommon to come to narrow sections over straight tumbles down to the water. For Jodie, navigating those sections could also be tricky. The narrow ledges and wet, slippery ground made it more likely that she could slip and fall herself. Our bigger concern, though, was the children, as they could be more likely to slip on those smaller legs.
Now, we made it just fine. Aster and Connor are good listeners on the trail, and they also are fond of their own self-preservation. Jodie knows how to navigate tricky spaces, and Anthony is always there for backup. Still, at some of those sections, we stopped to deliberate if we thought it was okay to go on.
We don’t blame the expert either. A trail can be kid-friendly one day, but not so much another, and one parent’s comfort level is another’s freakout zone. Maybe that narrow section used to be wider and had had a collapse. We don’t know. But we know that with any description of a hiking trail, it’s best to take it under consideration with a few doses of trust—and equal measures of skepticism. Hiking with limited mobility comes down to understanding yourself, the trail, and the conditions as best you can, and making the best decision you can at the time.
Is there a turn-back point… or a tough-it-through point?
Some trails are out and back, and some go in a loop that takes you back to where you started. Either way, during the hike you may encounter a trail condition, a weather change, a body difficulty, or some other consideration that has you deliberating whether to continue onward or turn back.
As a family, we aim to be really frank and open about something that’s difficult on a trail. Those discussions help us understand needs or concerns, and that helps us stay safe in the outdoors. Sometimes we discuss a tricky area, and we decide we need to turn back. Other times, we press on. So far, it’s always worked out.
In our experience
At about three hours and around three and a half miles, our Koosah Falls and Sahalie Falls hike was the longest hike we’ve done as a family. We recognize that for some families, that might seem quite a feat, and for others that’s the sort of hike they might consider a warm-up for the real deal.
For us, though, it was a push. The wet conditions were typical for an Oregon October, and we had no illusions about the rainy day. When we debriefed about the hike on the drive home, we wondered if we might have had more peace of mind had we gotten to the trail earlier. By the time we got back to the car, the afternoon was getting late. We hadn’t been at risk of being on the trail in the dark or anything, but we were definitely feeling like it was going to be a big relief to see the parking lot.
When hiking with limited mobility, one of the hard things is figuring out if there’s a point at which you should turn around, and if you should just keep going. We knew our trail was a sort of combo trail. For a long stretch of it, we were actually on the side of the river opposite where the parking lot was. Either by turning around or pressing on, we could only get back across at two points. We considered turning back, but looking over our map, the time, snacks, and water supplies, we decided we could continue forward.
It all worked out, too. We felt a bit unnerved by the end, especially Anthony, since he was concerned about Jodie and the kids. Ultimately, we felt okay about toughing it through, but we’re also glad we had a process to talk things over and make the best choice we could.
Divide and conquer?
This is really tough, and so far we’ve only had to deal with it twice.
However, even though we aim to do things all together as a family, there are simply times when we encounter something on a trail that presents us with a choice of turning back, or Jodie staying behind while Anthony and the kids continue on farther.
This circumstance sucks. Typically, we’d rather turn back than split up. Under very particular circumstances, though, we might have Anthony and the kids go on a little more, while Jodie waits at a set spot. It’s not our preference though, and we work to have that separate time be as short as possible.
In our experience
Northern California’s Sue-Meg State Park has incredible beaches and tide pool opportunities. You just have to wind your way down a cliff-hugging trail to get down to the beach.
Prior to tackling this wee trail, Anthony had visited the park’s visitor center and talked extensively with a volunteer about trail conditions, hiking with limited mobility, and what could be a good fit for Jodie and the kids. The volunteer was wonderful, knew the area well, and suggested a spot where we could do some tide-pooling later that morning. She also talked through a tricky point near the bottom of the trail where there was a sort of steps made of lumber and sand, almost like a walking ladder you used to get down to the beach.
As the four of us made our way down the trail, we reached this ladder. However, a stretch of it was simply timbers sloping through the air, down to the beach. There was nothing to hold on to, no sort of railing, and it was too high a distance to jump down to the sand. The only thing between the wood was open space, making it easy to slip through and challenging to get the right foothold or traction with a hiking pole.
Jodie looked it over, but could not identify any route or way down that might be a fit for her mobility and safety. However, where we wanted to go tide-pooling wasn’t far, and the beach was broad and long, with great sight lines.
Ultimately, we talked it over and decided that she would hang out at the top of the sand ladder while Anthony and the kids went on to the shore. We came back soon though. Making our way back up, Jodie told us about the birds she had watched and the way the clouds moved. Anthony and the kids told her about the tide pools, the rocks we clambered over, and the little sea snails, anemones, and other critters we observed in between the waves coming in and out of the Pacific Ocean.
Accessibility is a spectrum, and so is hiking with limited mobility
Hiking with limited mobility can take many forms. Not every person who needs an accessible trail needs one because they use a wheelchair. Some, like Jodie, are amputees. Others may have bad hips or knees, and need to keep those considerations in mind when they hike. A trail could be a cinch for someone using a wheelchair, and difficult for someone with a messed-up knee. For Jodie, one side of her body always has to work harder than the other, and that can get exhausting, especially on slippery ground and steep sections.
Accessible trails can be great for small children, or for when an adult is pushing a stroller. Anything that helps someone have a good hike makes it more likely they’ll want to do another hike. We find that accessible or kid friendly trails give us incredible experiences and moments as a family. And again, any hike is better than no hike.
Just as every person’s ability and mobility differ, trails differ too, as do trail conditions on any day. We love the hikes and hiking memories we have as a family. But we also know that we can change our minds about a trail, turn back, or make the right choice for the moment.
Our suggestions for hiking with mobility impairments
When you take a disability or mobility impairment into account, there is no one-size-fits-all scenario. What we evaluate might be different from what you consider. Here’s what we suggest as you make your choices about hikes:
- Short hikes are still hikes.
- Take essential safety gear, such as a hat, compass, trail map, first aid kit, whistle, head lamp.
- Start small and work toward the right distance and difficulty for you and your family
- Looks for trails described as stroller friendly, kid friendly, wheelchair accessible, or ADA accessible… and see how well you can corroborate those claims in online reviews.
- What one person considers kid friendly or accessible might not match up with your parameters. Everyone is different. The experiences of others can be informative, but ultimately you make the call for what’s right for you.
- Is there a turn-back point… or a tough-it-through point? Trust your instincts.
- Divide and conquer? If a segment is too tricky for you, but there is something beyond that was a priority, discuss if it’s worthwhile to briefly split up and then rejoin.
- Accessibility is a spectrum, and so is hiking with limited mobility. No matter how many guides, tips, videos, articles, and experiential accounts are out there, the choices you make always come down to your understanding of the hike, combined with your experience, confidence, and understanding of your abilities and impairments.
Whatever you decide, we want you to have an awesome time, no matter the trail.
Hiking trails are for people with mobility conditions too
Understanding our needs as individuals and as a family has helped us have wonderful hikes with our children. For Jodie, it’s also empowering to her to know that she can push her ability and mobility, she can experience the great outdoors in a way that works for her, but she also knows that when she needs to stop or turn around, she’ll be heard and respected.
After all, a family hike gets everyone outside, build memories of togetherness, and enjoy time in nature. Hiking with limited mobility might look different, but a hike is a hike is a hike. The more we keep those things as the focus of our hike, the better the day—and the sooner we want to get back outside and on the trail again.