ListenLarger documents may require additional load time.
Adaptive equipment for wilderness expeditions
Palaestra. 19.4 (Fall 2003): p25+.
Full Text: 

While outdoor recreation activities and adventure sports are on the increase in American society, it is more important than ever that all individuals have knowledge of how they may access their surrounding natural areas. Recent literature has discussed how to make natural areas such as state and national parks accessible and in compliance with the American with Disabilities Act (Lais & Passo, 2000; Sheldon, 1997). Many articles have described programs designed specifically for individuals with disabilities to gain access to the outdoors (Belson, 2001; Blyth, 1999; McAvoy & Estes, 2001; McAvoy & Lais, 2003). First person narrative reports have been published, such as Amanda Boxtel's expedition to Antarctica (2002) or the chronicle of Angela Madsen and Scott Brown's Catalina Crossing, a "32-mile rowing event from Marina Del Ray, California, to Catalina Island" (Madsen, 2003, p. 18). However, limited information has been provided relative to equipment individuals with disabilities may use to access the outdoors. The majority of the literature does not describe the tools necessary, but serves more as a narrative on programs and personal experiences. In this article, the authors describe equipment used by one organization, Wilderness Inquiry, that helps people with disabilities access wilderness settings.

Wilderness Inquiry (WI) is an organization structured to take individuals with all abilities into natural settings. For twenty-five years, the organization has designed a variety of inclusive outdoor programs and served over 150,000 people with and without disabilities. WI focuses on social integration through the outdoor experience to create an overall better integrated community. Participants can travel to varied areas of the world on a WI trip, including excursions such as 26-day canoe trip down the Porcupine River in Alaska, a three-day family vacation down the St. Croix River in Minnesota, a five-day trip paddling down the Allagash Waterway in Maine, or a two week safari adventure in South Africa.

Because of longevity of the organization, the directors and staff have had numerous opportunities to design new equipment appropriate for various disabilities and keep up-to-date on readily-available equipment and tools that may need little or no adaptations. While bulky gear designed for people with disabilities may sometimes be necessary, it can also make the user feel stigmatized. A stigma can be defined as "a label or category assigned by others to indicate an undesirable deviation from the standard or norm" (Sherrill, 1998, p. 21). Equipment that is special or different from what others on a trip may be using can cause the individual to feel isolated and apart from others in the group. Because equipment may take up more room or be bulkier or heavier than standard equipment, individuals may feel as if they are overburdening the leaders and other members of the group, even if they are family and friends. They may be called upon to assist in transporting or setting up the equipment in addition to their own responsibilities. A major goal of WI is to use equipment that is utilized by the mainstream camper as much as possible. Through years of experience the staff realizes that with a bit of ingenuity, most individuals can perform a majority of tasks with camping equipment found in most outdoor stores. The following sections discuss some of the tools Wilderness Inquiry and others use to make integrated programs successful, and how individuals may obtain these tools for their own personal use.

Adaptive Seats

Sling Seat

The sling seat is designed for people who are unable to sit upright in a standard canoe seat and/or safely sit in the bottom of the craft. It provides back support and lateral stability for the torso, shoulder, and head for individuals with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, and quadriplegia, as well as others who need a more supportive seating device. Along with greater stabilily, sling seats also can help protect the individual from abrasions and pressure sores.

Sling seats are hung by hooks from the gunwales of the canoe, either in one of the cargo areas or replacing the bow or stern seat. Holes must be drilled in the gunwales of the canoe to accommodate a sling seat. The seat can be hung lower in the canoe to allow individuals to sit with their knees slightly above their hips to compensate for a higher center of gravity (i.e., someone with an amputation or low muscle tone in the lower extremities) or limited balance.

Cushions can be added to the seat and back of the chair for a more comfortable ride. The support and high comfort level of the chair allow individuals with most disabilities to enjoy canoe trips of various lengths. Joelle, an individual with quadriplegia and cerebral palsy, found the chair comfortable while providing enough stability for her to use it during a four-day river trip down the Nemakogini River in Minnesota.

Universal Design Canoe Seat

This versatile portable canoe seat was developed to help stabilize the lower torso of the paddler, particularly those who cannot utilize their legs for bracing (spina bifida) or for individuals who have moderate postural stability (spinal injury, T11 or below). This piece of equipment clamps directly to the canoe seat.

The lower back cushions of the seat may be adjusted to accommodate varying levels of support needs. An additional upper-back support mechanism may be added, if needed, for upper torso stability (spinal injury, T-10 and above). A cushion can be placed on the seat for additional comfort and to relieve pressure on the buttocks and prevent pressure sores on extended trips.

Video Chair

This plastic seat provides similar support to a sling seat and will fit in most canoes. It is also useful in wider canoes and bigger boats where it is impossible to hang a sling seat from the gunwales. The video chair provides increased support for the upper body, as well as support for the neck and head. The chair should be cushioned if the individual has no sensation (i.e., paraplegia, quadriplegia, spina bifida) in order to reduce the risk of pressure sores. Joelle used the video chair, as well as the sling seat on a four-day river trip. She found it comfortable both for use in the canoe, as well as in the evening sitting around the campfire.

One downside to the video chair is that it is bulky to handle, and like the sling seat is not a traditional piece of camping or canoeing equipment; therefore, there is the potential for the user to feel stigmatized and apart from other group members. Nevertheless, the comfort and support the chair provides both in and out of the boat cannot go unrecognized.

Coleman Seat

A Coleman seatback is a heavy plastic backrest that clips on the standard canoe seat. It provides lower back support and limited support for the hips. Seats of this type could be used by persons with low level paraplegia. (i.e., still have use of trunk, abdominal, and hip muscles) or someone with cerebral palsy with leg involvement. A seat cushion may also be used for comfort and to relieve pressure on the buttocks. It is easy to attach to most canoe seats, and because it is a standard piece of equipment used by many canoeists, it may be less stigmatizing for the user. The first author often used this to support her own lower back region while canoeing.

Crazy Creek Chair/Wenonah Super Seat

The Crazy Creek Chair and Wenonah Super Seat are both popular, commercially available, camp seats that provide lower back support to persons with back problems or for anyone who just wants additional back support. Strapped to the existing canoe seat, both pieces of equipment provide a stable seat and support for the lower back, but provide little lateral stability. Individuals using either the Crazy Creek Chair or the Wenonah Super Seat have to have a high degree of trunk stability. Individuals may also choose to position either of these chairs in the bottom of the boat, either for comfort or to lower their center of gravity in the canoe to maintain canoe stability.

These chairs can be used in a variety of settings for camping, can be positioned on the ground or on another chair or bench. Although these two are very similar, the Crazy Creek Chair provides a higher back support than the Wenonah Super Seat; however, the Wenonah has more padding on the seat for additional comfort, support, and prevention of pressure sores.

Big Back Seat

This seat is similar to both the Wenonah and Crazy Creek Chairs, but offers much higher back support. Although this seat was designed for and is primarily used by kayakers, with some simple modifications (additional straps are added to the back of the seat and corresponding attachment clips added to the front of the seat) it can also be attached securely to a standard canoe seat. Because of the padded seat, lower and upper back support provided, paddlers with and without disabilities may want to utilize the Big Back for canoeing.

The higher back makes it especially beneficial for individuals who may lack abdominal and trunk strength and need the additional lateral support the higher back and side wings provide. Although it is less bulky than either the sling seat or the video chair, it provides good upper body support. For specific instructions on making the suggested adaptations to the Big Back contact Wilderness Inquiry.

Nada Chair

This commercially available device was developed to relieve back strain for individuals working for long periods of time in a sitting position. In a canoe the individual can sit either with knees up or legs crossed, and the Nada Chair provides support to the lower back. The widest part of the strap fits around the lower back, and the connecting straps fit over the knees and rest on the high part of the shin just below the kneecap. The knees assume some of the pressure from the lower back, placing less strain on the lower back when sitting for long periods of time.

The Nada Chair is recommended for individuals who have good trunk and abdominal stability (i.e., lower level paraplegia, spina bifida, cerebral palsy) or who just want to lessen back strain from slouching for long periods on canoe seats or around camp. Stan, paralyzed from the waist down, used the Nada Chair for canoeing to keep his legs from sliding under the seat. An additional benefit of the Nada Chair is that it is lightweight and easy to pack.

Roho Cushions and Jay Protector Cushions

Wheelchair cushions provide excellent protection from pressure sores while in the canoe or kayak. However, foam cushions absorb water. Roho cushions are made of rubber (i.e., completely water proof), are air-adjustable, and come in a variety of styles depending on the needs of the user. Along with comfort, various Roho cushion styles can be used to provide lateral stability, midline channeling of the legs, support for pelvic obliquities, and posterior position of the pelvis, as well as comfort and relief from pressure sores. These cushions can be beneficial for a large number of wheelchair users with paraplegia, quadriplegia, spina bifida, and cerebral palsy.

The Jay Protector is a cushion that can be used to reduce pressure points when an individual is sitting in the canoe or in any other chair or seat in or out of the canoe. It can be strapped around the person so the cushion stays in place during transfers and movement. Because it is fluid filled, it does not absorb water. These cushions can generally be purchased from the same source as sport wheelchair cushions or through medical supply websites or stores.

Boat Cushions

Standard boat cushions are extremely versatile and can be used to cushion, elevate, or provide support and can be used for additional personal flotation. It is recommended that all participants wear personal flotation devices (PFDs) while in the canoe or any boat. All individuals may enjoy the additional comfort of using a boat cushion. This is considered standard boating equipment that can be used easily to provide support for individuals of all abilities. These may be purchased at most boating stores and are much less expensive than the Roho Cushions or Jay Protector Cushions.

Lower Canoe Seats

Lowering the canoe seat lowers the center of gravity of the canoe, consequently making the canoe more stable and less tippy. Lowering the canoe seat may be necessary for individuals with very poor balance, extreme spasticity, or people who carry the majority of their weight above the waistline (i.e., paraplegia, double amputees). For canoes with riveted seats this can be done by removing the original rivets, drilling new holes, and re-riveting the seat. Patching the original rivet holes with silicon sealer is necessary.

If the Seats are bolted to the gunwales, remove existing bolts and spacers and replace them with longer bolts and spacers. This allows the seat to be lowered one to two inches. Check with canoe manufacturers, as kits for making these modifications are available commercially for many canoes.


One-Armed Paddle

A one-armed paddle is a modified paddle with a wrap-around brace (similar to the design of a forearm crutch) in place of the paddle handle (Paciorek & Jones, 2001). The design of this paddle allows an individual who has an upper limb amputation, cerebral palsy, or otherwise has use of only one arm, to paddle with just one arm and hand. The paddle is attached with the brace around the upper portion of the functional arm, and the hand grips the lower portion of the paddle. The paddle may feel bulky and awkward, however it provides for an efficient paddling stroke. For more specific details on the design of the one-armed paddle contact Wilderness Inquiry.

Sculling Paddle

Sculling paddles are small, light-weight paddles generally used by fishermen who want to maintain the fishing pole and move their boat at the same time. Because of its small size, it is easier to transport than the one-armed paddle. The sculling paddle is used as an extension of the lower arm by placing the fingers through the open handle and using the upper portion of the paddle and the forearm as leverage to stroke. It can be used by individuals who only have one functional arm or with strapping around the lower forearm and hand, for individuals with quadriplegia who do not have the ability to grip a standard paddle or a one-armed paddle.

Flexion Mitts

The flexion mitt is an over wrap used by people who are unable to grip the paddle securely (i.e., those with cerebral palsy, arthritis, quadriplegia) and is designed to secure an individual's hand to the paddle. The mitt is wrapped over the hand of an individual while he/she is gripping the paddle. The mitt is then secured to the wrist and paddle by Velcro[TM] straps. Because of the flexible cloth design, the mitt can be secured at either the top of the paddle or along the shaft. Martha, a 45-year-old woman with severe arthritis in her hand was able to paddle most of the day during a canoe trip down the St. Croix River in Minnesota. For more specific details on the design of the flexion mitt contact Wilderness Inquiry.

Lightweight Bent Shaft Paddles

A lightweight bent shaft paddle is easier to use for a person who has limited strength in one or both arms. The design of the bent shaft allows both the bottom and top arms to work equally, whereas with straight paddles the top arm is used for power. There are several drawbacks to using lightweight paddles. Lightweight paddles are more fragile than heavier ones and are easily damaged in transport. Of course, the more durable the lightweight paddle, the more it costs. Lightweight paddles are well worth the investment if they allow an individual to paddle for longer periods of time without fatigue. Bent shaft paddles are considered ideal gear for paddlers of any ability. These paddles can be purchased at most canoeing/kayaking stores.

Using Standard Paddles

Many individuals with disabilities do not need special paddles or any paddle modifications for canoeing. However, it may be beneficial to consider the length, weight, blade area, and blade angle when selecting a standard paddle for a person with a disability. Longer paddles provide greater leverage overall (220 cm maximum is recommended) and along with an unfeathered blade angle provide more stability when performing bracing strokes for individuals with decreased sitting balance. (Blades on an unfeathered paddle are on the same plane as the axis of the shaft, versus having the blades rotated at an angle to the axis of the shaft on a feathered paddle.) For a person who has decreased anterior to posterior stability or limited range of motion, the longer paddle helps to extend the reach. For individuals with less strength, longer paddles can help produce more efficient turning strokes. For individuals with decreased strength or who fatigue quickly, lighter weight paddles, paddles with smaller blade areas, and paddles with unfeathered blades are all beneficial, as it requires less effort and strength to use these paddle designs. Lighter paddles also help individuals with decreased sitting balance to maintain stability when performing bracing strokes. Paddles with smaller blade areas are beneficial in that they require less effort and there is less resistance on the paddle both during the stroke and recovery. Paddlers with limited grip and wrist strength may find paddles with smaller blades and unfeathered blade angles easier to maneuver. Because the unfeathered blade angle requires less wrist rotation and less wrist torque than a feathered angle, it is easier for individuals with decreased range of motion to use. Various styles and sizes of paddles can be purchased at most canoeing/kayaking stores.

Mobility Assistance

Off Road Wheelchair Wheels

Off road wheelchair wheels can be purchased to fit many wheelchairs. These wheels are designed to make moving over rough terrain on trails and around the campsite much easier than standard wheelchair wheels. They are generally wider, around two inches, than a standard tire and have a knobby surface rather than a smooth surface. The cost is about the same as a replacement wheel for everyday or sports chairs. Off road wheels can generally be purchased from the same source as sport wheelchairs and replacement wheels. For individuals who really want to hit the trails there are all-terrain wheelchairs available. Many have been designed especially for careening down hills, but others can be used to push trails. Most feature low seat positions, four or five wheels, steering columns, suspension systems on both the front and back, and hand brakes.


The rickshaw was designed by Wilderness Inquiry to assist individuals in wheelchairs across rough terrain and up steep slopes. The main components of the rickshaw assembly are two broom handles or similar wooden poles, attachment clamps which can be purchased from Yakima (standard car roof rack mounting hardware), and a harness. One end of the rickshaw attaches to the wheelchair with the Yakima clamps and several bolts, while the harness is attached to the other end of the poles with several eyebolts. As illustrated in the photo, one individual wears the harness and pulls the wheelchair user.

Dale, a 70-year old man who had polio as a child and currently travels in a wheelchair, discussed his trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. He said the staff used the rickshaw to get him across the portages despite huge boulders and an extremely muddy trail.

WI is currently partnering with an organization in Thailand who works with individuals with disabilities. One goal of the organization is to use the rickshaw designed by WI to get individuals in wheelchairs across the trails in rural areas of Thailand. For more specific details on the design of the rickshaw contact Wilderness Inquiry. Other vehicles using rickshaw type systems have been developed; but many, like the TrailRider, developed by British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society (BCMOS), require campers to be out of their own chairs and completely dependent on others for mobility. This may or may not be appropriate or appealing for individuals, because they may feel stigmatized by the special treatment.

Temporary Matting

To allow for independent wheelchair movement where the ground is soft plastic mesh fencing can be laid down. The fencing is ideal for soft ground, sandy soil, or thick pine needles, or even in light snow where front casters may get stuck. The fencing also works well on beaches for loading and unloading from canoes where the wheelchair may get bogged down in the sand. Mesh fencing can be purchased at most large hardware or farm supply stores.

Daily Living

Transfer Sling

The transfer sling was designed by Wilderness Inquiry to help carry an individual short or long distances. This device is a simple, reinforced sling that allows two people to comfortably lift, carry, and position a person while maintaining good body mechanics. A picture of a sheepskin transfer sling may be seen in the same picture as the Nada Chair. Transfer slings are often used on WI trips when lifting individuals out of canoes and over to a nearby campsite.

Foam padding

Foam padding has many uses for camping and canoeing. Foam pads may be used in place of seat cushions or in addition to seat cushions for added stability and to help prevent the development of pressure sores. Foam padding can be cut into infinite shapes and sizes and used both to protect the individual from abrasions and to help maintain positioning of the body in any of the seats and chairs discussed earlier. Often there is a process of experimentation to find the best fit to meet the needs of the individual. Foam padding is light, easy to pack, and is relatively inexpensive.

Therm-a-Rest and CampRest Pads

Therm-a-Rest and CampRest pads are commercially made sleeping pads that can be used to add comfort while sleeping on hard surfaces. They come in a variety of styles and cushioning levels. They can also be used to assist an individual in and out of a tent. The individual can be placed on the pad at the opening of the tent and then slid into the tent on the pad. Caution should be taken on rough ground using self-inflating type pads, as they may puncture. The closed-cell variety is recommended for this purpose, as it is more durable.

Pony Clamps

Pony Clamps are commercially available and can be used to attach a board to the arm of a wheelchair. The surface of the board can then be used for cutting, writing, eating, etc. By being provided with a hard surface to work on, individuals can assist in chores around the campsite such as preparing meals.


The port-a-potty is a mobile toilet seat that enables people with mobility impairments (and others with and without disabilities) more comfortable and stable bathroom facilities where there may not be facilities available or when the facilities that are available are not wheelchair accessible or do not allow for enough room. It allows for solo personal use or easier assisted hygiene care. A PUP tent (Portable Utility Pop-Up) may be placed over the port-a-potty to ensure privacy. The port-a-potty folds to a flat surface that makes transport easy. Often, during canoe trips, WI packs the port-a-potty on top of the other luggage in the canoe and ties it down with rope.

Two-Piece Wetsuits

Wetsuits are often used when water temperature is cold. For example, WI takes participants on kayak trips to Lake Superior where water temperatures range from the lower 50s to the upper 60s during the summer months. Instead of using one-piece wetsuits that are difficult to put on and take off, WI uses wetsuits with separate tops and bottoms. The two-piece wetsuit is easier to get on and take off for people with poor control of their extremities, excessive spasticity, or with bladder problems. Wetsuits can be purchased or ordered at local dive shops or large sporting goods stores.

Type I Lifejackets/Personal Flotation Devices

Type I lifejackets are designed to turn the wearer on his/her back when they enter the water. Type I lifejackets can be identified by their buoyant collar. Most standard canoe and kayak lifejackets are not Type I but Type III and do not have the additional buoyant collar. Type I lifejackets are essential for any individual who is a weak swimmer, as well as individuals who may have difficulty in maintaining their heads above the surface of the water (i.e., individuals with seizures, quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, etc). Various styles of lifejackets can be purchased at local boating or sporting goods stores.

The Goal

The equipment described in this article, used by Wilderness Inquiry and other organizations, effectively includes individuals with a variety of abilities in outdoor recreation opportunities. Much of it is standard camping or canoeing equipment that can be used as purchased or with very minor modifications. The goal for many individuals with disabilities is to experience the outdoors in the least intrusive manner possible. Making minimal adaptations on an individual basis that are as close to what others use as possible enables active participation in all aspects of the outdoor experience and allows individuals to realize this goal.

Equipment Suppliers

Equipment                Contact Information

Sling Seat               Wilderness inquiry, 808 14th Ave. S.E.,
                         Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Universal Design         Wilderness inquiry, 808 14th Ave. S.E.,
Canoe Seat               Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Video Chair              Local department stores like Target or
                           Walmart or;
                         Sammons Preston, An Ability One Company, P.O.
                         Box 5071, Bolingbrook, IL 60440-5071;

Coleman Seatback         Local boating or outdoor and sporting stores
                         Coleman Company, P.O. Box 11706, Wichita KS
                         67201; 800-835-3278;

Crazy Creek Chairs       Local camping and outdoor equipment stores
                         or; Crazy Creek Products, PO Box 896, Red
                         Lodge, Montana 59068; 800-331-0304;

Wenonah Seats            Local paddle sport stores or; Wenonah, P.O
                         Box 247, Winona, MN 55987; 866-936-6624;

Big Back Seats           Watersports Warehouse, Inc, 1514C Gold Rush
                         Road, Bullhead City, AZ 86442; 800-937-3260;

Nada Chair               Nada Chair, 783 NE Harding Street. Minneapolis,
                         MN 55414; 612-623-4436:

One-Armed Paddle         Wilderness Inquiry, 808 14th Ave S.E.,
                         Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Skulling Paddles         Local camping and outdoor equipment stores that
                         specialize in fishing equipment

Flexion Mitts            Wilderness inquiry, 808 14th Ave. S.E.,
                         Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Rickshaw                 Wilderness Inquiry, 808 14th Ave. S.E.,
                         Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Transfer Sling           Wilderness Inquiry, 808 14th Ave. S.E.,
                         Minneapolis, MN 55414-1516; 800-728-0719;

Foam Pads                Local fabric or sewing stores or; Adventures
                         Inc., 4620 Alvarado Canyon Rd Bay 3, San Diego,
                         CA 92120 800-854-2672;

Therm-a-Rest and         Local camping and outdoor equipment stores or;
CampRest Pads            Cascade Designs, 4000 1st Ave., Seattle, WA
                         98314; 206-583-0583;

Pony Clamps              Local hardware stores or; Adjustable Clamp
                         Company, 417 N. Ashland Ave. Chicago, IL
                         60622; 312-666-0640;

Port-a-Potty             Local medical supply stores

PUP Tents                NRS, 2009 S. Main St., Moscow, ID 83843;

Selected References

Belson, M. (2001). Happy trails to you. WeMedia, 5(3), 50-54.

Blyth, C. (1999). Blazing trails. Sports 'N Spokes, 25(8), 34-36.

Boxtel, A. (2002). Sports 'N Spokes, 28(7), 32-35.

Lais, G., & Passo, M. (2000). Improving access to outdoor recreation activities on federal lands. Retrieved July 17, 2003 from

Madsen, A. (2002). Cool crossing. Sports 'N Spokes, 28(3), 18-20.

McAvoy, L., & Estes, C. (200l). Outdoors for everyone: Opportunities that include people with disabilities. Parks and Recreaction, 36(8), 24-30.

McAvoy, L., & Lais, G. (2003). Wilderness, hope, and renewal: Programs that include persons with disabilities. JOPERD, 74(7), 25-27, 32.

Paciorek, M.J., & Jones, J.A. (2001). Disability sport and recreation resources (3rd ed.). Traverse City, MI: Cooper Publishing Group.

Sheldon, D. (1997). Necessity is the mother of invention. Parks and Recreation, 32(17), 42-44.

Sherrill, C. (1998). Adapted physical activity, recreation, and sport: Crossdisciplinary and lifespan (6th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Beth Erickson is Assistant Professor of Recreation at Texas State University-San Marcos. Beth's research is focused on women, minorities, individuals with disabilities coupled with access into wilderness areas. Deborah Buswell is Assistant Professor at Texas State University-San Marcos. She teaches adapted physical education and elementary physical education. Her research interests include scholarly productivity, women, disability sport, and risk taking behaviors of college students. Mike Passo is the Project Director for Wilderness Inquiry's Trail and Facilities Assessment and Universal Design training projects. He has presented on Universal Design and programming at several national conferences and serves on the Board of Directors for American Trails, a non-profit trails advocacy organization.

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Erickson, Beth, et al. "Adaptive equipment for wilderness expeditions." Palaestra, Fall 2003, p. 25+. Health Reference Center Academic, Accessed 23 May 2018.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A111462408