By Sophie Lyons
“Slowly, step by step, with gorgeous views waiting at the top of every climb, I realized how important it is to not restrict nature to local or urban parks for those with mobility and health conditions.”
It was late August 2017 and I was about to start the three-night, four-day, 47-kilometre one-way Juan de Fuca Trail on Vancouver Island with two friends. I’d never done anything like it before. I was born with serious health conditions, and exercise had always been an uphill battle. Until I was a teenager, actual hills were essentially impossible without a wheelchair.
We parked the car and pulled our rucksacks on. Mine contained only my personal items; my friends carried all our shared equipment. My heart thumped in my chest, and I hoped it was nerves—not a sudden new cardiac problem. My issues always happen at the most inconvenient moments.
After the first day of trekking nine kilometres, despite the training I’d tried to do back in the UK, I was already feeling the strain of the hike. The next three days loomed over me, with the promise of constant climbs and descents. My two friends waited for me at the top of each hill. Leg muscles I didn’t know existed burned intensely.
Slowly, step by step, with gorgeous views waiting at the top of every climb, I realized how important it is to not restrict nature to local or urban parks for those with mobility and health conditions. On the third morning, taking my medication and strong painkillers on a remote beach while watching seals pop above the surface of the water, I knew I’d found a new passion.
Since this hike, I’ve learned some key tips to make hiking with a serious health condition safer and more manageable:
- Most importantly, break bigger hikes into smaller components. If you want to tackle a long trail, break it up into an achievable number of kilometres and give yourself breaks of a few days to a week in between.
- Invest in good gear. Despite my hyper-flexible joints, purchasing a good pair of boots and poles have given my knees and ankles the support they need to tackle longer distances. Ensuring my day packs have chest and waist support takes the strain off my back, too.
- I’m also looking at my next thru-hike to be more accessible with accommodation and meals available to purchase. It increases the cost, but not having the heavy gear to carry ensures muscles are not more overworked than they need to be.
- If you are a wheelchair user, there are accessible hikes which still promise to offer stunning views, including Canada’s converted rail trails (Trans Canada Trail/The Great Trail). The Galloping Goose Trail in British Columbia (55 kilometres one-way) is a good example, along with the entire Rail Trail system in Hamilton, Ontario. All-terrain wheelchairs are also available, as are beach chairs.
I used to think outdoor adventures were only for people who are healthy and athletic, and indeed, sometimes social media can make it seem that way. But with a bit of research and the motivation that your next full meal is in a bag already ahead of you, going one more step (and another) really can get you to the top of the mountain and the satisfying end of a trail.