Mom Goes Camping

Hiking with a Physically-Disabled Partner

hiking with a disabled partner

For years, it was just me and my daughter Isabel.  Then, two years ago, I found the love of my life (sorry for being cheesy). Dusko is the most social person I’ve ever met.  And, like me, he loves adventure.

Dusko also happens to have a disability.

Because you are going to ask, he has muscle atrophy in his legs due to a bout of polio when he was a baby.  As a result, he walks with a cane and wears kneepads for all the times he inevitably falls.  He actually doesn’t mind bloodying his knees.  It’s the torn jeans that annoy him.

A disability is not a problem per se, but rather a challenge.

I say “challenge” because I don’t believe that having a disability is a bad thing.  On the contrary, I believe that some of our biggest innovations in life come from disabled people.  Their unique set of obstacles inspires a lot of ingenuity.

With that said, a disability can complicate life.

Most of these obstacles are easy to adapt to though.  Like how we will never have a walk-up apartment, and a loft bed for our tiny apartment is definitely not an option.  When we have kids, they will probably be wearing one of those baby leashes while Dusko watches them outdoors…

One of the other challenges that we are figuring out now is hiking with a disability.


Not Being Able to Share Things You Love with Your Partner

Hiking is something that is very important to me. There is nothing like the peace of mind that comes from getting deep into nature and seeing the interconnectivity of things.

This is something that I want to share with Dusko.

Before I came along, Dusko hadn’t done any hiking.  It’s not that he didn’t want to go hiking.  It’s that he felt guilty about “slowing everyone down” on group hikes.

I can’t even begin to understand how painful it must be to feel guilted out of trying something.

Well, then I came along and insisted he go hiking with me. 🙂  I don’t mind hiking slowly (gives me time to search for insects and inspect cool flora).  Plus, Isabel hikes slow as heck anyway.

But there are still some places that we will never be able to go to together. Like how Dusko will probably never join me at my favorite camping spot on top of a steep 2,000 meter mountain. Okay – I’m sure there would be a way – but right now the desire isn’t great enough for us to invest tons of time and money into gear/training to make it happen.

Yes, I know that lots of couples have different interests.  But it is one thing not to like something and another not to be physically able to do it together.

It flat-out sucks when you can’t share your passions with your loved one.


But We Still Have Our Outdoor Adventures…

I don’t want to focus on the negative here.  We still do get to enjoy some amazing outdoor adventures together (and Dusko certainly does more adventuring than the average able-bodied person).

I will forever love him for the time we went camping together while he was on CRUTCHES after tearing a ligament.  Because we couldn’t walk to the official camping spot, we illegally camped hidden between trees near a national monument.  The park ranger angrily woke us up at 8am.  He was surprised when a woman, kid, and man on crutches came out of the tent!

hiking on crutches

Hiking on crutches

I want to be honest that things aren’t always going to be easy – physically or psychologically. 

I could turn this into a good hiking metaphor.  Just like how a hike is rewarding when it is challenging, overcoming these obstacles will make our relationship more rewarding (sorry for being cheesy again).

What’s gotten us this far is that we’ve been able to talk things over so we could make it through the obstacles. And, yeah, there are probably going to be lots more obstacles for us to figure out.


I Wasn’t Prepared for the Guilt

When Dusko and I first started hiking together, neither of us knew his physical limitations.

Of course we took things slowly.  We started with short hikes on super easy trails.  What we didn’t anticipate was the guilt.

Dusko felt guilty because he was “holding me back” from going on the tough trails I really wanted to hike.

I was worried that I was pushing him too hard, and felt guilty about that.

Over time though, we’ve both begun to learn what Dusko’s physical limitations are.  This allows us to better plan hikes that both of us enjoy so there is less guilt. Like I said, we are still working things out — but it is getting easier and more enjoyable.


With a Disability, “Planning” Takes On a Whole New Meaning

One really crappy time we had hiking was due to poor planning.

We were in Chachapoyas, Peru. We booked a guide to see the ruins of Kuelap.  Dushko had done fine on a guided trek into a muddy cave the day before.  The guide assured us that there would be horses to ride for the 2.5km to the entrance of the ruins, and it was “easy” after that.

Except that there weren’t any horses that day.

And it was rainy so the “easy” trail became much more difficult.

Dusko decided to wait at the base while Isabel and I went up alone.

I was irked because I thought he could handle the hike – slippery or not.  Halfway up, I thought of going back to get him.

Good thing I didn’t go back for him though, because the entrance into the ruins was super steep.  He would have walked all that way only to have to turn back at the entrance!  Or, he would have crawled up on his hands and knees – potentially injuring himself.

Kuelap, Peru

Dusko had to miss out on this majestic place because it was inaccessible.

We were both pissed about the situation.  We felt like we’d done everything right – asking questions about terrain and even hiring a guide instead of going alone.

Well, when you’ve got a disability, even this level of planning isn’t enough.

For next time, we know:

  • What some people call “easy” is actually a huge challenge
  • Look at Google Map photos to get an idea about the terrain
  • Have a backup activity in case you can’t continue on the hike (in Dusko’s case, photography)
  • Maybe forget about group tours because we won’t be able to keep up with the others


Having the Right Gear

This should be obvious, but when you’ve got a disability you need the right hiking gear.

It took numerous purchases and returns before Dusko finally found a pair of hiking boots that were suitable for his feet (his bones are a bit twisted).

He finally got some hiking poles too.  A stick might work for me, but it’s not a smart option when your disability causes balance issues.

I’m really excited that disability technology is getting so much better.  For example, I love that Staunton State Park in Colorado now offers an all-terrain wheelchair to guests.  Lots of other US parks are also working on improving accessibility   (Too bad we live in Serbia where even public places like supermarkets aren’t accessible).

I also love reading through threads like this in which people came up with ideas on the best carrier for a quadriplegic to go outdoors in – such as stretcher carriers and motorized vehicles.

I’m also super excited to watch the series Beyond Boundaries where groups of disabled people go on adventures like crossing the Andes.  As wheelchair-bound comedian Stella Young says, disabled people should not be used as inspiration porn.  But TV series like this still show there are solutions to achieve your goals – whether it’s a trek across the Andes or a short hike in the woods.

off road wheelchair

If we ever need it, hopefully we will be able to afford an off-road wheelchair like this one.


Why Am I Writing This?

I am not disabled, and I’m sure Dusko’s account of hiking with a disability would be a lot different than mine.  He has a blog, so maybe he will write about it one day. 🙂

But I also know that the topic of disabled hiking isn’t talked about much.   It especially isn’t talked about from a partner’s perspective (a Google search for it brings insane results like “Is it okay to cheat on my disabled husband?”).

As someone ­who did not grow up disabled, I am only now starting to understand what it means to have a disability.  How “simple” things can be a huge challenge, and the psychology of going at a different pace than others…

I wish other people with disabled partners would talk about these things.  It would help me navigate the complexities better and feel less isolated. So that’s why I’m sharing my experience.

As far as hiking goes, the truth is that first few hikes with your disabled partner/friend/family might be terrible.

But they can also be really wonderful.

It does get easier once you’ve figured out how to time the hike, how to choose a trail, what gear you need…  And it is certainly better than sitting at home and not even trying.

We are still figuring this out, and I’m doing my best to be supportive. I can only hope that other people will do their best in helping their disabled loves ones go hiking – because everyone should be able to get into nature.


Some Good Disabled Hiking Blogs/Resources

wheelchair trail in national park

  • The Disabled Hiker: I like how frank this guy is about his challenges going hiking after becoming disabled and suffering from chronic pain. He has good “rules” for hiking with a disability.  He also has a Facebook community.
  • Daniel at At the link, you can find many diary-style posts from Daniel. Many of them talk about his experiences hiking with a disability.
  • Trails of Freedom: Unfortunately, this site hasn’t been updated in a while. But, at the link, you’ll find a really good article in which a woman talks about her experience hiking with MS.
  • Virtual Tours: This company is making virtual tours of intense nature hikes so people (with or without disabilities) can experience nature. It’s a cool idea.
  • Everyone Outdoors: This is a community resource and recreation connection for people with disabilities and their families. The link is to a good post about adaptive hiking equipment.
  • Able Outdoors: This online magazine has stories about “triumphs of the human spirit,” gear reviews, and resources. It covers all outdoor activities, not just hiking.

Please, if you know any blogs or articles which talk about hiking with a disability, let me know! Or tell me about your experiences. I would love to hear how other people are adapting so they can enjoy nature regardless of physical ability.

Image credit: “Start of the wheelchair trail” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by DanieVDM

About the author /

Diane Vukovic grew up camping and backpacking in upstate New York. Now, she takes her own daughters on wilderness adventures so they can connect with nature and learn resiliency. With dozens of trips under her belt, Diane is an expert in minimalist camping, going lightweight, planning, and keeping her kids entertained without screens.

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  1. Rebecca

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I am 50 and when I was 49 my whole world changed. I worked as a hemodialysis technician and caring for patients weakened my back onto of surviving cancer three different times and one day while trying to rush to work because of an ice storm in michigan I fell on the ice. I work about a month after thinking I had just pulled muscles in my back but after several doctors appt found out I needed back and neck surgery. Neck surgery went great but when it came to my back surgery something felt wrong I couldn’t feel the back of my legs or feet. Found out I had to go into emergency surgery for a blood clot. But after a very long road to recovery I discovered I would be disabled. I would no longer have complete control over bowels and from my lower back down bavk of legs I would not get complete feeling back. My right side is better than left but left side after walking fir a while becomes more painful and without a cane I would just fall down. So I live with chronic pain.. I have two teenage sons and we have always loved the outdoors my hobbies were hiking, hunting, hammock camping. So this article has gave me hope that I don’t have to completely give up the things I love. And I can share this with my husband who I know struggles with going to do things with the boys that I can’t do. I am so glad to know there are others who share there stories so I can get information on how to navigate this new life. Thank you

    • Diane

      Sorry for all that you have to go through. It’s been a while since I originally posted this. Since then, my husband and I have had to figure out how to make a lot of various things work – especially since we had a kid together and there are a lot of things which are unsafe for him to do without modifications (as a toddler our daughter had to be on a child leash when she was alone with him, for example). Just when we think we’ve “figured something out”, there is a new challenge. But we figure it out. I can only imagine how tough it must be for your family to have everything change so suddenly. Good luck and try not to let it overwhelm you. I like to say that there is a solution for everything once you figure out what the problem is. 🙂

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