Inclusivity In Camping And Outdoor Activities Bring Families Together
By Nushin Huq
Between 2 Pines Magazine
The summer camping trip is an iconic American family vacation. As accessibility and accessible resources increase in the outdoors, more families can take advantage of camping and other outdoor experiences.
Everyone should have the ability to enjoy the outdoors and accessibility means entire families can spend time together. No one has to sit out or stay at home because of their abilities.
“In the outdoors, people get the sense of seeing the raw unedited version of nature,” Kevin Stickelman, chief executive officer of the Park City-based nonprofit National Ability Center (NAC), said.
The NAC focuses on creating inclusive outdoor programming for individuals and families of different abilities. Being outdoors is something that has benefited Stickelman, an amputee, his entire life. He sees how camping and being outdoors transform people.
“These benefits include the challenge aspect of going and seeing a place that I have never been before as well as the therapeutic nature of being in a place where I can totally disconnect from cell phones and technology, which is rare in today’s society,” Stickelman said.
Afreen Ahmed, a Houston-area mother of three, was not an ardent camper but experienced the positive impact of outdoor activities on her kids. Her oldest child, a 12-year-old girl, is autistic and challenged by limitations in her fine and gross motor skills as well as significant delays in self-care abilities, social skills, and emotional regulation.
Ahmed was worried about camping overnight, so she started out with other nature orientated activities, such as hiking and horseback riding in national parks. This helped her daughter get used to being in those settings.
“It also made me realize that, like many other autistic people, my daughter finds being outdoors in nature to be calming rather than disorienting, as I might have feared,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed’s family has camped near Lake Somerville State Park in Texas, the Redwood Forest National and State Parks in California, Rogue River National Forest in Oregon, Yellowstone National Park, and Grand Teton National Parkin Wyoming. The trips have been successful and enjoyable for her children.
Camping can be a wonderful bonding experience for families who have members with differing abilities, Stephanie Garcia, spokesperson for The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said. Planning and having a family discussion or briefing ahead of time can reduce some of the anxiety of this new adventure.
“Your first time out can be challenging to navigate a new environment, but well worth it once you become a seasoned camper,” Garcia said.
The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, like many state park departments, has information on accessibility on its website. There is also information on special programs. If you have additional questions, Garcia recommends calling the individual park or the accessibility office.
There are more accessible sites than people realize, especially first time campers, Stickelman said. Many state parks, forest service campgrounds and national parks have developed facilities that include ADA accessible bathrooms, wheelchair ramps, cabins and tent platforms.
Sometimes, a small modifications or pieces of equipment that they can take with them that would allow them in an otherwise undesignated ADA site to become very accessible and usable for a family.
The National Parks Service also provides a free access pass to U.S. citizens and permanent residents with permanent disabilities. The pass covers the entrance fee to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. On the state level, each state is different. For example, Utah State parks do not offer a pass, but Texas has the Texas Parklands Pass. The Texas pass gives the holder a 50 percent discount on entrance fees and must be renewed annually.
Tip One: Selecting a Camp Site
For families that have never camped before, the idea of being off the grid can be intimidating, Stickelman said, but a number of parks and campgrounds are close to “civilization.” First time campers might want to seek out a location close to a city. Having wifi can make families feel more comfortable.
Ahmed thinks that parks like Grand Teton National Park are a good initial experience for families that are nervous about camping because they offer a lot of "civilized" amenities close to the campsites, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and laundry facilities.
For their first multi-day trip, Ahmed alternated between tent camping and staying at a park lodge or nearby hotel. It worked well for them and the idea would be helpful for autistic children who may be particular about what foods they are willing to eat, or rely on technology that may not function as well at the campsite, Ahmed said.
While there isn’t a comprehensive database of all the ADA accessible sites, National and State park websites are a good place to start when researching campsites, both Stickelman and Garcia suggest.
Some campsites can be reserved ahead of time online, but sometimes, campsites are first come, first serve. Stickelman encourages people in those instances to call the campground ahead if time.
“Call the campground manager and explain that you are coming to the site and you have accessibility needs , they can reserve those [accessible] sites,” Stickelman said.
In fact, after an initial internet search, calling parks is the next most useful step. Sometimes, a camp ground might not be listed as ADA accessible on websites, but they have trails that are wide enough for wheelchairs and bathrooms that are usable for people with different abilities.
Tip Two: Break It Up
If a family finds the prospect of a camping trip overwhelming, Ahmed suggests breaking the event down into smaller pieces and addressing each fear or obstacle separately.
Challenges for families can vary. For some, it may be the flight or drive to the camping destination. For others, it's the need for particular foods or dishes, or the change in sleep routine.
“Try to plan for the obstacles you expect, and practice the steps that will be hard,” Ahmed said, “For example, try the backyard camping idea to get used to tents; or ask your local airport if they offer orientation programs to get your child used to the experience of an airplane trip.”
Tip Three: Finding Outdoor Programs
Families with members of different abilities shouldn’t assume that outdoor activities as a group are out of the question. Call the park and ask.
Each park usually plans its own programs, TPWD’s Garcia said. She suggests calling a park directly before visiting to find out information on special programs or to talk to park rangers about any special accommodations your family might need in order to participate in a park program.
In addition to park staff, park websites usually have information on outfitters for activities such as horseback riding and rafting. Call the guides ahead of time, and they will let you know what equipment they have or don’t have to fit different needs, Stickelman said.
In Utah, the NAC runs a number of programs that the entire family can participate in, such as rafting trips and cycling.
During COVID, cycling is an activity that had become especially popular. At the NAC, in person programming has resumed for individuals and family/households, Amanda Baseler, the NAC’s recreation/adventure program senior manager, said. She oversees the groups biking program.
The NAC teaches adaptive biking to participants of all ages, from kids as young as four or five to adults well into their 70s. They help participants find the perfect adaptive bike. In addition to finding equipment and instruction, many people come to the NAC cycling program for the community and socialization, Baseler said.
She consistently sees a newfound sense of independence from program participants, whether it’s going further than they thought they could or get in and out of a bike independently.
“Right now, it’s more important than ever to be able to have that outlet and have something that is so helpful for people’s mental health,” Baseler said. “Cycling is a great opportunity for people to social distance, stay active and to be socially active.”
For families that want to participate in outdoor activities, such as biking, Baseler believes it’s never too late to start, and families should reach out to the NAC or other similar organizations for help.
Tip Five: Don't Forget to Leave No Trace
As more families take advantage of camping and visiting the outdoors, it’s important that visitors are good stewards of these special places.
“In our programs, we teach the principles of leave no trace,” Stickelman said. “That means leave the park just like you found it or better than you found it. If you come to a site and there’s trash, pack it out.”
It’s also important all visitors keep safe distance between wildlife and themselves, respecting that it’s their habitat, and not intruding on it in anyway or making modifications to it, Stickelman said.
Finally, even if a trip doesn't go exactly as planned, Ahmed said, it can still be a fun experience for the family and a stepping stone for the next trip.
The National Ability Center: https://discovernac.org
National Park Service Information on Accessibility: https://www.nps.gov/aboutus/accessibility.htm
Texas Parks Accessibility Page: https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/parks/things-to-do/accessible-facilities
Info on Utah Parks Accessibility: https://stateparks.utah.gov/resources/accessibility/