The Thread: Making the Outdoors Accessible to Everyone

Sheryl Burgstahler, Ph.D.

A DO-IT Ambassador recently posed the following question in our Internet discussion forum. I will share with you some of the responses so that you can get a flavor of the rich conversations the DO-IT community has online.

When you're trying to find your way around a trail out in the country, how do you keep from getting separated from the rest of your team? I am taking a class on water and the environment as part of my lab science. My instructor has planned some outdoor trips for the students. For example, next month he is planning to take the students on a weekend trip. I am trying to determine what kinds of accommodations to request so I can find my way around the territory without having to worry about getting separated from the other students. Thanks in advance for your recommendations.

DO-IT Mentor: You might be able to pick up a few pointers from Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind person to successfully summit Mount Everest (not to mention all the other highest peaks on each of the seven continents). A couple things I know about his backcountry technique are that he uses long trekking poles to feel the terrain ahead and follows bear bells attached to a leader's pack. I'm sure there's much more in his book, Touch the Top of the World: A Blind Man's Journey to Climb Farther Than the Eye Can See.

Original Ambassador: I think that verbal instructions would be more effective than bells for me. The reason for this is that I will need to know what is coming up in either direction. For example, I will need someone to tell me if I am getting off the trail or whether there are rocks, roots, etc., to watch out for. I hope the instructor can accommodate that. Thanks again.

DO-IT Mentor: I went on field trips for my biology class when I was an undergraduate, and a blind student in our class used a similar technique. There was a trail without many plants on it, so it was easy for the student to tell when they had gone off the trail. Everyone also had a partner (not just the disabled students), so that helped.

DO-IT Ambassador: The key is to modify, based on your ability level. Your instructor should be able to accommodate you. But think. . . what will help you most? A partner? Bells for sound? Think about it. I am an outdoor recreation graduate. I spent many classes on piggy back and knee-pads, without a wheelchair. Also if people with visual impairments can ski, a hike should be doable.

DO-IT Mentor: You may also want to contact Wilderness Inquiry at They are an outdoor adventure travel company that does not discriminate on the basis of ability. I'm sure they've taken people with visual impairments backpacking and will have lots of ideas.

DO-IT Mentor: I've seen a few articles and news stories in which echolocation has been utilized by outdoor enthusiasts who are blind. In one video it showed two young men cycling down the street on mountain bikes; another had one man in the backyard making a clicking sound and then pretty accurately describing his immediate surroundings of a tree above, a garage next to him, and the interviewer. I see that the book Touch the Top of the World is available on Bookshare at if you happen to have a membership.