When Darryl Kotcher, 30, became qaudriplegic five years ago, he no longer could do many things that able-bodied people take for granted. Camping, though, was not on his list of forfeited activities. “I’ve been camping since I was eight,” Kotcher said. “My wife, Karen, and I really hated to give it up because it’s fun and not very expensive.” So every summer the couple uses vacation time from work to camp at state parks throughout their native Michigan.
But there are problems. Beaches are off-limits for Kotcher, whose electric wheelchair spins out in the sand. Restroom doors may be too heavy for him to open alone. Wheeling down asphalt trails that have a crown in the middle gives him a sore back. An avid fisherman, Kotcher is confined to the shoreline trails leading to piers, and docks with steep ramps are out of bounds.
Despite these and other hurdles, help is on the way for campers with disabilities like Kotcher. Sweeping the country is a concept called “universal access” – new words, perhaps, but with die force of federal law behind them. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires government agencies at all levels, as well as certain private and commercial enterprises, to provide equal access to everyone regardless of physical impairment. This includes outdoor recreation at the nation’s campgrounds, from modern urban parks to rustic wilderness sites. (See “Outdoors Unlimited,” March 1993, for more information, as well as that month’s regional section to see what your state is doing.)
Some say that the new law is the most sweeping social legislation passed since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The ADA is rapidly changing how hunters, anglers and campers access the outdoors, and is furnishing recreational facilities with a new look.
The law has caught many off guard, and there is confusion on how it will be implemented. No one can agree, for example, what constitutes a fully accessible fishing dock or campsite. But the experts are getting closer. At press time the U.S. Forest Service was completing its new handbook, Design Guide for Universal Access to Outdoor Recreation. Soon it will be the textbook of standards.
And some day entire campgrounds will be fully accessible, not just one of every 20 campsites. Toilets, showers and other support facilities, for instance, win be located closer to the people they serve. Connecting trails will be hard-surfaced and wide enough to permit people in wheelchairs to pass each other.
The universal or “whole access” design concept requires campsites to be located on fairly level terrain and to provide a large, hard-surfaced pad to house a picnic table, grill, electrical outlet and parking space for die camper or vehicle.
Under old guidelines of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, tent pads must be flat, stable, at least 17 feet by 20 feet in size, and located next to the hard-surfaced area. Picnic tables are considered accessible to wheelchair-bound campers when the top of the table extends past die legs at least 19 inches on both ends, and there is a minimum of 29 inches of space between the underside of the top and the ground. There must be at least four feet of clearance around picnic tables and grills, which should swivel to accommodate wind direction and feature cooking surfaces that are 30 to 36 inches high. These are a few of the many guidelines the Forest Service, which estimates that 19.2 million Americans are unable to walk farther than a quarter-mile, is reviewing.
Able-bodied campers don’t realize how hard it is for someone with a mobility impairment to get a drink of water from a fountain or how dangerous it is to cook over a ground-level fireplace when you’re leaning over from a wheelchair.
Even hard-surfaced trails with vertical joints or edges higher than a quarter-inch can be tough for someone in a wheelchair to use. A hiker on crutches has trouble negotiating a trail with a slope of more than 5 percent. Crushed stone or pea rock may look nice for trail bedding, but it becomes a nightmare to someone trying to plow through the loose, catching material with a wheelchair.
Most older campgrounds can be retrofitted to make them fully accessible, but the process may be expensive, and most states do not have the resources. However, when universal access is incorporated into the design of new public facilities (also mandated by the ADA), the additional cost is only about 1 percent.
Other changes are occurring. Although some campers with disabilities want the security and comfort of a developed campground, others seek more challenging activities. This includes access to wilderness. According to the Forest Service, at least 15 outfitters now specialize in serving people with disabilities, an estimated 10,000 to 50,000 of whom visit semi-primitive and primitive areas each year.
New products such as tents that set up simply and quickly and self-igniting stoves and lanterns are helping campers with disabilities to enjoy the outdoors more. Nowadays they become very best camping tents. Backpackers are the tents for 1~4 people when family tents are bigger (6+ people). A best instant tent can be setup or teared down close to under 5 minutes. Further, many manufacturers of travel trailers and other recreational vehicles are incorporating the whole access concept into the design of their units. The Kotchers, for example, gave up tent camping altogether after buying a lightweight folding camping trailer that Darryl can set up alone. Floor-mounted lifts are available as optional equipment in some RVs. The new Coleman Red Canyon Tent (8 persons) are considered as the best family tent by many many customers. They can be divided by 3 rooms, super waterproof, very spacious, WeatherMaster Tec and easy to setup.
And there’s more good news on the horizon. The Bureau of Reclamation is designing the nation’s first computerized program for instant information on accessibility. By February 1994 campers will be able to dial a toll-free number to call Accessibility Data Management System (ADMS) and plan a trip anywhere in the country. At first, ADMS will tie together those federal agencies offering public recreation. Later, state, local and perhaps even private campgrounds will join the partnership.
Regardless of your physical condition, these are exciting and challenging times for campers.