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Being outdoors with a disability/medical condition

I have a heart condition and have to be aware of cardio/pulmonary symptoms and exposure to pathogens. I manage that by owning lightweight gear that reduces burden on my body, minding temperatures/hydration, and filtering water like a madman. Anyone with similar experiences?

As expected, this topic didn't fit into many categories that were created in the forum. People with medical conditions have a hard time being visible, especially in hobbies that are inherently physical. Since I'm a woman, and that plays a part in my outdoor life as well, I posted in this category.

14 Replies

Hi @isabelmc, thanks for posting this!

I can't say that I have as severe of a disability/medical condition as many people, but I do have chronic patellar (kneecap) dislocation that can be a serious issue if it occurs in the wilderness, especially if no one is around.

I always make sure to carry with me all of the medication/equipment for a brace that I might need in the case of a dislocation, and have sought medical training so that I can relocate my kneecap if need be.

I have learned several things in my Wilderness First Responder training from NOLS, which I think can apply to many different situations, and which I have found useful in the field:

1) Always inform someone (who isn't going with you) of where you are going, who you will be with, and how long you are expected to be gone. You can also put this information in the dashboard of your car. I have found that these are grate ways to ensure that if something happens to you in the wilderness and you are unable to seek help, that someone knows when and where to look for you.

2) I carry on my person a small piece of paper in a waterproof Ziploc that has my general health information - name, age, medical history, current medications, etc. anytime that I am out in the wilderness. This is helpful in case I am found unresponsive (unconscious, essentially) or am found in a condition in which I am unable to communicate this vital information to someone else.

3) As @MaryNJ said, if I am going into the wilderness with anyone, I always make sure that they know about my condition and know what to do in the case of an emergency.

It is important to monitor what you do and how your body reacts in each situation, but I have always thought that as long as you are careful, no disability should keep you from doing something that you love. 

Hope this helps! 🙂

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Thank you for the helpful suggestions and precautions!

I just want to draw attention to mental health disabilities, since these can be as serious and disabling as physical disabilities. I also suspect they warrant their own discussion of things to consider when planning extended time outdoors.

As a writer covering issues like major depression, I regularly come across research into the therapeutic benefits of hiking and being outdoors. These benefits are substantial—so the pay-off of hiking/backpacking/being outdoors is really worth those extra measures and precautions that may go into planning a trip for someone with a mental health disability.

As for what those extra measures and precautions might be—does anyone have suggestions on this point?


Doing wildland SAR. it was quite evident that mental errors and lack of understanding of the natural environment and conditions was responsible for the vast majority of situations requiring assistance..

Accordingly, if I were to take someone with mental issues on a hike, I would try to be watchful and informative more than usual.i woul think a party of size of no less than three would be a good idea.

it would certainly be a help to know of the specific issues of the illness and likely reaction to stress and conditions that might be ncountered on the outing.


Superusers do not speak on behalf of REI and may have received
one or more gifts or other benefits from the co-op.

Hi @Kristina

I work with people of all disability types to provide equal access to education, in addition to be an avid hiker and backpacker. While education is certainly a different ball game than spending time outdoors/potentially in the wilderness, the need for equal access is still there and what someone needs and what their limitations are will vary greatly from person-to-person, regardless of whether it is a physical or mental health/psychological disability. I am certainly not an expert but do have many years of experience working with individuals with disabilities. My opinion on this matter, for what it's worth, is that people with disabilities should be treated the same as those without - if there is risk involved in the trip, I think the best measure you can take is ensuring everyone is on the same page concerning caring for themselves and each other, both regardless of and inclusive of disability. Everyone has limitations and preferences in caring for themselves and others, and it's important to lay that all out before you put yourselves into a situation where you are exposed to risk, like going into the wilderness, which always involves some level of risk. Group dynamics can come in to play - if the group members are unfamiliar with one another (maybe it's a trip led by a guide where participants don't know each other), in planning, there is opportunity to lay ground rules w/ these expectations and offer for folks to share what they might need to feel safe and cared for, and share their limitations. If they are taking medication, you would of course advise that they make sure they have enough for the duration of the trip, as would be the same for anyone who is going to be away from home for an extended period of time... both regardless of and inclusive of disability. If we are talking about friends, it is important to have that same conversation - you would do the same if you hiked with someone w/ a physical limitation. People with disabilities are their own individual experts and should be the #1 source of information - this can be observed in multiple posts on this thread! I think it is important to combat the assumption that someone with a disability needs "more" or "extra" than those without and instead foster an inclusive environment where folks 1) know what is expected of them so they can make the decision for themselves about whether or not to participate and 2) feel trusted enough to share what they might need in order to meet those expectations. 


@isabelmc  You are not alone!  I have been an avid outdoors person - hiking, camping, backpacking - you name - it for over 20 years.  I also have Crohn's disease which during a flare-up can cause some pretty serious medical issues.  I have to be super careful about my diet and about the water I drink because my immune system is already on a hair-trigger.  I've consulted extensively with both my family doctor as well as my specialist about the precautions I need to take before venturing outdoors, and how to take care of myself if a flare-up happens when I'm far away from home.  If you have not already done so, I would request a special appointment with your doctor and let them know ahead of time the reason for the appointment - you want to talk specifically about self-care in a wilderness setting.

Mainly I'm sharing because I want you to know that, as I said, you are not alone.  Even REI Employees and other outdoor professionals have challenges that we have to overcome, but at REI we believe the outdoors are for everyone, and that "A life outdoors is a life well lived."

Happy trails, and all the best to you!

At REI, we believe time outside is fundamental to a life well lived.