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Camping Access

Reprinted from SNS March 2017

Accessible campgrounds and parks may be hard to come by right now, but there's a push to make sure anyone with a disability has the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors

Less than 10% of campgrounds in the United States are accessible for wheelchair users, according to Mark Douglass, founder and CEO of the RVing Accessibility Group, which raises awareness for inclusive recreational accessibility and provides resources and information to people with disabilities interested in the campground industry.

Earlier this decade, Douglass, a professional accessibilty specialist, visited 700 parks and found that only 63 of them were fully compliant with standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“We’re ignored when it comes to camping,” Douglass says of people with disabilities. “We’re not handicapped, the RV parks are. Most park owners have never been in a wheelchair and don’t get it. You’re never going to understand accessibility until you’ve been there. It’s like you’re trying to get from one side of a river to the other without getting stuck in the mud.”

Standards Should Be Equal

In addition to having accessible parking, bathrooms, showers and ramps, an accessible campground is one in which a wheelchair user can experience the same amenities, access routes and trails as an able-bodied person. The standard should be that everyone is able to access all areas of the park without having to use an automobile.

Bob Coomber, a recreation and park district director who was named the world’s No. 1 wheelchair hiker by the San Francisco Chronicle, has arguably been the most adamant voice behind trying to find more ways to incorporate ADA standards into campgrounds, parks and trails.

Coomber, a member of the California Outdoors Hall of Fame, serves as a motivational speaker for people with disabilities and has been featured on CBS’ Early Show and ABC’s World News. To this day, he remains steadfast in getting recreational activities such as camping accessible for every citizen. 

“They [parks] have to adapt to the population,” Coomber says. “I think the state parks have to consider that a higher percentage of people are becoming disabled, yet still want to do all the things they did before they were disabled.”

Coomber acknowledges that it’s not practical for every single piece of land to be accessible, but where possible, he suggests parks create alternative routes or trails to accommodate the entire population.

“Somebody looking for a day hike in a power wheelchair shouldn’t have to move rocks and boulders or work around them or be stopped by them,” Coomber says. “These areas should be made accessible and paved.”

Items To Consider

U.S. citizens with a permanent disability do have the option to obtain a special access pass for national parks and federal recreational lands through the “America the Beautiful” initiative that provides admittance to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five federal agencies.

At many sites, this pass provides the owner a discount on expanded amenity fees such as camping, swimming, boat launching and guided tours. To qualify for the pass, the person’s disability must be permanent and limit one or more major life activities. The applicant must supply proper documentation from a licensed physician, federal agency or state agency.

Most state parks, meanwhile, offer small discounts for people with a disability.

Plenty of accessible camping equipment is readily available to purchase throughout the country, including special wheels to navigate dirt or mud and wheelchair-accessible tents made by Eureka. Campers using wheelchairs may also want to look into picking a site with jumbo tent pitches, camping pods or tepees instead of regular-sized, non-wheelchair friendly tents. Quonset hut-style tents can also be beneficial for some, as they don’t have a floor at the bottom and campers don’t have to worry about the width of the door or catching themselves on zippers. 

It’s highly recommended that campers using wheelchairs do their research and call the park ahead of time to find out specifications for the campsite and reserve an adaptive camping space ahead of time if there’s one available. 

Karen Halgren, who uses a power wheelchair, is a community resource specialist at the Arizona Spinal Cord Injury Association in Phoenix who takes people on adaptive outdoor excursions like camping and hunting. Halgren can’t stress enough how important it is to do your research ahead of time and perhaps to even scout out the park in person first. 

“Make sure the ground is real firm [a level area without sand or gravel] and the area where your campground is going to be set up has enough clearance to maneuver past,” Halgren says. “Make sure you check out the table to make sure you can reach it and sit at it comfortably. I know a lot of campgrounds now have the tables cut out where you can roll right up to them.

“Their idea of accessibility is a whole lot different than what my idea of accessibility is. They go with the ADA standards, whereas I look a little bit deeper into making sure the spot’s wide enough for our vehicle and there’s enough room at the site so I can move around at least in my chair.”

Recommended Parks

 Some of most recommended parks for people with disabilities include: Lake Louisa State Park (Clermont, Fla.), Moss Park (Orlando, Fla.), Palo Duro Canyon State Park (Canyon, Texas), Golden Gate National Recreation Area (San Francisco), Wolf Creek Run (Pagosa Springs, Colo.) and La Hacienda RV Resort (Apache Junction, Ariz.).

But those parks are exceptions. Many parks across America have been getting hit with disability discrimination lawsuits over the last decade, especially in Arizona, Florida, Texas and California.

As the only recognized ADA consulting group in the RV park and campground industry, Douglass’ organization has been doing ADA assessments for park owners, helping them develop transition plans to become accessible over time. The plans can also be used as defense mechanisms, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, when a park is being sued for disability discrimination. 

Most campsite owners are inherently good in that they want their campgrounds to be the most accessible they can be, however, they’re not always the most informed as to what that involves, and that has sometimes led to lawsuits in the past. It often takes a lawsuit for people to get serious and take action.

“The attitude is always, ‘We’re OK. We’re compliant, so we don’t need to do anything,’” Douglass says. “It’s unfortunate that you have to talk about lawsuits to get people’s attention, but that’s the real world.”

Bigger state parks and campgrounds often close entirely when they implement new best management practices and build ADA-compliant campsites and trails; however, it’s an overwhelming process to adhere to disability standards for most smaller parks.

Improvements to make parks more accessible are extremely costly, and both Coomber and Douglass say the disability community recognizes that. Both of them suggest parks make slow, yet progressive improvements over time as budgets permit, and that parks shouldn’t be afraid to ask for donations or grants in order to do so. 

Until then, the pair suggest lawyers and park owners should rent wheelchairs to try out the trails and campsites themselves and see what the current accessibility levels are like.

And most importantly, wheelchair users interested in camping should raise their voices, letting their senators and representatives know they feel short-changed at the moment, because they’re
paying taxes, too.

For more on accessible camping and accessible campsites throughout the United States, visit


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