Adaptive Outdoor Adventure Sports

By Bob Vogel, New Mobility, August 01, 2015

two peopel are shown flying in a para-glider

Photo courtesy of Jackson Hole Paragliding

The popularity of outdoor adventure sports is massive and continues growing at a fast clip. As an outdoor adventure sport enthusiast myself, I believe this popularity stems from being in the beauty of nature, combined with heightened experiences — flying through jungle canopies, tapping into the power of waves or white water rivers, soaring in the air like an eagle or free-falling while suspended a mile above the earth. In addition to the immediate “WOW!” factor, these experiences create a very positive and profound effect — adrenalin flowing, senses heightened. Emotional baggage vanishes and you enter a Zen state of being fully in the moment — something that stays with you and gives you a new perspective.

Intrigued? Here is a look at certain outdoor adventure sports that are fully accessible, even with very limited arm movement. You can try them without purchasing any additional gear. And you don’t have to be a superjock to do them. If they grab you, you can learn how to do them on your own.


Paragliding is a unique way to take to the sky, to soar in gentle breezes and share rising air currents with eagles and other raptors. It is also easily adaptable. The standard tandem harness supports the torso with straps fitting around the legs and waist, as well as over the shoulders and in front of the chest. It is helpful to add Velcro straps to secure the ankles of paralyzed legs to the instructor pilot so they don’t get tangled on landing.

This exciting sport can be done in all 50 states. A paraglider can take off and soar on the breeze of even a small hill. In flat lands you can launch behind a vehicle with a winch that pays out line. When the pilot has reached flying altitude, around 1,500 feet, the tow line is released and you glide down or catch thermals of rising air and stay aloft.

There are also several instructors offering adaptive lessons in a custom three-wheel chair designed for paragliding, both as a student and for flying solo. Chris Scantacroce, a tandem paraglider pilot from Sandy, Utah, gives adaptive tandem lessons — technically all tandem paraglider rides are considered instructional flights — on the adaptive chair and also offers paragliding lessons through Project Airtime [see resources]. In the United States there are already a handful of licensed paraglider pilots who are wheelchair users.

Kirk Williams, 27, in his fifth year as a C6-7 complete quad, went on a tandem flight last year in Jackson Hole, Wyo. He used a standard paragliding harness and started seated on the ground in front of his instructor. When they were ready, Matt, his instructor, gave a gentle tug on the controls and the paraglider gained shape and rose overhead in the gentle breeze. Two helpers lifted Williams while Matt took a few steps — and they were airborne.

“We quickly rose above launch,” says Williams. “When we turned back we were looking down on the people and pilots at launch. I didn’t feel so much like I was going up, but rather that the earth was falling away. It was late September, and the fall colors were peaking. It seemed like there was wildlife everywhere. We circled next to birds, flew over deer and a bear. It was fantastic!”

Matt helped Williams put his hands through the “toggle” loops — lines that control the glider — and let him fly for 10 minutes. “I was doing tight turns and diving down, then climbing up like a roller coaster, which was great fun until I started to feel queasy.” After being airborne for about 20 minutes, Matt had Williams put his hands under his knees and pull himself into a fetal position while Matt brought the paraglider in for landing. “Matt took two steps, then sat back with me in his lap. It was fantastic! I look forward to doing it again.”

Approximate cost of a tandem flight: $200.

Sailplane Flying

Sailplane flying is another accessible aviation option that is available in all 50 states. For a ride, no adaptation is needed. It is a good idea to sit on your own cushion for skin protection — better yet, wear a Vicair AllRounder cushion [see resources]. To try piloting, a joystick mounted in between the legs controls pitch and roll, but adaptive gliders have an additional joystick mounted to the left so you can control the rudder with your left hand — something that is ordinarily operated with the feet.

The sailplane is towed by a power plane to become airborne. At altitude the pilot pulls a knob to release the towrope. In the morning the air is still and a ride is smooth and relaxing. For more excitement and for those with a strong stomach, sign up for an aerobatic ride, pulling Gs, doing loops, rolls and spins. An afternoon ride in a sky filled with puffy clouds offers the opportunity — if you want — to find thermals, some of which can take you straight up at 2,000 feet per minute.

Ruth Aragon, 23, from Allentown, Pa., went for a ride with Freedom’s Wings — a nonprofit organization that offers free sailplane rides and deep discounts for instruction for people with disabilities. “It was a great experience!” says Aragon. “So much fun it was unforgettable. It completely changed my outlook and now I’ve become very interested in planes.”

Wayne Welker, a C5-6 complete quad, then 38, went for a sailplane ride in 2000 at Sky Sailing in Warner Springs, Calif. “I vividly remember that flight. I felt like I was floating on air — it was incredible,” he says. “Right there I knew I wanted to learn to fly.” However, work and commitments didn’t allow him time until 2007. Welker got his license in 2008 and now spends his time going cross country, riding thermals to stay aloft. His longest flight to date is 200 miles!

Ride costs start around $145.

Hang Gliding

Another form of easily adaptable silent flight that is available in all 50 states is hang gliding. For teaching and tandem rides, the hang glider is commonly towed up by an ultralight aircraft — much the same as a sailplane is towed aloft.

Andy Torrington of Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head, N.C., explains that on a tandem ride the passenger wears a harness that supports the body, including legs and feet, and the student hangs above the pilot. The glider has wheels on it, so it rolls on launch and landing. No arm movement is required, just the ability to hold up your head. However, to learn to fly solo, arm and hand movement are required.

Like paragliders, hang gliders fly at similar speeds to raptors, and it is not unusual to be joined by an eagle or hawk during flight. Under the right conditions, pilots have been known to hover a few feet behind hawks! Whether flying near your home town or on vacation, it is an amazing way to get a unique perspective of the world.

Rates start at $159 for a 2,000 foot high tow, which gives a 10-15 minute flight, and go up to a mile-high tow.


For the ultimate rush and bragging rights, nothing beats skydiving. Despite its daredevil image, skydiving is a well-controlled and professional activity, says Topher Downham, 46, from Boulder, Colo., in his 20th year as a C6-7 complete quad.

Downham went tandem skydiving last year with Mile High Skydiving out of Longmont, Colo. “They are very tuned in to working with wheelchair users. They have adaptive tandem harnesses that strap your legs to the instructor’s legs, and when it comes time to land, the instructor pulls a cord that lifts your legs up before landing,” he says. Last year they were working with a woman wheelchair user who was going solo.

“The whole day I felt relaxed,” recalls Downham. “That is right up to the point when we were sitting at the open door, a mile over the drop zone, when suddenly my reptilian brain kicked in, saying, ‘What are you doing?!’ Before I knew it we were out the door, free falling, and it was great! Like stepping off into nothing-ness. What a rush! The free fall was one part. Then when the parachute opens, it is an entirely different sensation, like flying.” The landing went perfectly [see video link in resources]. Downham’s instructor pulled his legs up and gently touched down, on the mark — in soft gravel — setting down on his butt, with Downham on top of him.

A word of caution for those considering skydiving. Be sure the instructor you are jumping with has experience with someone who has your same disability. There are horror stories of wheelers going on tandem jumps without using the proper equipment that have resulted in broken femurs from a leg flopping down when the parachute opens.

Approximate cost: $200.


Although adaptive surfing has been around for well over a decade, it is truly a world-wide phenomenon that is about to explode, says Cara Short, Executive Director of AccessSurf in Honolulu, Hawaii. It has been recognized by the International Surfing Association, the world governing body of surfing, and the first world adaptive surfing championship is going to be held this September in La Jolla, Calif.

Adaptive surfboards come in two styles: prone, where a surfer rides lying on his or her stomach; and seated — also called a wave ski — where a surfer sits on the board and paddles with a kayak paddle, says Jimmy Collins, 63, of Waipahu, Hawaii, in his 44th year as a T5 incomplete para.

Adaptive surfboards are designed with more rocker (the rise in the front portion of the board) so the board doesn’t pearl (nose in) when catching a wave. Prone boards have foam pads to hold a surfer’s legs on the board, a foam pad under the chest to keep the head up and handles to enable weight shifts for turning. Wave skis have a padded seat indent, and come in varying widths for stability. Both types come in tandem versions to enable a student to go for a ride.

“I first tried tandem surfing with an instructor at a learn-to-surf day in Santa Cruz, Calif., when I was living on the mainland,” says Collins. “I still remember that first wave, paddling as hard as I could, then all of a sudden there was a rush of acceleration and I felt the wave’s energy, and we were flying across the face of the wave for a nice long ride. Right there I was convinced I had to learn to surf.”

Rene Arellano, 34, from Oahu, Hawaii, is a C6-7 quad who has been surfing with AccessSurf for four years. “My first time tandem surfing was four years ago, shortly after I got out of rehab,” he recalls. “I was a bit nervous going tandem my first time, but that vanished on my first wave. Surfing makes me feel free, and I have gone on all of their beach surf days ever since and hope to learn to surf on my own.”

Collins was so enamored with surfing last fall that he and his wife moved to Oahu. After several surf sessions with AccessSurf, Collins had a custom board made by shaper Clem Camou.

The slow-breaking mellow waves that are good for the average adaptive surfer are also the best waves for stand-up paddleboard surfers — a group that is known for having a mellow vibe and a good “help each other out” spirit. Surfers on the mainland say this spirit is a common theme at stand-up paddle spots like San Onofre, Calif.

AccessSurf offers free tandem surf lessons once a month and private lessons and surf clinics with advance notice. There are surf spots and adaptive surf clinics in various places wherever there is coastline around the continental United States. See resources to find one near you.

Adaptive surf clinics are generally free. Approximate cost for private lessons is $75-$100.

Whitewater River Rafting

River rafting is arguably the best way to get into deep, otherwise inaccessible wilderness. I have fond memories of a raft trip through a rain forest in Costa Rica, watching tropical birds and howler monkeys on stretches of calm water between sections of class IV rapids on a raft trip down the Pacuare River.

River rafts are very adaptable. If an accessible seat isn’t available, moving the thwarts (round inflatable seats) closer together provides support for your back, and the other thwart supports your legs — I prefer to have my legs over the forward thwart. Life vests work great to provide extra padding and support.

Mary Taloff, 29, of Davis, Calif., has cerebral palsy and is a power chair user who has gone rafting with Environmental Traveling Companions on the South Fork of the American River not far from Sacramento. “I was terrified starting my first ETC raft trip,” recalls Taloff. “My friend talked me into it.” She says the guides were really helpful, explained what was going to happen and asked what they could do to make her feel more comfortable going through rapids with names like Satan’s Cesspool and Troublemaker. “In the end I loved it and have gone every year for the past six years.”

ETC sets Taloff up in an oar raft paddled by a guide. An adaptive seat — made out of a plastic lawn chair with the feet cut off — strapped to the thwart provides a stable seating platform. A small inflatable thwart supports her feet, and an assistant guide and her attendant sit on each side to hold her in place in the bigger rapids.

“I’ve gone rafting with ETC on single-day and two-day trips,” says Taloff. “We bring a manual chair in the raft in case we stop for lunch, and they drive my power chair to the awesome accessible campground that we spend the night at.”

Lauren Steinberg, 29, from Berkeley, Calif., has arthrogryposis and also rafts in an oar boat. “I’ve been going rafting with ETC since middle school,” she recalls. “I still remember my first trip with them. It was exhilarating and it shifted my perspective on life because it was the first time I was fully immersed in nature.”

ETC raft prices start at $70 per person per day, and scholarships are available.

Zip Line

Zip lining is another popular and easily adaptable adventure. There are approximately 250 zip lines that are accessible for people with disabilities in the United States, says Don Rogers, a professor at Indiana State University who works with accredited zip line course vendors to make their courses accessible. And Misty Mountain Harness Company makes a line of adaptive zip line harnesses.

Many zip lines are naturally accessible via chair lift, or trail, where you can wheel to the start, get harnessed up to the zip line, and have your chair sent to the finish. At Flying Eagle zip line in Park City, Utah, accessible by a chairlift ride, the zip line sends you flying above the ski runs, down the mountain at 45 miles per hour. Better yet, a wheelchair at the mid-mountain chairlift station goes from the chairlift to the zip line, so your chair will be waiting for you at the bottom. They say upper body strength to transfer from wheelchair to the zip line chair is required — they use a chair with shoulder harnesses.

Other zip lines require a bit of adaptation. The zip line at the New Zoo Adventure Park in Green Bay, Wisc., starts at the top of a 64-stair, 50-foot tower. On a busy day the ride can accommodate 60 people an hour.  One day a month the park hooks up an adaptive rope-and-pulley system to hoist wheelchair users up the tower, which takes about 15 minutes per person. Dale Metoxin, 30, of Green Bay, who has CP and uses a manual chair, tried it for his first time this summer. “It was great,” he says, “It is something I will definitely try again. I like the speed and sensation of flying.”

Kirk Williams and Daewon Rojas-Mikelson, a T12 para, experienced the ultimate in adaptation when they went on a zip line canopy tour in Costa Rica, near the Arenal Volcano, with a company called Sky Adventures.

Usually the company has eight people and two guides. They changed the ratio to eight guides to set up for Williams and Rojas-Mikelson. “At times we needed all eight guides,” recalls Williams. The tour consisted of 11 zip lines. “They kept us in our chairs with a full climbing harness, as well as a harness around the chair because there were sections of one-half mile of inaccessible hikes in between zip lines,” says Williams.

In addition, there were a couple of 80-foot towers with steps going to the top and the guides rigged ropes and pulleys to get them up. The guides were totally accommodating and figured out how to adapt each section. “Going over the edge of the first 80-foot tower was jaw dropping, like flying through the rain forest canopy,” says Williams. “Some of the zip lines flew over huge ravines and near waterfalls. It was amazing.”

Prices average about $20-$40 — more for a canopy tour.


Hang Gliding






Zip Line

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