Spending time in nature has been linked to numerous benefits, including improved attention, lower stress, better mood and a reduced risk of psychiatric disorders. However, individuals with mobility issues may struggle to spend meaningful time in nature.
People confined to wheelchairs or who struggle to walk longer distances are often limited to only a few steps from a parking lot—anything but paved, flat trails seem all but impossible. But a new Minnesota Department of Natural Resources initiative is attempting to bridge that divide with the addition of five all-terrain track chairs free to use for park visitors.
Track chairs are essentially all-terrain wheelchairs able to traverse up and down hills and through mud, dirt, gravel and open fields, as well as through shallow water and snow. Manufactured by Action Trackchair, the chairs in the Minnesota State Parks are electric and can travel up to seven miles and more than five hours on a single charge, allowing users to access more challenging trails and remote parts of the parks.
“Members of leadership in the Department of Natural Resources care a lot about making sure that public lands and resources within the control of the DNR are accessible to all people regardless of their abilities,” said Sara Joy Berhow with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “This effort came up as a way to bring people into state parks who may not have been visiting them already because it would give them access to areas of the park they hadn’t been able to get to before. This is about expanding the number of people who can visit and benefit from the natural resources that we have in our state.”
Available in five of Minnesota’s state parks, the chairs are free to use but a state park vehicle permit is required for all vehicles entering the park. Park visitors are encouraged to call ahead to reserve the track chair, and proof of disability is not currently required to use the chair.
The agency will be monitoring the feedback from this program as leadership considers adding more track chairs to other parks in the state.
“This is a pilot program, and we’re just kicking it off now,” Berhow added. “We will be asking the people who are using the chairs to provide some sort of feedback about the program and about the chairs themselves. If this is something that is in demand, we would like to expand it in the future.”
The track chairs were made possible through a donation and the Minnesota Legacy campaign.
Power of bonding outdoors
For caregivers who struggle to find activities to do with mobility-challenged loved ones, track chairs can open the door to enjoying nature together and may even improve the bond between the caregiver and loved one. Researchers found that spending time in nature with family can significantly strengthen a family bond. For example, a University of Illinois study analyzed mother-daughter pairs who either went on a walk outside or on a walk through the mall. A walk in nature was found to increase positive interaction and was shown to restore the mothers’ attention. Thanks to these chairs, spending time in nature – without a parking lot or building just a few steps away – is possible.
“One of the things that is great about having these chairs is that it not only provides access to parts of the park for the people using the chairs but also for their friends and family members and caregivers who are able to get out in more remote parts of the park,” Berhow said.
And Minnesota isn’t the only state piloting a program like this. Berhow said the track chair manufacturer currently has track chairs for public use in 22 states.
“There are a lot of people in Minnesota who are really excited about this, but there are people excited about it all over the country as well,” she said. “We know from research that access to nature is healing and has a lot of health and wellness benefits. Opening that up to all people is a positive thing.”