How I Reclaimed Hiking - in a Chair

Written by Jeanine Schmitz

Jenny lives in Seattle because of its unique offering of mountains, water, culture, and cool weather. She spends as much time as possible enjoying the outdoors. Her passion is travel, which has become a multi-adventure experience since her MS required a transition into a wheelchair.

My last standing hike was several years ago to the lookout at Mt Pilchuk, on the Mountain Loop Highway north of Seattle.  I completed the hike to the 5327 foot high lookout and back by using two forearm crutches.   The 5.4 mile round-trip hike took me 7 hours. 
My husband and I had moved to Seattle in 2002 partially because of the mountains, with grand plans for hiking in the North Cascades, doing the Wonderland Trail, etc. 

Life did not cooperate, however, as my mobility declined, and I became a reluctant participant in a parade of “toys:" hiking poles, cane, forearm crutches, a battery-powered scooter, and eventually a wheelchair.    

My next “hike” occurred years later, with the help of a folding manual wheelchair.  Only a few, short, paved ADA-approved trails were designated as accessible, but I was able to open up a whole world of possibilities of unmaintained trails by swallowing some pride and accepting help from generous and hard-working relatives.

Perpetually on the lookout for a contraption that could better master the vagaries of unmaintained trails, I added a FreeWheel – a third wheel sticking out of the front, which lifted my tiny casters off of the ground and made possible the trails of Iceland, and the cobblestones of Italy.   

The third wheel was great for travel, but it was still not robust enough for some of the trails I longed to hike.  Several years ago, I learned about the all-terrain Freedom Chair.  At the time, the company, GRIT, was only producing this chair for the developing world; however, they had plans to make a version for use in the US, so I got on their mailing list.  Years later, I had the good fortune to try my own Freedom Chair.   

My main goals were to find something that would roll over rocks, roots, and small steps.  I wanted something that would work on mud, sand, and snow.  Ideally, this chair would also move forward as well as stop in rain.  On my first hike among big trees, I was excited to discover that the Freedom Chair could successfully tackle mud, rocks, roots, and small steps.  A few weeks later, I chose a hike that included a “big, sandy area,” and I was happy to confirm that sand was possible – within the limits of my own strength, of course.  There is still snow high on the mountains here, but it is so difficult that I will have to wait until next winter to test it.  And I live in Seattle, so a good rainy hike should be no problem.  

The third wheel on the Freedom Chair is infinitely more solid than any other I’ve seen.  As an added bonus, the Freedom Chair operates on levers – both as forward motion propellers and as brakes.  I am cautiously aware of over-using my shoulders, so I appreciate the mechanics of rolling forward by pushing the levers rather than the traditional wheeling via wheel rims.  I am also conscious of my own weakening grip strength, so I appreciate the ability to loosely hold the levers with my hands rather than to try to grasp the wheel rims with my fingers.  Finally, still befuddled by how to brake a traditional manual wheelchair in the rain, I am hopeful that the brake-on-wheel action will prove more waterproof than my hands-on-wheel-rims. 

My husband has a collection of skis – different pairs for different snow conditions.  I have a collection of five wheelchairs – different types for different transportation methods and purposes: The Freedom Chair is my clear choice for hiking! 

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The GRIT Freedom Chair is the most versatile chair on the market, designed from the ground up to handle any terrain. From trails to grass to snow, the Freedom Chair is built for you to push yourself. Born out of research at MIT, the Freedom Chair's patented easy-push levers reduce shoulder strain and put you in control of your mobility. Learn more about the GRIT Freedom Chair at