Winter can be a magical time, full of opportunities for unique outdoor activities. Whether you love or hate the winter season, being well-prepared can have a positive effect on your experience. However, if you are a wheelchair user you might have to take additional preparations to make sure you have a safe and enjoyable time. Here are a few tips to help you put the WIN in Winter Wheelchair Mobility!
1. WINTER TIRES
The first thing to consider is your tires. There are many different styles of winter tires available. Your local bike shop will have a big selection and will be able to special order your wheelchair wheel’s size if they don’t have them in stock. Soft rubber with knobby treads provides grip on snow and ice. Go with a wider tire, if possible, as it will also help spread out your weight in soft conditions.
If budget is a concern, you can try a DIY option for winterizing your current tires. Improve your traction on snow and ice by adding zip ties to your tires. Just remember that if you manually propel your wheelchair, whichever option you pick should be comfortable for your hands when braking.
2. STAY VISIBLE
The low light and short days of winter can take their toll on those who enjoy outdoor activities, especially those using a wheelchair for mobility. When sidewalks are not properly cleared, it might force you into the road for brief periods, and vehicles might have a difficult time seeing you. Headlights and taillights made for bicycles are great to add onto a wheelchair frame for visibility. Head lamps can light your dark path. Also, consider adding reflective spoke wraps to your wheels, or wearing a hi-viz, reflective vest on yourself. If you are in a festive mood, get creative with your visibility and wrap battery-powered lights around your wheelchair's frame. Stay visible, stay safe!
3. STAY HYDRATED
You can become dehydrated more quickly in dry climates and high altitudes. Indoor heating systems can also cause you to become dehydrated. Cold sets in more easily when you are dehydrated. Carry an insulated water bottle (insulated so it doesn’t freeze in low temps) with you at all times, and don’t forget about possibly supplementing your electrolytes as well!
4. STAY COVERED
For individuals who primarily sit during mobility, dressing warm is especially important. Sitting can affect circulation, and certain medical conditions make it challenging to self-regulate body temperature. Extremities are particularly important to keep warm. Wear good quality socks, hats, and gloves. If you manually push your chair in wet conditions, make sure to get water-resistant gloves. Dress in layers so that you can more easily adjust to changing temperatures throughout the day, as well as difference in temperature from inside to outside. If you are UV sensitive, be sure to remember the sunscreen! Sun reflects violently off snow and ice and will affect any exposed skin, particularly your face and ears. That reflection, even on overcast days, can strain eyes so you’ll also appreciate a pair of sunglasses.
5. CARRY EXTRA SUPPLIES
Be prepared! If you get stranded waiting for a bus, or get stuck in a gutter, or if your power-chair battery dies or a sudden snow flurry makes your first layer wet, it’s great to have extra supplies. Bring extra socks, gloves, even an extra layer or thermals or a throw-over blanket or wheelchair poncho. Bring extra medication for the day, snacks, and a bottle of water. Pack everything in a bag that’s easily accessible to you. Be careful not to sling too much weight on the back of your wheelchair as that can affect the center of gravity. Some all-terrain wheelchairs like the GRIT Freedom Chair have a center of gravity more forward than standard wheelchairs. This helps with stability and the large backrest can hold just about any pack.
6. ADOPT THE BUDDY SYSTEM
If it looks like it will be a challenging weather day, consider asking a buddy to tag along with you. Unplowed sidewalks, slushy gutters, and more could threaten your safety and sanity and having someone to help you out if you get stuck is a good idea. At the very least, in treacherous conditions let someone know where you are going and when you expect to arrive so they can check-in. Also have a buddy if it looks like you may be snowed in. It’s great to have company as you wait out a storm, as well as having an extra set of hands around if the power goes out.
7. HAVE A BACKUP POWER SOURCE OR MOBILITY OPTION
If you use a power wheelchair as your main source of mobility, remember that many battery types don’t hold their charge well in winter. A back up battery with a full charge and a generator for recharging would be ideal for emergency situations if the power goes out. Alternatively, consider having a backup manual chair for winter mobility in case your power chair is unable to function due to weather conditions and you need to be mobile. All-terrain wheelchairs such as the GRIT Freedom Chair are customizable for many different types of abilities and are easier, compared to a standard manual wheelchair, to maneuver over all types of conditions.