Magazine article Geographical

Enabling Adventure: Karen Darke Describes the Latest Advances in Equipment That Are Enabling a New Generation of Disabled Adventures to Get out and about in the Great Outdoors

Magazine article Geographical

Enabling Adventure: Karen Darke Describes the Latest Advances in Equipment That Are Enabling a New Generation of Disabled Adventures to Get out and about in the Great Outdoors

Article excerpt

My biggest dilemma when planning a handcycling trip through Central Asia and the Himalaya was how I was going to go to the toilet. Being paralysed, I can't crouch on wooden planks over long-drops, or hover behind boulders. There was enormous potential for messy and embarrassing difficulties, but I didn't want this 'simple' thing to stand in the way of such a compelling journey. It was time for some improvisation. I discovered that, used imaginatively, an inflatable toilet seat and a trowel offered a reasonable solution, especially when sheltering beneath a tent flysheet. This combination sufficed for the wild and bumpy terrain of the Tien Shan mountains and the Taklamakan Desert of Western China.

But everything changed when I entered Pakistan. There, the rocks of the Karakoram proved testing for the fragile rubber seat. One morning, at a rather murky, smelly hole in the floor, I pumped the inflatable seat vigorously in order to keep myself as far as possible from the pungent pot. However, when I was finally settled and in mid action, as it were, there was a loud explosion as the seat ripped and I plummeted downwards. A wheelbarrow inner tube was the only other local solution I could find, but I knew that there had to be a more reliable, clean and practical solution.

A few years later, r was one of two paralysed paddlers on a sea-kayaking expedition to the fjords and mountains of the Pacific coast of Canada and Alaska. We were testing a field toilet made by Equal Adventure Developments, the UK's main inclusive adventure equipment design company. The prototype was a padded and moulded plastic seat mounted on four short legs. It had to be carefully positioned each morning, preferably within the tide line for the rapid breakdown of faeces. One morning, the tide arrived more quickly than expected. It sank the toilet and its occupier into a swirl of dirty water and expletives; the latter were drowned out by the sound of crashing waves and rolling shingle.

There is now a carbon-fibre, titanium legged version of the original prototype. It's also available with special feet that prevent it from sinking into snow for those who wish to adventure in colder climes.

Outdoor access

The toilet may seem like a trivial example, but having access to the correct equipment and clothing are key factors in enabling disabled people to go into the outdoors. Some of these equipment requirements can be very specific and need custom designing, but others are just a matter of chosing carefully from a selection of standard gear available.

For example, most people with a spinal-cord injury aren't able to thermoregulate. Nerve damage makes it difficult to make or retain heat in the parts of the body affected because the blood vessels don't constrict and dilate according to temperature. My own paralysis means that I have legs of ice for most of the winter and overheat when the climate is slightly warm or humid.

In the cold, the key is not to lose the heat in the first place. Today's fabric and clothing technology makes this much easier, thick-pile leggings and down trousers keeping the heat in, although the ballooning style of the latter can be rather awkward at times.

A range of outdoor clothing, including insoles, socks, gloves and jackets, now features so-called heated-fabric technology. This kit is often Dowered by small, rechargeable lithium batteries that provide three to six hours of heat. The gloves and insoles are a blessing for sufferers of Raynaud's disease, whose circulation to the extremities is impaired. They're also great for anyone with other thermoregulatory challenges. I hope it isn't long before the technology is used for trousers and sleeping bags.

Maintaining a steady body temperature isn't the only issue. Finding outdoor clothes to fit, if you have an unusual shape, posture, missing limbs or are sitting down permanently, can be a challenge in itself. …

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