Hiking is great exercise and a way to get outdoors. Visually impaired writer Caroline Butterwick considers how she and other people with disabilities can make the most of hiking, and her sense of belonging in the natural world.
Digging my hands into damp rough rocks for balance, I scramble up the path leading to the summit of Loughrigg, a fell in the Lake District. It’s a hike I’ve done many times before, each time enjoying the achievement that comes with reaching the trig point that marks the top of this 335-metre fell. I love the dramatic landscape that unfurls around me, and the cool wind whipping my hair across my face.
At the summit, I stop to catch my breath after the two hours I’ve spent walking uphill. I take those obligatory photos that show mountains surrounding us and lakes glistening like jewels in the distance.
There are several other people here, resting against rocks as they too admire the views or refuel with bites of Kendal Mint Cake. What these fellow hikers probably don’t realise is that I’m visually impaired.
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People are often surprised when I tell them I love hiking. Being partially sighted, the idea of me traversing rocky hills or striding through the countryside can seem strange. But walking is where I feel most at home.
I’m lucky that I have enough sight to be able to see at least some of the beauty around me, even if it’s with less depth and detail than a fully sighted person enjoys. But for me, hiking goes beyond the visual. I enjoy being outdoors, the endorphins that come with exercise, the feel of the ground beneath my walking boots and the shared excitement of completing a walk with others.
My husband is with me; I know that I need his support to manage a hike. We’ve been together since we were students, when he’d read out the cocktail menu for me on nights out or guide me through the busy campus, so he has a good understanding of what I can and can’t see. He knows when to help and when to leave me be – because being constantly asked if you need help, as many disabled people know, can get pretty tiring.
Here, on Loughrigg Fell, he’s gently helping me again as we enjoy the journey together. “It drops steeply here,” he says as we start our descent. “Try sticking to the left of the path.” Sometimes, he reaches out his hand and I grab hold for balance.
For visually impaired walkers – and those with other disabilities too – having someone who understands what it’s like for you is so helpful. Walking with others is great in itself, but it’s also reassuring to know that they are there for you and appreciate what you do – and don’t – need.
I use my body differently to fully sighted walkers – there’s a lot of shuffling on my bum when getting down a mountain. Inelegant, definitely, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
I’ve heard that some visually impaired hikers use walking poles to help with balance. It’s something I’m planning to try next time I head for a hike to test whether it helps me, especially when walking downhill – my lack of depth perception makes the descent often the most difficult part. When you’re disabled, you’re always finding new ways of doing things, sussing out what works for you.
Sometimes, though, I wonder whether I belong in the walking world. It can feel at odds with my experiences as a disabled person. I don’t always use my long white cane when hiking, as I worry about how others might perceive me doing so. I’m also very much against the idea that it’s ‘inspirational’ for me to be out walking.
I’m a big believer that a lot of what disables me is living in an inaccessible society, and this can include people having harmful attitudes about being disabled. Someone once commented that I shouldn’t go hiking because I could get in the way of others, as if I don’t belong in nature. I want to challenge the idea that this isn’t a space I can occupy. We all have the right to enjoy being outside.
For some disabled people, the landscape can be inaccessible. Thankfully, that’s changing. Miles Without Stiles is a national group that offers step-free walking routes, allowing wheelchair users, visually impaired people and others who find steps or rough ground a barrier to traverse these paths. National Parks across the country are now promoting this – a reminder that nature is there for everyone.
If you’re visually impaired or have another disability, it’s good to be honest with yourself about what is manageable. As much as I’d love to complete a mountain ridge walk, I know it’s something I would struggle with, and I’ve had to – reluctantly – decide to give it a miss, as I don’t think I can do it safely.
I always research walking routes in advance. Websites and guidebooks are great for figuring out whether a hike is suitable for you and detail things like the difficulty level, what the terrain is like and the distance. I also look at photos of the route in advance to help me figure out whether it’s something I can manage.
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After another couple of hours of walking, I reach the foot of Loughrigg Fell. Yes, I’m pretty exhausted, but I’m elated too. I grew up hiking, and the thrill of completing a trek never gets old. Despite my worries about what people think, about whether I should be doing this, I believe that this landscape is just as much for me as it is for anyone else. We all belong here.
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