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Accessibility Guidebook for Outdoor Recreation and Trails

The Outdoors Are for Everyone—Fundamentals of Outdoor Recreation and Trails Accessibility

Photo of a man and woman chatting as the man fishes from a dock with lowered guard rail to allow easier fishing while using a wheelchair.

It's all about people having the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors. Public lands offer a wide range of recreation settings and opportunities from highly developed campgrounds to untouched wilderness areas. Visitors may choose both the type of recreation they want to pursue and where to pursue it. Of course, recreationists must always check to make sure that what they want to do is allowed where they want to recreate.

Why Accessibility Is Important

The Forest Service is committed to integrating and maximizing accessibility into the full range of recreation opportunities while protecting natural resources and maintaining the character and experience of the settings so that all people have the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors. This commitment is established in Forest Service policy.

How does accessibility fit into this range of opportunities? We certainly don't want to pave the wilderness. However, when the decision is made to construct or alter a building, trail, recreation site, or other facility, we must ask, "How can we design, purchase, or build it to ensure all people have an equal opportunity to use this facility?" The key is to ask this question before the facility has been designed and built or purchased. Then we can provide facilities for use by all people.

For more information on Forest Service recreation opportunities, visit

How many people benefit from accessible facilities? At the time of the 2010 census, 54 million people (about 1 in every 5 people in the United States) had a disability that significantly limited one or more major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, breathing, and thinking. Of that number, 7 percent used wheelchairs, and 2.1 percent used crutches, canes, walkers, or other assistive devices. Seventyfive percent have disabilities that are not obvious at first glance. People with disabilities constitute the largest minority in the country.

Additionally, the population of the United States is aging. By the year 2030, more than 80 million people will be 65 or older. As people age, impairments are more likely to hinder activities. If you live long enough, you are likely to join the ranks of people with disabilities.

Recreation Opportunities on National Forests and Grasslands

There are national forest and grasslands in all but six of the States and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

  • 155 national forests and grasslands
    • 193 million acres (78.1 million hectares) to enjoy

  • 439 congressionally designated wilderness areas
    • 37.6 million acres (15.2 million hectares) in which to experience solitude and a pristine environment

  • 156,000 miles (251,000 kilometers) of trails to hike

  • 122 wild and scenic rivers
    • 4,927 miles (7,929 kilometers) of beautiful water to float or fish

  • 19,611 recreation sites and 23,000 recreation buildings
    • 5,000 campgrounds in which to pitch a tent or set up a trailer or recreational vehicle

  • Thousands of miles (or kilometers) of scenic byways to drive

  • 172 million visits each year

If anyone in a group has a disability, accessibility is an issue for the whole group (figure 1.) This influences where the group will go and what they will do together. Ski areas learned many years ago that each skier who has a disability is usually accompanied by three or four additional skiers who don't have disabilities. They all want to buy lift tickets, rent gear, eat lunch, and ski together. Accessibility is good customer service and good for business.

Photo of three people setting up a tent. One of the individuals is using a wheelchair.
Figure 1—Although the Blackberry Crossing Campground in the White
Mountain National Forest is not highly developed, it's a great place for
this group of friends to enjoy camping together. Photo credit:
Northeast Passage, Durham, NH

Just as recreational preferences vary among the general population, people with disabilities enjoy different types of outdoor recreation. We must make sure that facilities allow all visitors to choose their own recreational activities.

What Terminology Should Be Used?

Although people who have disabilities refer to themselves in many different ways and numerous "buzz words" have been used to describe people with disabilities over the years, direction for terminology was provided in the early 1990s. The 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) uses the phrase persons with disabilities and the word accessible. When Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was renewed and amended in 1992, its terminology was corrected to include accessible and persons with disabilities. Federal agency regulations, policies, and documents have used terminology that matches ADA and the Rehabilitation Act since that time.

A disability is a medically definable condition that causes a limitation in one or more of a person's major life activities, such as walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, thinking, and so forth. Person-first terminology is used because the person is more important than his or her disability. Examples include:

  • A person who is blind—not "a blind person"
  • A person who uses a wheelchair—not "a wheelchairbound person" or "a wheelchair person"

A handicap is a barrier or circumstance that makes progress difficult, such as a flight of stairs that may be impassable for a person using a wheelchair or a negative attitude toward a person who has a disability. The word "handicapped" has negative connotations and has been around for centuries, though it wasn't used to refer to people with disabilities until the late 1800s. Many people believe that "handicapped" was first used in relation to persons with disabilities when Civil War veterans (with injuries that prevented them from working) were begging on the streets with "cap in hand." Standard references do not support this story. But because the story has become legend and begging for a living is degrading, describing people with disabilities as "handicapped" is offensive to most people with disabilities. The word "handicapped" should be eliminated from vocabulary, publications, and other materials.

Disability Etiquette

  • Use common sense and extend common courtesy to everyone.

  • Don't patronize anyone; treat adults like adults.

  • Be patient. Some people need more time to express themselves or move about.

  • Relax and be yourself. It's okay to use common phrases such as "see you later" when talking with a person who is blind or has limited vision.

  • Speak directly to the person and maintain eye contact, don't speak through a companion or interpreter.

  • Use person-first terminology. Don't use words like handicapped, victim, or afflicted to describe a person who has a disability.

  • Offer assistance to persons with disabilities, wait for their response, and follow their specific directions.

  • Do not pet, feed, or distract service animals without first asking permission. They are working animals, not pets.

Accessible facilities comply with the accessibility guidelines and standards. A site, facility, or program is either accessible or it is not accessible. For instance, figure 2 illustrates one type of trail that complies with accessibility guidelines. The only way to evaluate accessibility is to evaluate the facility's compliance with the guidelines in effect at the time it was designed, constructed, or altered. There are no shades of accessibility. For instance, a parking space complies with the standards and is accessible, or it doesn't comply with the standards and is not accessible. The specific technical requirements of the standards for surfacing, slope, and the size of the parking space and walkway connection must be met, regardless of the conditions around the parking space.

Photo of two people using wheelchairs on a trail.
Figure 2—Two friends enjoy a trail that complies
with the guidelines and allows them to hike
through the rain forest.

Other phrases concerning accessibility that are not correct include: partially accessible, accessible with assistance, barrier free, ADA accessible, and handicapped accessible. A facility is either accessible or it is not accessible. If the facility is not accessible, the visitor or employee needs to know which specific areas are not accessible. "Partially accessible" and "accessible with assistance" imply some accessibility problems, but don't provide enough information to be helpful. "Barrier free" isn't legally defined or commonly understood. "ADA accessible" confuses laws with accessibility standards. "Handicapped accessible" is a common phrase, but it is offensive to many people with disabilities and should not be used. "Handicapped accessible" is also a contradiction because a handicap is a barrier and accessible means there aren't any barriers. The best terminology is simply accessible and not accessible.

Providing Appropriate Information About Accessibility

Forest Service policy is to provide nonjudgmental information about programs and facilities so that visitors may choose the areas, activities, and facilities that best meet their interests and needs. The goal is independence, integration, and dignity for all visitors.

  • When composing copy for Web sites, brochures, and other public information sources, consult with forest recreation staff or forest accessibility coordinators to ensure appropriate and accurate information is conveyed and displayed.
  • When describing a specific site or area, use the term accessible only if all facilities, constructed features, and connecting routes are in full compliance with the applicable accessibility guidelines. Accessible refers only to specific facilities, constructed features, or routes that have been constructed or altered in compliance with all of the requirements of the applicable accessibility guidelines. Electronic copies of these guidelines are available at

    • Don't use the terms "ADA," "partially," "barrier free," or "handicapped."
  • Provide specific details about what people can expect to encounter. For instance, include minimum width, maximum slope, and condition of the tread surface (is it firm and stable?) on information about trails. All information is for all users.

    • Don't prejudge or assume what a person can or cannot do by adding comments such as "some people may need assistance," etc. These notes, even though well intended, are patronizing.

    • Don't assign accessibility-related difficulty levels to recreation opportunities, such as camping, boating, fishing, hiking, etc. Individuals will determine which opportunity best meets their interests and abilities after reviewing the specific information about that opportunity.
  • Whenever standard outdoor recreation symbols are used on maps and other information sources, use the color blue to indicate accessible units. For instance, if the tent symbol is used to show the location of campgrounds on an area map, the tent symbol indicating campgrounds with accessible units should be blue, but the tent symbol for campgrounds without accessible units should be a different color, such as brown. The legend for the map should include the information that blue indicates accessibility.

    • Don't use the international symbol of accessibility on information. This symbol only should be used on signs at six legally defined facility locations when they are in full compliance with the applicable accessibility guidelines: toilet, parking space, entrance if not the main entrance, loading zones, areas of refuge in a building, and route of egress out of a building. More information about use of the international symbol of accessibility is available in "Use of the International Symbol of Accessibility and Other Signs" of this guidebook.
  • On newly constructed or altered trails, whether the trail complies with the accessibility guidelines or not, include the following trail information, in addition to other information typically provided for hikers, on trailhead signs:

    • Destination and length of the trail or trail segment

    • Surface type

    • Typical and minimum tread width

    • Typical and maximum running slope

    • Typical and maximum cross slope

    • A statement that the posted information reflects the condition of the trail when it was constructed or assessed, including the date of the construction or assessment

Legal Requirements

The Architectural Barriers Act (ABA) became law in 1968. The act mandates that all facilities designed, built, altered, bought, rented, or leased by, for, or on behalf of a Federal agency must be accessible.

In 1973, the Rehabilitation Act became law. Section 504 of the act applies to programs and activities that are conducted by Federal agencies and by entities that receive funding from, or operate under a permit from, Federal agencies. Section 504 requires that these programs and activities provide an equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities to participate in an integrated setting, as independently as possible. The only exception to the requirement is when the program would be fundamentally altered if changes were made solely for the purpose of accessibility. An example of a fundamental alteration to a program would be allowing use of a motor vehicle in an area not designated for motorized-vehicle use.

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) implementation guidance for Section 504 is Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 15 (7 CFR 15) that was finalized in 1994. Subpart 15e _03.html applies to programs conducted by the Forest Service. Subpart 15b cfr15b_03.html applies to programs operating with Federal agency funding, under special use permits, or under other agreements with the agency. If a building or structure must be entered for someone to participate in the activity at the site, the building must be accessible.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. Except for Title V, Section 508(c), ADA doesn't apply to Federal agencies' facilities and programs. Federal agencies were already required to be accessible under ABA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act before ADA became law. ADA applies to State and local government services, to public accommodations such as motels and hotels, and to organizations that are open to the public. Title V, Section 508(c) of ADA applies to Federal wilderness areas. It reaffirms the 1964 Wilderness Act and clarifies that agencies aren't required to change the character of wilderness areas to provide accessibility. Section 508(c) also defines a wheelchair and states that wheelchairs meeting that definition may be used in Federal wilderness areas.