Roaming outdoors with wheels

Peter Lau 

Wildlife Support Officer Peter Lau was an avid wildlife observer and videographer, who specialised in the under-water environment, and scuba dived many of our world's best locations.  

In April 2014 he was involved in a serious accident and became paralysed from the chest level down, leaving him fully wheelchair dependant for mobility.

As part of my rehabilitation, I wanted to still be able to access our wilder places and enjoy our natural world. And so, I started to venture out to nature reserves. I use a manual wheelchair but also connect a powered front wheel attachment to my standard wheelchair using equipment called a Batec Scrambler.

There are many wonderful wilder places across Yorkshire, but it’s impossible to fully comprehend the problems regarding accessibility unless you know someone who is or are wheelchair dependant yourself. A small step, a stile, a narrow opening, a gradient or adverse camber can all be issues and become a preventative barrier to exploring the outdoors.

Sharing experience and advice

As well as having to overcome many personal issues in managing my specific condition I realised that there was a lack of good quality, tested information, specific to visiting many places in a wheelchair or with some form of mobility equipment. Frustrated at the lack of information and advice and the ongoing barriers to access, I created a website called accessible nature www.accessiblenatureuk.com

The site is aimed at people who need wheeled mobility equipment to get around, be that a manual wheelchair, a powerchair, a powered front wheel attachment such as a Batec, freewheel, Tramper, mobility scooter, but also parents/carers with prams and pushchairs.

The main purpose being to allow a person to judge if the route and venue is suitable for them as an individual and their equipment. Afterall, no one knows the capabilities of your equipment and your level of confidence better than you.

All routes are tested by me and accompanied with a full description of the terrain, the facilities, and importantly the hazards that the site might present to a person, visiting who is reliant on wheels for mobility. The route guides also include many photographs of the route, along with gate or width restriction measurements.

The benefits of getting outdoors, to your wellbeing and mental health are well documented. I hope people find this useful, helps others to build confidence  and opens up more of our natural environment for more people to enjoy.

Peter’s top tips for anyone dependant on wheels for mobility – perhaps venturing out and exploring nature reserves for the first time

  1. Build up your confidence and visit a site that is staffed, Potteric Carr, a Yorkshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve is an excellent place to visit. The staff are very helpful and will tell you about the reserve – to ensure you feel safe and get the most out of your visit.
  2. Pack waterproof clothing or a poncho! It is the UK, and the weather can be unpredictable.
  3. I use off-road wheels on my wheelchair – that I swap for my normal wheels when I return to my vehicle, I use a bike wash portable spray to wash down my wheels. Often reserve paths can be muddy after rain.
  4. I often visit our wilder places on my own- but obviously this could lead to a problem should you require assistance, your equipment break down or you get a puncture. I am fortunate that I am able to fix all but the most serious issues with my equipment so unless you are fully confident on your own to be able to deal with any problems then it would be better to have a companion with you.
  5. I also recommend a free app that you can instal on a smartphone called “what3words”. This app splits the world into 3 words that are unique to that square metre. This allows you to call for help and to be able to give a precise location. It is also used by the emergency services.