All Terrain Manual
There is nothing quite like getting into nature when you have a disability. ActiveMSers has reviewed and vigorously tested manual wheelchairs designed to handle the rigors of exploring the outdoors. The results of our off-road wheelchair evaluation surprised on a number of levels, and not just on the hiking trail. We strongly recommend referring to this guide before purchasing any all-terrain wheelchair.
Nobody wants to use a wheelchair. Let’s make that clear straight off. We want to use our legs to explore this earth. But guess what? Because you are reading this, grand plans may not have gone so grandly. Perhaps you have wonky, weak legs like I do from multiple sclerosis, or your legs don’t work period from another disability, or hell, you don’t have legs. Point is, we still have a life to live, and for me, a major part of living is getting outdoors. And there’s the rub.
I’ve had to rely, off and on, on wheelchairs to cover any major ground since 2009. And I’ve discovered that wheelchairs are quite handy for managing large airports, exploring modern cities, and cutting to the front of the line to photo bomb tourists trying to capture the grandeur of the 30x21 inch Mona Lisa despite Dave’s head blotting out half the painting. I’ve also discovered that standard wheelchairs pretty much suck on any terrain that is not flat. Or paved. Or really flat and really paved.
Enter the off-road wheelchair.
There many basic types of off-road, all-terrain wheelchairs, but it mainly comes down to two major options: manual or motorized. The serious motorized versions usually take on the appearance of a small tank or a Mars rover, and tend to weigh 1,000 lbs or more, severely limiting portability. There are indoor/outdoor electric wheelchairs that do double duty, but they are not geared so much for the trail. Think light duty—grass, compacted dirt, and gravel. Then you have specialty items, like beach wheelchairs that need assistance to be propelled (electric or a pusher). And finally you have dedicated off-road wheelchairs that are meant to be pushed or lifted by a helper or a team of helpers (say, for mountaineering). To explore the capabilities of those chairs, The Chair Institute has reviewed many of them.
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OFF-ROAD MANUAL CHOICES
Because a large part of getting outside, at least for me, is exercise, I set out to review manual, self-propelled versions. That trimmed options down significantly. In this department there are two distinct possibilities: beefy wheelchairs with oversized mountain bike tires that operate like traditional self-propelled wheelchairs, and those that use levers to generate force, longer wheelchairs typically using three wheels instead of four for stability.
Standard Push Rims
Wheelchair users will be familiar with how these wheelchairs operate. It’s basically a gnarly version of your standard wheelchair. You operate them both the same way, using push rims for propulsion (or the wheels themselves, gloves recommended). And like standard wheelchairs, they range widely in price. On the inexpensive side the Excel G-Explorer runs $400+US and has the chops for mild terrain. It’s lightweight and foldable and good for travel. Meanwhile, you can drop $3,000 on the Top End Crossfire All Terrain, a rigid chair that will sail through rough-ish terrain. But a big but. In order to sail through said terrain, you are going to need the strength of Juanita Najerato, who lives just up the way from me. A firefighter, Juanita owns the powerlifting world record in the dead lift in her 115-lb weight class. So, if you can raise a 430-lb weight from the floor to waist level, you are good to go! If not, even for “easy” terrain, you will likely need the assistance of a pusher. Standard push rims just do not allow the user to generate enough torque to handle challenging terrain.
Despite the drawback of not being able to tackle the Andes with aplomb, there are some distinct advantages of these all-terrain wheelchairs. For starters, they are easy to transport and will comfortably fit into most vehicles. This is a big deal as you’ll soon read. Two, if a little snow or mud or patch of grass is in your way, these chairs will get you where you want to go, especially if you have a bit of help. And an even bigger deal: they can do double duty. You can use them both indoors and outdoors. That way if you are out and about exploring, you can easily roll into any accessible bathroom to take care of bodily needs as they arise.
In contrast with push rims, levers maximize upper-body strength and maximize the amount of torque you can put down to the wheels. Torque is that umph you need to go, and that is a necessity for dirt crawling, hill climbing, and grass going if you are going to attempt to go off road on your own. The number of all-terrain wheelchairs using this type of propulsion narrowed the list to a precious two: the Mountain Trike starting north of $5,000 and the GRIT Freedom Chair starting at $3,000. This is where we focused our energy in testing.
Manufacturers of both generously agreed to let us test their all-terrain wheelchairs, and boy did we put these two types of chairs through their paces. We threw every type of challenging terrain at them and then some. And (spoiler) the results had me walking away thoroughly impressed with both. (And by “walking away” you know I really meant “gimping away,” something I can point out with irony because I’m gimpy. Able-bodied folks: don’t try that joke at home.) Before I break down the findings of our real-world testing, I want to emphasize that this was NOT a head-to-head competition, as both chairs are quite different—and priced accordingly.
Standard Push Rims
We tested the standard versions of both off-road wheelchairs as well as Mountain Trike’s top-of-the-line electric eTrike, and the easiest way to compare their differences is to relate them to well-made, smartly designed mountain bikes.
The GRIT Freedom Chair is your standard hardtail, nothing-fancy mountain bike—capable on the trail and decently quick on pavement. The MIT developers at GRIT spent eight years creating and tweaking a no-nonsense, affordable and easy-to-maintain all-terrain wheelchair. The chair comes with a 2-year warranty and comes in any color you choose as long as it’s black. A 30-day satisfaction guarantee is offered; the chair can be returned during this time for a full refund. It’s manufactured in the US.
In contrast, the Mountain Trike is your tricked out full-suspension mountain bike—a rock-climbing beast on the trail yet a bit of overkill on the flats. Invented over five years by a mechanical design engineer and avid mountain biker, the Mountain Trike reflects the no-compromises precision one might expect in a hand-built luxury car, which is appropriate given that the creator Tim Morgan hails from Bentley Motors. And as one might expect, the price of each chair reflects its technology. Manufactured in Great Britain, the Mountain Trike (with its direct steering, air suspension, hydraulic disc brakes, and optional e-assist) comes with a three-year warranty, is fully customizable, and is available in virtually any color one can dream up. Electric power assist is available as a separate kit which can be added to the standard Mountain Trike. Rentals are available at select locations.
Each chair has an impressive breadth of features and specifications. Fortunately, websites for both manufacturers are beyond thorough and include video, so instead of rehashing every speck of spec, we’ll highlight the biggies. Our aluminum Mountain Trike, with its stabilizing wheel in the rear, is 52” long (132 cm), 44 lbs (20 kg), rides on 24” mountain bike tires, and comes in one size (17", max weight 220 lbs). The eTrike tips the scales at 25 kg, or 55 lbs. The steel GRIT Freedom Chair is 48” long (122 cm), 45 lbs (20.4 kg), rides on 26” mountain bike tires, has its stabilizing wheel in the front, and comes in three sizes (16", 18" and 20", max weight 275 lbs). Both chairs are powered by a lever system using standard bike parts, meaning they can be repaired by any competent bike mechanic.
Both all-terrain wheelchairs are powered by a pair of levers (for right and left arms), which allow the user to provide far more power than push rims.
Forward motion. To move forward, you push the levers forward, like a bench press. The eTrike adds a 250W, 36V hub motor with 5 power settings.
Stopping. To stop, the Mountain Trike uses a pair of hand brakes like a bicycle (can be modified to work with just one arm; the eTrike has just one). To stop the Freedom Chair, you pull back on the levers until friction on the tires stops the wheelchair.
Turning. To turn with the Mountain Trike, twist your wrist left or right on your dominant hand (the turning joystick can be mounted to either lever), which turns the rear wheel. It is a bit touchy, so it will take time to get it down. To turn with the Freedom Chair, think like a tank driver: to turn left, pull back with your left arm to lightly brake and push your right arm forward (similar to a standard wheelchair).
Reversing. Going in reverse is a bit trickier, which is both a benefit (you can’t accidentally roll down a hill backward) and a detraction (it takes a few steps and requires putting your hands on the tires). To reverse in the Mountain Trike, the lever arms need to first be disengaged, and then the user can roll backward using gravity or his or her hands on the tires. To reverse in the Freedom Chair, the user removes the levers entirely to operate the chair by hand. In both cases, the chair does not reverse without the levers being disengaged.
KEY NOTES: Only the Mountain Trike can be operated with one arm (or with one strong arm and one week arm). The Freedom Chair requires the use and (mostly) full strength of both arms. Braking while going in reverse is only possible on the Mountain Trike. Because the levers brake the Freedom Chair, once they are removed, only the parking brakes can be used, meaning no backing up slowly on a steep hill without aid.
The primary reason you would purchase one of these two chairs: to go where ordinary wheelchairs can’t. After many hours of testing on varied terrain—dirt, gravel, rock, sand, grass, mulch, you name it—it was beyond freeing.
Mountain Trike & eTrike
Rocks, at least the smaller ones, were turned into pebbles by the Mountain Trike’s trio of air shocks. And in testing, even steeper grades (not even close to ADA compliant) were passable, as it clawed through challenges with gusto. Going up sharper hills in the standard version took some grunting and patience and strength, but it felt natural—crank both levers forward, apply the hand brakes (so you don’t lose any ground), then reload the levers and repeat.
Meanwhile, the eTrike just wanted to go; the biggest concern was traction (crank up the speed slowly!). Deep sand gave all of our tested wheelchairs fits, and using electric assist only on the eTrike mostly led to spinning wheels, but using both levers to crank the larger wheels while goosing the battery-powered rear wheel got it going. Thick grass? In manual mode it was slow going, but twist the throttle and BOOM, you could fly. With sensitive steering, the eTrike needs your full attention as the speed increases, lest you turn too quickly and roll! (I didn’t do that, but boy did I come close.) Downhills were just like riding a mountain bike: Lean back a touch, feather the disc brakes, and steer where you want to go. Since the hydraulic brakes are so effective, you might lock up the wheels until you start to get the feel for them. Even so, the Mountain Trike has a built-in anti-tip design, with two small wheels smartly placed in front of the main wheels that will keep you from auguring too far forward (although you might give yourself a scare).
GRIT Freedom Chair
While the Freedom Chair performed admirably off road, going up or down hills required a bit more finesse. To ascend, instead of using brute force (push, brake, reload), it’s best to maximize momentum, and the technique recommended by GRIT is to use short, alternating chopping strokes, gripping the levers up high to generate max torque. If you try to simply muscle up the hills working both levers simultaneously you might not get far. Because you brake by pulling back on the levers themselves, it’s trickier to maintain your forward progress using this technique—when you reload you slip backward unless you reload quickly. And to complicate matters, when the terrain gets steeper, you need to lean into the hill to prevent the front wheel from popping up (and to prevent you from tipping backward). I also discovered on the steeps that my weaker right arm meant I often over cranked on my left side, steering me unintentionally off to the right. This was not a problem on short stretches, but on long ones, my right arm became too fatigued and I needed my spotter (aka, wife) to help correct my trajectory. Downhills were comforting with the longer front boom of the Freedom Chair, but again the steeper the hill, the more braking force required, meaning the more arm strength needed. I would recommend a spotter on longer, steeper stretches or if there are wet conditions, as the levers will struggle to generate enough braking friction on wet tires.
KEY NOTES: The biggest surprise in our off-road testing was on off-camber trails, or trails that sloped off to one side. With the Freedom Chair, this required heavily working one arm (if the trail sloped left, you mainly used your left arm, like you would on a traditional wheelchair on sloped pavement). Not a huge deal for short distances, but problematic on longer ones. On the other hand, the Mountain Trike steers from its rear wheel, so camber has little to no effect. If you start to veer off the trail, you just make a minor steering correction while cranking away—seamless.
As much as the two chairs differed off road, their performance differs perhaps equally on pavement, and in surprising ways.
The Mountain Trike is built to climb hills, but this penalizes the wheelchair somewhat on hard, flat surfaces. Why? The levers on the Mountain Trike produce a prodigious amount of torque and low-end power—perfect for challenging terrain, just like using low gears on a rock-hopping Jeep. On pavement, however, you have to pump your arms quickly to keep up a walking pace. In our tests moving at a fast clip (but not a sprint) on the road, the standard Mountain Trike averaged 3.4 mph (equivalent to a leisurely stroll) with a max speed of 4.2 mph, the exact same as our wheelchair control. (Note: the standard wheelchair is touch quicker in a perfectly flat setting like an indoor shopping mall.) I had to seriously expend effort to keep up with my wife if she walked remotely quicker.
On pavement, gripping lower on the levers to maximize speed (essentially high gear), the Freedom Chair was noticeably quicker than the Mountain Trike, averaging 4.1 mph with a max of 5.2 mph, about 20 percent faster. And that speed could easily go up if I wasn’t testing on a road. The reason? Roads are slightly domed so water doesn’t pool, which meant that when the Freedom Chair drifted from the crown of the road to one side or the other I had to occasionally brake to correct my line, slowing me slightly. The Mountain Trike did not have this issue, as road camber had no noticeable effect.
Of course the eTrike is its own beast. At power level 1, the lowest assist, it moved at speeds around 4 mph, with a purported max speed of 8 mph at power level 5. I maxed out at level 4, which I tried exactly once, and that was plenty of speed for me without far more practice and experience.
KEY NOTES: The Freedom Chair could keep up for the most part with my briskly walking wife on pavement, while the Mountain Trike gradually fell behind despite my best efforts. The eTrike, on the other hand, left Laura in the dust even with her running. I can’t emphasize how fast it is, so much so that there is a learning curve to navigate the prodigious speed safely.
One frustrating bugaboo of wheelchairs is transporting them via a vehicle, which is why folding wheelchairs are the traditional go-to. Alas, neither of these chairs fold much. The Mountain Trike’s seat and back wheel can fold, but the body is rigid. And the eTrike is hefty at 55 lbs. The Freedom Chair is more stowable and technically breaks down enough to fit the chair into most trunks, but know that it will take up a good portion of available space. In our tests we found that if the fit is too cozy, putting a wheel in the back seat might be necessary. The Mountain Trike can break down somewhat with tools and patience, but you’d only really do that for a cross-country move when you are trying to save a few pennies by avoiding a U-haul rental. Both wheelchairs can be checked when you fly (follow the manufacturers’ recommendations for stowing), but remember the vehicle issue when you get to your destination unless you routinely rent a bus.
KEY NOTES: The Mountain Trike requires a hatchback or SUV or pickup or, ideally, a vintage panel van with a surfer motif to transport. Of course a wheelchair-accessible minivan works, but the chair itself is wide, so make sure your ramp can accommodate such a chair with such a wide wheelbase. We did not test the Freedom Chair in an accessible van.
These two chairs are not designed for indoor use. And, sorry, I did not test them in my house because I would have almost certainly banged up walls, and in general I prefer not to sleep on the couch or in the doghouse. That said, yes you can use them inside and, in a pinch, even in relatively tight quarters (with an asterisk). I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Freedom Chair or Mountain Trike into a typical museum or the aquarium or the movie theater—facilities with generous space. But when it gets cozy (and when you might need to reverse), you’ll want to disengage the levers, meaning you move the chair by directly pushing the tires. Upgrading to push rims on the bike-size tires is an option, and adds a bit of flexibility, but that doesn’t solve other issues. Namely: these chairs are still oversized and long. Navigating a restaurant would be hard, smaller elevators would be a non-starter, and getting into a handicap bathroom stall next to impossible. Plus the seating position is canted upward so you don’t fall out—perhaps not the most comfortable for normal operation.
KEY NOTES: If you have some leg strength and can navigate short distances on your own, using either of these chairs indoors isn’t a deal-breaker, but if you are restricted solely to a wheelchair, the resulting challenges (turning, reversing, etc.) will frustrate you to no end.
After spinning the wheels of my traditional wheelchair routinely in Peru—getting trapped on grass, rocks, gravel, you name it—I realized the need for all terrain wheelchairs is universal and planet-wide.
The standard Mountain Trike is nothing short of a work of art. It feels and performs like a high-performance machine designed to be a seamless extension of your body, built for independence and adventure. It’s only nick is a lack of gearing for the flats (well, and the price tag). The eTrike quashes the flats issue (for a price) and has the gusto to motor anywhere. Indeed, it may have been too easy. In my limited testing, when using the eTrike I rarely went the manual route; it was more of an off-road scooter. Once I got infected with the need for speed, using the manual levers seemed painfully slow.
The GRIT Freedom Chair eclipsed expectations, and will take you to places on three wheels you never thought possible. Its design is elegantly simple—and brilliant. The unshackling of the restrictions of being mobility challenged underscores its freeing name. These two off-road chairs open doors not only to nature, but to all outdoor experiences that are traditionally off limits to those rolling. Experiences that, frankly, I have really, really missed and unknowingly have avoided.
Think about it. With an off-road wheelchair you can join friends for a barbeque picnic at the local park. Zip down the sidelines to cheer on your daughter playing soccer. Motor down cobblestone streets in the Old Town you’ve long sidestepped. Navigate to that perfect spot in a grassy field to watch fireworks explode overhead. Farmers markets, outdoor weddings, snowy streets, campsites, gravel driveways, vineyards, the works. I could go on and on. This is where both standard off-road push-rim wheelchairs and lever off-road wheelchairs would work brilliantly, especially if you have a helper.
But for the harder stuff, you definitely need the levers or electric assist. And that brings up the challenge with these lever-powered all-terrain wheelchairs. Unquestionably they are specialty pieces of equipment. These are not substitutes for traditional wheelchairs. And let me be a realist (and perhaps a Debbie Downer): both lever-type chairs are good for relatively flat to rolling terrain, but not realistic for use in areas with lots of relatively steep hills or lots of rocks. Hiking with friends can be slow going and sand can be taxing or even impassable without assistance (forget the beach). On a lengthy, sharp mountain trail near my home I managed 100 meters in 10 minutes on the standard Mountain Trike (it was even too challenging for me to try in the Freedom Chair). Also, when going on unfamiliar terrain, having a companion is essential lest you caught in a jam, which I managed to get myself into a few times. On one steep trail I nearly launched the eTrike into a water-filled ditch after I gave it a touch too much gas! Having a pusher (or a lifter) is invaluable when you run into a log or a boulder or a mountain biker splayed across the trail.
Our tests exposed few weaknesses in these all-terrain beasts. Yes, the standard Mountain Trike would be perhaps the perfect chair if it had multiple gears; the developers felt the added complexity and cost would be onerous. (It should be noted that the gearing can be custom modified so it can move faster on the flats, but doing so will sacrifice a little uphill grunt). Yes, the eTrike would be the bomb if the electric assist was more like that on e-bikes, boosting performance as you crank harder instead of replacing all effort needed. Yes, the Freedom Chair would benefit greatly from a camber-resistant design (a vexing problem if the chair is to remain cost efficient). But after hours and hours of testing, I’m gob smacked with the capabilities of both. Honestly, the only thing that has really stopped me routinely with either of these chairs: the misguided belief that disabled people can’t (or don’t) go on hiking trails. By that, I mean those trailhead designs that prevent motorized vehicles also prevent wheelchair users. Those tight chicanes or series of logs one must step over (or narrow gates, etc.) are impassable without serious muscle. You need two or more able-bodied volunteers who can lift the chair—and perhaps yourself—over such obstacles.
Yes, we need to rewire how people think about the disabled. And the Mountain Trike and GRIT Freedom Chair are just the ticket to start the conversation.