Accessibility on Trails


Opening the gate – removing barriers to accessing our great outdoors

Words Mark Inglis

Between losing his legs at 23 years old due to frostbite and then going on to be the first double amputee to have stood on the roof of the world, the summit of Mount Everest, Mark has carved out careers as a scientist, a world recognised winemaker, business creator and innovator, paralympic athlete (NZ’s 1st paralympic cycling medal, a silver at Sydney 2000), Himalayan mountain and trekking guide, philanthropist and a leading International Motivator. Who else can truly define the often used saying, “Attitude determines your Altitude”

  • First (only 2 so far) double amputee to summit Mount Everest (15 May 2006).
  • Doctor Of Natural Resources, honoris causa
  • Officer of the NZ Order of Merit (ONZM)
  • Bachelor of Science, 1st Class Honours, Human Biochemistry
  • Founding Trustee and CEO, Limbs4All Charitable Trust
  • Ambassador for Scouts NZ, Ambassador for Prostate Cancer Foundation
  • Internationally awarded Winemarker for 15 years. Author of 5 books. 


Mark on Gokyo


In a recent survey of the almost 2.2 million journeys on the 23 Ngā Herenga Great Rides of New Zealand trails in 2021, 29 per cent of the cyclists and walkers reported some sort of disability – and the number is growing.

In these post-Covid times people seem to be far more aware of the outdoors and how valuable to our well-being journeying through nature can be, and adding in the technological change that e-assist cycles and adaptive units have brought – the demographic of our trail users has changed.

First, let’s get some definitions and language out of the way – ‘disabled’ for many of us is a challenging term. Generally, it is defined as:

Having an illness, injury or condition, physical or mental, that makes it difficult or different to do some things that other people do.


Having a physical or mental condition that limits their movement, senses or activities.

The term ‘disabled’ is problematic in itself – take me for example. As an active, double below-knee amputee I don’t consider myself disabled, but I do live with a disability. It is only a small change in the words that makes a huge change in not just the meaning but how a person is perceived, from both inside and out. By using the terminology ‘a person with a disability’ you automatically put the person first and their condition second. It is this type of language that drives inclusive thinking and design.

As an indication of the increase in outdoor access, the Department of Conservation 2022/2023 Visitor Insights Report shows the use of the campgrounds in the South Island increased by over two fold.

Likewise, the importation of e-bikes has risen from just 15,000 in 2017 to 78,000 in the 2022 year and 94,800 in the year to March 2023.

It is this rise in e-bike and e-adaptive units that is enabling many people living with a disability to access our outdoors, both on local trails and also significantly on our 23 Great Rides. This increase is driving our awareness that many, if not most, trails have barriers to entry – be they gates, chicanes, kissing gates, bollards or tight fence gaps – that are generally trying to keep motorbikes and other motorised vehicles off the trail for safety and trail damage reasons. In attempting to eliminate one demographic we are effectively preventing others from experiencing trail life.


Squeeze bars on the Motu Trail


My focus for several years has been on the removal of barriers to and on trails, both physical barriers and also ‘information barriers.’ The first question I ask when I see a barrier is ‘Why?’ – what demographic is it aimed at and is it actually still relevant? Easy to do when the barriers are at the start of a trail and clearly visible, but more problematic are the barriers along the trail, be they gates, stock grates, narrow bridges or in fact out-of-grade sections. In partnership with assessing the need for barriers there is currently a real focus on ensuring trails are graded correctly, especially on new builds. The concept of inclusive design is very powerful and not just limited to building MTB and walking trails but can be applied to any design project – better that we don’t build barriers but build solutions.

Integral to inclusive design is the principle of Least Restrictive Access (LRA), i.e. that all new work and maintenance repairs should aim to achieve the most accessible option. Least Restrictive Access is achieved by identifying the least restrictive option for a specific feature, such as a gate or barrier. This is not just about selecting the type of structure, but also how to make and install the chosen structure in the least obstructive way for trail users, so as to maximise accessibility for as many people as possible.

It is with this inclusive design concept in mind that Recreation Aotearoa, supported through Sport New Zealand’s Disability Inclusion Fund, convened the Accessible Outdoors Working Group, led by Katie Owen, the Disability and Inclusion Program Manager. The group is a diverse range of organisations that looks at creating the concept of ‘Wildly Accessible Aotearoa’ to facilitate a coordinated approach to the provision of consumer accessibility information on tracks and trails via work streams such as Guidelines (including the proposed Adaptive Trail grading system), Barriers (actually focusing on removing barriers), Insights and Info Sharing (creating surveys and gathering data for decision-making) and Advocacy (local and national councils and organisations).

There are several examples across the country where trails are working to become more accessible, including the Timber Trail (and its work with riders from Adapt MTB) and the Whakarewarewa Forest Loop, to name a few. In Hanmer Springs, the Hanmer Trails map now includes recommended trails for e-adaptive units, with the long-term aim to have every trail graded for adaptive use as well as regular MTB riders. Of note is the work done by the West Coast Wilderness Trail – by having the trail audited by an adaptive user they have been able to define the barriers and pinch points and offer route alternatives. We encourage trail managers and groups to contact the Accessible Outdoors Working Group through Recreation Aotearoa for support and guidance to enhance accessibility. For people with disabilities, we recommend engaging with local trail managers to gain insights into the accessibility of nearby trails and to share feedback on your trail experiences. 


Quentin accessing the hard way


A great example of this is Motu Trails and their extensive work on the Dunes Trail section, where innovative solutions and a redesigned barrier system allow a far wider range of walkers and riders to use the trail while preventing the most inappropriate trail use. As a note to trail builders, beware of the now outdated ‘croquet hoop and squeeze gate design dimensions as these are too narrow and low for most e-adaptive units. Please feel free to contact Recreation Aotearoa for the updated design.

As more riders and walkers populate the trails, much of the historical need for a barrier often disappears – for example, the Hanmer Springs Heritage Forest Trust and their Forest Amble/Sculpture Walk. Previously this walk had approximately 5000 walkers per year and had tight barriers at all the entrances to keep motorcycles off the trail. With the introduction of the sculptures and the upgrading of the trail to a fully accessible standard, the numbers have increased to over 84,000 walkers per year. This has enabled the trust to remove all the boundary barriers and replace them with some ‘reminder’ signs that it is walking and adaptive units only. The number of walkers constantly on the trail is effectively ‘self-policing’.

Further afield, Sustrans in the UK who manage a significant percentage of their National Cycle Network, are getting rid of barriers altogether where they report ‘precisely zero examples of additional off-roaders coming on to the paths we’ve worked on.’

Currently, there are a wide range of organisations in this space with resources, such as Accessible which provides detailed information on many New Zealand trails, Makingtrax offering insights into outdoor adventure activities, and the AdaptMTB team providing support and information on adaptive mountain biking. The aim is to ensure that it is the ‘riders’ decision if they want to ride the trail. This requires clear information on signs and maps – definitely work in progress.  


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