8 tips for hiking while blind

With a little preparation, hiking is a great way for people who are blind to enjoy the sensory beauty of nature

A man with a guide dog and two boys, one using walking poles, walk on a trail through the forest

You don’t need vision to hike. You just need to follow some commonsense tips to make sure you have a positive and safe experience on the trail – as you breathe in the glorious fresh air and enjoy the sounds, scents and textures of the great outdoors.

June 1, 2017

The weather is getting warmer. The sun is starting to shine. It’s the perfect time to go on a hike.

For kids and adults who are blind, a relaxing (or energetic) walk in the woods can be a delightful way to spend a day. It is good exercise and an ideal activity to share with friends and family. It also allows you to experience the majestic beauty of the natural world.

“Nature is one of the things that connects me to the rest of the world, and makes me feel like I’m a part of the world,” says Jerry Berrier, who loves walking in the woods when he’s not working  as a program manager for iCanConnect at Perkins School for the Blind.

Hiking can be enjoyed equally by people with and without vision. While sighted people appreciate the scenic beauty of a forest, hikers who are blind can enjoy a different bouquet of sensory experiences – the astringent aroma of pine needles, the gentle caress of a breeze and the burble of a mountain stream.

Here are eight tips to improve your hiking experience if you’re blind:

1. Start easy if you’re new to hiking. Some states, like Massachusetts, offer accessible trails, including trails that are independently accessible to people with mobility, hearing and vision disabilities. They’re great “starter” trails for hiking novices. As you gain confidence, you can work your way up to longer hikes and more challenging terrain.

2. Find the trail that’s right for you. Browse your state government’s website to learn about the different trails available at nearby state parks. Pay special attention to each trail’s length and difficulty rating (from easy to strenuous). You can also find information about potential hazards, including wildlife, ticks and poison ivy.

3. Consider hiking with a sighted guide. On a more challenging trail, a sighted guide can help you navigate obstacles, from downed trees to unexpected changes in elevation. A short rope is a convenient way to stay connected to your sighted guide.

4. Listen to audio cues when hiking with a group of people. The sounds they make provide important information about the trail ahead. Different terrains – like puddles, loose gravel or sand – make distinctly different sounds. “By gauging what the trail surface is going to be like, I will then be ready to make any adjustment in my footing I might need to make when I take my next step,” says Bill Tipton, an experienced hiker who is blind.

5. Consider using walking poles.  Some blind hikers use Nordic walking poles, which are similar to ski poles. Like a white cane, walking poles can be used to identify upcoming obstacles. They’ll also help keep you balanced and upright when the trail is rocky or uneven.

6. Invest in a pair of good hiking boots. They provide ankle support, which reduces the chance of an ankle sprain. That’s an important consideration for hikers who can’t see the exact nature of the terrain they’re walking on. High-quality hiking boots also provide better traction and protection against blisters.

7. Be prepared for an emergency. Smart hikers – blind or sighted – know there’s always a chance they might get injured, lost or caught in bad weather. Plan ahead and pack first-aid supplies, rain gear, food, extra water, sunscreen, waterproof matches and a knife or multitool.

8. Embrace the experience! Feel the warmth of sunshine on your face. Breathe in the fresh air. Enjoy the company of fellow hikers. “Hiking is an activity that helps me to relax, slow down and enjoy the world around me,” said longtime blind hiker Ashley Nemeth. “We all need a way to escape and relax, and no matter what that activity is, it will bring joy to your life.”