How To Backpack Around The World In A Wheelchair

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There is an inevitable process that all wannabe backpackers must contend with when deciding to go backpacking, the details of which are well documented on other travel blogs. It starts with vague notions of wanting to see the world and ends with handing over passports at the airport check-in desk.

For me however, this process has been exponentially more complicated.

On the road

As far as I can tell this is the first travel blog site ever to detail the preparations that go in to backpacking around the world in a wheelchair. That’s because I am the first person ever to go backpacking around the world in a wheelchair, as I quickly found out whilst planning for the trip. I have no proof of this, of course, but I can only assume the sheer lack of infrastructure for wheelchair backpackers means I’m blazing some sort of trail.

Tomorrow my girlfriend and I fly one-way to our first destination, Rio de Janeiro, followed by six months trekking through South America, two in North America, four in Asia and three in Australasia.

Here are a few of the hoops I had to jump through whilst planning our grand adventure…

Travel Insurance

I had been prepared to pay through the nose for travel insurance but nonetheless it still turned out to be my least favourite example of the backpacking paperwork nightmare. Comparison sites like comparethemarket.com and confused.com are beyond useless. They might say they cover pre-existing medical conditions on the front page but by the time you input all your details, password, mother’s maiden name and stool sample, you’re greeted by a friendly pop up box telling you to call each insurer individually for more information.

Travel insurance nightmaresSo I spent two days on the phone listening to broker after broker sound like TOWIE cast members attempting to solve a degree level maths problem. They had no problem with me visiting any of the countries on the wish list, but apparently the length of trip was a sticking point – the longer I stay outside the UK, the greater the risk that I’ll end up in some horrible accident costing millions in medical bills, so the brokers said.

If the diktats of the travel insurance industry are to be believed then seemingly nobody in a wheelchair before me has ever left the UK for more than 30 days at a time. We talked about stacking multiple policies back to back, but no, that’d mean I’d have to come back in to the UK at the beginning and end date of each policy. At one point it looked like I could maybe get away with only having to fly through British airspace (not including colonies or protectorates) at least once every 45 days.

Having finished my second pack of Benson & Hedges I decided to call the British Insurance Brokers Association, a sort of representative umbrella body for insurers and consumers. They pointed me in the direction of PJ Hayman, who according to their website mainly insure horses and extreme winter sports nuts. After very little fuss we sealed the deal at £720 for the entire trip.

My girlfriend spent all of twenty minutes on comparethemarket.com, and got covered for £350.

Customising The Wheelchair

It is utterly moronic to begrudge many of the countries we plan to visit for a lack of wheelchair access, given that the average monthly wage is quite often less than I have been known to spend on single wagyu steaks. Fortunately I have three decades of experience tackling flights of stairs, muddy bogs and near vertical inclines, so a lack of ramps and lifts has never been much of a concern.

To tackle the variety of terrain we’re expecting to encounter over four continents on this trip, I knew my regular, common or garden, titanium wheelchair (designed to provide optimum performance when checking email and drinking cappuccino) wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

A fully laden backpacking wheelchairWhen buying or modifying any wheelchair, it’s always a trade off between ruggedness, manoeuvrability and cost. Those skinny wheeled, light weight chairs that fit through normal sized doorways have a tendency to flip over on any surface rougher than polished marble. Those low slung off-road hand cycles that effortlessly cruise over sand dunes are ludicrously impractical when frequenting restaurants and hotel rooms.

For about three seconds, I thought about blowing £4,000 worth of travelling budget on a brand new wheelchair custom built for the job. Then I considered how much I’d rather spend that money on food and booze instead.

So I went to see the good people at EPC wheelchairs in Farnham, who approached the engineering challenge with an impressively instinctive sense of my miserliness. They took my common or garden wheelchair and stripped it down to the bone.

I now have front wheels big enough to stop the chair from flipping forward when I hit uneven ground at speed, but small enough to be able to negotiate through a swarm of samba dancing Brazilians. The rear axle has been moved further rearwards to account for a greater load when my bags are slung over the seat back. In front of the rear axle, underneath the seat, is a now small pouch where I will keep the items I would least like to be stolen when I get mugged.

The rear wheels are now two inches larger with mountain bike-like tyres. Having bigger rear wheels also has the effect of making a chair harder to flip over, and is a bit like switching to a lower gear on a bike – less arm power needed to push the wheel, but the arms have to travel further with each push.

Old wheel next to new wheel

In wet conditions and when pushing up hills, the hand rails on the side of wheelchair wheels become slippy. The best way to counteract slippage is to grip directly on to the tyre rubber, but after a while, grit particles get picked up in the tread, cutting your palms and fingers to shreds.

Before you ask, no, the protective benefits of gloves are vastly outweighed by a further loss of grip, and so on my new rear tyres the toughest part of the tread is, quite ingeniously, located on the outer edges. A relatively smoother and less knobbly strip of rubber runs along the tyre apex where most of the gripping takes place.

Old tread next to new tread

Overall the chair has gained about four kilos in weight, but in theory I’ll be able to offset the extra energy needed to get it up to speed by not having to push so hard on uneven surfaces. Total cost £525.

Excess Baggage

The one bit of planning our backpacking trip around the world in a wheelchair that I left far too late was the logistics of actually carrying around fifteen months worth of clothes, gadgets and wheelchair spares on the back of a wheelchair. I sorted this out yesterday, actually.

Despite repeated offers to let my girlfriend play the role of pack mule for the duration of our travels, she declined every time. Again, I was presented with an engineering challenge. There is no specially manufactured wheelchair bag or combination of bags that even comes close to being able to carry the necessary amount of stuff.

They say that when working out how much to take when backpacking you should pick out everything you think is essential and then half it. After some experimentation it turned out that ten t-shirts, ten pairs of underpants, two pairs of shorts, one set of jeans, socks, trainers, flip flops, a hoodie, a jacket and a Panama Jack hat is the absolute upper limit for clothing. Two inner tubes, a puncture repair kit, a hand pump and a set of alum keys is all I’m able to carry in case of break downs. I also have a travel towel, a mosquito net and a shit load of malaria tablets.

A fully laden backpacking wheelchairMy day bag, hang luggage, whatever you want to call it, is a trendy hipster record bag with a strap long enough to allow it to swing underneath my main backpack. I have previously used a Jack Wolfskin backpack whilst travelling across Japan and Canada which just so happens to be thin enough to not catch on the rear wheels of the chair when slung over the back rest. But now, with my larger wheels and mountain bike-like tyres, the arm straps of the backpack were starting to catch on the rubber.

I emailed Jack Wolfskin for advice, who forwarded me on to backpack customisers Scottish Mountain Gear. I had a half hour conversation with a chap called Tom in which we brainstormed a variety of solutions. He asked me to take photos of the chair, draw diagrams and write paragraphs of description. Tom got very excited and I promised him I’d email the necessary details through.

Tom, if you’re reading this, sorry, I should have got back to you. Instead I just tied the backpack straps together with a hook elastic from a car roof rack and used my mum’s kitchen scissors to cut off the parts that were sticking out. My backpack now looks like it’s been attacked by a shark but it works a treat.

And so…

In 48 hours time my girlfriend and I plan to be sat on Copacabana beach, drinking a caipirinha, thinking about our friends and families back home stuck in offices. I look back on our planning period with stoicism. The worst part is over. All that remains is to enjoy the trip of a lifetime.

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