9 accessible winter activities, including snowmobiling, penguin encounters and more

9 accessible winter activities, including snowmobiling, penguin encounters and more

A collaboration between Making Trax and The Helicopter Line has made it possible for wheelchair users to get out on the ice at Franz Josef Glacier. Photo / Julie Jones, Travel Without Limits

Does the thought of ice and snow send shivers down your spine? Here are nine must-try winter activities for all abilities that will turn those shivers of fear into flutters of excitement, writes Janeece Keller

1. Go snowmobiling in Hakuba, Japan

Planning for a trip to the snow with a wheelchair can be a challenge. Even more so when it’s in a foreign country. What can non-skiers or riders do? What will keep you entertained if there’s no adaptive snow sport program or your support team aren’t comfortable supporting you on the slopes?

In Hakuba, the answer is to go snowmobiling.

Hakuba 47 is the only snowmobile driving school in Japan, so you’re in safe hands when you join one of their rides. Your driver will take you on a thrilling ride across the foot of the mountain between Hakuba 47 and Goryu where you immerse yourself in the beautiful scenery of the area.


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Let the team at Hakuba 47 know about your access needs before you arrive and they will go out of their way to make you feel like royalty. For first-time visitors to the Japan ski fields, a snowmobile safari is a great way to explore the area. And for those who feel the need for speed, your needs will be well catered for.

Wheelie tip: Take a manual chair (and some muscle) to the snow so you can easily jump on and off the gondolas. It allows for better access overall.

2. Meet the penguins in Dubai, UAE

When you think about the desert landscapes of the United Arab Emirates, winter activities for all abilities probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind … but in Dubai, anything is possible.

Dubai Ski is built within the Mall of the Emirates and gives tourists the opportunity to ski, snowboard and even have a close encounter with penguins.


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Not all the activities are accessible – it really depends on your needs. Penguin encounters are available twice an hour throughout the day. They begin with a trainer talk where you learn about the 39 penguins that call the Dubai Snow Park home and penguin conservation efforts.

Then comes the part everyone waits for, the penguin encounter and having photos taken with the animals.

Wheelie tip: Contact the venue a day or two before your arrival to give them the heads-up that you’d like to visit and advise them of your needs. A manual chair is a must for this ski park – it would be hard to get around without one.

3. Take a helicopter ride to the Franz Josef Glacier

Get out and about on Franz Josef Glacier with MakingTrax and The Helicopter Line. The collaboration between these organizations makes it possible for a wheelchair user to get out on to the ice and breathe in the fresh, glacial air.

When weather conditions allow, helicopters zip back and forwards in a scenic flight from Franz Josef township before landing on the famous Franz Josef Glacier. What makes the helicopter flight accessible is the MakingTrax ski-chair. Thanks to this innovation, guests who use a wheelchair can join able-bodied guests as they get out and move around on the glacier.

The helicopter has been modified with a basket attached to the side, which allows the skis to travel to the glacier. Before the MakingTrax ski-chair was available, passengers traveling with a disability or mobility restriction stayed in the helicopter the whole time. Now, it’s one of the best winter activities for all abilities in the Southern Hemisphere.

Journalist Marlena Katene, left, takes part in the Meet the Penguins experience at Dubai Ski in the Mall of the Emirates.  Photo / Supplied
Journalist Marlena Katene, left, takes part in the Meet the Penguins experience at Dubai Ski in the Mall of the Emirates. Photo / Supplied

4. Head to Colorado where there are winter sports for all abilities

Winter in Colorado offers 28 diverse resorts providing fun and adventure for people of all abilities and skill levels.

Aspen Snowmass offers adaptive ski and snowboard lessons and a program for those with autism while facilitating social skills and independence. You could also try a range of winter activities for all abilities at the National Sports Center for the Disabled, Winter Park & ​​Denver, including ski biking, snowshoeing and alpine and cross-country skiing.

Vail, Beaver Creek, Telluride and Steamboat have a wide array of snow-based activities to choose from, while Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center partners with three of Colorado’s most popular ski destinations for customized lessons. Programs range from adaptive ski equipment, guides for people with visual impairments, experiences for people on the autistic spectrum and more.

5. Try adaptive winter sports in British Columbia, Canada

Ski resorts in the Canadian province of British Columbia are passionate about providing adaptive ski/snowboard programs to serve the needs of people with physical and cognitive disabilities, including hearing and vision impairment, enabling them to experience the freedom, joy and satisfaction of a full winter wonderland immersion.


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The Whistler Adaptive Ski & Snowboard Program offers individualized ski or snowboard lessons taught by instructors trained to use specialized equipment, techniques and adaptations specific to the participant’s disability, including children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD/ADHD, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy (and various other disabilities). Alternatively, a “lesson buddy” can be provided. This is a trained instructor who assists with the integration of the guest into their mainstream ski school lesson.

6. Go adaptive Nordic skiing in Austria

Three Tirolean regions have been leaders in Adaptive Nordic Skiing in the heart of the Austrian Alps. Enjoy gliding across snow-laden woods on Nordic sit skis and take in the stunning scenery.

With gently rolling terrain and few steep hills, Lake Achensee Region is one of the best places in Tirol to enjoy adaptive cross-country skiing. The resorts of Pertisau, Maurach and Achenkirch offer 46.1km of specially designated cross-country ski tracks for people with disabilities. Seefeld Olympic Region offers a 44.5km trail network of terrain suitable for every level of adaptive skier.

The Kaunertal Valley Nordic Skiing Center provides access to four cross-country ski tracks, featuring 8.1km of groomed trails, which offer uninterrupted panoramic views of the surrounding mountain ranges.

All tracks and trails in these regions are regularly inspected by 9-time Paralympics Champion Oliver Anthofer. There are also myriad recreational winter activities for all abilities available at these resorts to complement your cross-country ski experience.

Winter wonders.  Pertisau, Austria nestled amidst mountains.  Photo / Supplied
Winter wonders. Pertisau, Austria nestled amidst mountains. Photo / Supplied

7. Try dog ​​sledding in Mt Buller

Australian Sled Dog Tours run tours at Mt Buller, an alpine resort about three hours’ drive from Melbourne. Guests can drive right up to where the dogs are, making the experience more accessible for wheelchair users when there is heavy snow on the ground – but be aware that you will still need to navigate a wheelchair through the snow.


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The Australian Sled Dog Tours team make minor adjustments to their sled experience for wheelchair users and they make sure guests are comfortable, bringing extra cushions and creating a makeshift seat belt on the sled.

The dogs are so excited to run as they get attached to the gangline. Watching the dogs work as a team and hearing about their backgrounds, training and positions from the sled driver really adds to the experience.

8. Experience a once-in-a-lifetime Antarctic cruise

Ask most cruise companies and they’ll tell you that a trip to Antarctica isn’t very accessible. But board Holland America Line’s MS Zaandam in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and you’ll get to spend four days exploring the icy continent as part of a longer 22-day cruise.

According to travel writer and wheelchair user Cory Lee, there are more pros than cons for guests needing wheelchair access on the MS Zaandam. And one of his favorite parts of the cruise was having three Antarctica experts onboard throughout the entire journey.

Guests unable to go ashore in tenders still get a great view from the ship’s deck. Cory Lee said he saw sights that were “more spectacular than anything I’ve ever laid eyes upon. I saw more whales, penguins, and seals than I can even count. And I truly had the experience of a lifetime. I honestly don’t feel like I missed out on anything by not going ashore.”

Breaking barriers and embracing the thrill of Nordic skiing.  Photo / Supplied
Breaking barriers and embracing the thrill of Nordic skiing. Photo / Supplied

9. Explore Scandinavia on a small group tour

See spectacular Scandinavia in a small group tour with Quo Vadis Holidays. Choose either a 14 or 24-day inclusive and immersive journey to experience the natural beauty and spectacles of the Nordic countries.


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Designed to include longer stays (no traveling to a new country each day), later starts (9am), a smaller tour group (approx. 20 people) and lots of seated, low/no energy activities, this tour is perfect for those who need lower energy travel options.

On the two-week itinerary guests traverse from Sweden to Finland, up into the Arctic Circle and across into northern Norway. You will experience a traditional Viking dinner, visit the Nordic home of Santa, stay in glass-roofed igloos, log cabins and an ice hotel. Winter activities for all abilities include skidoo tours, dog-sledding, reindeer sleigh ride, ice fishing and much more.

This article first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. travelwithoutlimits.com

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