Survive a Minnesota Winter From Your Wheelchair (And Live to Tell About It)

I’m the quadriplegic version of Laura Ingalls. I’ve experienced more than 1,350 “classic Upper Midwest” winter days as a wheelchair-user, and experience-wise, it’s everything you might imagine it is. There’s bitterly cold temperatures and legs that seemingly never warm up if you dare venture out, there’s black ice and ice-rink roads, and yes (in case you were wondering), I get stranded all of the time. But despite the obvious problems, I not only survive this hash climate, I love my life here.

wheelchair snowI’ve been successfully dodging Mother Nature’s non-ADA compliant blows since 14, and you can too. Don’t let a little snow and sub-zero temps cramp your style. With patience, technology and some good old-fashioned common sense, you too can make it to the big March thaw – and have fun along the way – just like Laura (bonnet and braided pig-tails optional).

No kidding, wheelchairs aren’t made for snow: Ok, this might be Captain Obvious, but it needs to be said. There are companies that sell 4-wheel drive wheelchairs, and 4-wheel drive wheelchairs do go through snow, but since insurance companies don’t cover them (these chairs usually cost over $30,000), that leaves 99.9% of wheelchair-users in snowy climates without a wheelchair that can sufficiently get from Point A to Point B.

If it’s not 4-wheel drive, don’t attempt to go through any snow that’s deeper 1 ½ inches (especially if it’s wet snow; not the fluffy stuff). Whether you use a manual or a power wheelchair, if you attempt deep snow you’ll get stuck. And getting unstuck usually requires another person’s help (not a good thing if you find yourself alone). Be wary!


“Got snow tires?”
If only life were as simple as slapping on some snow tires to solve our winter wheelchair woes. I can’t tell you how many people have thought they were the first person to suggest such a thing – snow tires, chains, or a wheelchair snowplow. So. Freaking. Annoying.

Unfortunately, none of these things exist; at least not in a functional way that a C5-6 quad such as myself would need them to. I’ve known guys who used ATV tire chains on their wheelchair wheels, and they did the trick. The only problem with using ATV tire chains is that you can’t drive on them indoors, and since I can’t put the chains on and remove them without help, practicality becomes an issue.

Same goes for folks who suggest wheelchair snowplows (an attachment that does exist) as a way to get through the snow. If you have full-function in your hands (in order to clamp it on and off your wheelchair independently), it actually works and is a great way to help out your neighbors and clear the way (watch this awesome video here). But if you’re looking for a way to get to the bus stop or something like that, unless you do it beforehand, a wheelchair snowplow attachment is NOT a functional solution.

Layer it up: Another survival technique I’ve been a latecomer to is layering. It’s seriously one of the best quad-oriented winter survival techniques I’ve ever come across. Thin, multiple layers is key. Choose clothes that won’t be so thick they limit your ability to move. I like to do a tank top, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, a t-shirt over that, and then a cardigan. It works really well. I once knew a guy who would wear (count ‘em) 7 layers, but he was originally from a tiny town on the border of Minnesota and Canada. A bit obsessive. And if one of those layers is fleece, you’ll be warm all day. Guaranteed.

Cover your face: When you can’t feel your legs, your upper-body can get extra sensitive to cold. I’ve found if I cover my mouth with anything, from a scarf to a fleece neck warmer, and pull it up over my mouth whenever I go outside, it helps so incredibly much it’s actually kind of mind-blowing. Covering up your breath and only breathing in warm air (which the scarf makes happen, in case you’re from Hawaii or something), is your ticket to staying warm in the worst of the worst winter weather.

Hit the streets, but with caution: After a crazy snowstorm or simply after weeks of winter, sidewalks can become impassable. They usually become littered with huge ice chunks of ice and hard snow banks, and only contain narrow pathways made for walking pedestrians (not cool), but here’s the kicker, the streets won’t be. The streets are nearly always clear and passable, because let’s face it, society values cars being able to get around more than our ability to get around. What’s a wheeler to do?

Take it to the streets. That’s what I’ll resort to if I must, but only IF I MUST. Many, many wheelers have been hit by cars and this problem is only getting worse. I also only go on streets that are 30 MPH or less and stay by parked cars on the sides of the street, just so cars are more likely to see me.

Know your limits: Simply put, don’t be stupid or over-zealous about your abilities to beat winter to a pulp. Mother Nature will kill you if it gets the chance. Don’t be like the wheeler I knew 15 years ago who fell out of his chair and died. He was leaving a bar at 2am and it was below zero. No one saw him fall and froze to death. Very sad. Sometimes staying -in and watching a movie is your best bet.

Cell: No matter how far you venture in snow-laden lands, ALWAYS keep a cell phone on you. Even the most non-assuming ice chunk can get you stuck if you roll over it the wrong way. And error on the side of caution, make sure your cell is fully-charged whenever you leave home. You can never be too safe.

Is that it? Did I cover it all? What tips do all of you have? And please, no more snow tire jokes :)

5 replies
  1. Amber
    Amber says:

    *blush* I’ve come up with a few of those ideas myself for my boyfriend.. I can imagine it must get annoying if you are in a wheelchair to hear people come up with those ideas.. but for me, I was just trying to think of ways to adapt his wheelchair for a MN winter.. from snow plow to winter tires.. being a country bumpkin I grew up with do it yourself adaptations and creative cheap-ass ideas for everything.. being stubborn as I am.. I’m still gonna try to think of a simple, effective, cheap and easy idea for winterizing tires.. here’s to being annoying but respectful.. :P

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