How to Operate a Wheelchair Safely Outdoors

One of the purposes of a best wheelchair is to allow people with mobility challenges to be able to go outside. People who are mobility challenged do not want to spend their entire life inside and they need to get out to go to doctor visits, church, and to take care of their personal business. These individuals also want to go out and have fun, and to experience life beyond the confinement of their homes.


The problem with a mobility challenged individual going outside is that most wheelchairs are not designed to be used on surfaces that are not flat and smooth. When you do find a wheelchair that is capable of handling uneven terrain there are still things you need to do to make sure that you are safe, and that you get the most use out of your mobility device that you can.

Here are some tips to Operate a Wheelchair Safely Outdoors​ : 

Staying Safe While Traveling on Uneven Surfaces


The majority of all mobility devices are not capable of traveling on uneven surfaces. An incline of ten to twenty percent is generally all that a normal wheelchair can withstand safely. Slopes that are greater than twenty percent create a hazardous situation for the rider.

These hazards are made worse if the person in the chair is traveling without a caregiver, but even with a caregiver present a sloped surface that has more than a twenty percent incline can create a true hazard for the rider.

It is highly recommended that anyone riding in a wheelchair avoid slopes, curbs, and inclines like staircases.

The Pitfalls of Sand and Wheelchairs


Sand is difficult for a person with perfect mobility to travel across. If you are in a wheelchair a sandy patch of ground can be treacherous. The biggest problem with sand and wheelchair travel is the fact that a thin layer of sand on an otherwise solid surface can be problematic for a wheelchair.

Electric wheelchairs do not travel across sand as well as manual wheelchairs do. The manual wheelchair is more likely to bog down and be unable to move smoothly when there is sand present, but when sand is present for an electric wheelchair the sand can create enough of an imbalance to cause the electric wheelchair to topple over.

Sand can also get into parts on the wheelchair and stop the wheels from being able to turn smoothly, or stop the component of the chair from being able to fold easily. The damage from sand can be so bad that the chair has to be taken in for repairs.

Dealing with Bad Weather and Wheelchairs


When a walking person encounters bad weather it is inconvenient, but when a person who depends on a wheelchair for their mobility encounters wet weather it can be a disaster. Rain, sleet, and snow can stop your chair from functioning safely whether you are in an electric powered chair or a standard manual chair.

If you do have to go outside when the weather is dreadful it is best if you travel with a caregiver in case of accidents, or simply to help you travel.

  • You should also leave early and travel slowly. Surfaces become slippery when the weather gets dreadful and the tires of your chair may not be able to get the traction they need to roll properly.
  • Wear gloves over your hands
  • Try not to run through standing puddles of water if you can prevent doing so. The wheel bearings on your wheels are packed in grease but water can dissolve the grease, or wash away some of the grease. That would leave your bearing to rust or be dry so the wheels on your chair could not roll smoothly. This could cause costly repairs to be needed.
  • If you have electric chairs think about covering the controls by holding an umbrella over them. Your caregiver can hold the umbrella over the controls, or you might could position a plastic bag over the handle with the controls so they do not get water on them.

The Hidden Dangers in Potholes


The majority of us know how jarring it can be to hit a pothole when we drive down the street. When you hit a pothole while riding in a wheelchair it can not only jar you it can throw you from the chair. Always try to avoid potholes whenever possible. The only safe way to approach a pothole is to find a way around the hole.

By going through the hole you will put your chair off balance and that is a recipe for disaster. When a chair is off balance it is one hundred times more likely to tip over than when it is balanced properly. Please avoid these areas even if it means you have to back up and find an alternate route.

Tips for Beginners to Operate a Wheelchair

When you have used a wheelchair for a length of time you will be able to easily ascertain what terrains will be problematic for you and what terrains you can zip right over. When you are first learning to operate a wheelchair to increase your mobility you will not be prepared to judge what terrains are likely to be dangerous for you.

​Some of the dangers you find in traveling outside with your chair can be avoided if you know how to properly use your chair.

Proper Balance in the Seat is Essential


In order to be able to move these mobility devices across rough terrain you have to be able to find your center of gravity in the chair. The center of gravity for you will be slightly different than it will be for me, so each person must establish their center of gravity in the seat before they begin to use the mobility device.

To find your center of gravity you must position yourself in the seat of the chair. You want to have someone with you to help you while you are learning where to sit in the seat. Position yourself so that you feel comfortable and you can easily reach the controls of the chair, or easily move the wheels on the chair.

Bend forward, then lean to the side, then transfer in and out of the chair while practicing how to position yourself properly where you have the utmost balance and control of the device.

Never Sit on the Edge of the Seat

It will be tempting at times to scoot forward and sit on the very edge of the seat so you can reach something. This is not a safe practice and should never be considered. If you have to bend forward and allow your body to go past the front of the seat then you need to re-position the chair so that you can easily reach the item.

You can get a hand grabber that makes it easy for you to pick things up off of the floor. These items are inexpensive and handier than a shirt pocket.

You can ask people to assist you whenever there is someone nearby.

You can learn your limitations in the chair and figure out ways to position the chair so that your limitations are not a problem for you.

Learn to Handle Inclines


You have to learn to examine the surfaces you will be traveling on. Look for inclines in the surface and remember that an inexperienced rider may have difficulties with even a ten percent incline. Do not try to go up and down inclined surfaces without a caregiver close by until you have repeated this action enough to know how to handle inclines.

Even the best of riders will have a difficult time on inclines that are greater than twenty percent.

Get Rid of Weeds


A crack or a clump of weeds can cause your chair to be off balance and this can result in tipping. Have a caregiver pull any weeds that are on the ramps that you use the most frequently. It will only take a few minutes of their time, but it could save you from injury.

You can see the cracks in the sidewalk or the ramp that you travel. You need to have a caregiver with you as you learn which cracks you can easily roll over, and which cracks are going to cause a problem for you.

The front wheels of most wheelchairs designed to go outdoors are normally smaller in diameter than the back wheels so that makes it more difficult to roll the front wheels over cracks, or up onto curbs. A little practice will allow you to determine which cracks you can maneuver past and which ones to avoid unless you have help.

Do Not Tip your Chair


You may have seen on television or in movies where someone in a wheel chair tips the chair up onto the back wheels while they are riding. This may look like fun, or look like a way to maneuver the chair in tight situations, but the truth is that what you see on television is usually not reality.

When you see wheelchairs being tipped and raced on television you are usually watching experienced stunt professionals at work. The same stunt professionals that do the car chases, the leaps from tall buildings, and other dangerous stunts.

Tipping a chair onto the back wheels can lead you to a fall. The chair will not be in balance and you will not be in control. Do not raise the chair up onto two legs.

Do Not Cross Soft Ground


Grassy areas are almost impossible to cross operate a wheelchair. The chair depresses the grass and the wheels have a difficult time rolling. Hard packed dirt trails can be traversed, but after a rain hard packed dirt trails may become muddy, or softened.

The softened soil will allow the weight of the chair to sink into it and basically you will be stuck in the mud.

Do not Over-load your Cart


Many people have wheelchair accidents because they put too much weight into a bag and then hang the bag on the back of their chair. The result is a chair that tips over because it is off balance.

You have to carry a minimum amount of things when you are traveling in a chair. It will take some time before you learn what you can carry easily so you should have a caregiver on hand when you attempt to carry more weight than you have carried in the past.

Consider placing some items in your lap instead of hanging them from the back of the chair.


The main thing that you need to know about operate a wheelchair safely outdoors is that the chair is limited to what it can do, and where it can go. Each rider has to learn what limitations their chair has so they can safely enjoy the freedom of increased mobility.

Dennis P. Baughman

Dennis P. Baughman is the Editor of UnbeatenRolling. His disabilities couldn't stop him to be self driven person. He started this blog to share his personal knowledge about all kinds of wheelchairs and different tips and advice about chairs.

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