If you have a disability and use a wheelchair, scooter, walker, or other mobility aid, these tips can help you stay warm in the winter and cope with cold weather and snow.
Winter can be a tough season for people with disabilities. Respiratory viruses tend to spike, putting immune-suppressed and chronically ill people at higher risk. Damp and cold weather can aggravate arthritis and other conditions that cause chronic pain. As a person with cerebral palsy, I dread the winter because being cold greatly increases my spasticity, making it difficult to move. And then there is snow, a bane to disabled people who use canes, walkers, and wheelchairs.
Despite these challenges, winter doesn’t have to be completely miserable when you have a disability and use a mobility aid. You can still enjoy the health benefits of going outside even when it’s cold. These practical solutions, based on my experiences and those of other peer experts here on The Ability Toolbox, can help you stay warm even during snowy winter weather.
1. Keep your head warm.
When you’re getting ready to venture out into the cold as a wheelchair user, a hat may be the last thing on your mind, but it should be the first. Studies show that we lose up to 10% of our body heat through our heads.
While hooded jackets are nice to have, a hood doesn’t necessarily provide enough warmth, and may not stay on your head if it’s windy or you’re rolling fast in your wheelchair. I’ve found that a tightly-fitted knitted hat works best for my needs — and there are endless choices available. You can even make your own — knitting and crochet are fun, easy hobbies to take up during the winter if you don’t go out much.
2. Cover your lower body, legs, and feet.
Many wheelchair users trying to stay warm in the winter, including me, forget all about our legs and feet. Protecting your lower body from the cold is just as important as protecting your upper body. This also goes for those of you who don’t have sensation in your legs — you’re still losing heat from them.
There are many easy ways to warm your legs, ranging from specialized wheelchair blankets to child-size sleeping bags, mermaid blankets, and of course, boots. You may need to experiment to figure out which solution is best for your needs.
3. Wear thermal clothing to stay warm without bulky coats and tons of layers.
I often see tips recommending that you “dress in layers” to stay warm in the winter. However, this isn’t necessarily the best advice for people with limited mobility. For people with muscle weakness or spasticity, bulky sweaters and heavy jackets can make movement difficult. Those of us who struggle with temperature regulation may also need to wear warm clothing indoors where non-disabled people find the temperature comfortable. For all of these situations, thermal clothing is the solution!
Flexible and light thermal clothing can keep you cozy without the weight and bulk of heavy sweaters and jackets. It’s designed to help you maintain body heat, while also wicking away sweat if you get too hot. Thermal clothing is available in a wide variety of materials and price points; here are just a few options to get you started.
4. Choose a coat that works well with your wheelchair or other mobility aid.
When choosing a coat or jacket to stay warm in the winter as a wheelchair user, consider fit and flexibility first. Waist-length jackets are generally preferable to long coats as they won’t bunch up around your waist while sitting. If you use a manual wheelchair and push yourself, you’ll need sleeves that are loose enough to allow plenty of arm movement but not so loose that they get in the way.
Whether you put on your own coat or need assistance, I recommend choosing a jacket with a satin or other slippery lining. Packable down and lightweight jackets for backpackers and hikers are designed to be thin while providing maximum warmth, exactly what most wheelchair users need. Their smooth interior and exterior make them easy to put on and take off. My favorite among these is the Columbia Powder Lite jacket. While not the cheapest winter coat, it provides great value for the money and will last for years. The reflective interior works with your body heat to keep you comfortable without any excess bulk.
5. Consider a heated vest or jacket.
Many people with neurological disabilities such as multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury struggle to regulate their body temperature. I have cerebral palsy and I’m often cold even when others around me are boiling hot. On the coldest winter days, even a heavily insulated coat isn’t enough to stop my muscles from becoming rigid. I need an external heat source. I received a heated vest as a gift and it has been exactly what I needed to cope with winter as a wheelchair user. If I wear it under my packable down jacket, I stay super comfy despite the freezing temperatures.
6. Use a heating pad or hand warmers for supplemental heat.
If a heated jacket isn’t right for you or isn’t in the budget, you can place a USB heating pad behind your back to stay warm everywhere you go. If you use a power wheelchair, you can even plug it into your USB port. If not, a small battery pack can keep you warm for hours.
By the way, there are also battery packs that double as hand warmers. I’ve had a pair for years and they are one of the best purchases I’ve ever made.
7. Wear a mask or gaiter while outdoors to warm your face and neck.
During the pandemic, I discovered that wearing a mask while outdoors could help keep me warm. Since winter is an important time to mask anyway due to the increased spread of respiratory viruses, you can just put your mask on before leaving the house instead of before you enter a store and stay both warm and safe all winter long.
8. Find gloves or mittens you can put on yourself.
If you’re a manual wheelchair user, you may already wear push gloves. If not, now is the time to get yourself a pair to protect your hands from the cold and that yellow snow.
If you have limited hand dexterity, putting on gloves with fingers can be nearly impossible, yet mittens make using your hands even more challenging. Fingerless gloves work up to a point, but many of us have poor circulation and need to cover our fingers. Flap mittens are the perfect middle ground.
9. Remove snow from your wheelchair tires.
If you live in a cold climate, you know the icky experience of tracking in dirty snow and mud on your wheelchair wheels. Luckily, there’s an easy solution to this problem — a car windshield snow brush. If you use a power wheelchair or can’t bend to reach your wheels, a brush with a long handle can work great.
As you can see, with a bit of preparation, going outside in the winter as a wheelchair user doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. So go outside and enjoy the crisp air and maybe even a little snow!
How do you stay warm outside in the winter as a wheelchair user?
Share your tips with our supportive disability community in the comments below.
Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Ability Toolbox. I received my BA in English from Stanford University and MA in Clinical Psychology from Antioch University Los Angeles, and have worked in entertainment and health media for over 20 years. I also blog about traveling with a disability. As a wheelchair user with cerebral palsy, I am deeply committed to amplifying the voices of the disability community through writing and advocacy.