Learning from walking groups

Authored by Sarah Bell

Over the last couple of months, I’ve had some great conversations with volunteers – sighted, partially sighted and low vision – who run regular outdoor walks with people living with vision impairment.

Each conversation I’ve had has highlighted the importance of catering for diverse preferences and abilities, and different groups address this in different ways. So I thought I’d take the opportunity here to share some of their tips for promoting positive nature experiences.

In more urban areas, where there are plenty of volunteers and reliable public transport to the walk sites, walk leaders may organise a programme of walks each month (taking it in turns to recce different routes beforehand). These could include a shorter walk of 2-3 miles across relatively smooth terrain for beginners, a mid-distance walk of 5-7 miles over mixed terrain and a more challenging walk covering 8-11 miles over higher elevations for more experienced walkers. 

In more rural areas, where walks are limited to one per month due to fewer available volunteers and the need to rely on volunteer drivers to help people to and from the walk locations, walk leaders discussed the value of identifying routes that follow a figure of eight. They highlighted the benefits of grading the terrain along different sections of the walk in advance, usually prioritising smoother terrain around the first loop than the second, so walkers can work up from the first loop to both as they gain confidence and stamina over time.

Taking steps to ensure that each walker is paired up with a sighted guide who is both happy and able to walk the desired distance was also noted as important by some walk leaders, although others encouraged guides and walkers to rotate during the walk to support the much-valued social dynamics of the walks.

In terms of terrain, more challenging routes tend to incorporate steeper hills, more stiles than gates (this is particularly tricky when stiles are poorly maintained), steps and other obstacles such as tree roots, each of which are negotiated by walkers using intricate cane skills and the support of a sighted guide.

Long rutted paths tend to require additional concentration and canes can get stuck in particularly muddy stretches, but adverse weather conditions are usually fine providing walkers have the appropriate clothing and footwear. Having the opportunity to tackle these harder walks was deemed important – many walkers appreciate the challenge of rockier, hillier terrains, expressing limited interest in overly monotonous flattened paths. 

In addition to the many social benefits of the walks, each walk leader highlighted how the walks really come alive, for example in spring when surrounded by the scent of bluebells, the sounds of birds, bubbling streams and rustling leaves, or when new shoots can be felt emerging from the bark of fallen trees. They described the added interest of opportunities to learn more about the plants and animals around them, as well as points of historical interest, such as the ruins of old buildings, monuments or industrial features. 

An example of some of these benefits is captured by the Sheffield Visually Impaired Walking Group in the following video, produced by Footsteps Ramble two years ago.

We’re looking forward to learning more about the diverse multi-sensory experiences that bring these walks alive through the Sensing Nature project.