Hi, I’m Karin, and I have cerebral palsy. I use a wheelchair, but I don’t let my disability limit me. I travel across the USA with my service dog Aria by my side, visiting all kinds of amazing places and sharing my experiences. I’ve had to overcome many challenges, but nothing heals the soul like traveling. My goal is to inspire others to never give up on their dreams. No matter what you’ve been through, you CAN still get out there and enjoy life. I’m living proof.
As a frequent traveler who uses a wheelchair, I’m often asked about my packing list. I find that many people with disabilities want to travel, but worry about bringing the things they need. For us, needed items go beyond clothing and toiletries and can involve essential, potentially fragile medical equipment and must-have medications. Here is my packing guide for traveling with a wheelchair, scooter, or other mobility equipment.
Mobility & Medical Equipment
Traveling with mobility equipment always brings its own challenges. Specific equipment will vary greatly based on your needs, but these are the items I bring and why.
Travel wheelchair battery charger – If you’ve ever stared at the giant, heavy battery charger you received with your power wheelchair or scooter and wondered how on earth you would lug it around with you on a trip, you’ll be happy to know that small, portable chargers are readily available and affordable. The travel charger I use is about the same size as a laptop DC converter box.
Note: Travel chargers are typically lower in amperage, so they won’t charge your mobility devices as quickly, and they might shorten battery life if you use them long-term. So keep yours in your travel bag ready to go, and continue using the big charger at home.
Shower chair and/or foot rest – Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, hotels are supposed to provide a shower chair or bench in their accessible rooms, but many don’t. Other times, they may provide one, but it’s small or flimsy. If you’re not familiar with the accommodations, you may want to bring a shower chair for your own safety and comfort. Since I have short legs, I always bring a folding step stool to use as a foot rest. It’s a useful item that can solve a variety of accessibility problems you may face on a trip.
Portable ramp – If you know you’ll be visiting a place that’s not wheelchair accessible, such as a relative’s home, having a portable ramp can make the difference between smooth, easy access and a difficult, possibly hazardous situation.
Portable ramps are relatively inexpensive, and can be transported easily in most vehicles. They are great for providing access to buildings with 1 to 3 steps, though I have done up to 5. Obviously the more steps, the longer the ramp you need, but it isn’t necessary to meet ADA standards for a temporary situation. Even a fairly steep grade can be negotiated with assistance from family members pushing and/or guiding your wheelchair up and down the ramp.
If you visit a particular relative on a regular basis, and they have storage space, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to keep the ramp at their home for future visits. I own two portable ramps and always keep them in the back of my van. With these ramps, I’m able to visit the majority of my friends’ homes.
Medications – If you take prescription medication, bring extra doses in case you lose pills or your trip lasts longer than expected. If you’re traveling on a plane, bring medication in your carry-on luggage. I always keep at least a few pills of my most important medication on me at all times, either in my purse or backpack. Better safe than sorry.
>>Check out these tips for packing medications when you travel.
Packing Tip – If you’re flying, pack your medical equipment and supplies together in one (or more) suitcases. Airlines are not allowed to charge for transporting mobility equipment, so those bags will be free. They also can’t charge extra for transporting your wheelchair, walker, Hoyer lift, etc.
Travel Tip – If you’re flying and use a power wheelchair, remove the joystick, wrap it in bubble wrap, and take it as a carry-on item. If your controller can’t be removed (such as on a scooter) leave it in place, but cover it in bubble wrap. Tape a sign to your device with instructions for how to put it in freewheel gear, fold it, etc. to reduce the likelihood of airline workers breaking it.
Service Dog Supplies
My service dog goes on all my trips with me, and always has a great time. Here are the items I pack to make traveling easy and comfortable for her.
Vaccination records – The TSA wants to ensure that all animals traveling aboard aircraft have had their rabies vaccination. Even if you’re not flying, it’s a good idea to carry vaccination records for general safety and preparedness. Some dog-related locations and events require proof of vaccination.
Medical documentation – If you are flying and have a psychiatric service dog or an emotional support animal, you should carry a letter from your doctor stating your need for the animal. There’s no harm in obtaining one of these for any type of service dog. A dog that is wearing a vest and behaving properly will most likely be accepted without too many questions, but especially if you have an invisible disability, it’s a good idea to carry documentation.
Legal documentation – Always have a copy of the ADA Service Dog Questions and Answers and Air Carrier Access Act on your phone or printed out. Staff at airports, bus terminals, hotels, and restaurants should know the laws, but sometimes they don’t, and being able to show them can help defuse a situation.
First aid and mess kit – Even a well-trained and well-traveled service dog can get nervous or become sick on an airplane or long road trip. Ask your veterinarian about the following over-the-counter medications: Imodium in case of diarrhea, Pepto-Bismol tablets in case of upset tummy, and Benadryl or Dramamine for mild sedation and to reduce nausea. You probably won’t need these medications, but bring them just in case. If the worst does happen, be prepared by packing an emergency mess kit, including puppy pads, baby wipes, and poop bags.
Travel food and water bowls – I prefer the collapsible silicone kind with carabiners attached. They’re compact and can be stored in a bag or clipped onto anything.
Dog food – Dog food can take up a lot of space in your suitcase. It may be possible to reduce your load if you can locate a convenient source of your dog’s food at your destination. If you travel often, it’s a good idea to choose a food that’s readily available in a wide variety of places.
Special treats – Traveling with a service dog can be stressful for you and the dog. A dog who usually has a healthy appetite may lose interest in their meals. Bring extra yummy treats or a vitamin gravy to add to their food.
Toys – If you’ll be taking a long car or plane ride, or sitting for hours at a conference, bring something to occupy your dog, such as a chew toy or bone. Always bring your dog’s favorite toy to enjoy at the hotel.
For more about traveling with a service dog, see my complete guide.
This is a general list of recommendations, but will vary based on climate and length of trip.
Pants – I typically bring a pair of pants for each day of my travels, up to a week, in which case I would do laundry. That might sound like a lot for travelers without a physical disability, but when I look at packing lists saying to bring one or two pairs of pants, I think, not in my universe! The reality of life with a disability is that our clothes are more likely to undergo various mishaps in day to day life.
For starters, I always have a lap. That means a lot more opportunities to spill my drink all over myself, get drenched in the rain, covered in muddy paw prints if my service dog jumps on me, etc. I generally don’t bring jeans. They are more difficult to put on, less comfortable when sitting, and take up more space in the suitcase. Instead, I opt for casual yoga type pants for everyday outings, and black dress pants for evening attire.
Skirts – I love long skirts, and usually bring one or two for dressy evenings. They’re comfortable and easy to pack.
Tops – A lot depends on the weather, but I try to bring shirts and blouses that can be dressed up or down depending on the occasion. I find sweaters to be bulky and hard to move around in with my limited mobility, so unless it’s going to be very cold, I opt for long-sleeved knits in winter.
Sleepwear – Since I wear comfortable pants during the day, I usually just sleep in the same pair and then change in the morning. I bring a few T-shirts in case my shirt or blouse isn’t good to sleep in.
Jackets – I keep jackets to a minimum since they take up a lot of space. My favorite jacket to bring is a Columbia fleece with full zipper. It’s soft, comfortable, and doesn’t take up too much space. They come in fun colors, too – turquoise and purple are my favorites! Packable down is also a good choice, as it can be compressed very small.
Shoes – I usually bring two pairs of shoes, including the pair I’m wearing. I can hear a chorus of women gasping at this one, but it’s true. While I may go through pants often, I have the advantage of not wearing shoes out quickly. I generally bring one comfortable casual pair, and one nicer pair, both in black. I’d love to be rocking the high heels with the rest of you ladies, but unfortunately they hurt my feet, as do 95% of all shoes.
In talking to my other friends with mobility disabilities, we all agree, shoes are a challenge, and when we find something that works, we stick with it. I just try to find something boring that blends in, and let the rest of my outfit reflect my style.
Socks – I’ve actually been injured by socks that were too tight – yes, really! – when I brought them on a trip because I was worried about not having enough pairs. Don’t do that. Only bring clothing that you’ve worn before and that you’re sure works for you. Travel is a time to try new foods and see new sights, but not to wear new or old clothing that might be uncomfortable or worse.
Undergarments – These will obviously vary based on personal preference, but I find that stretchy, wire free bras are the easiest to travel with and wash if needed. I always try to bring my neutral tone undergarments that will work with almost any blouse.
Jewelry – I still have my little Caboodle from when I was a kid, and it’s perfect for travel. I never bring expensive jewelry, but then again I don’t own expensive jewelry… Most of my jewelry is from small artisans and friends. I have a couple of go-to pieces that match almost anything – a string of silvery glass pearls that was made by a friend, and a piece of glittery black quartz that I bought in Nebraska. They can dress up even a very simple blouse or V-neck shirt.
Toiletries – The usual soap, shampoo, deodorant, etc. in travel-size bottles. If you have skin sensitivities, be sure to bring enough of whatever you like in case you can’t find it at your destination. I’ve found a foolproof way to never forget any toiletry item. When I get home from a trip, I refill everything, so it’s ready to go for next time!
Wet wipes/baby wipes – I always bring a supply of wet wipes in 2 different packages, one standard, and one with alcohol added. Alcohol wipes are great for cooling off quickly or wiping away grime or bad odors. I learned this trick from a friend, and it saved me one time after I put on a perfume sample and found I was allergic to it. I couldn’t stop sneezing, and had a concert to attend in 20 minutes. A wet paper towel didn’t remove the smell, and I was panicking. Thankfully, an alcohol wipe did the trick!
Lip balm – Road trips are my favorite form of travel, but my lips always get chapped from the dry air coming through the vents. If I remember to put on lots of lip balm every day before getting out on the road, I find that it mostly prevents this problem. My favorite is Burt’s Bees.
iPad – I love my iPad, as it’s very easy to use even though I don’t have good hand coordination. I do bring a computer because of my work, but use the iPad whenever possible, especially in the car on long road trips.
Camera – I have a GoPro that’s easy to carry. I recommend getting an action camera if you have a disability and want to do first person or third person videos of your travel experiences. I’m currently looking for something that’s a bit smaller with easier to press buttons. There are many small action cameras coming on the market, so explore the options to see what’s right for you. I also use my phone, but action cameras take better quality video, especially at night.
>>Read our comprehensive list of photography gear to get the best travel shots.
Well, that’s my typical packing list for a road trip in a wheelchair. I bet it’s not too different from yours, even if you don’t have a disability. Just like many other travelers, I love to visit museums, go to the theater, and eat awesome ethnic food I can’t find at home. I love to meet new people and experience different cultures. I have to think about certain things in advance that people without disabilities might not consider, but I always manage to have a great time. Maybe I’ll see you out there sometime!
About the author: Karin Willison is an entrepreneur and writer. She road trips around the USA with her service dog, Aria, and blogs about accessible travel and life with a disability at Free Wheelin’.
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