Where there is a wheel, there is a way
The company, Paratrek, is synonymous with outdoor adventures and these adventures are not only reserved for the able-bodied. Specifically, the mobility challenged and people with disabilities are usually the guests of honour. The company was built with love of a son for his father, at its base.
Omer Zur, the founder of Paratrek, believes that everyone should be able to enjoy hiking and the outdoors regardless of their disabilities. This notion hit close to home for him because his parents always encouraged him to go outdoors, to hike, camp and travel. However, his father was never able to participate in those experiences as he was severely injured at 20 years old, and is paralyzed from the chest down. While hiking one day with friends, Omer realized that he needed to have his Dad enjoy the exhilarating experience of hiking with him. There on the mountain, with his friends, he made the decision to take his Dad to Turkey for one month to hike the Taurus mountain. Tents, sleeping bags, cooking on bonfires – an entire hiking and camping experience. His dad agreed to take the trip, but the looming question remained – how was this hike going to be accomplished? His dad is a wheelchair user!
Overcoming this major hurdle required elaborate thought and planning. First, Omer contacted friends and asked whether they wanted to go on the hike with them. Thirty-four agreed. The second and most important was the wheelchair. How can a sturdy, heavy-duty mechanism be created to make a wheelchair user comfortable, safe and well-balanced in their chair during a hike? Many options were considered but rejected, then Omer and his dad made a list of what will be required: how did his dad want to feel when in the wheelchair as they traverse the terrain, comfort and safety being paramount? They took that list to a mechanical engineer and industrial designer and the result was the first model of what is now the Trekker.
Thirty-three days were spent hiking in Turkey with thirty-four friends and his dad. The terrain was difficult and they proceeded cautiously, thinking the Trekker might fall apart, but it did not. It lasted for the duration of the trip with the resulting conclusion: it was an amazing device.
This all happened in 2008 and since then, the fifth model is now in use. But what is the Trekker? Simply put, it is to a wheelchair user what hiking boots are to an able-bodied hiker. The Trekker is a customized wheelchair with sturdy, heavy-duty wheels and shock absorbers that will allow someone sitting in the chair to go through rough terrain safely and comfortably with the help of others. A wheelchair user will move from their chair to the Trekker. At least one person will be needed to pull or push, sometimes two persons per trekker so they can support each other. Based on the topography of the area perhaps as many as five may be needed. The Trekker was created for non-accessible terrains and since 2008, it has been accomplishing this task, successfully.
That hike in Turkey heralded the start of what is now the company, Paratrek. During that journey, Omer observed two important things: The first was that his very independent dad started the trek with conflicting emotions. He initially struggled with having to depend on others. Being a wheelchair user since the age of 20, he was used by now to getting around on his own, but in this circumstance, he had no choice but to look to others for assistance during the journey. His reservations dissolved a few days into the trek and he was able to appreciate the experience. Secondly, Omer observed that his friends who were part of the excursion enjoyed assisting his dad. They got more from the trip than a mere hike. Collectively, they helped someone to accomplish a feat that could not be done without their help. This was the defining moment for Omer – individuals can achieve more if they work together. He then knew what he was destined to do for the rest of his life.
Omer obtained his Tour Guide license and Paratrek has been in existence for the past six years. Groups working together is his focus. Students in inclusive classrooms, youth groups and special needs students, office team-building excursions, tourists, local groups of friends and family are all beneficiaries of his Trekker and the lessons to be learned while hiking.
No matter how large or small a group, extreme care is taken to conduct a thorough overhaul of a trail in advance of a trek. If the hike will be taking place in another country, the Paratrek team collaborate with local guides who use a GoPro to film the terrain which Paratrek uses to familiarize themselves with the area prior to departure. Pre-Covid-19, groups were taken to Jordan, Turkey, France and also to Mount Kilimanjaro, a trip that was organized by Jamie Lassner, CEO of Friends of Access Israel. Jamie hoped to show people with and without disabilities throughout the world, that everything is possible. The successful Mount Kilimanjaro journey proved just that. Twenty-seven people with and without disabilities from different countries were part of that excursion. One participant was a paraplegic in Tanzania who lived at the foot of mountain but was never able make the journey before. Paratrek’s Trekker and Friends of Access Israel helped him to achieve that dream. He made it to the summit. Paratrek believes anyone can enjoy the outdoors spending time with nature. Be it the visual or hearing impaired, someone who walks with a crutch or needs a walker to get around and even those who may not be able to walk for lengthy periods. The Trekker makes outdoor excursions possible for everyone.
Through an approved program with Israel’s Ministry of Education, Omer lectures and conducts workshops for high school students. The same is done for corporate enterprises. Team building, leadership and communication skills, stepping outside of comfort zones and seeing realities through the eyes of others are some of the lessons taught, all within the parameters of hiking while using the Trekker. One of his most popular lectures is “Chasing your Dreams” which centers around the story of his father and his first trek, showing how one can overcome challenges and fulfill dreams.
Tour guides in any country can purchase the Trekker and, after a brief training, they too can help make hiking dreams a reality for people with disabilities in their individual countries. Tour companies organizing trips to Israel for people with disabilities, or trips to other countries where hiking is one of the activities, can also contact Paratrek as Omer and his team can be incorporated into your planning and be responsible for the hiking aspect of the excursion.
Omer will like the world to see people first, not their disability. “People with disabilities have dreams and abilities and when you try to understand them, this is when you will realize that you have much in common and can achieve more together. Focus on the person and not on the disability,” he urges.