More people are turning to track wheelchairs as a way of regaining access to the outdoor life. Perhaps the first person to make tracks in this direction was Liz Soden, of Parker, Ariz., who was paralyzed at L2 in an auto accident in August 1999.
Not long after the accident, the Sodens relocated to Phoenix for better medical access. “We had to get out of Parker,” says Liz. “It wasn’t the kind of place with the medical facilities I needed.” But in 2001 it became apparent that a different kind of access was missing. It was then that Liz’s husband, Brad, began brainstorming ways to get her back to their blended family’s love of the outdoors.
“The first thing he did was ask me what I wanted in a vehicle, what features and all,” says Liz. “I said I wanted to ride high because I was tired of being butt-level to everyone.” Brad talked to engineers, got busy in his workshop, and the first version of the Tankchair was completed within a couple of years
Now the Sodens go camping in the desert or mountains in all kinds of weather. Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet elevation, is their favorite snow destination. Liz hooks onto logs with a winch and drags them from the forest to their campsite. In the early days following her accident, she would just sit in the car and watch the kids — three boys and two girls. “Now I can chase them and get out and play with them,” she says. “I can go hiking with the whole family. I don’t have to miss out on anything.” The Sodens have hiked the north rim of the Grand Canyon, explored the beaches of Lake Havasu, and climbed the red rock mountains near Native American historical sites.
About 35 miles outside of Phoenix lies the rural town of Wittmann, just a “blink on Highway 60,” says Jean Hamman, a wheelchair user who moved there in 2005. “When I was 13 I broke my hip at a growth plate, they did surgeries, a total hip replacement, one failed graft, leaving me with broken junk metal,” she says. “Crutches destroyed my back, so I’ve been using a wheelchair since then.”
One day, while she was living in Phoenix, Hamman became aware of the Tankchair. “My son saw the Tankchair being tested up on Table Mesa. Brad Soden had also been at a local mall showing it off. Friends deluged me with calls. Then my husband and I moved to Wittmann, and that’s when I got one.”
A horse lover all her life, Hamman says the Tankchair has made all the difference. “With the Tankchair I can fix fences, clean stalls, go all the way around the property. Otherwise I would be stuck in the house. I can train mini horses. It’s great for carrying shovels and stuff. It’s a tough chair.” For Hamman, the Tankchair is an everyday tool.
“We used to breed the ponies and sell them. I kept a few just for companionship after my husband died last November. I still train them, or I’ll take a pony over to a horse therapy place for the kids,” she says. “One of my minis, the Buckskin, is just 27-28 inches tall. Perfect size for me. I didn’t have to give up horses because they were too big for me in a chair, I just downsized the horses and got a Tankchair.”
Another Family in Need
The Action Trackchair, a smaller track vehicle than the Tankchair, also had its beginnings as a family matter. In 1998, Jeff Swenson, of Marshall, Minn., 16, was paralyzed in a car accident. Ten years later, brother-in-law Jason Holdahl became a quad from a diving accident. With two family members paralyzed and in the prime of their lives, Jeff’s dad, Tim, who owned an ATV business, decided it was time to fabricate something that would give Jeff and Jason a way to enjoy the outdoors. The result was the Action Trackchair.
The chair not only returned both Jeff and Jason to the outdoor life, it also appealed to hunters with mobility impairments. Six years later, the Action Trackchair has an extensive international dealer network and comes in multiple-size models. An array of accessories — brackets, holders, rests for guns and rods and packs, and a hauling platform that attaches to a trailer hitch — are available. It also comes in a standing chair model. [TC Mobility has made one sip-and-puff standing Tankchair for a disabled vet].
Holdahl had his own chiropractic business in southern Washington state when he dove off his boat into the Columbia in 2008 and sustained his C6-7 spinal cord injury. The next summer he was cruising the banks of the Columbia in his Action Trackchair. “I can’t imagine not having it,” says Holdahl. “I’ve always had one. There is this freedom of having it available, of knowing it is there if you need it.”
His main interest is not in hunting, it’s recreational, as it was in his pre-injury days. “I like going camping or to the river or hauling it to the sand dunes at the beach,” he says. What about tipping over backwards on the dunes? “No problem,” he says. “I’ve climbed dunes so steep that the sand gives way and starts falling back, but I keep going to the top.”
Jason’s dad, Kraig, is an Action Trackchair dealer for Washington and Oregon, so I was able to talk with both of them and try one out at the elder Holdahl’s property outside Vancouver, Wash. Having driven all-terrain vehicles, mainly Honda and Kawasaki four-wheelers, I didn’t expect to be all that impressed. But what made my ride most enjoyable, besides easily plowing through muddy swamp country and rough pasture, was the comfort factor and sense of being securely grounded. I have rolled ATVs before, but Trackchairs are a different animal.
New Kid on the Block
At 34, Travis Underwood decided he wanted to do something to help a friend who used a power chair get around outside. He experimented with different chassis configurations, researched the marketplace and decided he would try to build a smaller track chair that could be used indoors, outdoors in snow, sand, in rougher terrain, and on public transportation. Six years later, Underwood took his refined product, the Trackmaster, to an Abilities Expo in Atlanta, Ga., for its debut marketing launch.
“I never thought people would have such interest in it,” he says. “There was an outrageous turnout of people who wanted to try it out.” Unlike other track vehicles, the Trackmaster is the size of a regular power chair, with 29-inch-wide clearance. The tracks can be retracted for indoor use in the home.
The product was tested by at least three people with disabilities in the development phase. Two were disabled vets from Walter Reed Hospital, and the third was Lesley Ann Davis, 46, an assistant dean at the University of Indiana Maurer Law School. Her bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome nine years earlier had left her with quad-like paralysis. A friend who had met Underwood at an entrepreneurial workshop at the university told Davis about it, and soon she was testing the Trackmaster with the two Walter Reed vets and giving suggestions that would improve the final product.
“I took it for whole days, driving around outside on wood chips, hills, mud, grass, gravel, snow, puddles. And oh yes, curbs. That’s what I was most interested in,” says Davis. “I’m more of an urban user. I don’t want to get stuck in the slush, and I want to be able to go on hikes with my 8-year-old son, Paul.”
According to Davis, the Walter Reed vets who tested the product were more interested in hunting and rougher outdoor use. “What attracted me,” says Davis, “was that it is not a giant vehicle. My hope is that this will be the one chair that I need.”
Underwood says he has applied for FDA approval and expects the Trackmaster to have to “jump through the same hoops” as other power wheelchairs. “We think FDA compliance is achievable,” he says.
What Do Wall-E and Injured Vets Have in Common?
The call was from someone who said he was from Pixar Studios. At first Brad Soden hung up, thinking it was a friend pulling a prank. But before long a film crew was putting a tomato box on Soden’s head and cutting out two holes for his eyes. As many as
100 cameras filmed him as he drove his Tankchair up and down hills and through trash. Every movement was filmed and catalogued to provide the model for Pixar’s animated Wall-E.
Today, seven years later, TC Mobility is retooling to provide Tankchairs to U.S. veterans. They have orders from the Independence Fund, a nonprofit that purchases the chairs and gives them to vets. Another organization, The NFL Hall of Famers, wants to purchase as many as 1,700 Tankchairs for vets, according to Soden. TC Mobility is now so busy manufacturing and meeting orders for vets that Soden has decided he must temporarily stop taking orders from private, non-vet parties.
Compare the Chairs for Yourself
All three track chairs are well-made and offer something unique. Prices range generally from $10,000 to $15,000. Most obvious differences: TC Mobility’s Tankchair is the monster truck of the three, weighing up to 650 pounds with more power for tougher terrain. The Trackmaster, the new kid on the block, appeals to urban dwellers who need a better, practical way to get around, inside or outside. The Action Trackchair offers a standing track chair model, as well as their original model, which is most affordable and can be adapted for a variety of uses. Which brand interests you? It all depends on your lifestyle choices and personal preferences. Check out specs, battery life, prices and more at these websites: