Of all the reasons to want an off-road chair, romance might not be the first that comes to mind. But for Todd Lemay, a wheelchair user with osteogenesis imperfecta, it was a missed romantic opportunity some 20 years ago that motivated him to move beyond the pavement. He was living in Arizona, dating a girl from the Midwest who had never seen the ocean. “I was pretty high on life at the time ’cause I got my own car and I can drive and I got a girl,” he says. They drove to San Diego. “We got to the beach and went to the end of the parking lot, and I’m like, ‘Well there you go, there’s the beach, there’s the ocean.’ And after about 10 or 15 minutes of enjoying it from there, she said, ‘Hey, do you mind if I go and walk along the beach?’ I went from cloud nine down to cloud two, ’cause now she’s able to go down on the beach by herself and I’m missing that moment.”
Even though that girl is now his wife, that missed experience is something Lemay never forgot. About five years ago, he was looking online for a power chair that could get him on the beach, and he came across the Terrain Hopper — a four-wheel drive mobility vehicle that looks closer to an ATV than it does to a power wheelchair. The company that made it was based in the United Kingdom. It took some negotiations to get them to send one to the U.S., but once it got to him, it was everything Lemay was hoping for. “I took it on the beach, I took it hiking with friends, I went out with my nieces and nephews and just had a great time,” he says.
Lemay liked the vehicle so much that he approached Terrain Hopper U.K. about becoming a U.S. distributor of the vehicles, and after a long
process, Terrain Hopper USA recently started production out of Phoenix.
I was in Arizona last year, and went to the factory to check out the Terrain Hopper. It’s a well-designed, exceedingly capable machine. It sits high and has plenty of ground clearance to overcome rocks, roots and whatever else you may find in your way.
The seat is stable and comfortable. The transfer into the Terrain Hopper from a typical manual wheelchair seat height is raised and there is a gap you’ll have to clear, but for anyone who can transfer up into a small SUV it shouldn’t be an issue. For anyone who needs assistance for a transfer, there is good clearance on the side of the vehicle. Whatever your function, it’s certainly less wonky to get into than a recumbent handcycle.
The Terrain Hopper is super stable and there’s virtually no learning curve. You point it where you want it to go, and it goes. The standard steering option is via handlebars, with brake levers and a tiller that you push forward for throttle and backward for reverse. For those without the arm and hand function to operate handlebars, there’s the option to add a joystick control. Lemay says they’re currently adapting a Terrain Hopper for a customer so he can drive it with his chin.
When I took one out, there was a steep hill covered in loose rock and sand. I climbed and descended the hill a few times, and not once did I feel out of control or like the machine was close to tipping. Part of this is because the braking system is automatic, similar to a power chair. As soon as you let off the throttle, it starts to brake, so never feels like it’s going to get away from you. At one point during testing I tried to climb the steep hill slowly, and the tires started spinning in the loose dirt. I released the throttle and reversed down the hill the hill with ease. At the bottom, I took a longer run and made it back up without issue. Problem solved.
The ease with which the Terrain Hopper handles steep slopes and rough ground comes down to a couple things: a long wheelbase compared to track-style chairs and true four-wheel drive, with each wheel having its own electric motor. “We can go up 35 degrees, we can go down a 45-degree slope. We actually have driven them down stairs before,” says Lemay. Each wheel is independently suspended, which is crucial when navigating rocky, uneven terrain. It has a top speed of 12 mph, with a higher torque mode for rough ground, and the standard battery will get you 12 miles, depending on terrain.
Of course, this kind of engineering comes at a price. The Terrain Hopper starts at $18,000, and the price climbs further once you begin to add the multitude of options that are available to customize it. Luckily, there are options for those who don’t have an automobile’s worth of cash lying around. Terrain Hopper USA is offering the option to finance through a credit union, spreading payment out over seven years. A payment in the range of $250 a month is more feasible for the gainfully employed.
Additionally, one of the cooler things that Terrain Hopper USA is doing is working with philanthropic foundations and individuals to get vehicles donated to local nonprofits that offer adaptive rec services. Ability 360, PVA Arizona Chapter and Barrow Neurological Institute are all going to have Terrain Hoppers available for use. The company is open to working with organizations across the country. As a model for increasing access to these types of cool but pricey vehicles, trail events and gear-locker type rental programs, run by local nonprofits, may be the best option available.
However it comes about, if you get a chance to go for a trek in the Terrain Hopper, take advantage — the rougher the ground the better.