Return to Dirt expands off-road adventure program for adaptive athletes

Morgan Tilton

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Return to Dirt provides adaptive off-road adventures and backcountry access for athletes of all abilities.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

Glenwood Springs-based Return to Dirt recently joined the High Fives Foundation, the nation's lead adaptive action sports organization. That change supports Return to Dirt's surging growth through the network and resources of the High Fives Foundation.

Return to Dirt is a nonprofit that provides complimentary adaptive equipment and instruction for athletes with disabilities, so they can pilot an off-road vehicle into backcountry areas they would otherwise be unable to reach.

"We're the only program in the country that offers adaptive motorized equipment for individuals to pilot independently. Other organizations have offered to give ride-alongs in off-road vehicles in the past, but none of them have had any reach compared to ours, and nobody has ever consistently given the steering wheel to individuals to pilot themselves," said Return to Dirt founder Tim Burr.

"High Fives is a mighty force and what we did without them was already underneath their mission. It only makes sense to join forces and be more efficient with our time and energy," said Burr and added, "High Fives absorbing Return to Dirt has expanded our network, which in turn helps us get more people into the driver seat."

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Return to Dirt helps adaptive athletes experience their outdoor dreams said founder Tim Burr.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

Creating Return to Dirt

Founder Tim Burr launched Return to Dirt in 2018 after a life-changing experience.

Born and raised in Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, Burr was a lifelong competitive outdoor athlete from skiing to mountain biking, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, and skateboarding. He moved to Gunnison to attend Western Colorado University, where he competed in big mountain skiing and downhill mountain biking for the college.

In 2014, during Burr's sophomore year, he had an "awkward" backcountry ski crash on undulating terrain that broke his neck, paralyzing him from the chest down. He spent two weeks in the ICU of St. Mary's Medical Center in Grand Junction before moving to Craig Hospital in Denver for 2.5 months of rehab for his spinal cord injury.

Two years later, he attempted adaptive sit skiing with the High Fives Foundation in the Tahoe area. The organization is based in Truckee, California. "The introduction to the High Fives community was life-changing as far as being surrounded by individuals that still have the stoke or adventure for life regardless of past injury and the can-do attitude that comes with it," said Burr.

The organization started supporting Burr through a fundraiser before he was even out of the ICU. Once he was ready, they helped him on the road trip to Tahoe by providing an ADA-accessible hotel and sit-ski lessons.

"Being inducted into the community changed my confidence for living life 180 degrees. That was my first time leaving the house after becoming a quadriplegic. Driving across the country and staying in a hotel doesn’t seem like a big deal but it is a giant deal—they helped me through those first steps, and they've helped me as friends that I've stayed tightly with ever since," said Burr.

After sit-skiing, Burr joined the High Fives Foundation for adaptive surfing, adaptive fly fishing, and adaptive mountain biking. His experience with the organization inspired him to launch Return to Dirt.

"[Their support] helps me want to grow that type of attitude, and I've continued to show it to as many people as possible just by being a good guy and through Return to Dirt," he said.

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Return to Dirt recently joined forces with High Fives Foundation.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

Return to Dirt supports athletes nationwide

Since its inception, the organization has covered nearly 5,000 hand-driven miles and given 128 total athlete experiences.

Return to Dirt hosts adventures all over the region, from Utah to California and Montana or Idaho. About 90% of trips are in Colorado and out of the Glenwood Springs area, where Burr and the organization are based.

Typically, Return to Dirt hosts four or five monthly trips, and nearly half of the athletes are from out of state.

To get involved, athletes need to complete an application. The organization provides free trips for participants. The organization needs to know the individual's complete scope of needs and goals to decide if Return to Dirt is a good fit.

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In 2021, Return to Dirt did 20 trips to 10 locations with a total of 41 athletes.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

Where Return to Dirt adventures take place

The organization tailors the off-road adventures to each athlete, ranging from single-day experiences to overnight expeditions.

"Our trips are built out for the individual that is granted the trip. We get to know them through the application process before their trip and build out a specific experience that would make their dreams come true," said Burr.

"The trips are always at a location the athlete will appreciate or will lead to them succeeding in their goals, and we use our adapted off-road equipment to access those areas," he explained.

For some athletes, their goal is to focus on driving the off-road equipment or "throttle therapy." Those trips revolve around the terrain they want to explore, whether in the desert, high alpine setting, or high-speed or low-speed technical driving.

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Return to Dirt can also facilitate overnight trips and hosted four for individual athletes in 2021.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

"We plan a safe route to get to their goal location. We have a whole catalogue for areas we're familiar with and that we've curated to know what we can do in those zones and areas. If someone says they want high speed driving, we know the safe access point with low consequences, so they can do some race truck driving," said Burr.

Other athletes do not focus on off-road driving skills as the main activity. Instead, they want to access a specific location to go fishing or mountain biking, or perhaps they want to be above 10,000 feet or see wildflowers or want to go somewhere to do landscape photography, explained Burr.

"We also know areas that are not well frequented for people that want to access the serenity of the outdoors," said Burr.

In the third type of situation, when someone says they want to go to a specific location, "We put in a significant amount of research virtually and remotely and go there ahead of time to get used to the zone and figure it out," said Burr.

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Return to Dirt helped athletes cover 1,109 hand driven miles in 2021.(Photo by Return to Dirt.)

Providing team support for each trip

Burr has attended nearly every trip since Return to Dirt launched. Some trips include the athlete's family, friends or a caregiver.

He typically drives a support vehicle alongside the athlete, which can drive or seat passengers in one of the two adapted Can-Am Maverick X3 UTVs, which BRP Can-Am Off-Road donated to the organization.

The UTVs have adaptive hand controls, which users can adjust for grip strength. The vehicles have grip orthodox, adjustable power steering (so the steering isn't too loose and jumpy or too rigid), and various handles that attach to the steering wheel. Other after-market equipment makes them safe and ridable from their wheels to the roll cages, harnesses, communication kits, and helmets—to name a few features, explained Burr.

"A lot of our knowledge that we can share is around the adaptation and use of the equipment with different capabilities. We spend a lot of time helping people understand the adaptive equipment and making sure they know they'll be safe and confident in the use," said Burr.

Burr and the team support the athletes with safely entering and exiting the vehicle, as well as caring for the athlete while in the vehicle, such as regulating their temperature and protecting their skin from abrasion and pressure sores.

"Our backcountry knowledge is topnotch as well. We show people how to be responsible and safe in these areas and with the equipment and make sure that they're safe in their situation," he said.

Burr said, "Our equipment is basically a motorized off-road wheelchair, and people can do with that what they will…once I realized how freeing adaptive driving was, there was no question that it needed to be shared."

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Adventure journalist Morgan Tilton covers the outdoors with a focus on travel, industry news and human endurance. Featured in more than 70 publications, she’s a recipient of more than a dozen North American Travel Journalists Association awards.

Crested Butte, CO
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