by Sydney Williams
Fact Checked by:
by Sydney Williams
Fact Checked by:
Spending time off the grid and in nature can be life changing.
After hiking 2 days and 20-something miles into the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park, I stood on Hurricane Pass, 10,388 feet above sea level. With the Alaska Basin behind me, and the expansive south fork of Cascade Canyon in front of me, my face threatened to erupt in its own waterfalls.
Crying on the trail is nothing new to me: Hiking is one of my favorite ways to stay active and clear my mind.
This time, I was overcome with gratitude. Four years ago, I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at the ripe age of 32. Back then, I was sick, sad, and burnt out from work, doing my best to live up to the expectations my parents had for my life and those that I internalized from society.
I hadn’t yet begun my healing journey, and I was having panic attacks almost every day — sometimes twice a day. I was a walking reaction to the world around me.
The life I live today and everything good in it is a result of that diagnosis, and the healing that followed. I owe so much of that to my time spent hiking and backpacking in the wilderness.
Maybe you’re brand new to outdoor recreation but are curious about how it can help you live a full, happy, epic life with a chronic condition. Or maybe you’re a seasoned adventurer who was recently diagnosed with a chronic condition and you’re wondering how to adjust to this new normal.
Wherever you’re starting out, here are five tips from experienced, outdoorsy chronic illness warriors to help you find your way.
To start, what questions do you have? Make a list, then identify who can help you answer those questions.
A consult with your medical team is a great place to start. They have the clinical context and access to research that can help you make sense of what is happening in your body and how that might impact your adventures.
Regardless of who you’re asking, share what kind of activity you’re interested in pursuing (or were pursuing prior to diagnosis), ask them your questions, and listen to their answers. Ask them what other considerations you should keep in mind for those activities in the context of your condition.
If they flat out tell you that you can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t, you don’t have to take that as a final answer.
Don’t be afraid to push back and ask them to explain why. Ask for resources, medical journals, studies, referrals or anything you can get your hands on to learn more.
In my case, when I was training for my first backpacking trip after my diagnosis, I was confused and concerned about on-trail nutrition. All the high calorie foods I need to fuel the adventures were loaded with processed carbohydrates and, up until that point, I had been sticking to a primarily whole food nutrition plan to manage my type 2 diabetes.
I brought these concerns to my doctor who reminded me that, if I’m in motion 8 to 10 hours per day, I’m going to need those calories and that energy. I should be more concerned about my blood sugar dropping rather than being high.
Through trial and error over a few years and several thousand miles hiked, I’ve dialed in my nutrition plan in a way that keeps me energized and my blood sugar levels stable.
Here are some questions to consider asking:
Depending on your condition, there are a variety of considerations to take into account when preparing for a backcountry adventure.
Mike Joyce, a long-distance hiker with type 1 diabetes, has hiked thousands of miles all over the United States. He most recently completed the 3,100-mile long Continental Divide Trail in 2021. But you don’t wake up one day and start a months-long expedition. Leading up to that adventure, he spent a lot of time learning about how insulin works in different conditions.
“I think one of the hardest things is to anticipate insulin working harder on the uphills,” Joyce says. “It’s really hard to plan for and requires planning and timing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you get to eat a bunch of Starbursts on the way to the top of the climb.”
Once you get your system dialed in, it’s important to share this information with the folks you’re recreating with. I’m lucky that my husband is also a former Wilderness EMT who knows what to look for if my blood sugar levels go low.
However, at the beginning of any adventure with new friends, we give them a briefing: Here are the symptoms, here’s where I keep quick-acting glucose in case of an emergency, here’s why you shouldn’t be afraid to tell me to eat something, etc.
Outdoor enthusiast Clara Liberov, 28, is living with chronic Lyme disease. She says that friends often assume she knows what to do in all scenarios, since she’s been living with the condition for over a decade.
“The truth is, it’s out of my control,” Liberov explains. “Sometimes, the symptoms encroach more than I can put them off, and at that point, I’m looking to my friend group to step in and help. Once I say what I need, people are quick to respond and help out. Never assume anyone knows what you’re going through.”
A good rule of thumb for anyone venturing out into the wilderness is to carry enough with you to survive an unexpected overnight: layers of clothing appropriate for the temperatures, enough water or a filtration system, food and snacks, and of course any medications you would need if your return home was delayed.
If I’m recreating in an area without cell reception, I always carry a GPS unit with me, regardless of how long I plan to be out.
But not all backcountry emergencies are related to injuries or require search and rescue. Some are condition-specific and can strike at any time.
Jordan Chapell, 38, lives between Denver and Boulder, Colorado. As an adventurer with Crohn’s disease, he learned quickly after his diagnosis that an urgent bowel movement could come at the most inopportune times, and that it’s best to be prepared.
“I carry a bag of double Ziplocks and toilet paper everywhere I go, whether it’s running, climbing, backpacking, everything,” Chapell says. “I always have it, because for people with Crohn’s or [ulcerative] colitis, you never know.”
Remember: You’re not the only one living with your condition who wants to have a full, fun life. But sometimes, it’s hard to imagine what’s possible without hearing from someone who’s walked (or hiked) in your shoes.
You could start a blog, share on social media, or join a condition-specific Bezzy community and talk about your adventures there. All of it can help others see what’s possible.
Fact checked on May 12, 2022
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About the author
Sydney Williams is an adventure athlete and author based in San Diego, California. Her work explores how trauma manifests in our minds and bodies, and how the outdoors can help us heal. Sydney is the founder of Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit organization on a mission to improve community health by creating opportunities for people to experience the healing power of nature. Join the Hiking My Feelings Family, and follow along on YouTube and Instagram.