I was sitting at the summit of Mount Wantastiquet in Southern New Hampshire on a hot summer afternoon, looking over the town of Brattleboro, Vermont, fatigued and utterly exhausted. I didn’t know if I was going to finish that climb, and while it’s not the highest mountain I’ve hiked, it felt like Mount Everest. As I admired the view, I recalled that not even three months earlier I was in a hospital bed, recovering from a small bowel resection surgery, as a result from having strictures, abscess, and fistula from Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease.
It’s during these moments that I’m truly grateful that my body can heal and recover, and still push itself to the edge of its limits, even after living nearly 30 years with a chronic illness.
As an active IBDer and ostomate, I enjoy the outdoors in all seasons. I grew up in Vermont with parents who took us on camping and hiking trips, and have found that spending time outside is amazing for my mental and physical health. At times, I have had to slow down and change up my activities. Yet, even during disease flare-ups, I make it work — by careful planning and preparation. Living with a chronic illness doesn’t mean you can’t live a full and active life. Here’s how I manage the unpredictable nature of IBD and the outdoors, and still manage to experience and enjoy nature.
Figure Out Your Health Routine
How I spend time outdoors depends on what’s going on with my health. Before I had ostomy surgery, I had to figure out how to manage diarrhea while camping in the woods, far away from bathrooms. Over time, I’ve learned to consider what my health routine looks like at home before I plan a trip. I ask myself questions like:
- What medications am I taking?
- What is my diet like?
- What is my usual bathroom routine?
Once I evaluate my routines, I determine how I can transfer them to an outdoor setting.?Here are some routines and considerations that I have found helpful over the years.
Pack Your Meds Appropriately
Medications I take while spending time outside have ranged from pills to injectable biologics that must be stored at specific temperatures. I also use a variety of over-the-counter medications.
I usually pack my medications by:
- Storing them in a waterproof container
- Packing more than I think I need (If I’m planning an overnight trip and camping for two nights, then I will bring at least three doses of my nighttime medicine.)
- Storing it in its recommended temperature range
How you store medications at a stable temperature depends on the type of trip you’re taking. When I backpack in the summer, I use the Frio Insulin Cooling Case. This cooler has kept my medicine at safe temperatures overnight. For other trips, where I have a car and access to ice, I store medicine in a waterproof container in a cooler. For colder weather trips, like snowshoeing or skiing, I have found body heat to be effective, layering my meds in my leggings, which I use as a base layer that has pockets. But this can get tricky when I try to retrieve the medicine. In the future, I’m considering using OmaxCare’s waist or a leg buddy, bodywear made to store your medications.
Plan Your Meals and Stay Hydrated
Maintaining my diet and ensuring I get optimal nutrition while being physically active outdoors is critical to my health.
Here’s what has worked for me while traveling:
- I stick to foods that I typically eat on a daily basis. Though convenient, I stay away from prepackaged or backpacking or camping foods, as I don’t know how my body will handle them. Instead, I bring foods that I can tolerate, like packets of tuna fish, cereal bars, meat jerky, and instant ramen noodles.
- I bring high-protein options.
- I pack enough food to eat more calories than I typically do during my daily life.
One of the biggest challenges I have encountered is managing my hydration needs.
To stay hydrated:
- I carry DripDrop or a similar store-bought oral rehydration solution powder with electrolytes in my pack.
- For one-day hikes, I use a CamelBak pack so I can carry extra water. On longer hikes and overnight trips, I use recycled SmartWater bottles as they are lightweight, and hold 1 liter each.
- I bring my Sawyer Squeeze water filtration system with me, even on short hikes.
During winter months, I must be extra cautious about dehydration, since I don't feel thirsty as much in cooler weather. To that end, I set alarms and make sure I stop for hydration breaks.
Manage Your Ostomy Bag
I have found that it’s easier to enjoy my time outdoors with an ostomy than before I had it. With active IBD and severe diarrhea, I spent more time going to the bathroom (or finding a spot to poop) than enjoying myself. To minimize this, you can ask your doctor about anti-diarrhea medications, which can help slow down diarrhea or ostomy output.
Like medicine, I tend to pack more than enough ostomy supplies. Being active does decrease my wear time and requires me to change my bag a little more often. Changing my ostomy wafer and system in the woods is not much different than changing it indoors. I use a wet cloth to clean my skin and apply a barrier wipe and a new wafer. I use plastic bags to store my used supplies.
Having an ostomy also means I pay attention to hernia prevention, which can occur when the intestines press outward near a stoma, the hole created for the ostomy bag. Using waist belts and having assistance lifting my backpack have helped prevent the development of a hernia.
Find the Right Person to Travel With
Everyone I spend time with in the outdoors knows I have IBD and an ostomy. That means they’re aware of my medication needs and where I keep information about my health.
There have been times when I couldn’t complete a hike or activity. In those instances, having friends and family cheer me on, no matter the outcome, has helped me enjoy these moments as “wins” and celebrate what my body has endured and can still do despite having IBD.
Important: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not Everyday Health.