The ‘great outdoors’ aren’t just for abled people.
I’ve loved camping for my entire life, but after becoming disabled, my camping and travel became far more limited. Camping trips have been only a night or two, always staying local.
This year, though, I decided to take the plunge and attempt a multi-day camping trip to Glacier National Park with a big group of family members.
There are a lot of ideas around who the “great outdoors” are for. Hiking and camping are often advertised for those testing their endurance, pushing their limits, and challenging the edges of what their body is capable of.
Combined with the fact that many hikes, campgrounds, and other outdoor activities are seriously lacking in physical accessibility, it’s often as if there are a “non-disabled people only” sign on the great outdoors.
But for me, the outdoors allow me the opportunity to connect with the earth. Being in nature let me step away from existing so fully in my body for a while and instead be a body existing in space, just one small being in a giant world. It gives me the opportunity to be really fully grateful for the blessing of just being alive.
I want to keep camping for as long as my body will let me! So, while it wasn’t easy, I found what works best for me through a little experimentation. Here’s what I learned along the way.
1. Try shorter ‘practice runs’ first
The first time camping after becoming disabled was just for one night and was in a cabin. Starting small was important to me, as I didn’t know what I was getting myself into or how my body would react.
After a successful one-nighter in a cabin, I tried tent camping for two nights. I quickly learned that this is a boundary my new body has — it needs an actual mattress, not the rocky ground.
Over the next few years, I tried multiple one- or two-night trips, all within a few hours of my house. These felt safe, knowing I was fairly close to home if I needed to return early if need be (which on two occasions I did!).
As my confidence increased and I learned the skills I needed to camp within the limitations of this body, I began to feel better about taking a longer and further trip. I was ready for five nights at Glacier.
2. Troubleshoot before the trip, not during
One thing that’s especially hard on my body is long car rides. Driving from Portland, Oregon, to Glacier National Park in Montana — a drive of over 11 hours — was daunting and had me a bit nervous.
Just over 2 hours into our drive, I had to pull out my stick-on heating pads (these things are amazing for travel!) and take a muscle relaxant. A few more hours in, and I needed pain medication.
I was so grateful I’d packed all my meds. Even the ones I hadn’t taken in 3 months. Even the ones I don’t like taking because of the way they make me feel.
I’d packed all these things because I knew that now was not the time to try to “push through” symptoms, and in the woods in a different state was definitely not the time to run out of medications!
Troubleshooting anything that might come up while gone, and planning as if it might (with hopes, of course, that it wouldn’t!) made me prepared.
This may take some advanced planning and coordinating, though. Make sure you have enough meds for the entire time you’ll be gone, plus a bit more just in case (you never know if you’ll drop one, spill water on it, etc.).
If you’re close to needing a refill, talk to your doctor and pharmacist, explain your situation, and see if you can get it early since you’ll be away.
3. Come up with a trip-specific meal plan
While I had been fully prepared with all my medications and pain-relieving tools, I failed to plan for food.
As such, I found myself hungry and tired at 4:30 p.m., after our first full day spent at McDonald Lake, every part of my body hurting. I was in tears in an unknown grocery store, without a plan.
I learned the hard way — make sure you have a plan for food, especially if you have any special dietary restrictions! One of the primary things I can do to take care of my body and manage my health is to feed myself regularly and with foods that I know my body likes and can tolerate.
I thought I’d just save space and not pack food, getting groceries once at our destination. This may work for able-bodied folks, but it didn’t work at all for me. I was already out of energy, in immense pain, and starting to really get “hangry.”
Plus, like many other folks with chronic conditions, I have dietary needs that make grocery shopping laborious even on a good day!
Learn from my mistake and take your food with you. If you can’t do that, then plan ahead. Figure out what you’ll need to cook, and come up with a list of the foods you’ll need.
Then, do some research about where grocery stores are in relation to where you’re staying. That way you won’t end up trying to shop at a mini-mart attached to a gas station in the middle of Montana as I did!
4. Have a plan A, B, C… and even D
I woke up on day three of the Glacier trip bone-tired and very emotional as a result. While I’m normally a planner, I was trying to just ‘go with the flow’ and take this trip as it came. I quickly realized I needed some structure, and I needed it soon.
As a disabled person, I have to be able to plan for what my day is going to look like to determine how much energy will be used, when I’ll need to rest, when and how I’ll be eating, and so I can come up with plans B, C, and D in case my body won’t go along with plan A.
I found that not having a plan caused me high amounts of stress. Plus, the more tired and in pain I am, the more “brain fog” I experience, making it even harder for me to think clearly and make plans.
As much as I wanted and tried to just let our activities while at Glacier unravel organically, I learned that I need to be able to have plans in advance. Partway through that third day, we came up with plans, and the rest of the week went much smoother.
Before you leave for your trip, figure out what you want to do while gone. Come up with a basic itinerary, keeping in mind the need (as always) for flexibility depending on the needs of your body.
If you can, maybe even come up with some alternate plans. If your experience is anything like mine, taking the time to do this ahead of time will save you a lot of stress!
5. Don’t hesitate to rest if you need to
Along with all the other things on my trip, I packed several books, my watercolors, and a few favorite board games. I knew that my body was going to need rest, and probably more of it than usual.
While in my daily life I lay down when I feel like I need it, I actually forced myself to rest while camping. I scheduled in some time each day that I could be horizontal, either reading (or napping!) by myself, playing a game or chatting with a family member.
This built-in re-charge allowed me to really experience and be present in the rest of the activities of the trip, be that going for a walk or simply sitting by the campfire, things I’d not have been able to fully enjoy if I was drained and tired.
Now is not the time to push yourself. Your body is going through new things, and even something as seemingly minor as sleeping in a new place can really do a number on you.
This rest doesn’t just mean during your time away, though. It’s also important when you get back. The unpacking and laundry can wait. Plan to do nothing except the absolute necessities those first several days after you get back. Your body will need time to readjust and recuperate from your time away.
Most of all, enjoy the moment!
Each day I was in Glacier I was grateful — grateful to be having that camping experience with my children like I’d had when young, grateful to be out in nature enjoying my body in the world, grateful that I was, at least currently, still physically able to do that.
And thus, the biggest lesson I’ve learned while camping is? Enjoy yourself — you’re making memories.
The “great outdoors” aren’t just for able-bodied people trying to push their limits. They’re for all of us, in whatever way we can enjoy them… be that listening to birds singing from our beds, sitting near a river for a few moments, or going camping with the family.
And those little moments? For me, those moments are what make me feel alive.